Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Research — Reading Between the Lines

We rely on university research in many of our management decisions. But unfortunately, often the conclusions or summary statement in a research report does not match the actual data or results. Here is an example of an erroneous conclusion drawn by some researchers.

In 1977, a study was done at South Dakota State University entitled, “Cafeteria Style Free-Choice Mineral Feeder for Lactating Dairy Cows” by L. D. Miller, L. V. Schaffer, L. C. Ham, and M. J. Owens. 1977 J Dairy Sci 60:1574-1582.

The authors stated - “Little evidence was found that dairy cows offered minerals and vitamins free choice consumed to a specific appetite or need under the two nutritional regimes.”

Let’s take a closer look at some of the excerpts from that study along with some comments.

“Trial 1 was 16 weeks in which two groups of cows in mid-lactation (10 cows / group) were group-fed rations with either corn silage or alfalfa hay as the sole forage, and all supplemental minerals and vitamins were provided free choice.” This is too small a group and too short a time to really evaluate the nutritional wisdom of animals. A full 12 months would be better as that would encompass the gamut of lactation, dry period, parturition, and back to lactation. Even better would be a multi-year experiment that examines the health and productivity of the calves born to the two research groups, thus evaluating the multi-generational effect.

“Minerals and vitamins were provided in a “cafeteria style” mineral feeder, one feeder per group. The feeder was sheltered and afforded protection from wind and rain. Mineral and vitamin mixes were: calcium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, and sulfur trace mineral, bicarbonate of soda, sodium bentonite, sodium chloride, iodine mix and vitamins A, D, and E. Intake of each individual mineral was determined weekly for each group.”

“Intake of phosphorus, potassium, and vitamins differed between rations. A higher free choice intake of phosphorus by cows fed alfalfa was not expected.” It should have been expected, as it is well known that cattle need to balance their Ca/P ratio. “Cows could possibly have been consuming more P to narrow the wide Ca:P ratio due to high Ca intake from alfalfa.” Of course they ate more P to balance the high Ca in alfalfa. That’s what free choice is all about – giving them the opportunity to self regulate their needs.

Cows fed corn silage consumed more potassium free-choice, but additional intake still was needed to meet requirements.”    Whose requirement are they trying to meet - NRC standards or what the cow actually needs? The authors could not explain why this group’s milk production exceeded the alfalfa group even with their assumed K deficiency.

“Little evidence was found in these two short trials that lactating dairy cows have a specific appetite for individual minerals. Where corn silage and alfalfa, forages that differ in mineral content, were fed as the sole forages to two groups of cows, only in the cases of potassium and vitamins did cows fed corn silage consume large amounts free-choice possibly to compensate for a dietary deficiency.”   Actually the main mineral ratios were balanced by the cow’s mineral preferences. They balanced the critical Ca/P ratio by eating more P to compensate for the high Ca in alfalfa. The cows in the alfalfa group took almost no K, while the corn silage group consumed 36 times more K than the alfalfa group.

Given the above perspective, it’s difficult to understand how the authors concluded that cattle could not balance their own mineral needs.

It pays to “read between the lines” when evaluating research reports. It is also helpful to know who paid for the research, who did the research and where did the researcher worked before and after he did the research. A good dose of common sense is also indicated.

This item was originally posted to a previous issue of Doc Holliday's Blog on November 24, 2018

Monday, July 27, 2020

If minerals are team players, what about the playing field?

We often refer to minerals as team players and compare them to members of a sports team. I’d like to add another dimension to that analogy – the playing field.  The attributes and condition of the playing field can have a great influence on the ultimate performance of the team players.

Basketball players would not do well if the court floor was dirty and had missing or warped flooring. Outdoor sports were the same. I can remember the bygone era when sports events were played outdoors without benefit of the now almost universal domed stadiums.

Many baseball games were delayed or cancelled because of inclement weather.  Late season football games were seldom delayed by the weather, and many football games we played in the mud and sometimes even during a blizzard of snow.  What a mess!

Mineral feeding can also be affected by aberrations in the playing field.  If we can identify and alleviate some of the “playing field” problems we can enhance the performance of the mineral team.

Here are some examples — there may be others!

  • Poor quality feed will increase consumption of Vitamin A and Vitamin B
  • Gross excesses of any one mineral will affect the utilization of many other minerals. (Check out:  
  • Poor water quality.  High levels of nitrates in the water will increase the need for Vitamin A as will urea or NPN in the feeds.
  • Stress of any kind — stray voltage, social stress, heat, cold — will usually increase consumption of Vitamin B and Vitamin A.
To illustrate the range of possible ‘playing fields’, consider the overall environment of a holistically managed, grass-fed dairy farm compared to a conventional factory-farm mega-dairy.  

What is the playing field like for your animals, and what can you do to make it better?

