Whenever I talk about our farm during the winter, the first question I get asked is, “How do cows do with the cold?” Actually, cows tend to prefer cold weather over hot. Their thick hides (7x thicker than human skin on average), hair, and unique heat-producing digestion mean that a cow’s favorite temperature is between 40° and 65° F. Of course, it gets colder than that during the winter and we want to make sure our cows are safe and comfortable even if a blizzard is blowing outside. So how do we do that?
One of the most critical things is proper housing. A cow needs a clean, dry environment that shelters her from wind and snow. Our cows are housed in a “free-stall” barn and can choose to walk around, eat, drink, lay down, or socialize whenever they want. During the winter, curtains on the side of the barn are raised to block the wind, but on milder days they can be lowered to let in some fresh air. Keeping the cows in the barn during winter ensures the cows never get wet or chilled and protects them from possibly slipping and injuring themselves outside.
It is also important that a cow is receiving plenty of high quality feed. A cow’s largest stomach compartment is her rumen, which she uses to ferment her feed for digestion. This fermentation produces heat and, “is beneficial by helping dairy cows prevent a decline in body temperature” (Cooperative Extension, University of California, Davis). We feed our cows a special diet of grass, silage, straw, and grain using a recipe that our dairy nutritionist formulates for us. This ensures that our cows are getting the perfect amount of energy, protein, fiber, and nutrients that they need.
While adult cows handle the cold well, our baby calves require special attention. Since a calf’s surface area to body mass ratio is higher it’s easier for them to lose heat. Like the cows, our calves are housed in a barn with a curtain that can be raised or lowered depending on the temperature. Our newborn and small calves are each kept in their own pen so we can monitor them individually and make sure they are eating properly. We feed our calves two times a day, and the milk is warmed before we serve it. We also use warm water for them to drink.
Each calf wears an insulated blanket or coat that helps keep them warm.
Twice a day we add fresh bedding to the pens so the calves stay clean and dry. We also put fluffy straw in the little calves’ pens so they can snuggle down and nest in it.
Looks like she went a little overboard on this one…
The older calves are housed together in group pens. We feed grain twice a day with free access hay and water.
It’s important to us that our cows are warm and comfortable, even in the middle of a western NY winter!
I took a short video of one of our calves playing in the bedding we added to her pen. You can watch it here.
To learn more about winter cow care here’s a short article about How Cows Stay Warm in the Winter.
-The Farming Daughter