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Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

Preparing Your Cows for Winter

By Steve Judge

Tags: micro dairy, Bob White Systems, Vermont, Steve Judge,

Winter in the hills of old Vermont is serious business for me and my cows. In years past I have seen the thermometer drop to 47 degrees below zero with four feet of snow on the flat. As it always seems to happen, my day job at Bob-White Systems demands most of my time and seems to leave me with less and less time for the farm, especially during the winter. In the winter, it likely will take you an extra hour per day to do chores in the winter than it does during the summer. I recommend being prepared and to work as efficiently as possible.

dairy cows

Cows Can Enjoy Winter. My cows don't seem to mind the coming of winter nearly as much as I do, as long as they can rely on me to keep their feed fresh and their barn clean. Cows are fairly simple creatures and, as long as they are comfortable and well fed, they don’t mind staying inside for several days in a row. My cows don't like to go out in a cold rain nor do they like to be out for very long when there is snow on the ground because they don't like to lay down in the cold white stuff. Most cows would prefer to be inside on their mattresses enjoying their feed or chewing their cuds. And they prefer to be left alone so they can eat sleep and make milk. My cows only like to see me twice a day when I milk and feed them.

Trim a Cow’s Tail Switch. One thing I do to prepare my cows for winter is to trim their tail switches.When the cows lay down in the barn, the “gutter” is right behind them. If their tails drop into the manure their switches absorb the manure like a sponge. There is nothing worse than getting hit in the face by a manure soaked tail when milking first thing on a cold morning. Their tails stay relatively dry and harmless as long as you keep them well trimmed. When spring rolls around let their switches grow back out so they can once again be efficient fly swatters when the cows return to their pastures.

Cows Want a Clean Barn. No matter how careful I am with the cows during the winter I have to spend much more time cleaning the barn and keeping it clean. Usually when a dairy farmer speaks of “cleaning the barn” he or she means cleaning the manure out of the gutter and putting down fresh bedding for the cows. In my case we have a lot of people visiting our barn so I have to make sure everything, not just the gutter, stays relatively clean. I spend time cleaning the pipeline, stall dividers, walls, window, lights etc., etc. Even if you have a small barn—typical on a micro dairy— it still takes much more time during the winter than it does during the summer to clean.

dairy cows

Cows Can Catch a Cold. No matter how well our barn is ventilated it still stays relatively warm and humid compared to outside. Under those conditions it is easier for the cows to catch and spread respiratory diseases. For that reason I have my cows vaccinated every fall. It can prevent a disaster. There is nothing worse than having a barn full of cows with pneumonia.

Cows and Ice Don’t Mix. When I do let my cows out during the winter I have to be careful they have good footing and don’t have to walk on ice. Cows hate ice. Their hooves are hard and slippery and cows can slip and fall down fairly easily. Worse yet their hind legs can “split” on ice and do tremendous, even fatal damage to the tendons in their hindquarters. It is a dreadful sight. I recommend keeping a couple buckets of salt in the barn during the winter and spreading it liberally if there is ice in the barnyard. If the ice is too bad or extensive just keep the cows inside for a bit. They don’t mind.

It seems that no matter how much hay I have on hand I always worry about running out feed for my cows. I have the same worries about the firewood I use to heat my house. Do I have enough? The old saying goes that you should still have 1/2 of your hay and firewood left come February 1st in order to make it through the winter. It is always a big relief to me when I do. I can dare to think that I may survive another winter.

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