Mother Nature has shown her true color in 2019: white. This year, it seems we can’t escape the constant snowstorms and freezing temperatures. Bundled up in my Wisconsin mink coat, I am fortunate that my adventures have kept me indoors the past few months. Unfortunately, our farmers do not always have that luxury. Those who care for livestock face the cold, sleet and snow to make animal comfort their top priority.
On my family’s dairy farm, winter chores always seem more laborious. Think of how much longer it takes you to get ready for the day. You have to find extra layers of clothing and clean snow and ice off your car before traveling. On the farm, we bundle up our cattle, clean off machinery that does not want to start in the cold, and begin a day of working outside.
Wisconsin is home to more than 8,000 dairy farms that come in many different types, sizes and production methods. Personally, my farm milks 70 jersey cattle in a stanchion barn. Stanchion barns have stalls or beds for each of the cows, a gutter behind the cows to collect waste, and a walkway that stretches the length of the building. The use of our stanchion barn varies from season to season. In the warmer months, our cattle only enter the barn to be milked or to avoid poor weather. They each have assigned stalls, just like students at a school, and after milking, they are free to roam, eat and sleep outside.
Like all mammals, cows only produce milk after having a baby, or calf. When they are lactating, cows naturally produce a lot of heat. They are often most comfortable when temperatures are between 40-50 degrees. As temperatures drop, we let our cows spend their days and nights in the barn. Plus, the cows’ combined body heat helps us avoid freezing pipes. The average cow drinks a bathtub of water each day, so we need to ensure they have plenty of it. We also give our cattle fresh feed daily. Every other day, we ask our cows to leave the barn so it can be cleaned. Old, dirty bedding is discarded, so fresh shavings and straw can be spread in the stalls. As strange as it may seem, we also run fans in the winter. Those fans provide appropriate ventilation to make sure our cattle are breathing clean, fresh air.
While the barn is reserved for milk cows, we provide the same diligent care for all animals on the farm. Most of our youngstock are housed in a large shed. That shed has a curtain along the back wall that can be closed to prevent heavy winds and snow from entering the building. We use large, round fodder bales as bedding to keep them warm and comfortable. Their feed rations are also adjusted in the winter months for extra energy. Thanks to technology, automatic watering systems have built-in heaters to keep them from freezing outside.
Baby calves become fashion stars during the winter months wearing stylish jackets and standing under spotlights. Those spotlights are actually heat lamps. On our farm, calves live in individual hutches or houses until they are weaned. We do this so we can monitor their feed intake and prevent illness from spreading among young, vulnerable calves. Those hutches are filled with warm straw, and on windy days, we use wooden boards to stop the wind and snow from blowing into their homes. Our calves may also receive extra milk for energy, and they are given warm water to prevent freezing.
Just like those snowflakes that keep falling, each farm is different and has strategic methods to keep farm animals happy and healthy in winter. Only after our animals are cared for do we warm ourselves with steaming cups of hot chocolate made with real milk of course! I encourage you to do the same as a way of giving thanks to our Wisconsin dairy farmers who work tirelessly to protect their animals and provide a safe, wholesome and secure food supply for families.