Old MacDonald has certainly been a good teacher to children about farm animals. From an early age we know the type of creatures found on a real-live farm and the noises they make. Outside of the quacks, snorts, and moos, however, we know very little about how this farmer cares for his herd. If he was a dairy farmer, good feed, plentiful water, exercise, a comfortable, clean and dry bed are just a few of the necessities that make cows comfortable. New York farmers, who rank fourth nationally in terms of total US milk production, are taking cow comfort and well-being to a whole new level with scientific advancements and continuous research. It is now secret; happy cows are more productive.
Let Them Do What They Want
Steve Palladino has been caring for cows for 36 years. He and his two partners operate Walnut Ridge Dairy located in Lansing, NY. “Ensuring the well-being of our cows is a top priority,” said Steve. “We’re always looking for opportunities that will help ensure our cows have a healthy, happy life while they are with us. Technology and research are allowing us to do a better job managing their well-being. This includes their general comfort, nutrition, their environment and how our employees interact with them.”
Visiting this family dairy, you might think Walnut Ridge has one of Central New York’s largest merry-go-rounds. Instead their rotary parlor is a gently rotating platform that is uniquely equipped to milk their 1,500 cows, three times per day. The ride lasts nine minutes for 60 cows at a time. From start to finish, it takes roughly six hours to milk their entire herd. “Our goal is to reduce milking time,” said Steve. “We need to maximize the time our cows have to relax and have access to water, food and their beds. We want to let her do what she wants to do.”
Under ideal conditions, cows lie down for approximately 14 hours per day which promotes digestion, healthy feet, and milk production. In fact, cattle spend more than half their lives lying down. At Walnut Ridge, barns are outfitted with sand-based stalls and water beds. Temperature controlled fans, water misters and sprinklers keep animals cool in warm temperatures. Curtains have replaced solid barn walls that open and close automatically with changes in temperature and weather.
In the milking parlor, Walnut Ridge captures key information from each cow’s milk output, which adds up to roughly eight gallons daily. “We can monitor her fat and protein ratios and detect certain health problems, such as, digestive issues that can become serious,” said Steve. “In addition, our cows wear a pedometer as one more health indicator, which also alerts us to when she’s ready for breeding.”
Given their proximity to Cornell University, Walnut Ridge continues to participate in cutting-edge dairy research targeted at herd health. “We’re lucky enough to acquire unique technology through research that allows us to be proactive in caring for our herd,” said Steve. “It’s allowing us to continually improve how we manage. We have a lot of information and data at our fingertips. The key is to determine how to correctly use it.” Currently the farm is experimenting with weight scales after every milking to determine if cows are being fed appropriately. Body scanners are also utilized daily to provide a snapshot of cows’ body condition. “We’re definitely stepping away from traditional practices to do a better job,” added Steve.
Cows Come First
For Peter Maslyn, he wants nothing more than to stay outside of the barn at Hemdale Farms, which seems counter-intuitive as herd manager. “It’s their house, not ours,” said Pete. “Cows come first here. We don't want to be in their way or disrupt their routine.”
Located in Seneca Castle, NY, the Hemdale operation includes a 1,400-cow dairy with 100% robotic milking, forage and specialty crops, and a greenhouse operation starting vegetable plants for growers across New York State. Hemdale was one of the first dairies in the region to experiment with cow water beds. “Water has no memory,” said Pete. “For each animal, it provides a perfect contour to her specific body type. Then it springs back to accommodate another cow.” Stalls are cleaned three times a day and bedded with a recycled paper product and lime to keep beds dry.
Cow comfort was the driver behind Hemdale’s foray into robotic milking in 2007. Today 21 robots do the heavy lifting of milking 1,300 cows multiple times daily. Cows have free access to robots 22.5 hours per day, seven days per week. They are "rewarded" with grain each time that they visit the milking station. “We weren’t sure how this experiment would work,” said Pete, “but it’s taken our level of care to a whole new level. Our cows can set their own schedule.
“We get many comments about how calm our herd is,” said Pete. “New barns are designed to minimize the number of steps staff take to accomplish basic tasks like feeding, cleaning and bedding. With robots, we’ve also eliminated the need to move cows as a group to be milked, so they are very unsuspecting and relaxed.” Cows on average “choose” to be milked three times per day. Higher producing animals might milk four to five times daily. Each animal wears a responder that the robot recognizes. It charts her activity, rumination, and eating time in a 24-hour time-period. Robot sensors can also measure milk quality and monitor body weight. Management and crew are utilizing their smart phones to identify and address global herd issues and individual cow concerns.
A unique feature of Hemdale’s robots is the high-pressure shower that cows can receive when external temperatures soar. “They really like it,” said Pete. “It hits them at the withers or the ridge between the front shoulder blades. Misters and sprinklers are also used at the feed line on really warm days and used in combination with variable speed fans to cool the air.
“Technology is changing so fast,” added Pete. “The key is knowing when to update.”
Barn Design is Key to Happiness
As portrayed in picture books, Old MacDonald’s farmstead for his horse, cow, chickens and pigs, would need a complete overhaul for Kyle Getty of Ideal Dairy Farms located in Hudson Falls, NY. Modern dairy barns are specifically designed to enhance natural cow behavior, increase climate control, reduce emissions, re-use waste streams, and improve manure quality.
The father of three young boys, Kyle would most likely start by outfitting each animal with a “fitness” collar and truck-in yards of sand to construct soft beds for cows to idle in. “Of everything we do, cow care is always our number one priority,” said Kyle. “It’s a huge focus to make them as comfortable as possible.
“Cows love sand,” explained Kyle. “They like nothing better than to paw around in fluffy fresh sand in a deep, bedded stall. The sand is also a good agent to prevent cows from slipping on barn floors. The collars provide us with a daily report card on individual cow activity and rumination. We can zero-in to the exact number of minutes each cow spends ruminating or digesting her food within a 24-hour period. Prior to the collars we had to sort each cow by hand to give her regular physical examinations. Now we don’t have to disrupt her natural routine to keep her healthy.”
A five-generation farm, Ideal has just completed construction of an all-season hybrid barn that can accommodate 750 cows. It is uniquely outfitted with side curtains, huge fans and chimney-like vents to easily moderate extreme outside temperatures and weather. The last two barns Ideal constructed featured foam insulated ceilings. Working in tandem with fans and curtains, animals are kept ten to 15 degrees cooler in the heat, and 20 degrees warmer in wintry weather. “I wouldn’t build another barn without them,” said Kyle. “This newest facility also features fans installed every 10 feet or a ratio of one fan for every four stalls to ensure greater circulation and rapid movement of air to improve cow respiration and insect control. You can walk through the barn and the air movement is so great that insects can’t land. This eliminates insect related illnesses and cows bunching together when they feel stressed or under attack. They’re doing much better than the heifers we have outside on pasture.”
Ideal cow barns are flushed with water daily to keep common areas clean of manure. Over 250,000 gallons of water is used daily to complete the task. Both water and sand are continuously recycled within the system. “We try to keep things as simple as possible,” said Kyle, “and it’s built around the fact that sand keeps our herd comfortable. It may be a headache to deal with on the back end, but we have a system that works for us. We’re constantly looking at issues and projects where we can improve.”
“This article was brought to you by the New York Animal Agriculture Coalition (NYAAC). NYAAC is a farmer founded and funded not-for-profit organization that strives to enhance the public’s understanding of and appreciation for animal agriculture and modern farm practices. NYAAC is effective in doing so by engaging the public in conversations about animal agriculture and empowering farmers to tell their story firsthand.”