Animal Treatment FAQ
How are the animals viewed on Westmeadow Farm?
We believe that the animals know how they want to live, and have done so without our help long before we intervened. The trick is to reestablish the environment they feel comfortable and safe in and trust that they know best. Our Jersey Girls are allowed to be cows, naturally. Then we have to look to Mother Nature and because she knows the whole story, and if we listen to Her cues and observe the animals carefully, then we will end up with an animal treatment policy that is whole and largely self-evident. We can tell you all about our policies, but if you can come to our farm and see the care and love we have for our animals, then we have truly accomplished one of our goals.
The fundamental Cornerstones of our policy are to remain calm in their presence, never shout at them, never push, shove or bully them and to avoid all practices that mistreat the animals (such as twisting their tails in order to get them to comply). Animals are sentient beings and wonderful creatures that need to be treated with the same respect that you would extend to another human being. They have a role to play on this planet nourishing mankind as well as their own young, that contributes to its success, same as every living creature - nourishing mankind as well as their own young. It is for us to enable their environment, meet their comfort needs willingly and with a full heart. When we respect our animals in this way, they will respond in kind and show us the same in bounty and reward us with life long health and the best meat and milk. A true partnership.
How do you make the barn as comfortable as possible for the animals?
For us, when the Girls are in the barn during the cold winter months, or choosing to take advantage of its shade on a blistering hot Summer day on the pasture, the first order of business is to think about how we meet their needs, and be willing to keep thinking. We identify all stressors, remove the ones we can, and manage down the others to the very best of our ability. A good example can be something as simple as ensuring sufficient space at the feed line, enough “seats at the table” so to speak so they always have accessto their food when they want it, without having to compete for room. The way we see it: in an open pasture the animals wouldn’t be arguing over access to fresh green grass, so why should they endure a stressor to eat in our barn?
In older barns, there can be issues with sufficient air circulation and fresh air exchange. A stressor for the cows, and a boon for the bug squad. You’ll observe it when you see an animal standing at the windows trying her best to get enough fresh outside clean air. These animals are obviously stressed - the exact opposite of how we want them to be in our barn. We ensure to constantly pump in fresh outside air and then gently move the air around in the barn, which not only replicates a field environment, but significantly reduces fly count, which is a real annoyance (or in you prefer - stressor) to the animals. This focus has the added benefit of putting natural, but downward pressure on the bug squad – a reduced stressor the cows worry less about.
A central plank in our mimic of Nature is the compost bedded pack in place of concrete. If you have ever had to work, or stand on concrete all day, you know how uncomfortable and tiring that can be. That’s a stressor. It’s exactly the same for the Girls if they have long periods of standing on concrete. The pack uses the principal of a warm, dry bedding with high absorption capability, achieved with a substantial amount of kiln-dried sawdust. We start initially by laying down a foundation of about a foot of the sawdust, then twice every day, stir the manure the girls leave on its surface into the sawdust. The sawdust is incredibly absorbent and soaks up most of the moisture, leaving a touch dry, soft surface that is very comfortable for the cow, and leaves her very clean and rested. Meanwhile, sub surface, composting action gets underway. After a few weeks, with our twice daily tilling and aeration, we measure the temperature of that composting action - ideally about 140 degrees.
There are more side benefits with this mimic. Apart from the composting action breaking down the manure and turning it into superb fertilizer for later spreading on the fields, its surface is soft and comfortable to walk on, and its touch dry nature also helps enormously with mastitis and lameness management in the herd. We have seen a virtual elimination of lameness and hoof health issues since transitioning to the compost bedded pack. A cow not struggling with pain or hoof discomfort is a less stressed cow, she is more resistant to illness, she is happier, she will eat more, produce more milk and will breed more successfully.
A well designed and equipped barn will mimic Mother Nature’s pasture environment, and reduces “boss cow bad behavior” by removing stressors that cause her to be bossy, which has distinct herd benefits for the younger shy cows not getting pushed around. We work to ensure the lighting, ventilation, shelter, pack surface and its maintenance, freedom to move, eat, milk and socialize are always front and center – let the cows be cows, honor their being. The second order of business – observe closely, the third - observe some more.
How important is herd mentality?
Believe it or not, cows are very social creatures. If a cow is tied in a stall setup, never goes out to pasture and spends her whole day in thather stall, she rarely gets to socialize. She might not like her neighbor, and can’t do anything about that other than ignore her – another stressor? Cows are social animals who need to live and function as a herd, and even look out for each other. In a confined environment, those needs are impeded, adding more stress. Then there is the physical constraint since the animal is lying in a tight space, often rubbing against the stall’s metal bars for long periods of time. Free stall barns are an improvement over the tie stall, as they allow the animals to move around at will, but they are still living in a concrete environment all day, and ultimately return to a metal divided stall cubicle to lay down and rest.
