I can remember the first cows and calves that I encountered when I younger. I was probably in kindergarten or the 1st grade, and I went to my best friend’s house for the day. At the time, they had a herd of about 40 Holstein cows. We used to run up and down the aisles of the small barn, playing childhood games and watching with fascination as the farm chores were completed. I especially remember the first time I looked over the fence made of wooden boards that split one corner away from the rest of the barn. In this little section, the calves were housed. There were usually about 4 or 5 calves sharing this space. I was interested in their care and their diet. I was even more interested in how fast they grew! These early days got me interested in calf health, and the topic still remains one of my favorite parts of dairy medicine and dairy farm management.
Looking back, I can see that the management of this barn was quite different from what we are taught about in veterinary school. Having the calves and cows in the same area is not ideal in terms of biosecurity. But, that was the way my friend’s father had to do it given the resources he had. Most farms around my hometown had very few resources when I was growing up, and most of them still operate on a limited income. As I have said in other posts, I think that as veterinarians, the best thing we can do is to work with our clients and help them achieve the best animal health and production that they can, given their resources. Our jobs are not to judge their situations in a close-minded way, no matter how far their situation is from the “ideal farm.”
Still, this farm did have some great things going for it. The barn had a lot of windows that yielded great airflow in the summer. It was hot of course, but never sweltering and unbearable. There were also large fans that helped the cows stay cool. The calves got to capitalize on this as well since they were not housed in individual calf hutches that sit out in the sun all day. We recently discussed this point in class, citing a study that found that calves in hutches without added shade from trees or a building actually had lower growth rates and produced less milk over their lifetimes. The take-home message for me was that no matter where we keep the calves, they need to be kept cool during those hot summer days. If not, the high heat can have lasting impacts on their health and productivity throughout their lives.