(This article was originally published on January 25, 2010. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that writers may not be able to respond to your questions or comments.)
The fences do not seem as high as they do in summer, and one heifer has decided that, if she can step over it, it isn’t there. She goes out to the front of the barn and munches on the hay stored in the lean-to. We had chased her in a couple of times with the help of Blaze, our young male Border Collie, but one snowy morning when we discovered her out after breakfast, Stan just opened a window and yelled at her and then whistled for the dog, who was in the barn having a mid morning nap. The dog didn’t make an appearance, but the heifer took herself back to the fence she had stepped over and put herself in. The heifer is trained even if the dog is only part way there.
In winter, most of our herd lives in the barn. Once the snow starts, they are in for the duration, waited on head and hoof. We bring them their feed and take away the poop twice a day. They each have a thick foam mat to stand on and are bedded with chopped straw. They have clean cold water piped to their stalls, regular herd health checks, and each gets curried and clipped once or twice through the season, depending on the need and the available help. Stan checks the air quality during the day and lowers and raises the curtains in the new part depending on how stuffy or cold it gets. The front door is usually at least part way open except on the heavy weather days or in extreme cold. Air quality to cows in housing is almost as necessary as fresh water.
The heifers outdoors have all the fresh air they need, so keeping them well supplied with hay and a once a day ration of grain, and making sure they can get to the little pond for water is all it takes for them. Early in the winter they would go down and shelter in the evergreens below the old orchard, but the snow is too deep for that now, so they must be content with sleeping behind the barn or in the lee of the neighbors’ evergreen woods. Their coats have grown shaggy as the most expensive plush toys and they look almost cuddly.
We have been asked if it isn’t a hardship on the heifers to be outside all winter, but to be honest, it is nearly impossible to get them into the barn. Another farmer that we know was once visited by the head of the county ASPCA. Someone had driven by, seen their heifers out in the snow and reported them for cruelty. The ASPCA director was very apologetic when he had seen the heifers, he knew that the heifers were fine outdoors as long as they had adequate feed and water, but said they must investigate any reports that they receive. We are, as a society, losing our knowledge of animals and their real needs and the response, unfortunately, goes both ways. These girls are not pets, cuddly appearance aside, but healthy outdoor animals. The cows would actually benefit from time outside, but in our climate, that is not always a possibility. We keep them in as much for our comfort as for theirs.
If you ever contemplate keeping a cow, remember that they need fresh air, clean water and reasonably nutritional feed. Shelter in harsh weather is something that can be as simple as trees to shelter under or a building to shelter behind. If you do keep them in a barn or shed, make sure there is adequate ventilation.
My outdoor girls are ambling back to the bale ring again. They will wait there for the hired boy to bring them their evening grain and then go down to the pond for a drink before heading back to hunker down for the night. If we have the predicted snow, they will have a dusting come morning, which they will shake off like large, lumbering dogs and begin their day.