There are no ‘snow days’ on the farm. “When it is this cold, the simple every day protocols become enduring days of work,” notes Cody Williams of Wil-Roc Dairy, Kinderhook, where 1500 Holstein dairy cows are milked and cared for.
“We change our teat dip when it’s this cold, for extra moisturizing to the skin,” Cody explains. “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.”
Operating a dairy or livestock farm in the extreme cold is not for the faint of heart. Veteran beef producer Phil Trowbridge of Ghent observes: “We know how to take care of ourselves. We dress in layers and give each other breaks.”
Frozen pipes, pumps, waterers, and manure — as well as difficulty in starting equipment — are commonly reported concerns. When the snow piles up and the temperatures plummet, concerns turn to keeping rooftops clear of a too-heavy burden and being vigilant about the increased risk of fires.
In closed group discussions throughout social media, farmers exchange ideas and seek support from each other.
When the Polar Vortex gripped the northern half of the country in 2014, farmers were up to the challenge.
Last week the mercury hit -14 at Trowbridge Angus Farm, where it is calving season January through March. The family, and their over 300 beef breeding cows, were navigating two to three feet of snow cover.
Twenty miles away near Schodack Landing, temps of -11 went virtually unnoticed by the over 700 Jersey dairy cows at Dutch Hollow Farm. They are tucked away in their barns with retractable sidewall curtains that stay open more often than not for natural light and ventilation but remain closed when the wind chills get this low.
Cattle are cold weather animals, but they do not like wind or drafts. The difference between beef and dairy breeds is the way their centuries-old partnership with man has adapted through specialized breeding and care.
Beef breed cattle are kept outside pretty much year-round, coming into the barn only at calving time. Dairy cattle, on the other hand, are typically housed in barns year-round. While beef breed cattle spend more time foraging for their food and seeking the natural and provided windbreaks to lay down, dairy cattle in freestall barns will amble short distances inside from feedbunks and waterers to the deep-bedded stalls that are groomed for them two or three times a day while they are milking.
Dairy cows are accustomed to constant human handling from the time they are calves. They have a different temperament about the whole calving deal.They aren’t worried about predators and trust the humans they work beside day in and day out to care for them and their offspring.
Beef breeding cows, on the other hand, are more self-sufficient and protective of their young. They raise their offspring for the more hands-off life as a non-milking breeding animal or to spend 80% of their life foraging on pasture with the last 20% of their life in the beef fattening phase.
One thing in common: Both beef and dairy producers focus on the newborns immediately at birth to make sure each calf gets a warm start and enough colostrum for the passive transfer of immunity from its dam.
“When we get real cold weather like we have seen this winter, we spend more time in the calving barn at night. We pretty much sleep here with them when it’s this cold,” says beef producer Phil Trowbridge, who has had 50 calves born since January 1. “The main thing is to get those calves dried off and warmed up as soon as they are born, and to make sure they get enough colostrum. In two or three days, they’re old enough and strong enough to go outside.”
Not only are they prepared for cold weather, they frolic in it. “I took a video with my cell phone of the calves the other day when it was minus-11. We were putting out bedding for the cows, and saw those calves were feeling so good, they were just running through the snow,” Phil relates. “I like seeing that.”
Stockpiled pasture grasses make a nice winter forage as cattle can push off a few inches or a foot of snow to graze it, and they do well getting around in the snow outdoors. But with over two feet of snow cover this winter, the Trowbridge family cuts trails to help the cattle conserve energy. They also put down extra bedding, more often, in the areas with windbreaks and feed more outdoor hay and supplement.
Meanwhile, on a dairy farm, the cows calve year-round. Calving pens are watched through video monitoring or by walk-throughs. The immediate newborn calf care continues through the first few weeks of life in the calf nursery or individual hutches. 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 to grow.
“Taking care of the animals is pretty much routine. The feeding is very consistent day to day, and the freestalls are bedded twice a week,” says Paul Chittenden of Dutch Hollow
“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.”
Water is critical for drinking and cleaning, so lines are buried underground and drinking tubs are equipped with heaters.
“Cold weather management is really not too complicated,” explains bovine veterinarian and dairy farmer Dr. Tom Troxel. “Cows need to have plenty of feed and water, be out of the wind, and have a dry place to lay down. If they have these things, they can survive an awful lot.”
“No matter the weather, we have our jobs to do here,” notes Cody of Wil-Roc Dairy. “That is itself the reward. Getting our everyday tasks done and looking to see how the stressers of weather and other events can affect our system… That is how we keep improving how we do things all year long.”
Sherry Bunting is a member of North American Agriculture Journalists and has been covering beef and dairy production for 40 years. Before that, she milked cows and graded beef cattle for market reports. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dairy and beef cattle are adapted differently, but they all depend on their people for great care during the weather extremes we have seen here this winter. Farming is not for the faint of heart. Everyday tasks take longer to complete but it sure is rewarding to see cows thrive and calves frolic after a good start – regardless of the weather! Photos by Sherry Bunting, Tricia Adams and Evelyn Troutman.