Cows come first: Keeping bovines comfortable in extreme cold

20 belowThe ideal temperature for a dairy cow is between 25 and 65 degrees. She’s not too hot, not too cold. When the extreme cold hits Maine, dairy farmers have to be vigilant to make sure the drop in temperatures doesn’t take a toll on their herds.

flood cows

Cows at the Flood Brothers Farm in Clinton make steam clouds when their warm breath hits the cold air. Plenty of good feed and curtains to block the wind keep them comfortable and healthy.

Erin Flood is both a large animal veterinarian with Hometown Veterinary Care in Fairfield and a member of a dairy farming family in Clinton – the Flood Brothers Farm (she is married to the son of one of the brothers). She takes a special interest in cow comfort on the farm because she knows the best practices for optimal health of their cows. I took a walk around the farm with Erin on a recent COLD, blustery day and she pointed out all the ways her family ensures the cold won’t have any harmful effects on their animals.

Erin Flood uses a portable ultrasound to check for heifers that are ready to be bred while Bruce Ogeka takes notes.

Erin Flood uses a portable ultrasound to check for heifers that are ready to be bred while Bruce Ogeka takes notes. Heifers need to be at a healthy weight to combat the cold and to have a successful breeding and pregnancy.

“The biggest concern is the energy requirements for the animals,” she said. “Their energy requirements can go up by 10 to 15, even 20 percent.” This means, their calorie intake needs to be at an appropriate level to keep up. “Calves on milk can burn through their fat reserves very quickly in these temps we’ve had lately,” Erin added. “As the temp gets colder, the more they use up. They increase energy requirements dramatically  upwards of 50 percent or beyond – up to 85 percent in extreme temperatures. “And also, water – making sure they have enough and that water lines and buckets aren’t frozen.”

This calf has made herself comfortable, bedding down in the deep shavings.

This calf has made herself comfortable, bedding down in the deep shavings.

As we entered the calf barn at Flood Brothers, Erin pointed to a young heifer calf lying in deep bedding. “See how it comes up around her knees? It needs to be deep enough so that they can really nestle down into it. And it needs to be dry.” Calves that are still on milk have access to as much as they want, and all have free choice access to heated water and dry, fresh grain. Thick screens or curtains are pulled down along the sides of the usually open barn to keep out any wind, but Erin said as soon as it warmed up enough, it was important to let in fresh air. “We batten down the hatches in this weather, and then open them back up when it warms a little for ventilation,” she said. The farm recently installed two immense ventilation tubes that were designed in partnership with Dairyland Initiative at University of Wisconsin in the calf barn to reduce the risk of pneumonia. Erin said weather like that seen in Maine this winter with extreme cold and then a warm spell and then extreme cold makes for prime conditions to cause pneumonia in herds, especially among the young calves. These calves were running and bucking around their pen, oblivious to the cold thanks to clean, dry bedding and the curtains on their barn keeping out the wind.

These calves were running and bucking around their pen, oblivious to the cold thanks to clean, dry bedding and the curtains on their barn keeping out the wind.

Along with proper nutrition and ventilation, making sure cows are up to date on vaccinations is another way to combat the risk of pneumonia and other illnesses that could cause a cow undue stress, especially in bad weather.

The cold does not seem to be bothering these three expectant mothers at the Flood Brothers Farm in Clinton.

The cold does not seem to be bothering these three expectant mothers at the Flood Brothers Farm in Clinton.

Expectant mothers are also given deep bedding so that they can get up easier and so that newborns have a soft, dry place to land. Calf checks are done often, meaning new, wet calves can be dried off and warmed up quickly.

Good body condition, plenty of feed and the curtains on their barn keep these milk cows comfortable despite wind chills below zero.

Good body condition, plenty of feed and the curtains on their barn keep these milk cows comfortable despite wind chills below zero.

Large, older, producing cows are not as delicate as younger heifers that are still growing. With the younger bovines, much of their calories are being used to grow, or for a heifer expecting her first calf, to grow her baby. When the cold weather demands her body use those calories to keep warm, her body condition might decline or she could be more susceptible to illness. Farms like Flood Brothers work with veterinarians and nutritionists to make sure the animals are getting optimal nutrition at all times. Adversely, if a heifer is fed too much, it can be difficult for her to get pregnant if she is overweight. If she is already pregnant, too much feed could mean that her calf grows large and results in a difficult birth. “Dairymen need to be working closely with their feed salesmen or nutritionist to plan for the [energy] deficits,” that can be brought on by cold weather,Erin said. The Flood Brothers Farm has a herd of 3,900 cows all together, 1,700 of which are currently milking. Despite having so many animals in their care, they see very few health problems related to the cold. And to reduce the risk of injury, they even sand the lane from the barn to the milking parlor to keep cows from slipping and falling on ice. flood sanding

Cold weather puts me in the mood for stews and soups– slow cooked, steamy bowlfuls. It’s my comfort food. The wood stove is stoked, so a pot can sit and, well, stew all day long. And the longer it sits, the better it tastes. I remember reading somewhere about how winter is the time to eat slow-cooked foods because it is a time when we are supposed to slow down and give our bodies a rest (tell that to a farmer, right?). It’s also a time when I have a supply of root vegetables that need to be used up before they are mush.  The thing about living on a farm is that while you may not have extra cash on hand, you always have plenty of good food in the root cellar, freezer and pantries.

So, on this day, I chose squash and carrots as my inspiration – both excellent sources of beta carotene, and squash is also a good source of fiber. As indicated by the title of this blog – “The Dairy Dish” –  I also have plenty of dairy on hand at all times. I used both milk and yogurt in this soup, giving it a good boost of protein as well as other important nutrients.

I blended two cups squash, two cups carrots, one cup of yogurt and two cups of milk. It was thick and creamy, but a little too thick. I did not want to take the time to cook down a chicken for stock, and I didn’t want to just water it down. So how could I thin it and add flavor? I decided to try green tea. I thought it would be a complementary flavor and add antioxidants. So I brewed two cups of green tea. Don’t steep green tea for more than just a few minutes or it will get bitter.  I added some ginger, a little nutmeg and two tablespoons of maple syrup. (I made this again later on and used a tablespoon of curry powder in place of the other spices and maple syrup.) carrot and squashI shredded a little cheddar cheese on my first bowl and added a dob of red pepper hummus to my second.  A dollop of sour cream or yogurt would also be good.

Carrot Squash Soup

2 cups cooked squash

2 cups mashed cooked carrots

2 cups milk

1 cup yogurt

2 cups green tea

1 tsp salt

1 Tbsp ginger

1 tsp nutmeg

2 Tbsp maple syrup

OR in place of the maple syrup, ginger and nutmeg, use 1 Tbsp curry powder.

Blend carrots, squash and dairy in a blender and mix thoroughly.  Pour into a pan and warm on the stovetop, add green tea, stir well. Add spices and maple syrup (or curry), mix again, and continue to let warm until ready to serve. Top with a dollop of yogurt or sour cream.

Recommend this article
Jami Badershall

About Jami Badershall

Jami Badershall is the Communications Manager for the Maine Dairy & Nutrition Council and Maine Dairy Promotion Board. She also owns her own small farm. On "The Dairy Dish", Jami ventures to Maine farms, highlights events around the state, and gives you recipe ideas using local dairy products.