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Updates From the Polar Vortex

24 Feb

Pssssssssht. Breaker, breaker. This is MFW coming to you live from a snowdrift.

I’m going to start with this photo. Because it soothes me.

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I want to go to there. This lovely shot is from our honeymoon in Mexico a million years ago. It’s good to remember that there are places in the world free of this year’s #polarvortex.

Sigh.

Unfortunately Michigan is still firmly planted in winter. Despite wildly odd weather last week—thunder snow, 40 degrees, and pouring rain—temps are back in the low teens this week.

My psyche just can’t take it. I’m tired of wearing three layers at all times, getting my car stuck in the driveway, whiteouts on the roads, and worrying about our roof collapsing under three months of snow accumulation. I just want to be warm again. I’m still waiting for those awesome pregnancy hot flashes people keep talking about.

I’m getting close to my winter breaking point.

Dairy Man might be even more sick of winter than I am. His life the past few months has involved frozen pipes, broken machinery, stuck milk trucks, countless pairs of long underwear, and so, so much plowing.

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Dairying gets a lot harder when we’re dealing with six-foot piles of snow, icy roads, and sub-arctic temperatures.

Thankfully the ladies take it all in stride. They get fluffy winter coats, group together in the sand beds, and eat, eat, eat.

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We do our best to help them stay warm and toasty during the cold months. Cow-sized sweaters are out of the question—I was never much of a knitter—and the girls don’t love hot cocoa, but we close the barn curtains, change our feed ration to include higher fat, and turn on the heaters in the water troughs.

We’re all getting by. The only family member wholly unfazed by winter is Jersey the snow dog.

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He loves snow—for playing, walking or eating. The last one is most annoying. There are few things more demoralizing than being an adult human being standing outside in negative temps and 40 mph winds yelling, “GO POTTY!!!!” to a stubborn and impervious border collie chowing down on snow.

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It’s been a long, hard winter. Perhaps one I’ll creakily tell my children about someday.

But I must remember that this season won’t last forever. The days are getting longer, spring is getting nearer, and there are occasional moments of pure beauty. It’s all about the sunshine.

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From the safety of a warm car or house, the winter wonderland really is spectacular.

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And I’m sure we’ll get the tractors unburied … someday.

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The Shiny New Barn

8 Aug

After months of planning, building, and anxious mooing, our shiny new barn is finally complete. I’m sure the Dairy Man would love to take a moment to bask, but he’s already moved on to other projects.

Manure pit

Oof. Just a little manure pit. Things never slow down around here.

But, back to the beauteous barn. As you know, Dairy Man decided to expand one of our barns this spring in order to grow our herd and give the current bovines a little more room to spread out.

Here’s where we started: two pretty white barns on a grassy hill (our parlor is on the far left).

Barns before

In order to build an expansion, we had to first raise up the ground. This required sand. Lots and lots of sand.

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I quite enjoyed the sand. Unfortunately the Dairy Man shot down my idea to turn the area into a beach volleyball court complete with tiki torches and frozen daiquiri bar. Apparently making space for more cows trumps my desire for summer beach parties.

But Jersey agreed with me. He loved the sand. It was like an episode of doggy Baywatch.

After the sand was laid and the ground was even, the posts went up.

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These random sticks pointing in the air were like a dairy farm version of Stonehenge. Without the burial mounds and Druid undertones.

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Then it was time for rafters and a roof made out of steel.

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Once the outside structure was complete, it was time to trick out our barn. Or “pimp my barn.” We’re still waiting to hear from MTV about the TV rights.

A few notable elements inside the barn:

Grooved concrete floor.
A grooved floor helps give the ladies traction as they roam around the barn. Without grooves, the floor would be a skating rink of slippery cow poo. Delightful. DM told me to take a good look at the floor, because it will never, EVER be this clean again. (Also, these are the wrong shoes to check out barn construction. In case you were wondering.)

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Big fans and sprinklers.
Cows hate to be hot and bothered. In order to keep the ladies cool, the new barn has huge fans and a sprinkler system. Thanks to several weeks of 90-degree weather in July, the fans and sprinklers have been getting a serious workout.

