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HERd Management: Motherhood and dairy cows

Christine Bender for Progressive Dairy Published on 05 February 2021

I grew up on a dairy farm and have been around cows my whole life. I learned at an early age how to properly care for and handle cows. Now, as a manager, I am constantly advocating for the humane treatment of our animals and even making sure every new employee understands this and signs an animal care agreement.

However, it was not until recently I realized how little I really understood about how cows feel.

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I’ve always known women and their motherly instincts have been super-beneficial when it comes to caring for animals, especially when it comes to calves. However, it wasn’t until I personally became a mother that I better understood why this is. As mothers, we understand what it feels like to be nine months pregnant, to go through labor and lactate for months on end. As I am writing this, I am close to six months postpartum and am still feeding breast milk via pumping. For any other mothers out there, you realize the commitment and time it takes to breastfeed and pump to provide nutritious breast milk for your baby.

The similarities between bovines and humans are immense. Beginning with pregnancy, as my baby grew larger, I started to relate to those dry cows that we get up once a day to scrape and to move cows to maternity. Suddenly, I found myself slowing down and having more patience with these large, slow-moving animals. I can honestly say I know how they feel. Shortly after returning from my maternity leave, I had an employee come to me asking about what to do with a cow calving in the pre-fresh that he couldn’t get up. I quickly replied, “It’s fine; just leave her be.” I realize we don’t want calves being born in the manure alley, but there’s a reason she won’t get up at this point, and we shouldn’t be interfering with the birth if it’s unnecessary.

When it came time to labor, I was nervous, like many other first-time mothers and heifers. My body was doing things I couldn’t control and, whether I liked it or not, that baby was coming. Luckily, I made it to the hospital just in time for delivery. I had a relatively quick and easy labor without any complications. Much like heifers and cows without complications, I had an easy recovery as well. One of my daily tasks on the farm is monitoring and treating fresh cows, so I can appreciate a smooth, natural delivery.

However, it wasn’t until my milk came in a couple days later that I truly felt how cows feel. Sorry guys, but if you are a father, I would hope you know what I am talking about. In the human world, it’s called engorgement. In cows, we call it edema, but it’s a natural swelling of the mammary glands as they begin milk production following the liquid gold we know so well in the dairy industry as colostrum. When your milk comes in, it’s painful and somewhat uncomfortable. As a first-time mother, there again I can relate to the heifers being scared of something new and not knowing what to expect. It took me the better part of a week to really get used to it, and I think I can see that in our heifers as well.

Commonly, it’s a challenge to get fresh heifers into the parlor, and we’ve always explained to employees how it’s a new and unusual place while physiologically they’re going through a lot of changes, so we need to have extra patience. It’s all extremely true. Also, I no longer judge them when they’re in the parlor kicking that unit off the first few times or not letting their milk down properly. I’ve shared the same struggles and know what it feels like to be constantly pumping.

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When it comes to mastitis, I’ve only heard from other mothers how extremely painful it is. I have yet to experience that myself. I’m sure I will have more things happen to me in my lifetime that I can relate to my favorite species, but for now these are the connections I have made. I am loving being a mother and, although breastfeeding and pumping is a lot of work, I take great pride in being able to provide for our baby girl. I hope that one day she too shares my love for cows and can make these same connections for herself.  end mark

Christine Bender
  • Christine Bender

  • Owner/Herd Manager
  • McFarlandale Dairy LLC
  • Watertown, Wisconsin
  • Email Christine Bender

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