Our animals will tell us when they need help, but sometimes it takes us a while to figure out what exactly is going on. All species of animals on our farm can communicate when they are caught, hurt, lost or hungry. Chickens, ducks, dogs, cats … the list can go on and on. As dairy farmers, we all recognize when cows, heifers and calves are hungry, ovulating or in pain because they literally tell us with their moos. A cow in pain has a distinctly different moo from one that is bellowing for food. And we have all been in a pen with a cow or heifer in heat when they are very friendly, mooing to get bred. I personally don’t stick around in the pen as I have experienced getting mounted by a heifer. That was a surprise that taught me to evaluate the animals before going into their pen. 

Recently, we have been noticing heifers that have been moved from the loafing shed to the freestall barn are getting banged up. They have swollen hips and knees, and they have become fearful to cross the water pad to get to the feed. At first, we noticed that when we are moving them, they are excited, running, jumping and doing all sorts of dumb heifer things like getting stuck in the stalls. It is a new environment, they are happy to be moving from the loafing shed, but this is also stressful because they are mixed with other heifers that are a few weeks older. 

Watching them mingle and go through the ranking of the group, a few will be the ones that are shy and wait for everyone else to go to the bunk to eat. The aggressive, bigger and older heifers are always first and will often mount the new ones to establish where they fit into the group. I have witnessed lead cows and heifers head butt and push the weaker animal around and away from the food and water or out of a stall. These girls are very mean and can definitely make the move depressing and also dangerous for the new girls coming into the free stall.  

I often share this process with people on our tours. There is similar ranking going on in the classrooms, and the terms used come directly from the farm. Bullies and bossies are the boys and girls who often are bigger and more confident than other shy students. Sometimes these aggressive students can become leaders if they are taught empathy and compassion. If not, these children are the ones that often disrupt the teacher and make her or his job a living hell. Maybe that is too strong to say, but often they are very challenging and require more disciplined approaches to keep the whole class running smoothly. Honestly, I can pick out those students in the first few minutes when they come into the barn for the safety introduction. Since I am not a teacher, and I want the teacher to have a great time at the farm, I often will reach out my hand to these students so that they can be my buddy and get the little extra attention that they seek.

This past winter and early spring, we have observed way too many banged up heifers. This then leads us to ask, “Is someone moving them in a forceful manner by scaring and possibly using the sorting stick in an improper way?” “Why is it that these girls were walking fine, and now they are limping with sore, swollen legs?” “Did something happen from the time they were brought in until they got injured?”

We looked at our stall sizes. They are a little small, but the heifers are still lying in them. Then we noticed that the floor was very slick. The heifers are slipping and sliding and landing hard on their hips and knees. It would be a few days after the hard fall that the swollen body parts would be blown up. These girls get moved back to the bedding pack to rest on a thick pack of clean bedding. This move back to the bedding pack is also less stressful because they are the older heifers in the group.  

We looked back to when the free stall was put up and how the floor was created back in 2002. The builders were able to float over the wet concrete and make the ridges. After years and years of scraping with the rubber tire, the ridges had been smoothed out, and something needed to be done to prevent more injuries. I clearly remember when the free stall was new and our children were riding their bikes back and forth from one end to the other. It was a farm-style bike park. They had to leave eventually when the gates were put up and the animals moved in. Our kids just moved to riding in the feed alley and field roads to fill their summer days with bike-riding bliss.  

The freestall barn was built where our pasture was, and next to the new barn was still fenced where we could let the cows out after milking to graze or to keep some dry cows on the grass. The cows would go out to the pasture and eat for a few hours, but then they would run into the barn to be the first one in. Slipping cows and a few splits made it obvious that the cow yard needed to be grooved. Nothing can ruin my day like a downed cow. It clearly can be prevented with grooving the cow yard. To prevent any further spills and splits, it was important to get it done as soon as possible. 

We hired a barn floor grooving crew, P and D from Appleton, in 2007. Owner Doug Beahm and his team did an amazing job. They grooved and even cross hatched the critical areas where there was a slope and where the cows would slide before the doorway to the barn. While they were here, Doug fell in love with a few kittens I had for the tours. He wanted only one, but I talked him into two.  

All of our cats start off as kittens, getting manhandled by children who squeeze a little too tight. Little hands pet eyes, poke noses and can pull a whisker just a little. With the best intentions of the children trying to give love, the kittens are not hurt. Actually, the kitties’ motors purr like a race car, loud!  

The P and D crew came back to groove our freestall barn just last week. As soon as Doug got out of the truck, he shared with us about how those two cats were such a part of his life. He told us they were the best cats ever. One lived almost 17 years! We do have two more kittens, but we are not ready to let them go yet. Too many school kids still need to snuggle a kitten. 

With getting the grooving done and hearing about how our kittens enriched Doug’s life, I wanted to reach out and be his friend on Facebook. I am thrilled he is still in the grooving business and helping so many other farmers keep their cattle safe and standing. I know he will be reading this, and I want to give him a big thank you.

Tina Hinchley, her husband Duane and daughter Anna milk 240 registered Holsteins with robots. They also farm 2,300 acres near Cambridge, Wisconsin. The Hinchleys have been hosting farm tours for over 25 years.


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