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A Sure Sign That Spring is Just Around the Corner

February 25, 2013

We’re still six weeks away from doing any grazing because grazing early at spring green-up is a like taking a draw on your summer grass paycheck, or in other words, a grass crime in grass farming circles.    Apologies to all you folks reading that are still under snow or being subjected to below freezing temperatures.  Here in Western Oregon, we’ve fared pretty well.  We had a skiff of snow on Saturday, but it was fleeting.

Warpaint - cow style

Warpaint – cow style

February is the time of year our larders are emptying out, and we have been a long time from the sun.  Eating stored food takes a toll on us and our livestock.  The haystack is diminishing just like the pantry shelves.  It’s also a good time to assess where you are with your cows by looking at them.  I mean really looking at them.  I was a little vague on my last post about hair coat in winter.  So I thought a more in-depth post about Jane or dairy cows in general might be in order.  My beef cows are much curlier, and not quite so compliant in the photo shoot sessions, so Jane it is.  A lot of these things still apply to cows in general though so this post will still be helpful to beef cow folks.  You still have time to up your feed or minerals before calving, doing a winter assessment now can really save you some heartache come calving.  I’ve got roughly three months before calves arrive, so time is of the essence, since the calf in the womb grows a lot in that last trimester.  Negative energy balance at calving is a bad thing, and is much easier to combat when your cow has been on grass for at least 30 days prior to calving.  Spring tonic if you will.  Right now things you don’t want to see are fuzzy dairy cows, black cows with an orange tint or cows with a spectacle look, all things access to more minerals (or higher quality feed) can cure.

Mild winter - shedding in February

Mild winter – shedding in February

Despite spending most of her time outside all winter, Jane is still starting to shed.  She does have access to a three-sided loafing shed to get out of the worst weather, but most mornings she is in the pasture choosing to sleep outdoors.  If you own cows of the common dairy breeds, Jersey, Holstein,  Guernsey, Shorthorn or Ayrshire and live in Western Oregon, your cow’s hair should look similar to Jane’s, smooth, not fuzzy, and most likely shedding by now, these photos were taken on February 15th and she’s shedding even more now.  A rough coat is usually a sign nutrition and access to minerals is lacking.  Dairy cows especially need a higher plane of nutrition than beef cows.

photo shoot -February 15, 2013

photo shoot -February 15, 2013

I really killed that dirt bank!

I really killed that dirt bank!

Cows are funny creatures, about the time we humans can smell the soil warming, the cow like to anoint themselves with dirt.  Another sign of spring.  I’ll look out the kitchen window and see Jane on her knees “killing” the bank or a molehill, after she is done she will get up and buck and kick so it must feel good.

Happy lines

Happy lines

Cows in good shape have a “look” about them that is pretty universal.  At high summer all cows look slick and shiny, making looking for hair patterns easier, but it’s fun to look during winter too, as shedding times and patterns are important to the cow keeper.  Grass is the wonder food for cows, and the vertical “happy lines” visible on Jane’s neck right now will be repeated on her barrel during the summer.  It’s good to see them now though.  Again you don’t want to see fuzzy hair on the neck, face or body and you certainly don’t want to see bald patches when the cow starts to shed.

Adrenal swirl

Adrenal swirl

Swirls or whorls in the hair are good indicators of reproductive soundness and all around general immune system gauges.  The Adrenal swirl in located on the back near the tenderloin area.  Look behind the shoulders above the ribs, the presence of this swirl indicates good endocrine function.

Thymic swirl

Thymic swirl

Another swirl to look for on a cow is the Thymic swirl which you will find on the neck.  The Thymic swirl is an indicator of a strong immune system.  Regular readers know I believe Jane is a little compromised in the immune system department, her Thymic swirl could be bigger, but at this point I will take what I can get.  I’ve seen cows that don’t show one at all 😦

Pancreatic swirl

Pancreatic swirl

Next in the swirl department is the Pancreatic swirl on a pregnant cow.  You will find this on the belly in front of the udder, and it appears about half way through the pregnancy.  Obviously Jane is pregnant and I know that, but I still like seeing this in addition to the other swirls.  It was interesting to me to test these swirl theories out on our last free-martin heifer – she showed no signs of any reproductive swirls because she was a free-martin.  Very interesting indeed, before learning this I would have never thought to look at any factors other than just condition.  Fascinating!