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

The Evolution of a Holistic Veterinarian, Continued

The previous blog article ended in 2007. In early January of 2008, we had a meeting in Waukon, Iowa with the Impro folks and with Jim and Gwen Helfter, the owners of Advanced Biological Concepts of Osco, Illinois. We were hoping to be able to combine the sales efforts for Impro and ABC Mineral, but alas, it was not to be. Impro proposed so many unattainable stipulations, it was obvious such a relationship would never survive.  I immediately resigned from Impro and became a full-time employee of ABC.
It was one of the best decisions I ever made.

I had worked with Impro for 23 years. It had been a good experience. The folks there are fine people. We accomplished many good things for the company and for the clients that we served. 

My experience with cafeteria-style mineral feeding began in  the early 1960s when I fed similar products to my own small group of animals. The products were made by the long defunct “Morea” company in Crete, Nebraska. A small feed store next to my clinic handled the products and many of my clients used them. Thus, I was able to observe their value in many different circumstances. These and other experiences over the years made my association with ABC a ‘natural’ match.

Advanced Biological Concepts is the premier manufacturer and distributor of cafeteria style minerals and many other nutritional products for the organic livestock industry.

Unfortunately, Jim Helfter, the founder and CEO of Advanced Biological Concepts passed away October 26, 2014 while out riding a horse — a fitting exit for a great man who loved horses.   His wife, Gwen Helfter, is now the CEO of Advanced Biological Concepts and is doing a great job carrying on the tradition of excellence started by Jim many years ago.  I have been gratified to be able to continue my association with ABC, although on a more limited basis since my move to Idaho.

Finally, here is a summary of my veterinary activities over the years.
  • 1959 to 1984: I was basically in a one man, all species vet practice.  I did a lot of ‘grunt’ work — dehorning, castrations, and vaccinations. If called to treat a sick animal, I would use conventional drugs and therapies — treating the symptoms. 
  • 1984 - 2008:  During this time I was gradually phasing into more holistic thinking, but in essence I was still treating symptoms, only now with so-called holistic treatments and practices.  
  • 2008 to present:  I believe animal and human health depend on good nutrition, especially mineral balance.  All metabolic processes are controlled by enzymes which have minerals and trace minerals as their core.  Linus Pauling, (1901-1994), the only person to win two unshared Nobel prizes, said, “You can trace every disease and every infection to a mineral deficiency from unequally yoked energy fields.” There are many others. 
Suffice it to say that maintaining mineral balance is the basic and ultimate act of preventing disease.  I am happy to have been part of the enlightenment this concept has brought into much of our agricultural thinking today.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

The Evolution of a Holistic Veterinarian

Originally printed in the June 2007 issue of the Progressive Dairyman.  Used here by permission.

