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Opinion

Happy cows come from smart management choices

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May 7, 2008

You’ve seen those “Happy Cows Come From California” commercials advertising California cheese, right? Those Cali. cows have it made—they’re free to roam endless acres of meadows with soft, luscious grass, and the sun shining all the time. They love everything in California, including the earthquake “foot massages.”

There’s the grandcow who doesn’t like to talk to her grandcalves about her past because she was once stuck outside during the middle of a Midwestern blizzard. Check it out on YouTube.

Ugh, it must be rough for Wisconsin cows; they have to be absolutely miserable.

Even though I grew up around Wisconsin cows, I really wanted to know what makes cows happy. So I dug in: Happy cows appreciate soft, clean places to lay. Cows like routine—they’re creatures of habit and they don’t like to be rushed. 

The ideal temperature for cows is around 50 degrees and they like things well ventilated. 

Cows drink about 55 gallons of water a day. If they don’t get enough water, they won’t eat. They like to be able to chew their cud for at least eight hours of the day so they can digest forages better, eat more feed and ultimately make more milk.

Cows like to be dewormed (much like your dog) to get rid of any intestinal, lung and stomach worms, ticks and parasites.

Allowing cows access to pasture makes cows extremely happy. It’s easier on their feet and joints when they can walk on grass or dirt. When a cow has healthier joints, her longevity increases.

The cows depicted in the California Cheese commercials are seen roaming around in a setting that is perfect for them. However, a couple of cows on these enormous acres just isn’t realistic.

It isn’t efficient or feasible for all dairy farmers to keep their cattle on pasture, and we all know that the temperature isn’t always around 50 degrees—especially in California.

Dairy farmers have to figure out different ways to keep their cows happy in an efficient manner.  Cows that have feet and leg problems aren’t going to want to stand and eat to get the nutrients and energy to produce milk. And in the world of dairy farming, no milk equals no money. 

Simply put, happy cows equals money.

Dairy cow barns are designed for cow comfort. Did you know that some farmers install mattresses for cows to lie on?

Everything from ventilation to lying space to ally width is thought out carefully. But with the cost of everything rising, especially feed and gas, it’s becoming inefficient to build barns that house less than 400 cows. Actually, farmers have to go big to cover fixed costs.

So those “factory farms” that PETA is constantly jumping on can’t really be that bad. For them to be profitable, they have to have big numbers of happy cows. Some big farmers hire people just to manage the comfort of their cows—if they treat the cows properly (like not rushing them), they get a bonus.

As I mention PETA, there’s probably some people thinking about the poor conditions animals are housed in and how they’re jacked up on antibiotics and growth hormones.

Dairy farmers are not allowed to sell milk laced with antibiotics. Before milk is loaded into a truck to be taken to any creamery it’s tested for antibiotics. If there are any detected, the milk is dumped and the farmer doesn’t get paid. Once milk is delivered to a creamery, the truck load of milk is again tested. If there’s any trace of antibiotics then, the samples are checked and the guilty farmer has to pay the creamery for the entire contaminated truck of milk. (Last month’s base milk price was $17.40 per hundred pounds.)

Growth hormones, however, are not yet illegal. This is mostly because cows naturally produce a growth hormone nicknamed bST. rBST is a synthetic growth hormone administered to increase milk production about 10 lbs. a day.

Since cows have to produce more when given rBST, they’re on their feet more and eating more. According to Monsanto, the maker of this synthetic growth hormone that goes by the trade name of Posilac, one-third of the nation’s dairy cattle belong to herds treated with the hormone.

According to USDA’s February 2008 Milk Production Report, California had 1,960 licensed dairy herds averaging 925 cows per herd in 2007. Wisconsin blows Calif. away with 14,170 licensed dairy herds, but Wis. only average 88 cows per herd.

In 2007, the average milk a California cow produced was 22,440 pounds. The average Wisconsin cow produced 19,310. Why the difference? Are cows happier in California? Is it better management? Or is it something else?

Abby Maliszewski is a student at UW-River Falls.