Wait, aren't you going to take more photos?

Wait, aren’t you going to take more photos?

42 Comments leave one →
  1. February 25, 2013 10:41 am

    Hooray… healthy swirls, happy bank killings and signs of an early spring… a time to celebrate!

    • February 25, 2013 6:09 pm

      Kathryn, I bet you got a lot more snow than us! I want spring!

      • February 25, 2013 6:16 pm

        We only got about 2-3 inches, which coated the Firs, Cedars & Hemlocks so nicely. Our backyard birds were all over the new feeder I put out! I’m totally with ya on the Springtime daydreamin 😉

  2. February 25, 2013 10:44 am

    i will probably never own a cow but i find this fascinating!

  3. February 25, 2013 12:16 pm

    Thanks for the sympathy as regards the snow we still have, but at least we got a share of the sun now. Cows were traditionally kept in forests in Sweden and as our forest is now getting cleared of underbush, I am mighty tempted to get some cows to keep it open and free from the underbrush. Now I will know what to look out for as regards the condition too. Just a minor detail of convincing hubby first.

  4. A.A. permalink
    February 25, 2013 12:19 pm

    Thanks! If you don’t mind, one of these days I might send you a few pictures of mine for you to take a look at 🙂 Now that the heifers are shedding, the one whose coat looked better through winter has turned rough and the other’s started to shine more. They both had a longer winter coat than Jane that to me seems hereditary.

    • February 25, 2013 6:00 pm

      AA, sure – any changes in the feed, like hay from a different hay field even though it is from the same farm? Pregnancy? Do they eat the same minerals at the same rate?

      • A.A. permalink
        February 26, 2013 5:17 am

        The hay’s a wild card for sure. Especially this year, when it was a get what you can type of thing. Actually the hay hasn’t changed, but the baleage they get along with it is now coming from a different field or fields. It’s pretty mature and rough stuff and “half-dry” or drier, so I wasn’t as worried about it setting them off balance as with the stronger stuff. Still, it’s somewhat the same thing as before, that the baleage seems to turn them from eating more kelp into eating more of the other mineral mix I have on offer, and I did notice a change in that at one time toward a greater appetite for the mix when the bales switched from poorer, taller grasses to ones that came from a richer, clover-containing field. Since they rarely touch the mineral mix while on pasture and eat the kelp quickly then, I’ve thought it’d be better if they ate the kelp as their basic mineral.

  5. Debbie R permalink
    February 25, 2013 12:55 pm

    Amazing that their coat swirls like that depending on their health. Amazing that you know enough to look for such things. Thank you for sharing!

  6. Livia permalink
    February 25, 2013 1:02 pm

    Agree, fascinating!.

    Can’t wait for the class next week! Who hoo!


  7. February 25, 2013 2:13 pm

    I had no idea the whorls in their hides had names, let alone were indications of anything – I thought they were something like cowlicks in humans (why ARE they called that, anyway?) – very interesting.

    • February 25, 2013 5:58 pm

      SSF, there is a cowlick too on the neck that stands up when the cow isn’t settled yet. Jane’s was standing straight up until she was bred. I think they are called cowlicks because when they can lick a pattern (temporary of course) into their hair with their rough tongues. They look the same as the swirls though. It probably does indicate something in humans just like the cows 🙂

  8. brynn brodie permalink
    February 25, 2013 4:40 pm

    What does fuzzy hair indicate? My Jersey Delilah is due to calve (first time) early July. Also, I noticed she is licking her coat quite a bit. My other Jersey Peaches just calved 16 days ago, has the same diet and looks great. Very helpful blog by the way – thanks so much.

    • February 25, 2013 5:54 pm

      Brynn, it’s usually a sign of poor nutrition and/or lack of minerals. But once you start looking and see the outliers on the same feed, you can tell who has good rumen function which means sometimes no matter how good your feed is the cow can’t utilize it’s food to the fullest potential. How they were raised, when they were weaned, and just general history of the individual cow’s family can tell you a lot. A cow’s future starts with at fertilization, and everything after that gets added or subtracted to give you a true picture of what is going on with a particular cow.

