What Do Dairy Cows Do in Winter?

Michigan winters bring ice and snow, so what’s it like for cows in winter? We found out from a central Michigan dairy farmer.

Here in Michigan, winters are long and harsh. So what do cows and dairy farmers do during the winter months? What is life like for cows in winter?

Dairy farmers never rest because they’re busy taking care of their cows 365 days a year, says Kristi Keilen, a Dairy Nutritionist at her fourth-generation family dairy farm, K&K Dairy in Westphalia, just north of Lansing. She cares for up to 600 cows, 250 of which are milked every day.

“We primarily have Holsteins and Brown Swiss, but they are all basically milking cows. Most are black and white,” Keilen says.

From the perspective of daily routine, there’s not a lot of difference between summer and winter, Keilen says, because the cows live in barns that protect them from ice, snow, rain and sun.

“Our barns are different from what you envision. The sides are curtains you can roll up, so in the summer it’s very open,” she says, explaining that, unlike beef cattle who live outside, dairy cows prefer a controlled environment where they can be comfortable every day. “They are creatures of habit and don’t love change,” she says.

Cows and robots, together on the farm

Recently, K&K Dairy converted milking operations to a high-tech robotic system, which means cows can select when they’d like to be milked, no matter the time of day.

“We have a milking parlor, and the cows choose when they’d like to go,” Keilen says.

Cows enter the parlor and receive a treat pellet while a robotic arm moves under the cow, cleans and attaches to the cow’s teats, milks the cow, then cleans and applies a protective barrier — all while recording lots of data.

“It tracks the amount of milk and the cow’s temperature all on a computer system to an app on my phone that alerts me at all times,” she says.

Robotic milking allows cows to self-select their milking frequency and most choose to be milked between two and four times a day, all in a controlled barn, which is friendlier to both the cows and the farmers. “Prior to this system, we had to walk them three times a day to the parlor and in the winter that’s not fun in the cold and ice,” Keilen says.

For the cows, the transition to the new system took about two weeks, with some of the older cows taking a little longer to catch on. “They are very smart,” she says.

Technology in the dairy farm is beneficial because illnesses like mastitis can be diagnosed and treated quickly.

“But the calmness of the barn is also noticeable,” says Keilen. “The cows’ demeanor has changed, they’re more comfortable and calmer in the barn. Their incidence of sickness is lower and they maintain better health.”

Cows in winter get excellent care

As a dairy nutritionist, Keilen pays close attention to the diet of her cows and the cows on a dozen other dairy farms, making sure they have the nutrition they need for their best health and milk production. In the winter, for instance, cows need a little more energy and weight to keep them comfortable, so their food ration is adjusted for this need.

Because the lives of dairy cows are consistent year round, they can eat the same basic foods no matter the weather. That means their milk production is consistent whether it’s February, July or November.

But when calves are born during the winter, they get special attention, says Keilen. “They get special warming boxes with some straw so they can stay warm. We also put winter coats, like little Carhartt coats, on them to keep them warm. They get extra milk in the winter in order to keep their nutrients up,” she says. And, so the dairy industry in Michigan can maintain a consistent supply for Michigan families to consume, calves are born year round, rather than at just one time of the year.

Can the milk truck get through the snow?

Winter life for dairy farmers and their cows, at least at K&K Dairy, is consistently comfortable, no matter the temperature.

But when the snow flies, farmers do have to make sure the trucks can make it to the farm to carry away the fresh milk for processing. Curiously, milk is measured by pounds, says Keilen, so there’s a little math involved if you want to figure out how much milk can be transported by truck.

“We talk in pounds, and a truck can carry 40,000 pounds. There are eight pounds in a gallon of milk,” she says.

So, where do these trucks take all that milk? In Michigan, this milk is most likely processed into fluid milk, cheese, or sometimes even butter.

Content sponsored by Milk Means More. Learn more about milk, nutrition and dairy farming in Michigan at milkmeansmore.org.

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Metro Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.

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