I know you’ve heard it before: “‘So-and-so’ is a cow whisperer; they seem to know a cow is sick before the cow does!” If you’re the lucky recipient of such high praise, it can make you feel pretty good. After all, they’re your cows, your livelihood, and part of your family. As someone who has been called a cow whisperer before, I’m going to tell you all of my secrets. Well, actually, there’s really just the one.
Be there. Consistently. It doesn’t necessarily have to be you, and I know exactly how monotonous doing the same task over and over again can be, but having the same person or people do the same task every day can really pay off on a dairy farm.
For example, a few weeks ago we had two new calves brought into the calf barn that couldn’t have been more different. One was tiny and jumpy, while the other was gigantic and mellow. Feeding calves every night, even if I’m only half paying attention, I get a sense of each of their personalities. The little calf was always laying down by the time I came around to collect the empty bottles, but the big calf was usually up looking for a head scratch. So, a few weeks later when Gigantor wasn’t standing to be petted, my spidey sense went off. I had some extra time, so I took her temperature. With some treatment to ward off the pneumonia her fever warned me was coming, the next day she was back to normal.
Just the other day, Granny, a 4-year-old Jersey that always comes in on the first side of the parlor, walked in three turns late on the opposite side. I immediately checked for mastitis or other issues, and then I went to find her when we were done milking to make sure she was okay. A few hours later, I got the text that Granny was in heat. She was bred the next morning.
See, there really is no secret. It’s not hard to know exactly what they’re thinking if you pay attention. If Replay is always the first cow through the gate when you let them in to be milked, the day she isn’t should tell you something’s wrong. If Bilbo the calf usually drinks at least half of her water, but she has a full bucket at tonight’s feeding, maybe something is coming. Honestly, you can write it all down and keep the best records the world has ever seen, but nothing can beat good old-fashioned observation. Take one last walk through the calf barn before you leave for the day, or if you have a little extra time, just slowly walk down the feed alley of the milk barn. It may seem silly, but not only is it good for your soul, you can learn so much about your cows that may one day literally save their life.
The author dairies in partnership with her parents and brother at Spruce Row Farm in Pennsylvania. Jessica is a graduate of Pennsylvania State University, and since 2015, she has been active in promoting dairy in her local community. You can find her and her 250 Jersey cows on Facebook at Spruce Row Dairy or on Instagram at @seejessfarm.