Farmers care for their cows. Verb? Noun? No matter, both most definitely apply to dairy farmers! Farmers feel sentimentally attached to the animals they own, while providing them with the necessities to ensure their health and welfare. Animal health and welfare are extremely important to dairy farmers. We know that in order for a cow to produce milk that is high quality and in good supply, she must be happy and healthy; therefore farmers place a huge emphasis on ensuring that the animals they own are properly cared for.
First of all, farmers pay close attention to the feed given to their cows. We take special care to secure high quality feed for our cows. Many farms across Canada grow the majority of their cow feed on farm but purchased feed can also account for part of a dairy farms’ ration. Both purchased and home grown feed must be high quality to guarantee cow health. Farmers work closely with trained and specialized nutritionists to provide the right feed and nutritional components for each stage of a cow’s life. In dairy farming, what goes into the cows has a great impact on their overall health and wellness, which makes quality feed a high priority for dairy farmers.
Animal housing also plays an important role in animal care. Across Canada, there are many different styles and types of cow housing, but one thing remains constant: our commitment to provide our cows with a safe and comfortable area to call “home”. Barns provide shelter from the elements: the heat of summer and the extreme cold of winter. Proper ventilation and lighting are paramount in cow comfort; many barns have opaque curtained or paneled sides as well as large overhead doors at the front and back of the barn that allow light and air into barns. In our barns, our cows have plenty of room to move around and socialize with other cows and engage in normal herd behaviours. Our stalls are deep bedded with soft wood shavings; other farms use sand or mats for bedding and some farms even have water beds for their cows! During the growing season, our cows have access to pasture. We find this improves hoof health and strength and cow health. Farms that do not provide access to pasture often install mats on the concrete floors in the barns to provide a cushion that mimics an outdoor surface. Dairy barns are cleaned multiple times per day, removing the manure from the barns via scrapers or through slatted floors, which provides a clean surface for the cows to stand on. Regardless of barn type, farmers know that if a cow is comfortable, she will likely remain healthy and productive.
Farmers are often actively involved in animal health care:
Hoof care: We provide foot baths for our cows, which helps to stop the growth of painful fungi or infections of the hoof. If a cow has a sore hoof, she is less likely to consume proper amounts of feed and her body condition and health will suffer as a result. Healthy feet are a huge asset in a milk producing cow, so many farmers enlist the help of trained hoof trimming professionals who visit a farm multiple times per year to trim the cows’ hooves and treat any infections or lesions. Yes, our girls are pampered; they have more pedicures done in one year than I have done in 10! In between visits from the hoof trimmer, we will take care to treat any hoof problems that may arise.
Disbudding: Calves are disbudded (their horn buds are removed with a cauterizing iron) at 3 weeks of age, a process that is quick and nearly painless. This process ensures the safety of a cow’s herd mates as well as farm staff. Our calves are sedated and given a local anesthetic and analgesics during the treatment. By the time the sedative has worn off, the calves are unaware that anything out of the ordinary has taken place!
Antibiotic treatments: If a cow is ill or is suffering from an infection, such as mastitis, farmers will treat the cow with antibiotics to combat the infection, at the advice of a veterinarian. If a cow has been treated with antibiotics, her milk must be withheld from the food chain and is discarded until the drug specific withdrawal time (which is the time is takes for the drug to be excreted from the cow’s body) has passed.
Of course, we also enlist the help of a veterinarian team to care for our cows. A vet visits our farm periodically to check our overall herd health and to check each cow’s prenatal status. Additionally, our vet is on call day or night, weekends and holidays, if any problem should arise which we are unable to resolve ourselves. For example, on July 1st, Canada Day (see my Facebook post on July 2 for more details and pictures) we called the vet out to our farm for an emergency. A cow had pushed her uterus out after a hard calving. Without veterinarian care, a prolapsed uterus is a sure death sentence for a cow. Thankfully, with proper treatment, the prognosis in such cases is excellent. The vet arrived promptly and soon had the uterus back in its rightful place. The cow is now doing very well and is showing no ill effects from the traumatic experience. Farmers and vets work together to provide the best possible medical care for dairy cows.
Perhaps the most overlooked but maybe the most important aspect of animal care is the frequent observation of the dairy herd. A good farmer or herd manager will quickly be able to notice any discrepancies or changes in cow behavior and health if they are familiar with the herd and normal cow attitudes and behaviors. Times of close contact with the cows, such as at milking time, are excellent opportunities to observe and record any disparity or change in cow health and wellness. Times like these are also excellent opportunities for showing our affection to our girls – our most affectionate cows often meander over for head rubs and scratches if they see us in the barn. Cows needing extra attention of any sort can then be separated from the herd and have their specific needs compassionately and thoroughly attended to.
The animal welfare section of Dairy Farmers of Canada’s ProAction initiative, the Code for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle, which is now mandatory here in British Columbia, as well as in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island, delves deeply into animal welfare issues. The Code deals with all aspects of animal care highlighted above, as well as cow transportation and euthanasia. If a cow must be transported to auction or slaughter, special protocols are in place to ensure that cows that are unable to withstand the journey or are unable to walk onto the transport truck are not transported at all. If a cow is too weak or ill to be transported, she must remain on farm until she is stronger or must be humanely euthanized if her overall prognosis of recovery is not promising. Farms in these provinces (and soon all across Canada) are required to abide by the Code and are subject to inspections to ensure that each farm places firm emphasis on animal care and welfare.
As dairy farmers, we take great pride in the care given to our cows. We take extreme care to ensure that our girls are comfortable and free of disease and pain and fear. We know that happy, comfortable, well cared for cows produce the best quality milk. And that, after all, is the dairy industry’s mission: providing Canadians with top quality milk that is produced by healthy and happy cows.