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Water tanks.
The new barn has two large blue water troughs. In the summer, the cows spend a lot of around them, an area I’ve dubbed the “water cooler,” to catch up on the latest gossip.

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Freestalls to give the ladies their space.
All of our barns are freestall barns. This means that the cows are free to roam around and have access to comfy sand beds/stalls. The stalls are spaced four feet apart to give even the biggest-boned bovine plenty of personal space.

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So. Those are the thrilling aspects that make up a barn. DM is so proud that I can recognize the glory of grooved concrete.

I was lucky enough to be in the barn when DM released the girls into it for the first time. I’m not a cow whisperer, but I could tell the cows were excited. I suspect they had been conversing longingly about the cozy new sand beds and waterfront views of the pond.

This event also finally gave me the chance to test an age-old dairy theory: that cows are just as excited about going into a new barn as they are about going into pasture. I’ll admit I was skeptical. I’ve witnessed our dry cows (pregnant ladies) go into pasture for the first time in the spring multiple times. It’s one of my favorite parts about living on a dairy. Why? Because it’s like a very rotund and jubilant running of the bulls. For a few minutes, the ladies forget they are mature mother cows and leap, frolic, and roll in the pasture like calves.

Would cows really be as excited about freestalls as they are about fresh pasture grass?

My camera and I were ready to find out. DM opened the gate between the old barn and new barn and after a few tentative steps, we had a stampede on our hands!

Ok, maybe “stampede” is a bit of an exaggeration, but it was joyful.

I even caught one of the girls rolling in the new sand bed like a wet puppy at a beach. Not a typical look for a 1,500 lb. animal.

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In a matter of minutes, every single cow was packed into the new barn. Except for this loner. She was soaking in the sudden privacy in the old barn.

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The bovine ladies are loving it. And yes, new barns are just as exciting as green pastures.

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8 Loads of Sand

19 Dec

On the eighth day of Christmas, the Dairy Man gave to me
Eight loads of sand

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Seven bales of hay
Six stripping shanks
Fiiiiiiive commodity baaaays
Four milking shells
Three shifts of milking
Two orange tractors
And a twinkly-light-laden faux tree

Every week our dairy gets eights truckloads of sand. For what purpose, you may ask? Do we have a giant cow sandbox in the back for playdates and sandcastles? Do we make sandy cow crafts involving Elmer’s glue and construction paper? Do we throw weekly cow luaus complete with beach volleyball and fruity drinks?

No. All sand on our dairy goes straight to the free stalls to make comfy beds for our ladies.

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Every Wednesday we get a delivery of eight truckloads of sand, or approximately 96 cubic yards. DM uses sand for bedding because it’s an inorganic material that won’t grow bacteria, making it one of the cleanest beds you can get. Plus, several hundred cow hammocks didn’t really seem to be practical.

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If you’ve ever spent a week at the beach, you know that sand gets tracked eve-ry-where. The same is true in our barns. Throughout the week, the ladies track the sand between their beds, the feed bunks, the watering troughs, and the parlor. This grainy mess actually provides great traction in the alleys and ensures that our cows don’t ice skate into the parlor.

After seven days of tracking the sand around the barns and kicking it out of their stalls, the cow beds are ready for a new load of fluffy sand each Wednesday.

Just in time for some relaxing girl talk. And a nap.

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5 Commodity Bays

13 Dec

On the fifth day of Christmas, the Dairy Man gave to me
5: Fiiiiiive commodity baaaaaays

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4: Four milking shells
3: Three shifts of milking
2: Two orange tractors
1: And a twinkly-light-laden faux tree

As we learned in this post, feeding our illustrious herd is a little more complicated than putting out a bowl of Frosted Flakes and a milkshake in the morning. Eating a balanced diet is key.

Each day our ladies chomp on a delicious concoction called Total Mix Ration (TMR). In addition to corn and hay silage, TMR contains five other components. These five fixins’ are stored in five bays in our commodity shed.

A commodity shed allows us to buy cow food in bulk. DM purchases the food through a broker and it is directly trucked in from the factories. The five bays allow for easy delivery and make the daily food prep a snap for an employee driving a skidster (or, as I call it, a baby loader). All five bays slope outward to allow rain and snow melt to flow away from the food.