 I believe that a broad based interest in soil conservation began in the 1930’s as a result of the devastating “dust bowl” era when the shortcomings of the then current agricultural practices became apparent.  This trend continued on many fronts and the most visible one at present is the “organic movement”.  It is well to remember that “organic” is only one part of a much larger trend toward sustainable agriculture that is changing the very nature of the way farming is done here in the United States and in many other parts of the world as well. My evolution as a holistic veterinarian roughly paralleled this broader national movement.
In High School I read Louis Bromfield’s books Pleasant Valley and Malabar Farm in which he detailed his success in rebuilding worn-out farms near his boyhood home in Ohio. These books were my earliest exposure to alternative agriculture. They are still a good reference for anyone interested in soil conservation and the early history of at least one part of the natural farming movement.
In undergraduate studies at the University of Missouri I had the opportunity to study soils under the renowned Dr. William A. Albrecht.  It was years later that I fully appreciated the importance of his work … that it takes healthy soils to make healthy crops and healthy crops to make healthy animals. His book, Soil Fertility and Animal Health is a classic. Dr. Albrecht’s influence and acceptance in the realm of sustainable or biological agriculture is greater now than while he was alive. One of his sayings was, “Study books and observe nature; if they do not agree, throw away the books.”  I have tried to follow this advice throughout my career. It has paid huge dividends in insights and knowledge gained.
In Vet school I was fortunate that most of my clinical instructors were former veterinary practitioners.  They gave us a practicality in our approach to medicine that kept the mind open to anything that worked.  One of our large animal clinician/instructors, Dr. Stanley Smith, was 88 years old when I was a senior in Vet school. His inquisitive mind was an inspiration to all students. He would try any sort of treatment at least once, to judge it’s worth.  The results of some of these unorthodox remedies and therapies were at times astounding.  He taught us to not be bound by tradition and not be afraid to try something new or to explore a new idea.
One day one of my good “natural farming” clients took me on an impromptu field trip. We drove to an area where his cornfield joined his neighbor’s. Both fields were basically the same as to soil type, variety and stage of growth.  His neighbor’s corn was tall with dark green undamaged leaves. Kenny’s corn was just about as tall and green but the plants in several rows around the perimeter of his field were severely damaged.  He explained.  “My neighbor uses all the modern chemical fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides. I use only naturally occurring soil amendments like manure, lime, gypsum and rock phosphate.  Deer will walk through miles of ‘chemical’ corn without taking a bite and then feast on my crops because it tastes better.”   We did a taste test.   The sap from his corn tasted sweet … almost like sugar cane.  One row away, just across the fence, the sap was bland and had a bitter aftertaste.   He then suggested that I notice the number of empty pesticide cans in the trash dumps on the farms where I made most of my sick animal vet calls and look for a correlation.”   There definitely was.  I have never forgotten his words and I have seldom found them in error.   He taught me two natural principles … animals can recognize and will seek out healthy nutrition if available and there is an adverse relationship between heavy use of ag-chemicals and animal health.
1940 saw the publication of An Agricultural Testament by Sir Albert Howard, an English researcher working in India to develop composting methods to increase soil fertility.  He found that animals were healthier when fed highly nutritious feed grown on high organic matter soils. He reported that his work-oxen fed on these “organically grown” feeds remained healthy even when directly exposed to Foot and Mouth disease.
Sir Albert’s book is reputed to have been the impetus for J. I. Rodale to begin publication of the magazine “Organic Gardening and Farming”. This magazine was instrumental in popularizing the health benefits of organic farming for animals and humans alike.  In the 60’s and 70’s it was our program guide as we tried to farm our small acreage organically and apply natural principles to our own health and that of our animals.  It also inspired me to become more holistic in my vet practice. 
Acres USA is another national publication that has been a tremendous advocate for ecological agriculture for over 30 years.  The publisher, Charles Walters, is a pioneer in this field and has written extensively on this subject.
In 1984 I became employed as a technical services veterinarian for a company that produces and markets colostrum-whey based animal health and nutrition products.  For the last 23 years I’ve been able to apply holistic principles to various health problems as I consulting with large and small, organic and conventional dairymen across the country.  In 1988 I witnessed the birth of the CROPP Cooperative and I have been peripherally associated with Organic Valley ever since.  In 1989 I took advanced training from the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society and became board certified in Veterinary Acupuncture.  The study of 5000 year old holistic medical technology added a whole new dimension to my understanding of  health and disease.
When the Rodales’ first popularized the term “organic” it referred to the goal of building fertile, biologically active soils high in organic matter.  At present, the emphasis of organic regulation seems to have shifted somewhat from soil building to restricting the use of prohibited substances.  The USDA defines the requirements to qualify as organic and the National Organic Standards Board insures compliance with some of the more important natural principles. It is interesting to note that while organic certified dairies are regulated by the government, all dairies are subject to the constraints imposed by natural principles and the innate nature of the cow.
I have been privileged to watch and participate in the growth of  sustainable or organic agriculture over several decades.   It will be interesting to see how it unfolds in the future.

Monday, July 13, 2020

A Tribute to Mules

Missouri has been famous as a producer of quality mules for many decades. The mule has been designated as the official state animal of Missouri. Having been born and raised as a Missourian, I have always been fond of mules. The sight of a splendid, matched team of mules all decked out in their parade regalia moving out at a fast trot is as inspiring to me as the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdale’s.

Surveys both here and in the UK indicate that most people, even those in equestrian circles, do not know very much about mules. Here are some nuggets of information about these unusual and fascinating creatures.

A mule is the offspring of a male donkey or jack, and a female horse. Horses have 64 chromosomes, donkeys have 62, and mules and hinnies have 63. Because of this odd number of chromosomes, mules are 99.9 percent sterile.

The size of a mule depends largely on the breeding of the mule's female parent.

Mules can live up to 50 years, with an average lifespan of 30-40 years.

A male mule is called a john or horse mule. A female mule is called a molly or mare.

A group of mules is called a ‘barren’, probably because of their reproductive sterility.

A female donkey is called a jennet and can be bred with a male horse to create a hinny.

Throughout history mules have played major roles as beasts of burden during wars. Mules were used to carry artillery, food, supplies and even wounded soldiers on the battlefield in WWL , and subsequent conflicts up to and including Afghanistan,

There are just under 10 million mules in the world, and the majority of these are working in agriculture or as pack animals in isolate areas.

Legend has it that George Washington is “The Father of the American Mule.” In 1785, King Charles III of Spain presented Washington with a large Spanish jack. Another gift of a Maltese jack and two jennets from French General Lafayette was received in 1786. These animals provided the genetic base for the American mule.