Our compost bedded pack allows for our herd to socialize to their fullest extent, while at the same time providing a warm, soft surface where they are comfortable, whether standing or resting. We facilitate herd socialization because we understand that it is central to their nature and is a big stress reducer. It is a fascinating sight to see the Girls interacting with one another; to see the boss cows, the mothers with their daughters, and even see cliques form! We want our herd to socialize not only for our benefit, but because it makes them happier, healthier, and even increases their life expectancy!
What is the average life expectancy of your dairy cows?
Often, in commercial, concentrated feed lot type environments, average life expectancy of a cow is between 3-5 years. In a natural environment, they can typically reach 15 or 16 years. Our expectation is for the girls to begin retiring at 15 years of age. Our eldest cow is now 15 years old, and we also have several between 10 and 13 years old, but still producing great milk yield and a healthy calf every year.
For us it’s much more about enjoying a longer, calmer partnership with the animal and with Nature. It just feels right to work in harmony with something rather than forcing it. We know from experience that Mother Nature cannot be bent to our will, and to try is certain defeat. We can learn so much working with Her as a partner to achieve something great – which is much more fun, and the achievements seem to last so much longer.
Although thankfully rare nowadays, if we lose a cow unexpectedly, we always do a necropsy just to find out what exactly happened, as well as making sure a disease or other risk isn’t about to pose a threat to the herd. We almost always learn important information from the necropsy, about what we could change to prevent this from happening again. We are always asking the question - what can we do better. We want to know, and keep making incremental changes.
What is calving like on Westmeadow Farm?
The first priority after a calf is born, is to make sure its airway is clear, verify it appears alert and is trying to stand to get to Mom, and that Mom starts licking off her calf, which stimulates very strong feeding instincts in the calf. Now, we must ensure Baby gets its first meal. A calf’s first meal is Mom’s colostrum. Bovine colostrum, just like human colostrum, its Mom’s gift to Baby, and comes packed with vital nutrients, and an invisible “life force” stored bank of knowledge from eons past, that will have a very dramatic impact for the rest of the calf’s life. It not only provides all the energy and vitamins the newborn needs to thrive, but also a whole host of goodness that will energize the calf’s immune system and give it the hereditary defenses it needs to grow healthy and strong, combating the bug squad. The colostrum is at its peak in the first 12 hours, which is why it is so important that Baby gets that first meal as soon as possible.
Mom stays with the calf for a few days, and assuming she is healthy and free of ketosis or any other ailments, it is surprising how quickly she wants to rejoin her sisters, and get back to those familiar surroundings. After all, it’s been 8 weeks since she left the barn in preparation for her new arrival, and there is a lot of catching up to do. They understand just as well as we do that continuation of the species is part of Nature’s process, and that her newborn will eventually contribute to the herd just as she does now.
When Mom gets back to the herd, she is soon settled and ready for milking again at the robots. It is interesting to see her acclimate to the robot again, since she hasn’t used the machine in close to 8 weeks. She is also reaching her peak milk production soon after giving birth. She will produce lots of wholesome milk for a few months at quite high levels, and this will gradually taper down and within a year, she will prepare for her next pregnancy.
As for the calf, there are two kinds of births: the good ones and the tough ones. Thankfully, 90-95% of our births present in the normal way, and are delivered without the need for any external or special assistance. There’s always an occasional young cow, particularly first time heifers, where this is a new experience and their body needs to make a lot of adjustments during birthing, and it’s tough on them – just as it is with first time human Moms. Even if they need a little help from us, they always manage to pull through, as they are hardy creatures. They teach us a lot as we go through these experiences together. If we are needed to help with a delivery, even the most experienced cow will let us know, and we are honored to help and participate, something which we can genuinely say they really appreciate. It’s a beautiful partnership, and is a very special, moving experience. Once the newborn is safely delivered, we get out of the way as quickly as possible, and let the crucial bonding process between Mom and Baby begin. Mom needs rest too of course, and she does get it before she returns to the herd.
When the separation time eventually comes, which is always a hard thing to do, we move the calf placing it in its own pen for the first few weeks. We need to make sure all of their needs are met. We are always constantly on the lookout for problems like the scours, which can quickly stress or kill a calf if not treated promptly. But as long as we keep them properly hydrated, and on close watch, they thrive, and demonstrate great curiosity for the world outside, and their nearby fellow calves. They grow quickly when they are happy and healthy – a joy to see.
From here, we begin to introduce them to other calves who are roughly the same age. They go from being on their own, to being part of a group of three. This is important in terms of socialization and beginning to learn about herd dynamics before entering the full herd. We want to introduce the calves to other animals as quickly as possible because we know they need that herd environment, which helps them settle and be calm, and realize that they have a societal role to play. The sooner we start this process, the better.
The trio from the pen want to stay together as they get older, and will be moved again around their first birthday. As they age through 20 months, now as young heifers, it will be time to breed them. These two years from newborn through calf to young heifer are their formative years, where they learn how to act before joining the main herd. If we’ve done our job properly in those 2 years, a healthy, happy and expectant heifer will come of age, and the cycle of Nature will have turned full circle. It is indeed a special time.