Growing a human baby for 9 months gives you a lot of time to think while your body is developing 11 body systems, over 650 muscles and 206 bones. As a soon-to-be first-time mom I not only have a new appreciation for dairy foods to help me meet my increased nutrition needs, I’ve also found myself reflecting on how important maternity care is on the farm for our bovine ladies.
On our farm our maternity area is one of my favorite spots. It’s a great reminder of why cow care on the entire farm is important; it’s where the milking herd and a new generation of bovine ladies begins! Bringing new life into the world is always a special occasion, even with 800 cows, but it is also a huge responsibility for farmers. The transition from pregnancy to milk production for a cow and transition from womb to outside for a calf impacts their health and potential.
A cow’s pregnancy takes nine months. Farmers monitor the cow’s pregnancy with extra health checks (commonly including an ultrasound) and adjust her physical and nutritional needs as the pregnancy progresses. As with most pregnancies the most growth and development of the calf happens in the last couple months, which is why dairy cows take a maternity leave (or as I call it, “moo-ternity leave”).
In the last few months of a cow’s pregnancy her milk production will decrease, and at about month seven the farmers will stop milking the cow and she will start her moo-ternity leave. This break allows for the cow’s body to prepare for birth and listen to her body’s increased needs, whether it’s an extra nap, extra snack or both!
Here are three big areas of preparation and changes for our expecting cow ladies ― nutrition, comfort and udder health.
Nutrition: Speaking of extra snacks! All our calves and cows have continuous access to clean water and food. They’re followed closely by a cow nutritionist throughout their entire lifetime to make dietary adjustments for growth, development, milk production and health changes such as pregnancy. Our expecting cows continue to have their diets adjusted throughout the pregnancy to account for changing and increasing nutrient needs (without over-feeding) to ensure a healthy calf and cow.
Cow comfort: Napping and relaxing take up a large part of any bovine schedule, and as the cow’s pregnancy progresses, so do napping and relaxing requirements. To make sure all cows are getting quality rest, we must provide comfortable beds (or as farmers call them stalls), temperature control, excellent ventilation, and plenty of space and lighting. On our farm this means temperature-controlled fans and curtains that adjust automatically with the weather. It also means sprinklers in summer, new bedding twice per week and daily bed grooming.
Udder health: Whole-body health is important for all ages and stages of cows on the farm, but a very unique part of udder health happens specifically during the cow’s moo-ternity leave from milking. This break allows for the udder to continue mammary tissue maintenance while also transitioning to colostrum production. Colostrum is the first milk produced by mother after birth and essential for all infant mammals. Calves specifically rely on this “liquid gold” for passive immunity (immunoglobulins) from the cow. This is different from humans because they can receive immunity in the womb. For this reason, farmers will milk the cow first to check that the colostrum has high immunoglobulins before bottle-feeding the calf its mother’s colostrum. This ensures the calf receives a healthy, high-quality transfer of immunity during her colostrum feeding.
Our bovine ladies never cease to amaze me! There are so many great stories and facts to share about farming and dairy, but I find myself these days thinking about the beautiful marvels of life we farmers get to see every day!
During the New York State Fair our farm has a unique opportunity to share this great story of maternity care and journey of birth with the public at the fair birthing center. So for my New York readers, feel free to stop in at the fair and for readers afar, tune in via Instagram @ivylakesdairy to experience the moo-ircle of life!
Abbey Copenhaver is a dairy farmer, registered dietitian and expectant mom. She runs a 750-cow dairy farm with her husband and two other couples in New York. She’s a National Dairy Council ambassador, and when she’s not running a farm, she’s often running the roads and trails of New York and has been an Ironman competitor. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @dairyfarmerRD.