Giving thanks for good cow care

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A holstein cow looks through a fence.
A cow at Canon Dairy, in West Middlesex, Pennsylvania, Jan. 11, 2022. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

Dairy cows provide wholesome milk we all can enjoy as our dairy farmers provide quality care and comfort for their cows. A picture is worth a thousand words, so picture this scene. As we stroll through the dairy farmer’s cow barn, we look over and see the cows lying contentedly on a comfortable beach sand bed while ruminating on a mouthful of nutritious food. A gentle breeze of fresh air surrounds her as she lazily glances over to her barn roommate to let out a soft moo sound, indicating “This is the life, I am in cow heaven.”

Beyond the basics

Food, clothing and shelter are what people seek for their basic needs. Advanced societies bring opportunities and conveniences of comfort, travel, socialization and leisure. Our dairy farmers work 24/7, 365 days a year to provide their dairy cows with not just the basic needs but also the cows’ desires for comfort, travel (freely move among stalls), socialization (herd mates) and leisure (rumination time).

Extensive university behavioral and management studies of dairy cows have provided the information to show what cows need to be “well-cared for.” Dairy farmers use this information to build cow kitchens, cow bedrooms, milking parlors and cow environments that provide the best welfare for the cows.

A popular buzzword today is “animal welfare.” Animal welfare is when animals are healthy, comfortable, well-nourished, safe and able to express innate behavior and not suffer from pain, fear or distress. Unaware non-farm consumers often believe that cows on farms are forced to sleep in homeless-like conditions, housed in overcrowded rooms and starved of food.

The total opposite occurs with farmers. Family farms make up 95% of dairy farms across the US; even the majority of large farms are family-owned. They provide quality animal care to allow us to enjoy nutritious and wholesome milk which is made into delicious cheese, yogurt, sour cream, ice cream and many other dairy products. As consumers, be thankful for that.

Preferences for rest

What housing and bedding do dairy cows prefer? Research has been summarized to answer that from answering the question, how does a cow choose to spend her day? In pioneer days, the family cow would be hand milked twice a day, turned out to try to find food and hope that a predator did not injure her. A modern dairy cow’s unlimited food is brought to her and each cow is given a barn enclosed from the weather elements as well as a comfortable bed where she can freely get up and down and walk to the milking parlor on her own free schedule.

A dairy cow’s ideal day in a modern environment is lying down, napping 10 to 14 times per day for 60 to 75 minutes each time. A total of 12 to 14 hours per day of rest, sleep and napping is ideal. Dairy cows have a strong motivation to rest. Their natural behavior is to meet their requirement for resting. Eating (snacks) and drinking occur nine to 14 times a day. Eating takes up a total of 3.5 to 5.5 hours per day. Standing, walking and grooming will consume three hours per day. Milking requires one to three hours per day.

Disruption of resting can limit their performance. A cow’s natural behavior is to meet their requirement for resting. Rest can be restricted by challenges of excess time from the pen going to and from the parlor, prolonged lock-up time, overstocking and uncomfortable stalls. To ensure that dairy cows can meet their rest requirement, it is important for herd management activities (vet check, pen cleaning and bedding) to be minimized to avoid reducing rest time. Cows milked three times per day should be away from their pen no more than three hours per day. This time is measured from when the first cow departs the pen to the parlor to when the last cow returns to the pen.

Thanks

Our dairy farmers know that dairy cows will thank them for providing comfortable beds, nutritious TMR feed and a healthy environment by providing a high volume of quality, healthy (low SCC) and nutritious (fat and protein%) milk. Whole milk is 97% fat-free and provides consumers with 13 essential dietary nutrients for our diets.

As consumers, raise a glass of wholesome milk at the Thanksgiving dinner table and thank our dairy farmers! They provide quality care to their dairy cows so that we can enjoy that favorite Thanksgiving dinner entrée topped with delicious butter, cheese and sour cream. And don’t forget that real whipped cream on that slice of pumpkin pie and ice cream. Happy “tanks”-giving, have a moo-velous meal.

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Dwight Roseler is an adjunct professor in the Department of Animal Science at Ohio State University. He has 40 years experience as a dairy consulting nutritionist in the Midwest and eastern U.S. with Purina based in Wooster, Ohio. Contact him dkroseler@gmail.com.

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