On our way to visit family in Illinois this weekend, I devised a great plan. "You're driving! I'm just sitting here! We should write a blog post!" I exclaimed to Chris. "Umm, gosh. We're going through St. Louis. Look at all this, you know, traffic and stuff," he said. Undeterred, I pushed forward. The following resulted.
Well, not the calf, but the interview.
AH: People probably wonder what a day in the life of a dairy farmer looks like. So, what's a day in the life of a dairy farmer look like?
CH: I start by working on heat detection in the AI pens.
AH: I have no idea what that means. You wanna check the heat? Why not just look at the thermostat?
AH: But seriously.
CH: Let's start at the beginning. AI stands for artificial insemination.
AH: Not artificial intelligence?
CH: *ignoring AH* We as dairy farmers don’t have any magical way of knowing when a cow's in heat and is ready to breed so we look for certain signs. I could go into detail about those signs, but we’ll save that for another day.
When we find the cows that are in heat, we prepare semen. It’s frozen in tiny little straws. We thaw it out, and we use that semen to breed the cows.
AH: *in my best three-year-old voice* But whyyyyy?
CH: There are several reasons for this: (1) Safety. Dairy bulls are very dangerous, and every dairy farmer knows someone who’s been injured or killed by a bull. (2) By AIing, you get access to higher quality bulls and thus higher quality genetics. Some bulls have better genes for milking, just like some families have better genes for running, for example. Sidenote: This has nothing to do with GMOs; genetically modified livestock isn’t a thing. It doesn’t exist. We do use bulls on the farm in certain situations, but we try to minimize the amount we have to use them for our safety as well as for the overall genetic quality of the herd.
AH: Then what do you do? Also, I’m hungry.
CH: Have a carrot. Well, I check with different people on different projects, make sure everyone’s got work for the day, that they’re pointed in the right direction. Then I start looking over the milk data and the calving data from the previous day and look for anything that stands out.
AH: What’s Blackjack the dog doing while this is happening?
CH: He’s pouncing in piles of manure, playing tug of war with cow tales, digging in my trash can, licking snot off of cows's noses, and generally wreaking havoc. And chasing cats. Basically, it’s a dog’s wildest dream come true.
AH: What else?
CH: The next routine thing that’s done every day is checking our hospital pen and our post-fresh pen. When a cow has a calf, she’s said to freshen. A post-fresh pen is filled with cows who have calved in the past two weeks. They get their own pen with more space and more feed and more care. The vast majority of health problems will occur within two weeks of calving, so we look at this group of cows in extreme detail every day. We look at how much milk each cow produces. We look at each cow's body temperature, their manure, how bright their eyes are and how perky their ears are. We look at how much they’re eating and their overall appearance, and we do this for each cow every day for the first couple of weeks. Prevention is key in all of this! We would rather prevent problems early on rather than let them develop.
The hospital pen is for any cow that has gotten sick and has been treated with antibiotics. The reason these cows are kept separate is because their milk cannot be sold and cannot enter the market for human consumption. Once the cows have gotten better and they’ve not been treated for a set amount of time (ranging from several days to several weeks depending on the type of medication and how quickly it leaves their system), we test their milk for antibiotics, and if the milk tests negative, they re-join the herd. If it tests positive, they have to stay in the hospital pen until all the antibiotics are out of their system.
AH: Sometimes you get called away from what you're doing to pull a calf. Why’s that?
CH: When cows are having their second, third, fourth calf, 90 percent of the time, they have it on their own with no problem. When they have their first calf, they need help about a 1/3 of the time. So when we do need to help, either the cow isn’t able to push the calf out on her own and she needs assistance, or the calf is presenting incorrectly, which means the calf is coming out backwards or upside down. At that point, I help to rearrange the calf and help it out. My job is to make sure mother and calf are both alive and well by the end of the calving process.
AH: So you’re like a cow ER doctor.
AH: What’s your favorite part of your day?
CH: Coming home and kissing my wife.
AH: Awwwww, honey. Ok, favorite part of your day on the DAIRY.
CH: A large part of what we do is prevention. We try to prevent problems before they happen. Rather than treating a cow when she gets sick, we’d like to prevent her from getting sick in the first place. Rather than pulling a calf, we’d rather do things earlier to prevent the calf from needing to be pulled. So for me, herd management is my favorite part of the job, and prevention is a key part of that. I like preventing problems so that the farm runs smoothly.
AH: What’s the messiest job you’ve ever had to do on the dairy?
CH: Crawling through a tunnel filled with mud and muck to fix a broken pipe. Being shoulder deep inside a cow trying to help a calf come out correctly while being soaked in blood, amniotic fluid, and manure. Riding a four-wheeler in freezing rain, trying to get cattle in after they just tore down a fence. Want me to keep going?
AH: I think I'd rather not know. Final question: As a sixth generation farmer, what do you think your ancestors would think of what you’re doing today?
CH: They’d be blown away by the efficiency that dairies today are able to achieve. They would see the technology that we’re able to use, and they’d be astounded. They would see how closely we’re able to monitor and care for our cows, and they’d be impressed. They’d see the quality of feed and the quality of cattle we have, and they’d be jealous. And I think they’d see our family, and they’d be proud.