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It’s all about a cow

Sure, ninety percent of my income is from the sale of milk, but after I get it out of the cow, I just have to make sure it’s cold and clean.  I just play defense when it comes to milk.  I spend my time worrying about the four-legged animal that gave me the milk.

Some folks think that there isn’t much to worry about with a cow.  They seem to think a 1,500-pound bovine creature is just a big pet that can be taught to poop in a box with sand in it and everyone should have one.  I don’t think these people realize how much time I spend thinking about, talking about and just being with cows.

I spend a morning each week with the cow nutritionist at a local coffee shop discussing ruminant nutrition.  It’s a fascinating conversation about rumen bugs, butyric acid, starch and digestible fiber that never fails to astound me.  For reasons I don’t understand no one ever wants to join us.  If someone does then as soon as we start delving into our fecal sample discussion they leave.  I notice other diners also tend to start vacating their tables.

We have to have this discussion on what these cows eat so they are healthy and produce milk efficiently to make my dairy a profitable enterprise.  We talk about the proper amount of protein, carbohydrates, calcium, phosphorus and even the right levels of molybdenum.  I worry more about what the cows eat than I ever did what my kids ate.  We talk about minerals like molybdenum. I never knew if my kids ate enough molybdenum.  I don’t even know if kids are supposed to eat molybdenum.  If my kid’s minerals were out of whack maybe it would explain some teenage behavior.  All I know is if my wife was taking a night off and  I was left with the responsibility of feeding my kids I took them to McDonald’s and got them a Happy Meal not because I read the nutrition disclosure that McDonald’s provides but because it was easy and there was a toy that came with it.  That’s not the way it is when it comes to the cows, they are going to get a proper diet.  They are not going to get the Holstein equivalent of a drive-thru supersize meal I don’t care what this month’s transformer toy is.

My vet comes once a week to preg check cows.  Does anyone outside of dairyland know that? Each cow on our farm can expect at least three such checks each lactation.  I have two veterinarians, one is tall and thin while the other is built like sumo wrestler.  They walk behind the cow and rectally palpate the cow while I write down all their profound statements.  Now I have no way of knowing, since I refuse to believe I can communicate with cows, but I think they prefer the veterinarian with the long skinny arms as opposed to the one with the short fat arms.  Just saying, three times they get palpated.  If we took a vote I think skinny arms wins.  Makes me glad I’m just the guy with the clipboard standing in front of the cow.

Getting cows bred takes a lot of effort.  The breeder comes every morning around 6:30.  He comes at this time because this is just after the morning feeding and I have the cows locked up in lock-up stanchions.  The breeder, Mike, walks behind the cows putting orange chalk on their tails so when they ride each other the chalk will be worn off and he will know to breed them.  He also puts orange chalk on the herd book, barn door and anything else he touches.  I’m not always the most cheerful fellow at this time so sometimes he brings me donuts to try to make me less grumpy.  They have orange smudges on them.

Many people decry the use of artificial insemination because I’m depriving the animal of a natural act.  They would rather have me put bulls in the pen and use natural service.  If these folks ever had to sprint out of a corral and vault a stanchion line, or, worse yet tried to squeeze between stanchions while feeling the rank hot breath of a deranged bull named “Caligula” they too in a deep solemn voice would say, “Oh yes, artificial insemination is the best.”  Not only do you live longer but you get better genetics in the next generation.  Still, not everyone agrees with me on this issue.  They prefer bulls.  But these are the same crazy people who BASE Jump or marry The Bachelorette.

It’s all about a cow.  The first thing I do in the morning is check the close-up pen to see if anybody calved or needs help calving.  That’s Dairy 101: Thou shalt check the close-up cows first thing in the morning and last thing at night.  Every young dairyman is told that.   You do this because that’s the most critical time in the lactation of a cow.   You also check throughout the day because you never know when calves come and what trouble there might be.  I have known some dairymen who almost lived in their close-up pen but I think this could have been more a marital situation rather than an animal husbandry issue.

So I spend each day managing, talking about, and thinking about a ruminant animal.  How to get her bred, how to get her to eat one more pound, and how to keep her comfortable.  If I’m successful maybe I can get a few more pounds of milk in the tank to sell or cut a few cents off costs.

People who visit dairies tell me how impressed they are by the big nice barns and all the automation.  They see big tractors and feed equipment they didn’t know existed.  I agree with them because there are dairies that are very impressive. But all the impressive stuff is there for a reason and that is to take care of cows.  Because at the end of the day – it’s all about a cow.

John W. Wright

–          John W. Wright of Wright, Inc. Dairy in Wendell