Tag: Cows

Starting Fresh

Those familiar with beef herds are used to hearing about calving seasons, but many dairies, including ours, prefer to keep a consistent number of cows milking and try to calve year-round. A very hot end to summer 2011 meant not very many cows got bred, though, so this spring we actually went two months without a calf. Also, we do limit calving in the worst heat of July or August because calving in the heat is hard on both the cows and calves. It has been a little interesting watching our numbers swing as we continued to dry off cows without adding back equivalent numbers of fresh cows. At the moment, we’re milking fewer than 70 cows, but all that is about to change.

Monday morning number 476, Willow (a Kuckelcow), had a heifer calf out of the bull Shamrock. She was due to calve on September 8th . Calving early is very common, and there is no cause for concern. It wouldn’t really even have been a surprise except there are 7 other cows or heifers actually due before September 8th. In addition to those 8, there are 13 more animals due in September. In fact, the craziness doesn’t stop this month – we expect 17 calves in October and 13 calves in November – that’s 51 total fresh cows in three months. For a herd our size, that’s a bunch.

I explained dry-off a few weeks ago, but what happens when a cow or heifer has her calf (or “freshens”)? After the cow has cleaned off her calf, we take the calf to keep it safe and healthy. After the next milking shift, we milk the cow separately to collect it’s colostrum. Colostrum is thicker than milk and contains a lot of good stuff meant specifically for her calf. We feed the calf it’s mother’s colostrum for it’s first two feedings. Because the cows are treated before dry-off we milk them 6 times before testing their milk for antibiotics. If the test clears, we “turn them out” with the rest of the milk herd. If for some reason the milk tests positive for antibiotics, we would continue to dump her milk until the antibiotic cleared. I don’t recall this ever being an issue with a fresh cow, but we never return a cow to the herd without testing her.

Heifers are a little bit different. Our heifers, now 1st lactation cows, are not treated prior to calving, so we only milk them 4 times before turning them out with the rest of the herd. We do this to make sure they’ve stopped giving colostrum and started giving milk and to help them adjust to milking. It’s a big change, and keeping them separate enables us to give extra attention to keeping them calm and comfortable as they adjust to their new daily routine.

As we ease into fall, we’re looking forward to fresh faces in the calf huts and fresh udders in the milk barn.

Alfalfa the calf
Willow’s new daughter, Alfalfa

It’s Awefully Dry Around Here

Based on the title, I’m sure you’re expecting a post about the drought we’re currently experiencing. We could use some rain, bad, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

During the afternoon milking on Saturday we dried off 14 cows of the 90 we milked that night. That’s over 15%. While that is a high percentage of cows, it’s not nearly the same percentage of milk. We also should have some cows coming fresh over the next couple of months to offset those we dried up.

Before I go too far, I should probably explain what dry-off means. I’ll start from the beginning. A dairy cow must have a calf before she can produce milk. After she calves, she will produce for several months without having another calf, but it’s important to get her “bred back” (pregnant) quickly because she won’t keep producing forever. The milking period after a calf is born is called a lactation (the first lactation occurs after she has her first calf, and so on).

The exact possible length of a lactation varies depending on the cow and several other variables. If we get a cow bred back quickly she will generally still be producing well, but at approximately 60 days before she’s due, we dry her off. If the cow has had a long lactation we will sometimes dry her off early because her production will drop on its own. DHIA testing has helped us better determine this.

Because of long lactations and also the effects of the summer heat, a few of the cows dried off this time were done early due to low production. All were within 90 days to calving though. There are exceptions to every rule, but in general it’s best for a cow to not be dry too long because the transition back to milking may be more difficult. It’s important for the cow to have a dry period so her energy can go toward her calf and regenerating her udder for continued production.

Drying a cow off involves giving her a couple of shots and injecting a dry-cow treatment into each quarter of her udder. The shots are vaccines that help keep both her and her calf healthy, and the treatments help prevent mastitis for her upcoming lactation.

After dry treating the cows we mark them as dry and haul them to a pasture where they’ll graze until they’re about 3 weeks from calving. At that point they’re moved to a maternity pasture where we can keep an eye on them and transition them back to the milk herd’s ration.

Probably the most exciting part of this particular dry-off was using our new (to us) truck and trailer to haul cattle for the first time!

Our cows’ sweet new ride!