“How long do you keep a cow?” is a question I get asked all the time while giving tours of our dairy. I was also asked this question by some new friends that Joe and I met at a ProFarmer conference earlier this week, and so it is just time to blog about it.
The answer to that question is sort of simple, sort of complicated. It certainly varies from farm to farm, and each dairy has its own parameters. This is how it works at Ocheda Dairy:
Thursday (usually, but not always) my husband starts his day at the computer. Why Thursday? Well, that is the day that the closest cattle sale barn, in Sheldon, Iowa, is open. Sitting in a chair in the office, Joe brings up the milk production report, and begins to sort through the cows. It isn’t as straight-forward as just taking the cows from the bottom of the list. If a cow is pregnant, she usually gets a free pass. When a cow calves (read: gives birth to a calf), she begins a new lactation with a new peak and all that stuff. So, the potential for her to make more milk later, as well as a valuable calf inside her, keeps her off the trailer. Also, sometimes a cow has had a rough week and that is something that needs to be determined on an individual basis.
Other thing that are taken into account are:
1. Mean cows. If a cow is really just a danger to work with, we need to protect ourselves and our employees.
2. Difficult to milk. On my parent’s farm when I was in high school, we had a cow named Amy. She was a good cow, but the size of her teats made it a very lengthy process to milk her completely out and there were a few ‘tricks’ to it. My dad did the milking on a weekend that my siblings and I traveled to a Minnesota Junior Holstein Convention and was not impressed. That next week, Dad sold that cow while we were in school. I can’t believe I still remember that. So, I guess the moral of the story is that sometimes not everybody is in agreement!
3. Appearance. A good cow person that has been around animals a lot develops a sixth sense in a way. Sometimes, a quick physical exam can provide you with the information you need to make the call.
Another similar question is, “How old can a cow get?”. Typically, at our dairy, 10 years old is a max. I have an aunt and uncle who are a bit famous (maybe “known” is a better word in the dairy world) for having cows that grow exceptionally old. Typically, as a cow ages, her reproductive system begins to fail and her whole body just plain gets worn out. The average life expectancy of a dairy cow is a bit more than four years, but as you can see, there is a lot of variation.