Mules are prized for their hybrid vigor, strength, endurance, and resilience. Mules are reputed to be more intelligent, patient, hardy and long-lived than horses. Mules have a reputation of being stubborn. I believe this is unwarranted and stems from the fact a mule is too smart to work itself beyond the bounds of healthy behavior.

The expression ‘kick like a mule’ stems from the fact that, unlike horses, mules have no accessory ligament that limits lateral movement in the hip joint. This allows them to kick sideways or as some say ‘cow-kick.’ Horses can only kick backwards.

Famous Americans —including Mark Twain, Buffalo Bill Cody, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan — have ridden mules. Ken Curtis in his “Gunsmoke” role as Festus rode a male mule named Ruth.

Finally, for those concerned about climate change, mule farts contain less methane than horse farts.

It has been said that the mule is an animal with no pride of ancestry and no hope for posterity — Nevertheless, these noble animals seem to go through life with a regal equanimity that belies their humble beginnings.

This item was originally posted to a previous issue of Doc Holliday's Blog on March 15, 2019

Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Oldest Person I Ever Knew

In 1939, my family took a trip to Arkansas to visit my grandfather, James William Holliday. J.W. was married to a lady, Theodosis Cross Sunderman. She is the person I remember as Grandma. Her mother, Sarah Jane Cross also lived with the family. Aunt Jane, as we called her, was my great grandmother by marriage. Aunt Jane was born in Alabama in 1855. This would have made her approximately 84 years old when I met her. She was in a wheelchair and totally blind from corneal opacity. Upon arrival in the house each of us would stand in front of Aunt Jane who would run her sensitive fingertips over the contours of our faces — it was her way of ‘seeing’ what we look like.

Aunt Jane was a spritely person with a gift of storytelling. Often times, in the evening we would sit around in the dim light of a kerosene lamp while Aunt Jane told stories about her childhood travels, in a covered wagon from Alabama to Arkansas after the Civil War.

She would describe how at night you could see the reflection of the campfire in the eyes of the wolves and other varmints gathered around watching them.

She spoke of the times, after they were settled, when they had to defend their hogs against bears and other predators and also how they would have to doctor the animals with primitive dressings of lard.

As a young woman her husband was a circuit riding minister. One night when he was riding home after dark, a cougar attacked him by jumping from an overhead tree. He missed the man but landed partially on the horse's rump. When he got home he noticed the horse had deep, bloody claw marks running down both sides of the horse's rump.

The most chilling tale of all was the night she and her baby were alone in their unfinished log cabin with only a blanket for a door. As she prepared for the night, she heard the growls and calls of a cougar prowling around her cabin. With no weapons of defense available, she wrapped her baby in blankets and pushed her against the wall behind the bunk. She huddled in front of the baby hoping if the puma found them it would take her first and leave the baby alone. Luckily the cat passed by without entering the cabin.

This was heady stuff for a six-year-old. I don’t know if all of her tales were absolutely true and unvarnished, and I admit my recollections may be a little clouded after eighty years.

Nevertheless, I will never forget the image of that fine old blind lady in a wheelchair as she relived incidents from her life story. What a blessing it was to know her. She passed away at 102 years of age. She was the oldest person I ever knew.

I guess the point of all these ramblings is the interesting comparison of Sarah Jane’s times with our own. Sarah’s sojourn here on earth began before the Civil War and ended just as the space age was beginning.

Perhaps giving up wolves, cougars, bears, and wagon travel in return for social distancing isn’t such a bad trade after all.

Finally, I firmly believe that, had they been available at that time, Sarah Jane would have fed her animals cafeteria-style minerals from Advanced Biological Concepts.

What say ye?

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Free-Choice, Force Fed, or Both?

I was recently asked to compute an oral daily dose of ABC’s ‘Cu-Mix’, a product formulated for free-choice oral use. A small group of young goats had been diagnosed with signs of copper deficiency. The client wanted to supplement her planned free-choice feeding of Cu-Mix with an oral dose of the same product to insure adequacy.

     Whoa! Back up the truck!
              That’s a really bad idea.
                        Here’s why!

  • Force feeding the product is an off-label use and not recommended. Veterinarians may override this restriction but in so doing assume liability.
  • Free-choice feeding AND force-feeding the same product negates the very essence of the cafeteria-style concept as it eliminated the animal’s opportunity to exercise its innate nutritional wisdom.
  • At certain levels, copper can be toxic. In a previous age of veterinary medicine we used an oral, liquid dose of a mixture of copper sulfate and nicotine sulfate it as a wormer for ruminants. Dosage was related to body weight. There was a fine line between  killing the worms or the host animal. Force feeding potentially toxic minerals of and kind is never wise.

If you want to reap the benefits of cafeteria-style mineral feeding, you have to do it right — minerals are team players, so play the entire team. It doesn’t make make much sense to have only one player on a basketball court and it makes even less sense to only provide a source of copper, for example, in a mineral program.