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.
Robots Caring for Babies
In 1915 Lewis Whittaker began farming on 160 acres in Whitney Point. With 20 cows in the barn, he was keeping his family fed, and excess butter, eggs and chicken were sold in the nearby city of Binghamton. Today the third generation of the family is behind the wheel of the operation and the business has grown to 650 cows and 1,000 tillable acres.
According to Judi Whittaker, the farm’s baby calves are benefiting the most from new technology introduced to this century farm. “We never thought about robots before,” said Judi. “But when we see their growth and health, this is the future.” Calves are grouped in four pens with a robot feeder in each pen. Individual calves sport an id tag that triggers a carefully prescribed diet and water. The floor design of the enclosed building keeps pens dry at all times, especially with an extra coating of sawdust. To control temperature and air quality, the Whittakers use a combination of fans and a high-pressure tube.
“The calves really caught on,” said Judi. “They gain roughly two pounds every day without the fear of overfeeding. They are co-mingled with 16 friends of the same age. It’s fun to see how their social skills develop. It’s really amazing. We think the system is easier on the calves. They’re also cleaner. We’re doing the best job we can.”
Elsewhere on the farm, the Whittakers utilize barn curtains and carefully positioned fans to keep animals cool and air quality maximized. “When cows aren’t milking, we need to determine how best to keep them healthy,” said Judi. “Providing the best, clean environment will create the best milk supply for the farm.
“With lower dairy prices over the past four years and COVID’s impact this spring, we’ve had to manage our herd differently,” added Judi. “It’s forced us to delve deeper into issues and to think out of the box. What works here may not work elsewhere. Our new calving system allows us to reduce our labor costs while improving the care, feeding, and cleaning of these baby animals.”
Hutches are Homes
If you travel the NYS Thruway between exits 42 and 43, most likely you have seen the tiny white huts that crowd the north side of the highway, directly opposite the Clifton Springs Service Area. “If one person has asked what they’re for, I’m sure there are a thousand more who have the same question,” said John Mueller of Willow Bend Farms. These hutches – as there are referred to in the dairy industry – are home to upwards of 500 female calves. Here they will stay for up to 70 days on average, fed three times a day with gallons of fresh milk. “These hutches are not all gizmoed-up” added John, “in fact our hutches are pretty low technology compared to what we do for the cows in terms of back scratchers, fans, sprinklers, and automatic barn curtains. But we have happy, healthy, clean and bouncy animals who can pretty much manage themselves. They regulate their own temperature and living side by side but within four feet from their peers, we can reduce cross contamination if any illness develops.”
Willow Bend is a 4,500-cow dairy farm, owned and operated by the Mueller family. It was founded by John’s dad George in the 1960s. “Happy cows produce more milk and live longer,” said John. “That’s the bottom-line. “What we need to figure out is what else can we do to make cows happy. The answer is everything!”
When it comes to animal handling, four full-time staff work with the calves 24/7, 365-days a year. In all types of weather, they are feeding, cleaning and transporting these babies. “It takes a special person to fill this role,” said John. “We look for staff that won’t take shortcuts, are fussy about sanitation and observant. If a calf looks depressed, we want them to pay attention. Our staff also needs a lot of patience. These four qualities really narrow down the people we want on our team. They have to believe in our system for it to work and we train continuously. It’s a constant chorus. Every decision they make must ultimately benefit the cows. She’s the queen, and we need to treat her that way.
“We have to be good stewards of these animals,” concluded John. “This allows us to make the business work and pay our staff. Seeing a healthy cow or calf on the farm makes us proud.”
“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.”