Farm Somm

Essex Farm Note

Week 11, 2014

Aubrey came to the house on Monday morning during milking. “The milk smells like nail polish remover,” she said. We walked out to the barn together and as soon as I opened the door I smelled it: a high, sweetish, chemical note that clashed with the normal soft green and earthy smells of the barn and the cows. “Ketosis,” I said. I had never smelled it in our herd before but it is unmistakable, and common in dairies. It is the smell of cows who are short on energy, burning their fat at a rate too high for their livers to handle, producing a ketone, acetone – the same chemical we use to strip polish from our nails.

Anyone who has gone hard core on the Atkins diet or bodybuilding knows about the metabolic quirk of ketosis, because it can happen to people, too, when they eliminate carbohydrates from their diet in order to burn off fat. In a dairy cow, it happens as her production is peaking. She can’t eat enough energy to keep up with the energy she’s putting out in the form of milk.

I knew what it was, but it didn’t make any sense. Our cows are not humongous producers. Their feed quality is good. They didn’t look depressed but bright and perky, happily eating the hay we put in front of them. Strangest of all, it was not just the one or two cows at the peak of production who had symptoms, but the entire herd, including the bull and the dry cows. There’s no way those animals could be ketotic, unless we were starving them completely. Matt and Mike reported that the previous night’s bales were unusually wet and full of clover, and that the cows had attacked them like stoners on a midnight run to a 7-Eleven.

Mark and I walked to the covered barnyard as Mark dialed our friend Ben Christian. Ben used to manage a two thousand cow dairy and dealt every day with the various things that can go wrong with bovines. With the phone pressed to his ear Mark checked the remnants of a bale the cows had eaten the night before, grabbed some, held it to his nose, and inhaled deeply. “Uh huh,” I heard him say. “Like burnt sugar. Tobacco notes. Pickles. Alcohol.” Whatever was going on, it required the skills of a sommelier. “Yep, their manure looks tighter than usual,” he said. Then he hung up. “We know what it is,” he said with surety.

The bales the cows had eaten had gone bad in a very specific way. Haylage should cure like sauerkraut, through the action of lactobacillus. These bales were too wet and clovery, and had caramelized instead of fermenting. Cows love the taste, but the nutrients are entirely bound up, and pass right through the cow. So the cows were starving, even as they ate. We pulled the bad bales out and replaced them with good ones. The nail polish smell disappeared by the next morning.

That was quite a nor’easter that hit on Wednesday. Mark and I trudged to the barn just before bedtime, fighting wind and drifts, to find the last sow had just given birth to a beautiful litter of 13. Baby pigs seem even more naked and vulnerable during a big storm. We moved another heat lamp to their stall and hoped. Happy to report that all 13 made it. And that is the news from Essex Farm for this still-awfully-wintery 11th week of 2014.

-Kristin & Mark Kimball

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