      Loose minerals free choice is a good way to make up for any shortfalls in feed.

  9. February 25, 2013 5:03 pm

    Absolutely fascinating! Thank you so much, I had no idea whatsoever that hair swirls were related I various glands. I don’t actually have cows – I have dairy goats- but they have swirls in pretty much the same locations. Any idea if they are analogous?

    • February 25, 2013 5:56 pm

      Aimee, gosh I would think so, pregnancy and lactation in mammals is really pretty similar if we care to think about it. Probably the milk mirror patterns would be the same too.

  10. Barb in CA permalink
    February 25, 2013 6:58 pm

    Two quick questions – Where did you learn about whirl patterns? And what are “milk mirror patterns”? As always, thanks for sharing your wisdom!

    • February 25, 2013 8:04 pm

      Barb, I’ve got an old book “A Treatise on Milch Cows”, by Francis Guenon and now it’s been reprinted so is more available. It takes some studying, but I was lucky enough to attend two seminars by Paul Detloff, DVM that makes it a little easier to understand the whorls, and I have read quite a bit by Gearld Fry. The milk mirror will tell you how long a cow will produce milk in her lactation and if the lactation is steady or drops off. You can tell this when they are calves. The butter whorls are telling also, Jane’s mama had great ones and a lot more cream, Jane is a good producer but not a high cream girl like her mama. No butter whorls on Jane’s bag 😦

  11. February 26, 2013 1:49 am

    I’d never known that ‘Cow-licks’ were a sign of good health in cattle…you learn something new every day!

  12. February 26, 2013 3:27 am

    So those swirls come and go? I had no idea!

  13. February 26, 2013 5:53 am

    I have learned more from you about dairy cows that I did in my entire time of growing up on a dairy farm. My dad and uncles never discussed any of the things you have – I wonder if they were even aware of swirls.

    • February 26, 2013 6:39 am

      BB, they probably knew the signs of healthy and productive cows, they probably just never really talked about it. It’s pretty interesting isn’t it?

  14. February 26, 2013 11:45 am

    Hi Matron

    You know that I had to go out and track these all down on my very expecting cow, she has been with since a week old, and I have been following you, so she was not weaned till ten months, she has been very healthy, settled well and is due March 24th.

    I am happy with her overall body condition, she has a good milk mirror, not to heavy for production but a long laction from what I can see, (I need more info on the butter one though) and she has nice coat (we are a bit still more winter then you), a good swirl on her Adrenal, a slightly less good but still clear swirl for her Pancreatic, and she has lots of happy lines but both Dh and I went over her neck ever which way, and we can not find the Thymic swirl, I think I have found the correct area but this is worrying to me.

    Can you please tell me in more detail where I should be looking at, and if she really does not have it, what could be missing, she has good hay in front of her 24/7, she has loose minerals, she has a protein, mineral/vit fat lick, she has access to tree’s if she wants to nibble on them and she does get extras in her daily ration, (she does not get alot of grain but she gets her cubes, fresh chopped root veggies, and a tiny bit of fruit daily)..

    Ok, that got long, sorry..

    • February 26, 2013 12:25 pm

      JADONTF, that’s what I hoped that readers would look at their cows 🙂 I think that dark spot on her neck is where the Thymic swirl is, she looks good! It may be that it won’t be as clear until shed gets her summer coat. My beef cows are have such long hair it’s hard to tell their swirls and whorls very clearly until they start really slicking off. Herefords are a curly lot 🙂 If you read Gearld Fry, the adrenal swirl needs to be in front of the shoulders for really high butterfat (translates to good marbling also) or closer to the shoulders. Also on the udder the back quarters on a high butterfat cow will have butter whorls, in addition to very fine hair on her udder.

  15. February 26, 2013 7:08 pm

    Yeah, whorls are good to observe…but whorls or no, pay attention to what she said about calving after 30 days on pasture! That’s key! Walt Davis made a big point of that recently at a presentation too. He said it gives the cows a chance to detox.

