Cow Comfort

An Udder Perspective

An Udder Perspective

Models have to endure all sorts of elements during a photo shoot. Fortunately some models are built to handle weather like that of early spring in Maine better than others. Some of the hardiest include the ladies at Conant Acres in Canton. Paraded out one at a time, several members of the registered Holstein herd were selected to pose for their portrait to be taken by professional cow photographer Jenny Thomas.  Thomas made the trip to Maine recently, scheduling visits to four dairy farms to photograph their bovine beauties.     Of course, when the photos are finished, the barren, frozen landscape (or in the case of the Conants, the paved dooryard in front of their barn) will be replaced by a lush, green summer pasture thanks to a little Photoshop magic. And while it may be more appealing than what was really present that day, everyone looking at the photos will be paying attention to the subject of the photo, not the background. These photos will be used by the farms to market their genetics to sell embryos or calves or young breeding stock. The photos will appear on the farm web site, in sale catalogs, in dairy publication ads, etc. Thomas is well-practiced at highlighting a cow’s best features, which often includes a high, wide udder. Before the photo shoot, she helps to brighten the white of the cow and make the black shine, while also polishing the hooves and looking for any stray hairs. As she looks through her camera lens, she directs members of the Conant family to position the cow just so.   “Move the left foot forward an inch, the right foot half an inch,” she calls out. Dennis Conant was in charge of keeping the cow’s attention facing forward by shaking a grain bucket and making strange noises and waving his arms. “Let her get a whiff of that grain,” Thomas said. “Let her reach for it. Then pull it back.”       The difference between a dairy photo shoot and a fashion photo shoot is that there is no hustle and bustle when it comes to cows. Thomas and the Conant family move slowly and speak easily to keep the ladies calm. “Just let her settle here a second,” Thomas says patiently. “Easy does it.” From Ohio, Thomas grew up on a dairy farm, studied animal science in school, worked in the dairy industry and married into a dairy farm family. Both she and her husband judge cattle, and the family shows their cattle around the country.  Eight years ago, she had the opportunity to train and work with Cybil Fisher of Green Bay, Wis., a well-known dairy photographer. Thomas continues to work for Fisher’s business, taking photos from coast to coast. One might think photographing only cows would get boring. Not so, says Thomas. “Every cow is different,” she says. “It’s always a different challenge.”  And some can be more challenging than others, like the Conant’s cow Randi who has to be reset for the fourth time because she refuses to place her feet on the block. “Those are the fun ones,” Thomas says....

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As cool as a cow

As cool as a cow

    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...

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Yankee ingenuity at work on Highland Farms

Yankee ingenuity at work on Highland Farms

In 1953, Jennifer Kimball and Johanna Chapman’s  great-grandfather Robert Pike thought, “There has got to be a better way to milk cows.” The process involved bending over to clean and prep the cow’s udder before attaching a milking unit to each cow as she stood in her stanchions, only able to milk a few cows at a time before bending over to take the milking unit off and starting the whole process over on another cow. And with Jerseys being much shorter than other breeds, the bending required is much deeper. So, Robert Pike started digging. He dug down with a shovel, creating a pit so that the cows were above him, and Highland Farms in Cornish became the first dairy farm in Maine to install a milking parlor. The farm also had the first registered herd of Jerseys in the nation when it was started in 1886 by David Pike and his sons Wyer and Fred. Apparently that Yankee ingenuity, do-it-yourself spirit is genetic. Jennifer and Johanna, 29 (they’re twins if you couldn’t tell from the photo), are looking to leave their mark on the farm. Both earned degrees in applied animal science from University of New Hampshire in 2006 and came home with knowledge that was useful for the farm. “They have their ideas about what they want to do, and they are putting it to work,” said their mother Libby who manages the farm with other members of the fifth generation – her brother Daniel Palmer and cousins Lorie and David Pike. One of the biggest changes Johanna and Jennifer are looking to make is the calf housing. Currently, calves are raised in hutches during the warmer months and then moved into individual stalls in the main barn for the winter. Many dairy farms are now moving towards raising calves together in open pens, sometimes even keeping those groups together for the first 2 or 3 years before moving them in with the rest of the milking herd to reduce stress as the older, larger cows can be pushy with the younger ones. Highland Farms will group house their calves and use automatic feeders, so calves can drink when they want rather than being individually bottle fed twice a day. Libby’s generation also made changes when they came back to farm to live and work, always looking to improve efficiency and cow comfort.  The barn built in 1903 had two stories, the lower being a bedded pack area for the milk cows. They wanted to improve ventilation and air quality and removed the top floor, creating an open, airy freestall barn. Five family members work full-time on the farm and three split their time between the three family businesses – Highland Farms Dairy, Highland Farms Trucking and Highland Farms Logging.  The farm owns 1200 acres on Towles Road in Cornish. It actually owns the whole road. There used to be four or five other farms on the road, Libby said, but as they sold out because the owners had no next generation to take over, her grandfather bought the farms so they would remain in agriculture. The houses and barns were not torn down, and as the family grew, they moved into those homes.  About 160 acres are planted for corn silage and another 150 acres is cut for hay and silage (100 acres are rented), while the remaining 1,000 acres is woodland. Judging from the views, the land would make prime real estate for a housing development, but it doesn’t look like that will happen. Upon returning from college, Johanna and Jennifer took over their grandparents John and Allaire Palmer’s duties, specifically raising the calves, making a science of it as they experimented with milk and feed and...

