If a cow could speak, a dairy farmer would probably ask her 20 questions a day, at least. How are you today? Feeling all right? Can I get you anything? Is the temperature right for you? Do you need me to turn up the fans? Can I get you anything? How’s the food today? Have you been drinking enough water? Are you comfortable? Are the bedding and stalls to your liking? Can I get you anything? A cup of tea, perhaps? Well, that last one might be a bit overboard, but you get the idea.
Because cows don’t speak, not our language any way, dairy farmers rely on research, technology, the advice of veterinarians and cow nutritionists, and their own observations to determine what a cow likes or dislikes, what she needs for proper nutrition and for suitable housing, and if she’s feeling all right at any give point. At no time are those things more important than at the peak of summer heat. And if you’ve ever been in dairy cow barn in summer, you’ll know it’s one of the coolest places to be (because of the temperature and because you get to hang out with cows).
Cows prefer jeans-and-hoodie weather or even snow pants-and-parka weather to beach weather. And they are sensitive creatures whose health can be thrown out of whack if stress is introduced. Their milk production can drop or their complex digestive systems can go haywire, it can also add excessive stress to a pregnant cow.
Fortunately, we have found ways to keep cows healthy and comfortable even when the heat and humidity start to rise.
Large animal veterinarian Meghan Flanagan, DVM, of Annabessacook Veterinary said dairy farmers must plan ahead when they know hot weather is coming, to make sure the heat has as little impact on the cows as possible, checking that fans are running and shades are in place to block out sun if needed, water tanks are clean and in working order. “You want to encourage water intake,” she said. Some dairy farms will offer salt licks for their animals, while most include trace minerals in the animals’ feed.
“There’s some nutrition shifting that is seasonal,” she added. Dairy farmers work with a nutritionist to adjust feed often, and much of it depends on the weather. A cow’s nutritional needs in extreme cold to keep her healthy are different from those needs in milder weather. During hot weather, Betsy Bullard of Brigeen Farms in Turner says her family mixes electrolytes into their cows’ feed with a mix that is provided by the grain company.
“Airflow,” is Betsy’s main concern, she added. “Every fan is going.” The cows are kept in open-sided free stall barns with sand for bedding. “The sand stays pretty cool for them also.”
At Brigeen Farms, the cows also wear collars that transmit information about their rumination (chewing their cud) and activity (how much they walk around, go to the water tanks) to a computer so that farmers can check in at any time and make sure everyone is all right. When a cow isn’t feeling well, the earliest sign is that she isn’t chewing her cud, or she’s lying down too much. “We keep track of that all the time anyway, but when it’s really hot and humid, we are that much more vigilant, so we can catch anything early.” If a cow seems to be suffering heat stress, the first response is to give her fluids.
Another indication that cows are stressed from the heat is a drop in milk production. A minimal drop means that despite hot, humid weather, the cows are doing pretty well.
At the Harris Farm in Dayton, cows are out on pasture every day, where it’s a little more difficult to control the elements. But like most pasture-based dairy farms in Maine, they are surrounded by woodlands and their pastures are well-shaded, and water is always nearby.
“We try to let the cows out during the early part of the day,” Jake added. “When it starts to get hot, we bring them into the barn, where it’s much cooler with fans on them and water available for them at all times. In extreme heat, we may even keep them in all day and let them graze at night when it is much cooler.”
Dairy farmers work closely with their veterinarians, as they visit most dairy farms once a week or once every other week for simple routine health checkups and for ultrasounds to see if cows are pregnant. They can also take the time to check on any cows about which the farmer might have a concern. Cows are oblivious to all the work that goes into keeping them healthy and comfortable, but all that effort is not in vain because healthy, happy cows make delicious, nutritious milk. And milk makes ice cream, and that’s really the best way to keep cool on a hot day. I’ve been making my ice cream maker work overtime lately, and here are some of the yummy results. You can also try my recipe for caramelized coffee ice cream.
Bean and Berry Ricotta Ice Cream
2 whole vanilla beans
1 pint blueberries
1/2 pint blackberries
1/2 cup maple syrup
1 15oz container or two cups of ricotta cheese
1/2 cup cream
1/2 cup whole milk
Mix your dairy and refrigerate. Slice open the vanilla beans and scrape clean, putting the seeds in with your berries. Puree your blueberries and blackberries along with the maple syrup in a blender or food processor. Mix with the ricotta, cream and milk and then refrigerate to chill before putting into your ice cream maker. I like to start the ice cream with a hand mixer in the bowl before putting it into the ice cream maker, just until it starts to thicken. It seems to make my ice cream lighter and speeds up the whole process. Follow the directions on your ice cream maker. This ice cream is delicious but not very sweet, so if you want something sweeter, add 1/4 cup of sugar or more maple syrup.
Strawberry Cinnamon Ice Cream
2 cups cream
1 cup whole milk
1 pint strawberries (hulled)
1/2 cup sugar
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla
Halve your strawberries and then sprinkle sugar over the top in a bowl and let sit until the strawberries start to juice. Mash or puree your strawberries and then mix until fully incorporated with the other ingredients. Chill thoroughly and then follow the instructions on your ice cream maker.
Black Cherry Ice Cream
1 1/2 cups of dark cherries (pitted)
1/2 cup honey
2 cup cream
3/4 cup whole milk
2 tsp vanilla
Blend or food process your cherries and honey till the cherries are chopped up and juice is flowing. Then mix with the rest of your ingredients until fully incorporated and chill thoroughly. Follow instructions on your ice cream maker.