No ‘snow days’ on the farm

cows6781By Sherry Bunting, columnist, Register-Star, Feb. 21, 2015

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.

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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. 10986660_10206244497857081_5937924373439440151_oThey 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.”

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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.

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Tricia Adams pictures one of the heated boxes for newborn calves at Hoffman Farms

“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
Farm.

“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.”

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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 over 30 years. Before that, she milked cows and graded beef cattle for market reports. She can be reached at agrite@ptd.net

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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.

How dairy farmers dealt with ‘Polar Vortex’

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, January 10, 2014

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — While some of the photos posted by dairy farmers on their farm Facebook pages and Twitter were downright beautiful, others spoke volumes about the extreme challenges and dedication put forth to care for animals on farms this week during what is being called the “polar vortex.”

LuAnn Troxel captured this beautiful image at Troxel Dairy Farm. Behind the beauty was more snow and extreme temps.

LuAnn Troxel captured this beautiful image at Troxel Dairy Farm. Behind the beauty was more snow and extreme temps.

The extreme temperatures Tuesday and Wednesday were the talk of both the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg and of farmers who were able to get away and attend the Keystone Farm Show in York, Pa. this week.

Frozen waterers, vacuum pumps, manure removal equipment and difficulty starting feeding equipment were the most commonly reported concerns shared by producers from New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia who were able to get to the show in York.

Further North and West into the lake regions of the Upper Midwest, through Northern Indiana and Ohio into western New York and Northwest Pennsylvania, the “polar vortex” was amplified by the snow storm preceding it.

Thankfully, by the time you read this, warmer temperatures are forecast to prevail and bring relief to cattle and caretakers as well as equipment and transportation.

The mantra this week for farm families was to not only take care of their animals but to communicate what they were doing with their farm and non-farm “followers” on Facebook,

“There are no ‘snow days’ on the farm,” wrote Tricia Adams at her family’s Hoffman Farms page on Facebook. Three generations of the Hoffmans milk 700 cows near Shinglehouse, Potter County, Pennsylvania.

3 generations of the Hoffman family operate the 700-cow dairy.

3 generations of the Hoffman family operate the 700-cow dairy.

“The extreme weather makes us feel like we are surviving it and not thriving in it!” she said in an email interview Wednesday, reporting Tuesday’s low at Hoffman Farms was -18 with a high of -4. The mercury fi nally reaching a high of 12 degrees Wednesday. They are thankful to be spared the additional 3-feet of snow that fell just north of them in New York.

As for the polar temps and wind chills, “we run a heater in the parlor to help with frozen milkers but even that was icing up,” said Tricia, adding that the conditions for the cows in the freestall barns were “very slippery.”

The Hoffmans, like other farmers dealing with these conditions, did their best to cope 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 gummed up.

Starting equipment and dealing with manure were difficult in double-digit below zero weather, not to mention the wind chill.

Starting equipment and dealing with manure were difficult in double-digit below zero weather, not to mention the wind chill.

“We changed fuel fi lters and used additives to thin the fuel and keep our equipment running,” Tricia explained. “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.”

Much attention was paid to the especially important job of “tricky calvings.” At Hoffman Farms, Tricia used heated boxes for the newborn calves.

Tricia Adams pictures one of the heated boxes for newborn calves at Hoffman Farms

Tricia Adams pictures one of the heated boxes for newborn calves at Hoffman Farms

Over in Bradford County near Milan, Pa. Glenn and Robin Gorrell were thankful for the 45 degrees and rain over the weekend to melt the snow at their 600-cow dairy before the sub-zero temperatures arrived Tuesday.

Glenn reported temperatures ranging -10 to -20 depending on location in the hills or valleys.

“I think that we were lucky here and we are always happy the rest of our team helps get us through,” said Glenn in an email interview Wednesday.

“The wind was the killer. It can really drive the cold everywhere,” he said, adding that they had frozen pipes in the employee house for the first time ever.

“In the tie-stall barn we were like everybody else: Bowls on the west side were frozen. The milk house froze for the first time in years. We thought we had all the equipment ready with new fi lters and more fuel conditioner, but we were wrong,” he explained. “We needed to cut more with kerosene and put tarps around hoods of the loader tractor and feed mixer.”

The calves and youngstock at Gorrell Dairy got extra bedding and a little more grain to get them by.

“Robin always has calf jackets on them once it is below 50 degrees anyway,” Glenn reported. “We tried to double up feeding our heifers so we would have less equipment to start in the extreme cold.”

At Troxel Dairy Farm Laporte County, near Hanna, Indiana, conditions were quite severe, with extreme low temps in line with what farmers were seeing in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota this week.

Facebook followers commented that the cows must be “milking ice cream” as they read LuAnn Troxel’s posts about dairying in temps that had fallen to -12 and -17 with wind chills as low as -53 in northern Indiana on the heels of over 1-foot of snow.

The cows were "good sports" but after three days, the extreme cold wore think on man and beast.

The cows were “good sports” but after three days, the extreme cold wore think on man and beast.

Calling the cows “good sports,” LuAnn acknowledged how tough this week has been for man and beast. She and husband Tom and son Rudy, operate the 100-cow dairy.

“Cold weather management is really not too complicated,” said Tom Troxel, DVM, who in addition to the dairy farm has South County Veterinary practice.

“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 explained in an email interview Wednesday.

“Calves need the same thing, including increased feed (calories),” Tom advised. “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.

While it's tempting to do the bare minimum when temps are -17 with a -53 wind chill and there's 14 inches of snow on the ground, LuAnn was out feeding her calves at Troxel Dairy farm MORE frequently to keep up their energy reserves. Snow drifts also help insulate and inside the hutches they are cozy warm with fresh bedding.

While it’s tempting to do the bare minimum when temps are -17 with a -53 wind chill and there’s 14 inches of snow on the ground, LuAnn was out feeding her calves at Troxel Dairy farm MORE frequently to keep up their energy reserves. Snow drifts also help insulate and inside the hutches they are cozy warm with fresh bedding.

“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,” he suggested.

As for cow nutrition during extreme cold, it comes down to “energy, energy, energy,” said dairy consultant Ray Kline, during an interview at the Keystone Farm Show in York, Pa. Wednesday. Ray has retired from the Agri-Basics team of nutritionists but is as passionate as ever about cattle nutrition.

“Feeding calves more often — 3 to 4 times a day — also helps because they do not have a rumen to heat them up,” he observed. “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. Ray also urged dairymen to pay attention to waterers and keep them running.

“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.”

The seasoned dairy consultant also noted that “life spins its pattern back to years before.” While the “polar vortex” this week was new for some generations on the farm, others have experienced it before.

“If you look at history, we’ve had winters like this, but you have to go a long way back,” said Ray.

As for the milking equipment and transportation, Gib Martin, general manager of Mount Joy Farmers Cooperative in Pennsylvania noted that milk pickup and transport required more time and labor this week.

“We had some issues with tank compressors and one truck down, but no major interruptions in the flow of milk,” said Gib during an interview at Tuesday.

Ken Weber recommends using a heat lamp to keep compressors going for cooling the milk. Weber is retired from service calls but still works with BouMatic equipment. He suggests paying close attention to vacuum pumps outside.

“They are the last thing the dairyman uses to wash the pipe line and that moisture in there can cause them to freeze up,” he said during an interview at the Keystone Farm Show in York, Pa. Tuesday. “Just 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.”

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