When Mother Nature dishes out her worst… dairy farmers meet the challenge

By Sherry Bunting

When Mother Nature dishes out her worst, dairy farmers are at their best to meet the challenge. It takes a lot to keep a herd milked, fed and comfortable during weather extremes. Attention to detail carries the day.

“There are no ‘snow days’ on the farm,” writes Tricia Adams at her family’s Hoffman Farms page on Facebook. Three generations of the Hoffmans milk over 1000 cows in northern tier Pennsylvania.

“The extreme weather makes us feel like we are surviving it and not thriving in it!” she said. That was during the polar vortex of 2014, when temps over a four-day period were down to -20 — never mind the additional wind chill factor. The winter had dumped three feet of snow just ahead of the plunging temperatures that year.

It’s seven years later and partway through winter, dairies are geared up, especially in the Midwest where temperatures are registering as low as -40.

When temps this frigid stick around for days, there are more things to keep track of. Tricia says they keep a heater in the parlor to help with frozen milkers, but even that can ice up. Conditions for the cows can get slippery in the freestall barns, so extra care is taken to move cows slowly.

Normal barn cleaning is also a challenge, so coping with frozen, caked manure in the walkways, barns and parlor, not to mention frozen waterers, feed mixers and tractors freezing up as the off-road diesel gums up.

“We change fuel filters and use additives to thin the fuel and keep our equipment running,” Tricia explains. “Winter is tough, and up here we are prepared for it; but when it gets this extreme, you know there is only so much you can prevent. What you can’t prevent you just have to deal with as it happens.”

heated-box28129Much attention is also paid to the especially important job of “tricky calvings.” At Hoffman Farms, Tricia uses heated boxes for the newborn calves.

Meanwhile, at Dutch Hollow Farm, Schodack Landing, New York, Paul Chittenden says the calving pens are watched through video-monitoring or by walk-throughs. Newborns often get time in a heat box or wear calf jackets and sometimes earmuffs when it’s this cold, and they are fed more often for increased energy to maintain their temperature and growth.

“Clean and dry and plenty to eat are what we focus on — regardless of the weather,” he adds. “Cows always have dry sawdust with extra sawdust stored in the front of the stalls. This allows for plenty of dry bedding to stir around each time we groom the stalls when the cows go to the parlor for milking.”

“Cold weather management is really not too complicated,” said Tom Troxel, DVM. He is retired from dairy farming but still sees his dairy herd clients, operating South County Veterinary practice in northern Indiana.

“Cows need to have plenty of feed and water, be out of the wind, and have a dry place to lie down. If they have these things, they can survive an awful lot,” he explains.

Braving temps at -17 with a -53 wind chill with 14 inches of snow on the ground to feed calves more frequently helps keep up their energy reserves, but at these temps, it is brutal on caretakers. Snow drifts around hutches are good. They help insulate. Calves can be cozy warm with fresh bedding.

“Calves need the same thing, including increased feed (calories),” Tom advises. “But sometimes the threat of scours keeps feeders from increasing milk to calves. There is no question that cold stress can cause younger animals to be more susceptible to scours and pneumonia, but careful monitoring and feeding electrolytes can help a lot.

“It’s more important to increase feed to cold, young calves. Also, try hand feeding starter grain to young calves that are at least 2 days old,” Tom suggests.

As for cow nutrition during extreme cold, it comes down to “energy, energy, energy,” says retired dairy nutrition consultant Ray Kline.

“Feeding calves more often — 3 to 4 times a day — helps because they do not have a rumen to heat them up,” he observes. “With the cows, the ration can be adjusted for higher energy, but without losing fiber. Cows normally eat more when it is cold, but a more dense ration also helps get more energy to them.”

He suggests picking out the “barometer cows” in the herd and watching them for Body Condition Score to know if ration adjustments to the whole herd are needed.

“After an event like this, we can see it in the repro,” said Ray. “The cow will take care of herself first; so what she eats will go to maintaining herself through the severe weather.”

At Wil-Roc Dairy, managing over 3000 cows at two sites in eastern New York, “When it is this cold, the simple every day protocols become enduring days of work.”

He explains some changes they make: “We change our teat dip when it’s this cold, for extra moisturizing to the skin. We also adjust the cow diets to keep our cows in a positive energy balance as they burn more energy to maintain themselves during weather extremes.”

Canadian dairy manager Jan Sas is well accustomed to sub-zero temperatures, having managed a 1000-cow dairy in Newfoundland.  “We used a lot of Udder Comfort,” he says. “The essential oils aid in protection against weather extremes to soften and soothe irritated skin and swollen udders to avoid teat damage from frostbite, while stimulating the circulation for natural warmth and healing. It has been great for udders and for calf ears during cold weather extremes and the muddy conditions that follow.”

Now retired, dairyman Todd Hendrickson of Preston, Minnesota has seen his share of cold Minnesota winters. His former 160-cow Roadside Dairy herd made award-winning quality milk.

“We would step up our use of Udder Comfort to avoid frozen teat damage,” Todd explains. “During any stretch of frigid cold weather, we put it on every udder when cows leave the parlor after milking to reduce swelling and improve circulation. This is especially critical for fresh animals. By removing swelling quickly, they milk out better and recover faster.”

Milking 420 cows and raising extra springing heifers near Green Bay, Wisconsin, Bruce Vande Hey agrees.

10986660_10206244497857081_5937924373439440151_o“Our cows eat outside 365 days a year,” Bruce notes. “I’m glad to have Udder Comfort in our cold northeast Wisconsin winters. Being able to remove swelling and improve blood flow helps our herd avoid frozen teats.”

During cold weather extremes, they spray all udders before cows leave the parlor, using Udder Comfort and focusing on the bottom of the udder and crease.

“It’s a no-brainer. This keeps udders soft and teats pliable, which is what we want to see,” he adds. The Vande Hey herd makes 84-90 lbs/cow/day of milk with SCC 125-160,000.

In addition to extra feed, making sure cattle have plenty of water is critical and often challenging, with water critical for both drinking and cleaning, so lines are buried well underground and drinking tubs are equipped with heaters.

As for the milking equipment and transportation, milk haulers have their hands full too. Tank compressors can have issues, trucks can be down, but they pull out the stops to keep the milk moving.

Veteran milk equipment serviceman Ken Weber recommends using a heat lamp to keep compressors working to cool the milk. Weber is retired from service calls but has seen his share of tough winters. He suggests paying close attention to vacuum pumps outside.

“They are the last thing the dairyman uses to wash the pipeline, and that moisture in there can cause them to freeze up,” he says. “Take a pipe wrench and work it back and forth to loosen it and consider using supplemental heat like a heat lamp to keep the pump warm.”

Milk is still moving from farms to plants, but delays are a concern of processors looking ahead as the cold snap continues with precipitation in the forecast.

In closed group discussions throughout social media, farmers are exchanging ideas and seeking support from each other — to know they are not dealing with these hardships alone. Winter is tough, and farmers are prepared for it, but this is extreme, and there is only so much that can be prevented. What does not get prevented, must be dealt with as it happens, and this can be frustrating. 

Summing it up, the story is much the same throughout dairyland in North America when arctic air persists. As Cody Williams of Wil-Roc puts it: “No matter the weather, we have our jobs to do. Getting our everyday tasks done is in itself a reward. We are continually looking to see how the stressors of weather and other events can affect our systems to keep improving how we do things all year long.”

Please be careful out there.


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