by Sally Colby

A Little Falls, NY, dairy farm in is typical of many, with hard-working families passing the farm from one generation to the next. Monica Aney said her husband Donald has been operating the farm started by his grandfather and continued by his father for 50 years, and Monica joined him on the farm 30 years ago.

The Holstein herd is housed in an 82-stall freestall barn with a pipeline system for milking. When the weather is suitable, cows are turned outside; otherwise they’re comfortable in the barn. But the cows in the barn today aren’t the same – and not even related – to the herd the Aneys had worked to improve over the years.

“Seven years ago, we lost our entire herd of 140 head to an illness,” said Monica, explaining the start of events that led to losing their herd. “One of our daughters was going to come back and work with us, so we started adding to the herd.”

As the family was in the process of making changes to the barn, they purchased 10 heifers. The Aneys were thrilled when one of the heifers freshened with a heifer calf, but their hopes were soon dashed when the seemingly healthy calf died during a routine bottle feeding. Although the Aneys didn’t realize it at the time, Monica said was the first sign that something was seriously wrong.

Prior to purchasing 10 heifers, the Aneys had maintained had a closed herd. The new heifers were purchased and handled the way the vet advised them, including housing them away from the milking herd. But in the months following the calf’s death, more animals continued to fall ill; including some with atypical mastitis. “Every cow was sick with a fever,” said Monica. “I took the temperatures of 82 cows every morning and night. We used a special wash on our feet to try to keep it out of our other barn where heifers were.”

After many lab tests and a necropsy, the Aney’s veterinarian delivered the news: mycoplasma. Although there’s no way to tell for sure, there’s a chance the disease was introduced with the new heifers.

“We had to empty the entire barn,” said Monica, adding that prior to the diagnosis, the farm was under quarantine and could not ship any animals. “They all had to go, then our entire farm had to be disinfected – the main barn, the farm where we housed heifers and the barn where we kept some that we thought we could still save.”

With their herd gone, the Aneys’ concern was losing the farm, but their banker helped them work through the numbers to come up with a plan to continue dairy farming. The Aneys also worked closely with their veterinarian to take measures to ensure the entire facility was safe for reintroducing new stock.

The disinfection process was tedious but the Aneys followed their veterinarian’s instructions and either disposed of or disinfected everything in all the barns.

“We had to thoroughly clean, power wash and disinfect every part of the facility,” said Monica. “Then the barn had to remain empty for an entire year.”

Monica recalls that as cows were becoming ill, mastitis and pneumonia were the primary manifestations. However, the mycoplasma organism is unique and can be challenging to diagnose. According to information from the Cornell University Animal Health Diagnostic Center, mycoplasmas are often present in the nasal cavity and reproductive systems of healthy cows, but stress results in the organisms growing and entering other organ systems such as the mammary gland. Otherwise healthy dairy herds can be infected through the introduction of purchased animals, usually heifers or non-lactating cows that are harboring subclinical mycoplasma infections.

In addition to pneumonia and mastitis, mycoplasma infection can be manifested as joint infection and chronic respiratory issues. Infected cattle can be subclinical and show little or no sign of disease. Infected cows shed the organism, and dairy farm workers can unknowingly spread the infection via milking. Although mycoplasma may show susceptibility to antibiotics in a lab setting, the organism often ‘hides’ in the tissue of live animals, making it difficult to treat. Animals with chronic mycoplasma infection can become carriers and shed the organism when stressed.

Once the mandatory one-year waiting period was up, the Aneys were ready to purchase cows and get back to business. “Our vet was our sanity,” said Monica. “He found a farm where we could purchase cows. We brought in 20 head in June of the following year, and a month later we brought 62 more to reach 82 and fill the barn.”

The new cows were mature milking cows from one large dairy farm in New York, and the Aneys started to rebuild young stock by retaining heifers from the new cows.

Today, the total herd is back to 135 head, including calves and heifers. Although the new herd is uniform and performing well, Monica said they’re finding that the cows don’t have the same longevity as the cows in their original herd. Donald is selecting sires with traits such as good overall structure, sound feet and legs and longevity to breed cows that will stay in the herd longer.

As they work toward rebuilding their herd, the Aneys continue to farm as they have for years, including growing several hundred acres of crops for feed. Hay is either stored as haylage or made into dry hay. Corn silage rounds out the ration developed by the herd nutritionist, who tests forages and corn to determine nutritional values. Monica explains that in years they have extra corn, ear corn is stored in a corn crib, then using the same mixer his grandfather and father used, Donald grinds corn for the ration.

The Aneys have four daughters, the youngest of whom is 17-year old Marguerite. Monica said that while Marguerite is interested in staying on the farm, Monica and Donald have encouraged her to pursue further education to ensure a variety of career options.

For now, in addition to carrying a full-time college schedule, Marguerite works on the farm full time. “She does everything,” said Monica. “Milking, taking care of calves and heifers, field work. Marguerite goes to the barn in the morning then returns home to start working on course work. She’s either on the computer or in the barn.”