More on Obsalim – Learning the Language of the Ruminant

The box of Obsalim cards says: “The goats tell us about their nutrition”. This is the English translation from the French. It sums it up.

Obsalim cards - workshop and info at Holy Goat Farm Sutton Grange July 2016. An example for the holy goat herd ... how to learn the language

You may want to go straight to the videos: (part 1); (part 2).

These video links are a good place to start, as well as And a couple more docs here: UK experience 1, and UK experience 2.

But the best training will be in the paddock.

Bruno Giboudeau. Twenty years of observing: “Learning the language of the rumen, sign by sign, word by word”. He says we need to find out what is going on in the rumen by looking at external cues and signs, in the herd, and in the animal.”

The rumen makes the animal eat; controls the animal. Changes in the rumen will affect the animal’s health and productivity.

When animals are grazing in a perfect situation they will select exactly the right plant at the right time to keep the rumen at ideal conditions. That’s self determination. On a farm it is not so ideal – it’s an artificial situation – that’s just how it is. But we are trying to help manage the constraints the farm imposes on normal, healthy rumen function.

By looking and listening and trying to interpret the signs we see in our animals and then acting on them, we can assist rumen function and ultimately the quality of our end product.

Conventional farming in general would label this “feed intake” – but without our additional observational aspects – and also would be fairly clinical about “output” and it’s dollar value – nothing more.

“Normal” in an animal – is clean, regular droppings, the same all the time, every day, and that all animals act as one, “herd behaviour” and that they all eat and lie down at the same time, they ruminate at same time. Acting as one is really important for a herd. Nutrition problems can break this unity.

Is there a problem? So we examine the physiology.

Obvious signs – dirty animal (Bruno refers here to the ‘spinal cross’ – go look up the vimeo here  or the other references provided), or a variation in droppings within the day, or day to day, The Phg zone – high up on shoulder by the spine (again, see vimeo or cards) – where we see the goat licking herself as a result of the rumen pH dropping suddenly. We see the hair/coat in swirls or wet, or dirty. Just an example.

The pHG area - a critical observational point
The pHG area – a critical observational point

Often with herd health the issue is an underlying nutritional problem which also makes the animal more susceptible to any environmental or weather changes, or stressors.

Even organic and biodynamic farms are somewhat “intensive” – we are all seeking higher production from the animal, beyond what they would produce in a non domesticated system. The aim is to not create imbalances in the animal’s digestive processes, but to minimise stress on the rumen, so that they can increase production, without affecting rumen activity and stability beyond their physiological limits.

Here we look at the animal as a rumen, and vice versa.

We use the Obsalim cards – 60 of them, all color coded according to different aspects or physiological areas.

We have to become comfortable in recognising the signs in our animals and in increasing our observational skills. To be aware that other influences may be responsible and that the illustrations on the cards are obvious; sometimes the signs are much more subtle (as Bruno says, ‘if the rumen is only “whispering” rather than “shouting” at you …’)

There is a delay factor – how long it takes for symptom to appear/disappear if a change takes place. e.g. 12 hours, 2 weeks (as seen on the cards).

At the bottom of the cards the Obsalim criterion shows for each symptom card.

For example:

  • Hair (red cards). First sign is spinal chill – hairs standing up on neck – expression of some sort of imbalance of the rumen. Coat structure on the sides of animal. This was Bruno’s first observation.
  • Skin (orange cards) is next – greasy or dry, yellowing or yellow crystals in corner of eyes. Base of hairs. Ochre color in lower udder
  • Droppings (brown cards, obviously!) and urine. Examine carefully for signs of fibre, etc.
  • Eyes (light orange cards) – puffiness of eyelids or redness, or paleness.
  • Nose (yellow cards) – dirtiness, food stuck on nose after eating.
  • Behaviour (purple)
  • Eating (light green)
  • General state of herd (dark blue)
  • Rumination (dark green)
  • Feet (green)

We can also look at the curd/milk (blue cards). The gap between butter and protein value of the milk relates to average values for your farm. Try with some test tubes.

Each nutritional sign has 7 criterions assigned to it and each criterion has a value (from -2 to +2) as an indication of the relationship strength. One cannot use one card on it’s own to make a diagnoses.

The criterions are:

Fermentable Energy – available to the rumen flora
Global energy– available to the goat, or cow, sheep (food or microbes or byproducts)
Fermentable protein – soluble protein for the rumen flora
Global protein – available to goat, or cow, sheep
Fine Fibre – turn into energy , feed the rumen flora
Structural Fibre – used to make the animal ruminate, used in salivation, cudding
Rumen Stability – stability of the fermentation process – pH and regularity of feed input

Is there room for improvement? First observe your animals. Select the symptoms; those most obvious in a large group of animals (at least 60%). Select 3 – 6 symptoms and put together, add up all the symptoms together

You need to use a similar group of animals. e.g. same level of production. age or sex grouping, and have at least three symptoms (cards), from at least three different areas (colored cards) to make a reliable diagnosis. Then compare the obtained totals. Note that it’s not the absolute values. It is the comparison of the totals to each other.

“Normality” is if totals are all the same e.g. all +1 or all 0. Ideal.

Look for the highest negative or positive – either in excess (+) or in lack (-).

Some examples:

  • High fermentable energy – indicates too much energy available in rumen and not being utilised, causing wastage.
  • Low fermentable protein – indicates not enough protein for rumen function; so not enough energy to digest fibres; will usually also have a lot of fine fibres evident.
  • Low structural fibres – indicates animals are not ruminating enough and the risk that rumen pH will drop too quickly.
  • Rumen stability. Critical. A negative value is always significant – it indicates the rumen ‘value’ varies between day to day. It maybe to do with feeding times, or stress, or competition, all could be not allowing the animals to secondary digest long enough, or properly.

The Obsalim guide allows you to get an idea of how to decide what to do to correct an imbalance. There are many options. For example, decrease a component (energy, protein, fibre) in the feed, change or swap (ditto), or change how and when you feed.

This is an example for Holy Goat Cheese:

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In the above example totals: fE=3, gE=0, fP=1, gP=1, fF= 4, sf=-1, rS= -3. The biggest difference was in the fibres criterion – a total of 5 units. We focus on this one and look at our feed sources. Possible answers to increase structural fibres (and/or decrease fine fibres) could be to decrease the amount of concentrate given, increasing the amount of time for the goats to spend in rumination, feeding stronger and rougher hay.

Some key things we learnt:

  • Don’t interrupt rumination – change the farm cycle to accommodate the animals, not vice versa, wherever possible. Respect the rumen; there’s no way around it. Otherwise there’s food waste, economic loss, disease, etc.
  • Feed high fibre before concentrate.
  • If and when mixing animals – wait awhile for the group dynamic to appear – and wait to do your Obsalim observations until they have settled to be a herd.
  • Split groups into subgroups of similar production levels and types.
  • Use the most obvious symptoms first and get used to observing the signs, use all the signs available to you over time – get to know all 60 cards.
  • The better your animals become, the more subtle the signs, so listen to what the animals are saying and be aware of the delay factor.
  • Take the time to learn, observe and interpret/translate.
  • Like learning Spanish, or French, or Cantonese, it’s all about learning the language of your Goats. Listen to the animals through observing them, as a herd, as well as individually.

When you are making changes:

  • Be aware how you handle the food, e.g. chaffing length, people handling, other human interventions.
  • Be a detective. Observe and take notes before and after changes – these notes will also be an ongoing resource for your farm and whoever is working with you and for the animals on it.
  • It will be daunting when you start, but you will understand your animals better and your farm will function more efficiently as a result.

It’s all about learning the language of the rumen.