El Niño Brings Much Needed Rain and Some Challenges

By Richard Wagner, a dairy farmer from California’s Central Valley.

During the past five years, I’ve thought more about water than I care to admit. As a dairy farmer in California, the scarceness of water has worn on me as I think about how I’m going to keep my cows comfortable and healthy. Even as water tables dropped, we still needed to provide fresh water for our cows, because without fresh water to drink and more water to grow feed, our cows don’t make milk.

This year, thankfully, the pendulum has swung the other way and El Niño winter storms have brought much-needed rain to my dairy farm and the region. However, getting a month’s worth of rain in a weekend has brought with it another set of challenges.

With reservoirs hopefully refilling to help us grow crops in the spring, the more pressing issue we face is mud. While mud may be just a temporary nuisance for most people, it can be a real test for dairy farmers who want to keep our cows and young stock as clean as possible. We are constantly looking for new ideas to keep our cows as comfortable as possible.

Fortunately, we have a variety of resources to draw from to continually improve the health of our herd. Most of California’s dairy farmers belong to the National Dairy FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) Program, which identifies best management practices for animal well-being. To combat the elements year-round, we provide additional bedding during winter weather. In the summer, we offer shade, fans and misters to fight the heat. And when it rains, we devote more effort to the grooming and cleaning of free stalls and the open lots for young stock who, because they live outdoors, are going to be affected by heavy rains. We have to change their bedding more often during these times, so the effects of the elements are minimized. That hasn’t been an issue in recent years due to the low rainfall, but it is now.

On my farm, we work in the fall to create high mounds or slopes in our open lots where our young stock are housed to allow them to get out of the mud and have a dry place to lie. Year-round, our milking cows are in free stalls and we groom them on a daily basis to create the best environment.

Many if not most mud problems can be managed simply by creating adequate slopes and drainage and regular manure removal.

These proactive measures are critically important when dealing with excess rains, as these steps mitigate some of the muddy issues we deal with.

California’s cows are some of the most productive in the country because our climate is conducive to keeping them comfortable. Weather extremes — particularly when it’s been dry for so long — are problematic, but we learn to cope. While it’s said “mankind owes his existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains,” managing the mud resulting from that rain is a small price to pay for keeping people fed.

(Photo courtesy of Richard Wagner)

Keeping Cows Comfortable Tops Our To-Do List

Cow comfort is one of the most important things dairy farmers do for their cows. When animals are happy and treated well, they respond by producing more milk. At Fair Oaks Farms, we pay special attention to animal husbandry or cow comfort. We have a staff of veterinarians, animal nutritionists and herdsmen available 24 hours a day to attend to any cow’s health needs. This includes protecting cows from wind and moisture, keeping weather troughs clean and warm, and keeping their walking areas clear.

But cow comfort is just one aspect of being a responsible steward of the environment. Our farms all operate on a closed-loop system. We grow our own corn silage and alfalfa for cow feed. The cow manure is put in a methane digester and then transferred as a gas to generators that power the farms. The digester biosolids are applied to the field to renew the top soil and the liquid is used for irrigation. Solid or liquid, the nutrients feed the land and start the cycle all over again.

I am proud to be part of the dairy supply chain, from farmers like myself to processors to distributors and retailers, working together to find and use best practices so dairy foods can continue contributing to the well-being of people and the earth for generations to come.

Learn more about sustainability at USDairy.com.

By Mike McCloskeyFair Oaks Farms

Focusing on Cow Comfort in the Barn

By LuAnn Troxel

Indiana Dairy Farmer

Our farm’s barn offers a source of relaxation for our cows after they’ve been milked. Here, they have all-day access to fresh feed and water, and clean bedding that includes comfortable beach-like sand.

Of course, our cows love the rotating brush we installed! We see them line up to nuzzle the brush to scratch an itch. It definitely has been an asset to our cow comfort measures and something they use often.