    Oh, and the orange tips on black hide. Geez.

    the guy who just calved during a snowstorm because the bull got an early date.

    • February 26, 2013 11:19 pm

      HFS, I’m glad winter/early spring calving is a thing of my past…not worth the heartache or headache 😦 Plus here it just gives those cougars some slow elk to eat!!

      Spring tonic is for detox!

      Hope everybody is ok? Flora right?

      • February 28, 2013 8:14 am

        Yup, Flora. She’s doing great. Ups and downs though. She’s a born grazer and easy keeper but hard to milk. Her attitude is right but it’s hard to milk her thimbles.

        Really the hard part of winter for us has been keeping the neighbor’s cows from eating our stockpile. Their pastures are clipped down to nothing. No residue. Check out the new issue of Acres for a great article about leaving carbon on pasture.

        • March 1, 2013 9:27 am

          HFS, glad the baby is okay…did you plan the winter calf? You can breed those thimbles out in one generation I hear, and the calf will stretch them out a bit…

          You need a hotter fence! Or a different neighbor! My coffee stained issue has not arrived yet, but I’m guessing that the carbon article will echo what I’ve seen since I quit making so many rotations through my grass…

  16. February 26, 2013 9:12 pm

    oh, can’t wait to out and look at swirls on my girls! thanks for the info.

  17. Chris permalink
    February 28, 2013 9:24 am

    Totally off subject here and I hate to keep asking but does Jane like hanging out with any of your other cows or is she just a mama’s girl?? 🙂

  18. michelle permalink
    March 4, 2013 7:07 pm

    What an informative article- never knew any such thing. This may be a syupid question among cow people, but you refer to a free-martin in your last paragraph and I haven’t ever heard that term before. Can you elaborate on that? Or if you have written about it before, point me in the right direction? Thanks Nita.

    • March 5, 2013 6:12 pm

      Michelle, a free-martin is the female twin of a bull and heifer twin set. Most of the time because of the influence of male hormones the female is sterile due to odd or missing reproductive organs.

  19. Regina Pishion permalink
    March 5, 2013 7:26 pm

    I promptly went out and inspected Penny. *sigh* Small thymic swirl, about the size of Jane’s, no butter whorls on the udder either and her skin TWITCHES when I rub her spine by the adrenal swirl.

    Interesting, because she’s a weather weenie, the least bit of wind/rain and she’s IN her shed and her cream line is barely adequate.

    Good news is a good slick coat is coming in under the shedding winter hair and she’s adopted her foster calf.

    • March 5, 2013 8:16 pm

      I’ve got to dig through my photo archives and see if I have a picture of Jane’s mama’s whorls on her udder, there is a huge difference in the creamline between those two, I never paid attention to the butter whorls before I just took all that cream for granted 😦 There is a difference in the color too, Jane’s butter pales in comparison 😦

      Poor Penny – she’s a valley girl! She probably thought what the heck when she saw her new cold locale!

      Yeah for shedding coats!

      • Regina Pishion permalink
        March 6, 2013 8:55 am

        I’d like to see the pics of the butter whorls, just for education’s sake. It’s not that we looked at Penny for more than 30 seconds. The old cow man I’m married to ran his numbers and we were loading! Far as he was concerned worst case scenario he’d make his money back if he had to send her to the auction. I barely was doing my checklist of conformation! Legs/feet/udder. 😀

        Penny’s butter is very pale too, I’d been putting that down to not seeing grass since she left the valley in August. She’s getting nibbles of grass in the yard now and he’s saving her the the little pasture here to home. Not the best, but the best we can do and I feed her kelp and minerals.

        • March 6, 2013 7:51 pm

          Regina, it’ll take some digging to find those photos, I’ll pm you when I find them!

          Spring will be here soon I hope and grass too, but not soon enough for me 😦

  20. Janet permalink
    April 1, 2013 9:08 am

    Fascinating!! So interesting. Would love to know more about the butter whorls too. Going out right now to check my cows and their whorls. 🙂


  1. Where o where is my Girls swirl?? | Just another Day on the Farm

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