Winter isn’t time for vacation

It’s wintertime.  Farmers are on vacation, right? No.

For some types of farmers – for example, grain farmers – wintertime is a less busy time of year but there is still a lot of planning and equipment maintenance in preparation for the spring.  Farmers who have animals are always busy, especially dairy farmers.  A cow’s health and comfort are of the utmost importance to diary farmers because proper animal care and comfort lead to the production of high-quality milk.  Nutritious diets, healthy living conditions and good medical care are all essential for a healthy herd.

Dairy cows always have access to the right kind of feed and fresh, clean water.  Farmers employ professional nutritionists to develop a scientifically formulated, balanced and nutritious diet for their cows.  It is a joke among many farmers that the cows’ diet is more managed than anyone working on the farm.  Many of today’s dairy farms use “free-stall housing,” which is a type of barn that allows cows to eat and sleep whenever and wherever they choose. Rubber mats and other nonslip flooring are used in barns to make it easier to move around, especially in cold winter weather.

Cows may sleep on waterbeds, sand beds or mattresses make of rubber, foam or a combination of the two. Protecting dairy cows from the cold in the winter and heat in the summer while providing adequate air ventilation is also important to keeping the cows healthy. To accomplish this, many barns are equipped with curtains that can be adjusted depending on weather conditions.

Timely health and medical attention is another priority. Dairy cows are milked tow to three times a day. Milking time allows the farmer to interact directly with each cow.  Feeding time for younger animals twice a day allows time for general cow comfort assessments. We used to joke with my husband that he could look at them and know when one of his cows was not feeling well. Beyond the care the farmer gives, cows receive regular veterinary attention. This includes periodic checkups or well visits – usually one a month. Having a professional veterinarian visit on a regular basis helps prevent and ensure prompt appropriate response if illness should occur. It is important to note that dairy cows are not routinely treated with antibiotics. When antibiotics are used to treat a clinically diagnosed illness, the cow is taken from the milking herd and treated. Her milk does not come in contact with milk from the rest of the herd until her milk tests free of antibiotics.

Coming from a family with many generations of dairy farmers, it is safe to say that the cows see their doctor more often than the farmer sees his doctor. These quality of life issues are a 24/7 concern for dairy farmers. Add the winter weather and it can get complicated. Frozen pipes or water fountains are a big problem when you have adult cows that can each drink 30 to 50 gallons of water a day. Frigid temperatures can lead to frozen feed, which cows generally do not like. Just as the weather affects most of us, it can also affect the cows.

Dairy farmers aren’t busy with field work in the wintertime, but they are definitely not on vacation.

Mary Smallsreed is a member of the Trumbull County Farm Bureau and grew up on a family dairy farm in northeast Ohio.