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Three dairy hacks from women who work in the dairy industry

Progressive Dairy Intern Adriana Toste Published on 02 April 2021

From operation to operation, dairy farmers across the nation perform the same duties to ensure their cows are adequately cared for. However, the methods for how those duties are performed may differ from farmer to farmer. The best way to learn alternative methods is through other dairy peers.

Various dairy hacks were shared during the Boots in the Barn webinar hosted by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach on Feb. 5. The webinar featured three women who each work in some facet of the dairy industry: Minnie Ward, owner of Fallen Oaks Custom Calves; Aaron Titterington, manager at Jones Dairy; and Carissa Buttjer, assistant herdsman at Schanbacher Acres. The three women covered practices they use for all stages of raising dairy cattle, varying from calves to milk cows.



1. Daily health checks while raising calves

When raising calves, being attentive is one of the best ways to keep a low death rate and catch early stages of sickness. Ward explained that in all her years of raising calves, she found daily health checks to be most effective. At Fallen Oaks Custom Calves in southeast Minnesota, these checks are done at feeding time because this is when a calf’s aggression will be clearly demonstrated, and because the first sign of illness is usually loss of appetite. Ward said these assessments are a good diagnostic tool for calf evaluation, health management and recordkeeping.

During these checks, Ward analyzes the calf’s disposition through visual cues. At first glance, the calf should appear comfortable, not cold or shivering. As a rule of thumb, Ward usually starts to put jackets on the calves when she feels the need to wear a hoodie herself, and she uses double jackets during extreme winters. In addition, she takes a look at calves’ eyes to check if they are clear and bright-eyed, not sunken-in, watery or glazed. She also looks to make sure their ears are erect. Their nose should be moist with no mucus or dryness. She examines their breathing to make sure it is not rapid or labored. Their coat should be shiny and full and free of flakes or patches. She also explained a lot can be determined based on the calf’s breath. It should not smell rancid or curdled.

Calves should express eagerness during feeding time, especially if they are in pair housing, which is a strategy Ward uses often to stimulate aggression. If a calf appears lethargic when coming off the trailer or is less energetic at feeding time, Ward focuses her efforts on conserving energy. In addition to electrolytes, she talked about using 5-hour Energy Shots. These shots help stimulate appetite because they have vitamin B and caffeine, and they usually result in success.

It is essential to have a quality water source at all stages of raising cattle, but especially for calves because they are still building their immune systems. At Fallen Oaks, Ward learned a poor water source was affecting overall calf health. Once it was treated with chlorine dioxide, she saw less respiratory issues and an overall healthier calves.

2. Dehorning using paste

While some dairy farmers may be skeptical of using paste to dehorn calves, Titterington explained how they’ve made the process simple and painless on her family’s dairy in Spencer, Iowa. Each of the employees who perform dehorning on their facility must watch a demonstrative tutorial to ensure proper execution.


Some of the suggestions Titterington included were using sharp scissors to cut around the bud of the horn. Using the blade of the scissors, she suggested lightly brushing over the spot where the paste will be applied. This ensures wax is removed from the horn bud.

In order to get the perfect paste consistency, it helps to leave the tube in the refrigerator. This makes the paste less runny, which is ideal to keep the process clean and to make sure the paste doesn’t smear once applied. After 30 minutes, the paste is set, making the process quick and easy for the farmer and painless for the calf, especially if performed within the first few days of the calf being born.

3. Blood sampling to preg check

One of the unique practices performed at Schanbacher Acres in Atkins, Iowa, is blood sampling to preg check cows instead of using palpations performed by a veterinarian. Blood sampling to preg check has worked best with the schedule in place at Schanbacher Acres and has resulted in less manpower and lower expense costs, which are all positives any farmer can benefit from.

Buttjer explained, at their facility, blood sampling only requires one person, whereas when the veterinarian would come out, three to four people were needed. Additionally, their vet is an hour and a half away. Supplies are minimal and blood sampling and testing costs approximately $3.20 per sample. The results usually arrive in one week, making the process quick and economical for their operation.

At Schanbacher Acres, heat detection collars are utilized to help monitor a breeding schedule. Blood samples can be conducted as soon as 28 days post-breeding, though they sample their cows at 30 days and their heifers at 45 days. Depending on results, the cow is entered as pregnant or open, and retested at 60 days post-breeding to verify their initial results.

The blood sample is collected from the tail from the middle coccygeal artery, which can be easily found by feeling for the groove in the tail head. Once the 3-millimeter vacuum tube is filled, it is labeled with the animal ID, packaged and sent to the post office. From testing to results, the process takes one week, which provides optimal convenience, Buttjer said.


While each farmer may have a particular way of doing things, learning and sharing insight can be a good opportunity to find something that can work well for your operation, and it helps others who may be experiencing the same things.  end mark

PHOTO: Minne Ward of Fallen Oaks Custom Calves in Minnesota does daily health checks on the calves she raises, in addition to providing a warm, dry environment during cold Midwestern weather. Photo provided by Minne Ward.

Adriana Toste
  • Adriana Toste

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