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How farmers care for their cows

Dairy farmers care for their cows around the clock.

While some methods may vary depending on farm size, location or other factors, across the country, dairy cows come first on a dairy farm – and we want to show you how that happens. Scroll through the slideshow below to learn more about the many different ways dairy farmers care for their cows.

When winter arrives, farmers aren’t the only ones bundling up. To protect them from the elements, farmers may cover them in calf coats or place “ear muffs” over their ears. Adorable? Yes. Useful? Absolutely.

Farmers take special precautions with newborn calves in winter. For example, the Hemond family in Maine uses hot air driers to keep newborn calves moisture-free. This is especially in areas where the winters can be especially cold.

Did you know cows get pedicures? It’s true! Missteps, illness and other activities can lead to hoof issues, so dairy farmers work with expert hoof trimmers to help cows stay healthy and mobile.

Similarly, dairy cows might wear “rumination collars” that track how often a cow is chewing her cud. Any changes could be cause for concern.

Each time they milk a cow, farmers and their employees have an opportunity to check on the cows’ health. Most milking parlors are built in a way that allows workers to see a cow’s udder at eye level. They also track how much milk a cow gives, because a drop in production may mean the cow isn’t feeling well.

To prepare a cow for milking, employees will sanitize her udder and teats, which helps keep each cow healthy and the milk wholesome.

Some farms use robotic milkers that allow cows to be milked whenever they want. Check out our infographic and video to learn more.

Dairy farms have special maternity areas for cows that are ready to give birth. For example, the Bateman family in Utah built state-of-the-art, enclosed and temperature-controlled maternity barns for their cows and calves.

Daylight saving time starts Nov. 5, and while many of us turn our clocks back, some farmers may not make the switch because they know their cows like a routine.

When a calf is born, farmers usually do two things to help her get the best possible start. First, they remove the calf from the large cows and place her in a protected area so she doesn’t get accidentally stepped on or injured. Next, they bottle-feed the calf her mother’s colostrum, or first milk.

Some farmers use hutches for their farm’s calves. Hutches are individual shelters that provide each calf with her own safe space. They also allow farmers to watch each calf carefully, monitor her eating and reduce the risk of her catching an illness from another calf.

Other farms will house calves of different ages in one barn but use pens to separate them by age group. The pens may have curtains that can be raised or lowered to manage airflow and temperature, as well as having automatic feeders.

Speaking of comfort, in some dairy barns, you’ll spot self-serve cow brushes! These large, rotating brushes can start on contact, and some can swivel to scratch a cow’s every itch.

Barns come in all shapes and sizes, and farmers make sure that each cow has access to a stall with clean and comfortable bedding. As a result, there’s always room for everyone in the barn.

Peek into a barn and you might miss a feature that was added especially for the cows: grooved floors. Many farmers add these grooves for additional hoof traction.

In a dairy barn, cows have access to nutritious feed and water 24/7. Farmers normally feed their cows total mixed ration, a combination of grasses, grains and other ingredients — such as citrus pulp or cottonseed hulls — to give them the right balance of nutrients. 

Farmers work with cow nutritionists to make sure their cows have a balanced diet. These experts understand the science behind feeding dairy cows and create the right diet for different stages of a cow’s life. 

Every day, farmers put food in front of the cows’ stalls. But when they eat, cows often push some of the feed beyond their reach. No worries, though, farmers have that covered. Some farmers will manually push the feed closer to the cows or use a tool attached to a tractor to “sweep” the food into place. Tech options include using a robot that moves along the stalls to push the feed toward the cows to make sure they get every bite they need.

And, of course, no matter what time of year it is, farmers make sure their cows have access to plenty of clean, cool water 24 hours a day. That really comes in handy since a cow can drink up to 50 gallons each day!

One everyday way farmers and their employees care for cows is by simply monitoring them closely and giving them regular well-being checks, plus regular visits from a veterinarian. After working with cows for most of their lives, farmers can pick up on signs that could mean a cow isn’t feeling her best. If that’s the case, they take the appropriate steps to help her feel better. 

Among other things, farmers watch their cows and make sure they’re chewing their cud. Cows commonly chew their cud when they’re comfortable and relaxed, and if they’re not, it could be a symptom of something more. 

Farmers use ear tags to track critical information for each cow. When a calf is born, she receives a numbered ear tag, not unlike an earring, that allows farmers to record the calf’s lineage, body temperature, health history and more. Some tags automatically sync to a farmer’s computer or app.  

In the summer, keeping cows cool starts in the barn. Many farms feature freestall barns that allow the cows to move about “freely” so they can rest, eat or get a drink of water whenever they want. The large barn roof, which farmers design with the help of engineers, protect cows from the heat and the open sides allow air to blow through. Watch this video to learn more about how two Ohio dairy farmers designed their barn to keep their cows cool during hot summer days and nights.

Many farmers use sand in their barns as cow bedding. Sand is comfortable because it easily conforms to a cow’s body, plus it stays cool and can easily be cleaned. Farmers even use a tool that fluffs the sand each day to provide the cows with an added touch of comfort!

Inside the barn, many farmers have more systems to keep things cool, including high-tech fans and misters. The fans, which can be as wide as 48 inches, create a constant breeze. They typically include a thermostat and are designed to kick on once the temperature reaches a certain level. Barns also have a system of hoses that release droplets of water in front of the fan blades to create a steady mist of water that covers the cows. When water evaporates from the cows’ bodies, it instantly lowers their core temperature.

Some farmers have taken the business of cooling cows to a whole new level. For example, Florida dairy farmer Don Bennink created tunnel-shaped barns (above) that have fans at one end to create a vacuum-like effect and pull air constantly through the barn. This breeze can keep the barn about 15 degrees cooler than the outside temperature.

When Arizona dairy farmer Jen Millican shared this photo with her friends, they were stunned. Some of them commented that their houses weren’t even this cool. On the farm, ceiling-mounted, computerized fan-like structures blow cool air on the cows along with a mist of cool water. As a result, the pens are usually 30 to 40 degrees cooler. Plus, Millican’s pens have large shades that raise or lower at different times of the day as the sun’s position changes. Learn more!

Other farmers have come up with different types of “air conditioning.” For example, in Wisconsin, the Kinnard family installed a cooling wall to one side of their barn. Cool, recycled water flows down the wall and fans on the other side blow cool air through.