Cow Comfort Comes First in Dairy Barns

Across the country, people envision farms based on what they may see driving a country road or traveling the interstate. In fact, barns come in all shapes and sizes – from little, red barns to big, open barns. But, farmers decide on barn styles for different reasons.

On Jessica Folkema’s dairy in Michigan, freestall barns work well for their cows. These barns, which are long rectangular shapes with open sides, provide plenty of space for cows to move around, or lie down and relax in sand bed stalls.

“[We like] freestall barns because they keep cows comfortable in Michigan’s changing seasons,” Folkema said.

While most farmers have dairying in their blood from an early age, Folkema met her husband in college. By the time the two had fallen in love, her future husband had decided to become a full-time dairy farmer. In the time since, Folkema continues to learn everything about dairying – including understanding the style of barns she and her husband use to house their cows.

When it comes to choosing a barn style, cow comfort is the first priority.  In fact, when Folkema and her husband recently added on to one of their barns, they included a number of features to make their cows more comfortable. For example, they added a new ceiling vent, which allows hot air to rise and naturally pulls in fresh air from the barn’s open sides.

“We’ve actually noticed that cows prefer to hang out in the new half, likely due to better ventilation,” Folkema said.

In addition, their barn also features fans and sprinklers to keep their cows cool, and grooved concrete flooring, which gives their cows more traction when they move around.

And how did the cows feel once they entered their expanded barn? Folkema captured their joyful entrance on video:

How Dairy Farmers Care for Calves

Cows come first on a dairy farm. That’s because farmers know that well-cared for cows are healthy cows that give safe, wholesome milk. To make sure that their cows are healthy as can be, farmers go to great lengths by providing nutritious feed, safe housing and individual care to their animals throughout their lives.

On a dairy farm, calves represent the future, which means they deserve special treatment, according to Ohio dairy farmer Brenda Hastings on her blog, The Dairy Mom.

That special treatment begins before the calf is born. When a cow is ready to give birth, farmers make sure that her maternity area is clean, dry, well-lit, and well-ventilated to ensure comfortable, safe and hygienic conditions.

Within a few hours after the birth, the farmer usually moves the calf to its own safe space, called a calf hutch. The space includes an individual house and fenced-in space.

This best practice can be confusing when people don’t understand why it’s best to remove a calf from its mother. This practice has become an essential part of animal care on a farm for a few reasons:

One main reason has to do with protecting the calf from harmful germs. Germs can be passed on from the environment or other animals; a hutch allows a calf’s immune systems to mature. Just like newborn babies, calves need to live in a clean and disease-free environment.

Calf hutches also allow farmers to watch each calf closely in a controlled setting. By giving each calf its own hutch, a farmer can provide individual care and better track exactly what its eating and monitor overall health.

To make sure each calf is off to a great start, the farmer will milk the mother cow after she’s given birth. The farmer will then put that milk, called the colostrum, in a bottle and feed it to the calf. The colostrum is important because it is high in fat, protein and natural immune-boosting elements.

After two or three months, the farmer will move the calf to a larger pen where she can interact with other calves her own age. Typically male calves are raised for veal or beef, and female calves join the milking herd around the age of two.

To learn more about how farmers care for their calves, visit our Animal Care section.

How Cows Stay Warm in the Winter

When winter sets in on a dairy, farmers pay special attention to two things: Their cows and the weather.

To make sure their cows are comfortable all winter long, dairy farmers like Melissa Greenbacker of Greenbacker’s Brookfield Farm in Durham, Conn., embrace a number of winter cow care practices throughout the season. Plus, cows do a pretty good job of preparing for winter on their own, too. Thanks to their thick skin, hair and natural insulation, cows actually prefer temperatures between 40 and 65 degrees. So long as the cows are well fed, healthy, and have dry bedding, they don’t mind the cold.

That said, it’s important to keep cows dry and out of the wind to keep them comfortable. It can be dangerous for cows to be wet in a cold wind, that’s why cows prefer to stay in their dry barns where they have plenty of space to lay down, walk around, eat, and drink fresh water.

To keep the cows comfortable in their barn, Greenbacker said they’ll close the barn doors and hang plastic curtains over the barn’s naturally open sides. Depending on the outside temperature, they may raise the curtain to allow some air circulation. Even an unheated barn can stay a comfortable temperature due to the body heat generated by the cows.

While the adult cows naturally handle cooler temperatures, Greenbacker said they take extra precautions to make sure their young calves are as warm and comfortable as possible. On the Greenbacker farm, each calf has her own hutch to call home for a few months. Their individual hutches provide a safe, warm place for each calf to live and move around. Plus, Greenbacker can monitor each one’s health, and how much each eats. Inside the hutch, Greenbacker adds extra straw, the calves’ favorite bedding to snuggle into. They also prep their calves with some special winter gear: calf jackets. The jackets, which have a quilted inside and a windbreaker-like outside, provide an extra layer of warmth. This means that calves can use their extra energy to grow strong, rather than keep warm. The combination of hutch, straw and jacket result in cozy calf conditions. “Sometimes I wish I could get in there and snuggle with them,” Greenbacker said of her calves in their hutches. “They’re actually pretty warm.” Photos courtesy Melissa Greenbacker.