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Farmers use FitBit-style technology to monitor cow health

Farmers use FitBit-style technology to monitor cow health

Long before FitBits were all the rage among those looking to get and stay fit, dairy farmers were relying on similar technology to keep them abreast of their cows’ health. And Lilley Farms waaaay up in the County, between Canada and Baxter State Park in Smyrna, was one of the first to start using it. It is now common place on dairy farms and makes it easier for farmers to monitor the health of each individual cow. A collar around the cow’s neck transmits data to computers on the farm through various readers (like one over the watering tank). A farmer can see how many times a cow chews her cud, if her milk production stays at the same rate, and how much she is moving around. These are all health indicators and can help farmers to be much more proactive in dealing with any possible health issues. If a cow’s numbers are off from the normal range, the dairy farmer is alerted. Chewing her cud is one of the most important parts of a cow’s daily life. She is a ruminant, which means she has a fascinating and complex digestive system that allows her to eat almost anything and turn it into energy and milk. In order to do that, she must swallow and then regurgitate her food, chewing it over and over so that it is broken down enough to be digested. If a cow is not chewing her cud, it’s a red flag that something is wrong and she’s not feeling well. People have spent a lot of time (and money) researching dairy cows, and dairy farmers use that information to make sure their cows are as healthy and happy as possible. Someone even took the time to count how many times a cow chews on her cud – about 30,000 times a day. Research has also shown how much a cow should move around on a daily basis. If she’s not moving enough it might mean she is sick or has a sore hoof and should be checked. If she’s really active and moving around, she’s probably in heat and ready to be bred. Before this technology, farmers had to rely on their own observations and a lot of guess work. Now, they can catch a problem much earlier. If a cow is showing signs that she’s sick, catching it earlier means she can be taken care of before a problem gets more serious or fatal. Often, less drugs and antibiotics are needed. Farmers and veterinarians can use the data to tell if a cow is responding to treatment sooner rather than waiting to see if one thing works before trying another and then another. Similar technology is also used with calves and robotic feeders. Many dairy farms, like Lilley Farms, use group-housing for their calves. Making sure each calf gets enough to eat and not too much would be difficult (or impossible) to do without the feeders. The calves aren’t fed twice a day on a schedule, they can choose to drink milk when they want, but they can’t have as much as they always want. Too much milk can cause them to have scours (diarrhea). A button on their ear tells the computer that runs the feeder which calves can have more milk and which ones have had their fill for the day. As calves get older, the amount of milk they drink every day will be cut back as they are weaned and their diet consists more of hay and grain. All this technology might seem a far cry from the bucolic,...

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Making dinner for 200 … cows that is