But the cows don’t really care about all of this. They just love to spend hours each day with their face in the feed bunk.

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When Cows Get Hot and Bothered

13 Jul

Last week was a scorcher. The pavement sizzled, the sun blazed, and the air lay thick, heavy, and suffocating. I had to resist the urge to melodramatically bellow “I’m meeeeelting! I’m meeeeeeeelting!” each time I stepped out the door. Well, I resisted the urge to do it more than that first time.

Thursday and Friday were the worst of it. Highs of over 100 degrees and smothering humidity? Far too hot for this Michigan gal.

Much to the Dairy Man’s chagrin, this week hasn’t been much better. 80 degrees felt like a cold snap and the 90s will be back today. The corn is dry and the dog days of summer are upon us.

Everyone around the farm has their own method of coping with the heat.

Jersey the dog hangs out in the air-conditioned house or truck.

The corn gets irrigated.

The cows drink a lot of water and do a lot of lounging.

It’s vitally important to keep our herd cool. Cows do not like the heat. They’re most comfortable when the temperature is around 50 degrees. When the thermometer tips above 55/60 degrees, the ladies start getting hot and bothered. The more scientific term for this hot flash phenom is “heat stress.” When dairy cows experience heat stress, they begin to reduce feed intake and lose body weight. Milk production, reproductive performance, and health are also affected.

We contemplated fanning the bovine ladies with palm fronds and feeding them cold grapes. But that seemed too extravagant. And Grecian. Plus, cows much prefer bananas.

So when the hot, airless days roll in, we kick on the fans.

These huge fans keep air moving in the barns and make the cows feel like they’re in an airport hanger. It’s glamorous. But once temps climb up past 75, the fans aren’t enough. At that point, it’s time to get wet and wild. Well, as wild as a cow lounging in the sand and chewing her cud can be.

The dairy cow version of Girls Gone Wild involves sprinklers. Our sprinkler system travels the length of each barn (on both sides) and runs on a timer based on the temperature. The hotter it gets outside, the more frequently the system kicks on. The spray wets the cow to the hide and then turns off, allowing the moisture to evaporate and pull heat from her body like sweating.

During the hottest summer days, the barn sprinkler system kicks on every seven minutes.

There are also sprinklers in the holding pen where the ladies wait to enter the milking parlor. All of these nozzles are sure to get a workout this weekend as Michigan temps again tip into the 90s.

You know the old saying: “If the cows ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” Or something like that. I was never very good with old sayings. I’m still grasping the whole bird in the bush concept. But really, if our cows aren’t happy and comfortable, we can’t be either. The Dairy Man invests enormous amounts of time and energy keeping the herd cool this time of year.

There’s talk of a slip n’ slide, but we’re still shopping for a plastic that can withstand a wet, sliding, 1500-pound cow.

Eat, Drink, and Give Milk

12 Mar

The Dairy Man and I aren’t diet fanatics, but we do pay attention to what we eat. Fruits and veggies are a must. Processed foods are limited. French fries, soda, and candy are seldom (though all bets are off during jellybean season). A balanced diet is very important.

Cows aren’t entirely different. My Dairy Man pays close attention to the diet of our bovine ladies to make sure that they stay healthy, happy, and high on the milk producing charts.

Before I moved to a dairy, I thought all farm animals ate …well… hay. That’s the iconic mental picture, right? In the far off, seldom-used corner of our brains entitled “what happens on a farm,” we see an overall-clad farmer, chewing a stalk of wheat, and heaving hay into a trough with a pitchfork. At least that’s what I thought.

But the process of feeding dairy cows is infinitely more complex than that. Dairy farmers have to be part nutritionist, part scientist, and part ecologist in order to properly feed the herd. On our dairy, we feed the cows something called a Total Mix Ration, or TMR. This TMR is comprised of several different commodities (found below).

Our cows are fed once a day, typically after their first milking. While the ladies are in the parlor doing their thing, one of our employees hops into the tractor and pulls the mixer wagon (the dapper blue apparatus) to the commodities shed.

