Dairy dilemma: Cold chills milk production, threatens cow health, increases feed costs

Photo: Flickr.

The particularly long and bitter cold winter is causing injuries and illnesses for many of Michigan’s cows. Photo: Flickr.


The seemingly everlasting winter chill might cost Michigan dairy farmers whose cows are trying to stay warm.

Farmers are treating cows with more than the usual number of pneumonia cases, chapped teats and udders, disturbed calving cycles and injuries from slipping on ice. And some of them might receive a lower paycheck from lackluster milk production thanks to the long, cold winter.

Although cows prefer cooler temperatures, the animals need far more energy to survive during harsh winter weather, said Ron Erskine, Michigan State University professor of veterinary medicine.

Because the animals are using the energy from food to stay warm, it is not going to milk production, Erskine said.

“I would not be surprised if some farms are a little lower in production,” he said. “This winter has certainly posed a lot more challenges than a lot of other years.”

Milk production has been up and down for dairy farmer Janet Molhoek, the Missaukee County Farm Bureau president.

But the cold has made the 150 cows she milks hungrier, and four have died – several because of injuries from slipping on ice.

Some animals have also dealt with small bouts of pneumonia, she said.

Many of the dangers of winter for livestock stem from how the animals are housed and managed, said Janice Swanson, Michigan State University Department of Animal Science chair. Livestock accustomed to winter weather will fare better.

Pneumonia can be caused by poor ventilation in barns, she said. Livestock are vulnerable to frostbite on their ears and access to liquid water may be difficult.

One of the biggest concerns is the risk of freezing rain, Swanson said. Despite beef cattle’s ability to handle harsh conditions, and pigs’ and cows’ capacity to grow long, protective hairs, freezing rain can soak through hair and chill them.

Like Molhoek, Michigan Farm Bureau President Wayne Wood said his dairy herd has also experienced pneumonia.

While they haven’t grown especially long hair in response to the cold winter, Wood said the about 300 cows he milks in Marlette have eaten about 20 percent more feed and produced less milk than usual.

“She cannot eat enough to maintain her weight and stay warm,” he said.

Both sheep and swine deal with similar issues when it comes to cold.

While consistently cold and dry weather keeps swine safe from pneumonia, Dale Rozeboom, Michigan State University Extension Specialist and animal science professor, said some will eat up to 50 percent more feed in these harsh conditions and can face issues with access to liquid water, much like dairy cows.

Feed costs also are up for sheep, said Alan Culham, farm manager for the Michigan State University Sheep Teaching and Research Center.

Culham said most sheep will not be feed grass or sheared until later in the year.

Livestock owners are also having to work harder to maintain their barns and animals.

Jarris Rubingh, the Antrim County Farm Bureau president, said its taken extra labor to clear his main barn of frozen manure while his cows are being milked.

Pneumonia and frozen water also have been ongoing troubles this winter for Rubingh, along with the increased need for feed.

The dairy herd’s appetite for about 25 percent more food will cost him later, Rubingh said.

It helps that the past year was good for feed production after years of drought, but costs are still up, he said. That includes electricity bills, which he said will likely be higher from keeping his milking barn heated.

Despite keeping his cows in heated housing, Peter Kleiman, Menominee County Farm Bureau president, said the winter cold might have depressed milk production recently. Cows are aware of the extreme cold outside and naturally conserve more energy, he said.

Typically he lets his cows out once a day during the winter, Kleiman said. This year he kept them inside since November until only recently.

“This is just an unusual year,” he said. “It’s more costly to feed them … but the alternative is devastating. It costs you money one way or another.”

This winter might continue to cost farmers such as Kleiman down the line. It could have thrown off calving cycles, which could impact milk production into next year, he said.

While warmer weather might benefit farmers, sudden changes in weather could result in health concerns for cows, Erskine said.

Calves are particularly at risk because their mothers’ energy will have been used to stay warm instead of producing proteins and antibodies the young need for immunity.

Rubingh said he has been using heat lamps and blankets to keep the calves warm.

“If it would stay around freezing so they can adjust, they’ll be okay,” Wood said of his dairy cows.

Despite the struggles, many farmers are taking the winter in stride.

“As a farmer it’s a natural thing for you to worry,” Kleiman said. “Your current goal is to do whatever it takes to get through this year.”

“The only control you have is today,” he said. “You just have to watch things and try to adjust for it.”

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