Making dinner for 200 … cows that is

While we all know that milk is an important part of our nutritional health, you might not be aware of all the work and science that goes into ensuring dairy cows have the proper nutrition to produce that delicious, healthy milk. I have had several opportunities, through my job with the Maine Dairy & Nutrition Council and Maine Dairy Promotion Board, to talk to the public about dairy farming in Maine. I like to throw out interesting facts such as Maine’s dairy farmers protect 700,000 acres of open farmland and small woodlands. Or Maine’s dairy farms range in size from 8 cows to 3,400 cows. And that a dairy cow can produce upwards of 100 pounds of milk per day (the average is 70 pounds). This then leads to the fact that a dairy cow can eat 100 pounds of feed a day. At this point, peoples’ eyes go wide, and you can see them thinking about all the resources that go into feeding that cow.  However, many people are unaware that much of a dairy cow’s diet is made up of byproducts – byproducts of human consumption. Those that are not byproducts, like grass in all its forms of hay, haylage, balage, silage, can’t be digested by humans, and Maine is pretty good at growing grass. When corn is chopped on the farm for cows, the ENTIRE plant is chopped – they don’t just eat the kernels of corn. Other byproducts that Maine dairy farmers rely on include the following: Brewer’s grains from the growing craft beer in Maine. Distiller’s grains, usually corn-based, is a byproduct of ethanol or alcohol. Soybean meal is a byproduct when soybean oil is extracted to use in products like margarine, mayonnaise and salad dressings. Okara – a byproduct of tofu. Canola meal – a byproduct of canola oil. Wheat middlings and red dog, both of which are byproducts of wheat flour, are used to make pelleted feeds for dairy cows. “That’s the beautiful thing about agriculture,” said dairy cow nutritionist Emilee Robertson. “Nothing goes to waste.” Emilee is a dairy specialist for Gold Star feed and grain. She allowed me to tag along with her when she made one of her weekly visits to Mark Sawyer’s farm in Newport recently. My head was spinning with so much information by the end of the visit. So many factors are considered when planning dinner for a dairy cow: Weather – how cold is it? How much energy will the cows expend to keep warm? What life stage are the cows at – calf, puberty, heifer, dry cow (during the vacation period just before she has her calf), pregnant, fresh (just had her calf), nearing the dry off period? How much milk is she producing? What is the farmer’s goal for his cows to be producing (pounds of milk per day)? What forages grown on the farm does the farmer have available? What is the quality of those forages? What is the cost of grain at this time? Soy? Corn? The farm separates cows into groups depending on age/life stage and how much milk they produce, and then each group receives its own special diet that is determined through Emilee’s observation and computer analysis. On this particular visit, which was coming on the tail end of the coldest stretch of winter, Emilee was concerned about the level of energy in the cows’ diet. On her last visit, she said, the cows seemed “almost lackadaisical” as she walked through the barn. “I really cranked up the energy,” she said. On this visit, she walked through the herd and...

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A good cow starts with a good foundation

A good cow starts with a good foundation

If you hadn’t noticed, cows are big. An average full-grown Holstein dairy cow is 1,500lbs! All that weight puts a great deal of pressure on their hooves, and it puts a great deal of pressure on the farmer to make sure those hooves are healthy and the cows don’t become lame. Update 12/14/2015 – since this story was first published in February 2015, Keene Dairy has started trimming their cows’ hooves three times a year. Travis Keene (far right) watches while Brandon Beavers trims a Keene Dairy cow’s hooves. Like most dairy farmers, Travis Keene of Belfast has his “hoof guy” come to the farm every 6 months. “Every six months, every cow gets a pedicure,” Travis said. “It’s pretty important. You can tell when it’s time.” Hoof care is so important that February is actually International Hoof Care Month. Travis said there are six or seven people who trim cow hooves in the state of Maine, and when the farm’s former hoof guy got out of the business, everyone else was already booked. He was put in touch with Brandon Beavers of Beavers Hoof Care Service in Kentucky. “He said ‘I always wanted to trim cows in Maine,’” Travis recalled. Keene Dairy  belongs to the Dairy Farmers of America (DFA co-op), meaning their milk is shipped to various processors. The family also bottles raw milk on-farm to be sold locally. Travis is the fourth generation working on the farm (you can follow his Facebook page). He and his father Jeff run the operation, and the rest of the family also pitches in with Travis’ mother doing the books, his uncle doing general farm work, and his wife, who also has an off-the-farm job, lending a hand whenever needed. Travis’ great-grandfather farmed with all Guernsey cows, but now the farm relies on Holsteins. When Keene Dairy had a hoof trimmer who lived closer, they would do 25 cows every couple of months. Now that Brandon is coming up from Kentucky, they do all 100 milkers and a few heifers in one day. He averages 20 cows an hour. “My goal is to get them done and get them back eating as quickly as possible,” Brandon said. Milk cows can produce 100 or more pounds of milk per day, but to do that and keep up her own energy requirements and feed a calf growing inside her, especially in the cold of winter, she needs to spend a large amount of her day eating. She’s kind of like an elite athlete – she needs to replace all the energy she expends to keep her in tip-top shape.   The other challenge is that cows can stress easily. Ruminants (animals with four stomach chambers, e.g. cows, goats, sheep) are often ruled by their digestive system. If they are healthy and content, their digestion is fine, but stress her out, and she can literally tie herself in knots. When a ruminant is eating regularly and chewing her cud, you know things are in working order. Cows do not get their hooves trimmed like horses. They will not stand there complacently, resting their head on the farrier’s back, and lifting each hoof as asked (and yes, I know all horses don’t behave this well, but it’s the goal). To trim a cow’s hooves without causing her too much stress, you need to do it quickly and ask as little of her as possible. So, bovine hoof care specialists use a chute. The cow enters, is locked in and then turned on her side (the whole chute turns). Her legs are restrained at each...

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