Whole cow approach

From my middle school years on, and perhaps earlier, I have had a pretty close relationship with our cows. It started with knowing all their names and the stalls they belonged in and moved on to knowing family trees. Dad and I would play a game we titled the cow guessing game as we milked, trying to one-up each other on who knew the cows better by giving out clues. A certain level of personal satisfaction comes with knowing a cow’s mother or sister, or remembering something unique about her life story. I have always been invested in the cows that way.
Nowadays, knowing these little quirks about a cow helps me make better decisions on her behalf. We have a couple heifers, Sheldon and Penelope, having what we lovingly refer to as crazy eyes. Their range of vision isn’t 100%, and they are nervous as a result. If you catch them in their large blind spot area, they go berserk. Sheldon was slated to move to a pen with bigger heifers, more of her stature. As soon as she got near the dark of the breezeway, she flipped her lid. Rather than push her and make her more skittish, I moved her to a different pen.
Moving cows for different life changes is something I put quite a bit of thought into. Size and age dictate where they move to upon their graduation from the post-fresh pen. Small cows and heifers go into pen No. 2. Older gals and anyone that struggles a bit on their feet, or perhaps had a hard start to their lactation, move into the affectionately labeled senior living center. This pen is closest to the parlor, thus making the walking distance far less for the ladies. Large first calf heifers and medium second lactation cows head down the breezeway into pen No. 5. The big girls with sound feet, and preferably in third lactation and up, move into pen No. 6.
As cheesy as this may sound, I also take into account their friendships. I will try to move pairs of friends at the same time, because they always do better that way. When we move cows into a new group, you will see them moving around the pen together – inspecting their home, eating, sleeping and, in general, staying together against all their new penmates. Jose and Dopey are two tall and gorgeous girls that have been great pals since they were first calf heifers. They are now entering their fourth lactations. In their first year as cows, they calved on the same day, bred back at the same time, dried off together, calved again within 24 hours of each other and continued to move together yearly. This lactation they managed to be confirmed pregnant within weeks of each other, so I moved them into the low group together so they could stay close.
This next story may have you thinking I’m losing my marbles and maybe should get out of the barn a bit more. But, I like a good story, so hang in there.
Gemma and Tassia were two heifers that were born on the same day and named after a friend’s daughters down the road. These two were the funniest sight as they freshened on the same day, and after their post-fresh period, moved into pen No. 5 together. Heifers are still growing in that first year of milking, and boy, did they grow. Tassia grew taller, and Gemma grew wider. They looked a bit like David and Goliath. These two would be spotted together heading into the parlor, sleeping in stalls next to each other and often eating together. Lo and behold, they were due to go dry on the same day, so they stayed together once again as they headed to the dry pen and then into transition as their due dates neared. Gemma calved almost two weeks early with a healthy set of heifer twins. Three days later, Tassia was in the calving pen. I pulled a small heifer calf from her and sent her out to join Gemma. Gemma caught a slippery spot the next morning and earned herself a free ticket into the float tank followed by a week on the bedding pack. I held Tassia back in the fresh pen because I swear she would stand with her head on the gate and bellow at Gemma. It was as if she was encouraging her to keep trying to get up. The same day Gemma took a turn for the worse, Tassia dropped on rumination as well. Could be just cow coincidence, but perhaps they were just that good of friends.
I think of this as more of a whole-cow approach. She’s not just a milking machine. Every cow has her own personality, little things that make her memorable, even in a herd of over 800. Friendships, struggles, things that happened to her that we can’t fit in eight characters on a DairyComp prompt. When making decisions about her treatment, her movements and her place in our herd, looking at her as an individual animal and not only using the numbers makes me feel like I am doing her justice.  
    Jacqui and her family milk 800 cows and run 1,200 acres of crops in the northeastern corner of Vernon County, Wisconsin. Her children, Ira (14), Dane (12), Henry (7) and Cora (4), help her on the farm while her husband, Keith, works on a grain farm. If she’s not in the barn, she’s probably in the kitchen, trailing after little ones, or sharing her passion of reading with someone. Her life is best described as organized chaos – and if it wasn’t, she’d be bored.


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