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From Curtains to Coats: Keeping Cows Warm in the Winter

Keeping up with Michigan winters can be tough. From shoveling snow, to defrosting vehicles and winterizing the home, the extra steps can add up. For Michigan dairy farmers, that’s just the beginning.

Winters bring their own load of extra work for dairy farmers. They make sure animals have access to fresh, unfrozen water, and keeping bedding clean and dry. There’s also the daily battle of clearing a path so the milk truck is able to retrieve the fresh milk produced every day. 

“There are a lot of extra steps we have to take in winter to make sure everything stays on track,” says Aaron Gasper, a dairy farmer from Lowell, Michigan. “All day long we are constantly checking on our animals to ensure they have everything they need to stay warm and comfortable.” Gasper works closely with a team of experts, including his veterinarian, Dr. Lisa Sanford, to ensure his cows are given the best care possible.

“Every year, the dedication of Michigan’s farmers to the care and well-being of their animals in the worst weather conditions impresses upon me how much they care,” says Dr. Sanford, who works with Gasper and other area dairy farmers.  “Rain, sleet, snow, wind, and cold never prevent them from making sure all their charges are fed, watered, dry, and protected from the elements 24 hours a day.” 

With their thick skin and warm, natural coats that act as insulation, cows are cold weather animals. While they may prefer the cooler temperatures, keeping them dry and out of the wind during the winter tops Gasper’s list of priorities. “Our barns are designed to protect our cows from the cold Michigan winters,” he says. Gasper’s barn, like many in Michigan, was designed with retractable curtains on both sides that can be lowered during the winter to shield the cows from wind and snow. The cows’ combined body heat keeps the barn warm, and fans and open ventilation in the roof circulate the air. “In the barn, the cows are dry and warm, just like you or I would prefer to be on a cold winter day,” says Gasper.

Keeping cows warm also includes changing their diet. Jeff Horning, a dairy farmer in Manchester, Michigan, works with an animal nutritionist to design a specialized diet tailored to his cows’ needs. In the winter, that means food with a higher calorie content to make up for the extra energy cows use to stay warm. “Just like we like to eat more when it’s cold out, so do the cows,” says Horning.

Extra care is also taken with newborn calves, which are always a priority on the farm. Horning and his son, Mason, built warming boxes that act like incubators for newborn calves. “The first 24 hours are always the most important. The boxes help the calves dry off and stay warm,” explains Horning. After about a day in the warming box, the calf is moved to an individual hutch bedded with sawdust and straw, and wrapped with a blanket, or calf coat. The individual hutches prevent the spread of disease among the young calves, and allow the farmers to monitor the health and progress of each calf, while the coats keep them warm and dry.

From morning to night, and all the steps in between, Michigan’s dairy farmers work ‘round the clock to ensure their animals remain warm and healthy, even in the harsh winter weather. For more information, visit MilkMeansMore.org