This is our commodities shed.

Each section holds a different tasty element of our cows’ feed. Think of it as the cow salad bar. Each component of the feed is mixed together into a carefully constructed ration inside the mixer wagon. This wagon is essentially a KitchenAid mixer on wheels. It doesn’t come in a plethora of pretty colors, but it gets the job done.

The metal blades spin as the ingredients are added and blend them together.

In addition to hay and corn silage, our TMR contains…

Corn gluten:

Soy hulls:

Soy plus:

Ground corn:

Canola:

Once dinner is prepared, the tractor drives through the barns and deposits the food into the feed bunks (which, as far as I can determine, is just what we call the space on the floor directly in front of the cows).

Each ingredient in our TMR plays a different role in growing healthy cows. Just like people, cows need the right amounts of proteins, starches, and carbs. Despite the deliciousness, we can’t eat a diet of pizza and Whoppers. And cows can’t eat a diet of just corn, or just hay. Our ladies need a balanced diet with the proper nutrient structure.

But the cows don’t exhaust themselves thinking about nutrition. They trust us. Eating is just a favorite activity, right up there with napping, socializing, and chewing cud.

Batten Down the Hatches: Winter on the Farm

11 Jan

Something about that title makes me want to wear an eye patch, get a pet parrot named Polly, and end every sentence with “Yaaaaaaarrrrrr.”But this is not a post about pirates, yaaaaaaaaarrrr. This is a post about cows (but not cow pirates). Someday we’ll contemplate a world in which burly cow pirates roam the seas like those mischievous stars of the Chick-fila-A commercials, but not today.

Though Michigan has been experiencing some delightfully mild temperatures lately, I know the winter won’t pass us by. As we enter this second week of January, the suspense is building. The temps are slowly dropping and there’s snow in the forecast. These days it’s not unusual for the nightly lows to be in the 20s. And we’re not even in the throes of winter yet, people! This is the time of year when we have to bundle up from head to toe when entering the great outdoors. But what about our bovine ladies? How do they keep warm in the 4-6 months of blustery cold?

Is there a church group somewhere knitting cow-sized sweaters? Does the Dairy Man fill the water troughs with hot cocoa and marshmallows? Do the ladies huddle around hundreds of space heaters? Not exactly.

We have a few ways to help the cows stave off the chill in winter. First, the Dairy Man closes the curtains. Much like our parlor isn’t frilly and Victorian, the curtains here aren’t lacy and delicate. Rather than silk or cotton, these curtains are made of thick plastic. Each barn has top and bottom curtains that come down on each side. The bottom curtains are almost always down, but the top curtains come down in the colder months. These curtains help protect our cows from blustery winds and keep snow from blowing in and getting the sand beds wet.

Next, the ladies get fluffy. Seriously. Around November each year, I start noticing that the bovine members of our family are sporting some seriously rocking ‘dos.

The Dairy Man also has a few other tricks to keep our dry and milking cows happy. In the winter the feed ration changes slightly to include a higher fat content because the cows burn more energy to stay warm. We also turn on heating units in each drinking trough to keep the water from freezing. And what about the moneymakers on the underside of each cow? When temperatures drop below 15 degrees, DM and his milkers switch to a teat dip (more on that in a future post) that has more conditioners in it to keep the udders from drying out.

When you stop to think, it’s not entirely different from my raging chapstick addiction in the winter. I blame Bonnie Bell, circa 1999.

So that’s how the older and more mature members of our herd weather a Michigan winter. But what about the little guys and gals? The big cows may not get sweaters, but the calves get jackets!

What’s that? Your heart just melted? That’ll happen.

In addition to their stylish jackets, calves are also given more straw for their beds to build forts …er… nests. And visions of sugar drops danced in their heads…

Though this January has been unseasonably warm (I’m entirely in favor of global warming if it means 45 degree heatwaves in the middle of winter), a storm is a’brewing. I’ve lived in Michigan too long not to expect that we will PAY for this nice weather. So when the flakes inevitably fly, the cows and I will bundle up, eat more fat than usual, and dream of green pastures.

Jersey, on the other hand, has found a favorite season and loves to be outside. Curses.