Click here to learn more about the Troxel family.

Ear Tags Much More than Cow ‘Bling’

Much of Kirsten Areias’ world is black and white.

It’s what the California dairy farmer sees when she looks out among the 300 or so dairy cows on her farm – black and white Holsteins.

“They’re not easy to tell apart,” she says.

This is why dairy farmers like Areias and others around the country give each calf an ear tag that dangles like an earring just moments after birth. Each tag has a number that serves as a lifelong identification of the cow.

Much of Kirsten Areias’ world is black and white.

It’s what the California dairy farmer sees when she looks out among the 300 or so dairy cows on her farm – black and white Holsteins.

“They’re not easy to tell apart,” she says.

This is why dairy farmers like Areias and others around the country give each calf an ear tag that dangles like an earring just moments after birth. Each tag has a number that serves as a lifelong identification of the cow.

The ear tag allows farmers to record a cow’s body temperature, health and medication history and even the composition of each cow’s milk. The number also lets farmers know when a cow has been fed to prevent overfeeding.

And for some farmers, the standard, plastic ear tag has gone high tech! Some tags automatically sync information, such as a cow’s body temperature or daily movements, to a computer.

But, that’s technology for another day for Areias who is quite comfortable with her farm’s identification process. She figures the system comes into play at least once or twice a day when her family’s farm welcomes a newborn to the herd.

“In a sense the tag is like a birth certificate. But my birth certificate is stuck in a file in my house somewhere,” she said. “I look at it once every 10 years. Our cows wear a tag every day of their life. These are Holstein cows and they’re all black and white, but they’re all individual animals that have individual needs. Without that ear tag, we won’t know who’s who.

“That tag is very important to dairy farmers. It’s just a speck of the things we do to make sure our cows have the care and attention they need to have a healthy life.”

Dairy Farmers Prioritize Keeping Cows Cool During Hot Summer Months

Cool cows are comfortable cows, which is why throughout the United States dairy farmers work hard to make sure their cows stay comfortable all year round.

Since summers in Hanford, Calif., often creep past 100 degrees, dairy farmer Brian Medeiros has continued to explore ways to help his cows stay cool.

Medeiros’s barns already featured fans and misting water jets, but recently he added new technology to find out what more he could do. Using infrared cameras, Medeiros found that some cows would get really hot during the day, while others would stay comparatively cool.

As a result, Medeiros decided to double the number of fans in his barns and install new water jets – and he’s already seen that the cows appreciate the efforts.

“We’ve definitely seen the cows are walking up to the barn a little quicker than they used to because they know they’re going to cool down,” Medeiros said.

To learn more about how dairy farmers care for their cows, click here. To learn more about how Medeiros cares for his cows, watch the video below:

Cow Nutrition: What Do Cows Eat?

March is Nutrition Month, a great time to not only brush up on what’s best for you and your family, but also to better understand all that dairy farmers do to take great care of their cows on a daily basis – a commitment dairy farmers have embraced for generations.

“From my grandfather milking cows when I was a little boy to now, we take the quality of milk that we sell very seriously and the health of our cows as well,” said Ted Vander Schaaf of Vander Schaaf Farms in Kuna, Idaho.

That means providing healthy living conditions and good medical care – and, with the help of professional animal nutritionists – providing cows with a nutritious diet.

The ingredients in a cow’s diet can depend on the season and the farm’s geography, but it’ll typically include hay (like alfalfa or grass), grains (including corn, wheat and barley), protein sources (like soybeans and canola), and vitamins and minerals.

In fact, depending on where the farm is located, a farmer and the nutritionist may add other interesting and nutritious ingredients to a cow’s diet, like citrus pulp or molasses. Incorporating those types of ingredients (oftentimes a discarded byproduct of a local business) is one of many creative ways that dairy farmers  help their communities and be more sustainable.

To learn more about what this means on a modern dairy farm, check out the video below!

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.