Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Robots at Swisslane Farms

Today with his free time, Kris went to help out at ... another farm!

Our friends, Annie and Jerry Link, just installed eight robot milkers to milk 500 cows.  Today was the first day they started milking them in it.  Their friends, relatives, other farmers with robots, Lely people, people from MSU's robotic dairy (and I'm sure others) all helped. 

Kris was running a robot for part of it and said that a few cows were hesitant, but mostly when they saw the feed pellets they'd go right in.  The first time a cow enters a robot someone has to manually position the laser to see where the udder is.  After that first time, the robot has a record of it, and knows.  The lasers go every time, since udders change depending on how much milk they're giving, how recently they had a calf, etc. but it has a benchmark.

We're happy for our friends and their new adventure! 


Back on our farm ... it's snowing.  Hard, wet snow.  Probably all the schools are going to be cancelled and the roads are bad.  That kind of snow.  Both beautiful and inconvenient.

Naturally, Kris said that the heifers decided that they didn't want to be in the pasture they were in, and they broke a fence and went to a different one.  They weren't out, just not where they were supposed to be, so he said he wasn't going to bother about it when it was pitch black and snowing.

Meanwhile, our kids went outside and played in the snow, until after their bedtime.  Their clothes won't even have a chance to dry before morning.  Kris' will though ... we have the state annual Farm Bureau meeting tomorrow.  It's snowed every single year I've gone to this.  It's the most reliable snowfall I've ever experienced.  It's okay.  Probably all these farmers driving to the meeting have four-wheel drive anyway. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011


When I picture a bale, I never think of these.  I think about baling with small bales, when people would stand on a wagon, hauling them up into a pile.  Then moving them off those wagons to a haymow.  Then tossing them down and using them to bed down cattle.

We have to bed down a lot of calves, so we need a lot of straw.  Bales come in bigger sizes now!  It's a lot more wrapped up in one package, and there's a lot less you have to move around.

Plus, you can't lift these.  (Well, I can't.  Maybe you can.)  But a skid steer can!  Kris has been buying these big straw bales to bed down the calves this winter.  This is Josh unloading the big square bales this weekend.

We got a Christmas tree today.  I held it up while Kris was putting it in the tree stand.  I apparently got picked by the needles and have red bumps covering my arm.  It's the same way my skin used to look when I got picked by straw.  So far, the skid steer is showing no ill effects. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Moving day

Today was a big day - we moved the heifers to their winter pasture. 

This means we have to move them a long way - including under the bridge.  In past years, this has proven to be quite an undertaking.  Why?  The bridge is different.  It worries them.  They have no desire to walk under it.  Sometimes you think they're going to go ... they look like they're going to go ... and then they all turn around and run like mad in the wrong direction.

One benefit of rotating pastures is that we move them pretty often, so they're more used to being moved in general.  (When we first got here we didn't do that as much, and this big move really threw them off.)  That's not to say today was easy - but it did take two hours as opposed to half a day. 

Kris and two of the employees did it by splitting them up.  There were 115 cattle total, but they would take 10 at a time.  Two guys would push the 10 from behind until finally they would walk under the bridge.  Then they'd go back and do 10 more.

Of course, the ones they already led through broke through some fence tape.  They're just wild, wondering where to go, and all excited that they're moving.  But it was expected and not a big deal.

Eventually, Kris and the guys led/pushed them all across, and got them in their new pasture.  Now they're in a pasture next to the dairy barn.  All winter long - since obviously the pasture won't be growing - they'll get silage.  So tomorrow, they'll be having their own Thanksgiving feast, too.

Monday, November 21, 2011


Another calf was born today!

That's right - the first calf was born in April.  It's now November.  Some get pregnant early, most get pregnant all at the same time ... some get pregnant later. 

It was a pretty good day for it.  It was fairly warm - in the high 40s - and she had it in the middle of the day.  (As opposed to in the middle of the freezing-cold night.)

Since it's not calving season, like when Kris is feeding fresh milk to a lot of calves, he had to wait until the mother was milked to get her colostrum.  It just takes longer when there's only one!  He bottle fed the calf.  The mother didn't look great, so he prepared a pen for her in the barn.  He bedded it down with straw and got her water. 

There's one more pregnant cow left.  After that calf's born - another calving season will be done!  No more pasture checks, teaching to drink, and weaning to a bucket. Now they'll spend the winter in their new barn, until next spring when we put them on pasture.

So, around here, the workload will ease, but the cuteness factor will go down. Until next year!

Saturday, November 19, 2011


1. During MSU home football games they often show an entertaining clip where the team members answer a question.  This week's question was: What's your favorite Thanksgiving side dish?  Fully half of the team members answered 'macaroni and cheese'.  We've never had macaroni and cheese at Thanksgiving, but I applauded the dairy inclusion in the meal. 

2. We were eating some eggs I got from my neighbors.  My son said, "I hope that egg doesn't have a chick in it!"  I explained about how some eggs are going to be chickens and some aren't with some vague details, then had to consult the internet for the rest of it.  After all, I'm not a chicken farmer - to get to explanation-level I needed some backup.  Do you know how you tell what color eggs a chicken will lay?  In general, by the color of their earlobes.  White ear lobes, white eggs.  Red earlobes, brown eggs.  (Exceptions are the Easter Egger, Ameraucana, and Araucana. Their egg colors range from green to blue to pink to occasionally lavender.)  The first time my father-in-law told me this, I couldn't tell whether he was joking with me.

3. While tailgating, we met another farmer.  He asked about a farm in Kris' parents' area, asking - "Don't they feed all haylage?"  I thought it was funny that he would know about another farm based solely on what they fed their herd.  People in this job really pay attention to what other farms are doing!  We're all interested.

We've been farming for almost five years, but there's always more to learn.  I know almost nothing about cow earlobes.  Yet.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


We've had a really nice fall - nice in that the cows are still able to be on pasture. It's been dry enough, and it hasn't been too cold.

As a result, it's easier to keep them out because they're staying clean and comfortable. Plus, the growing season for the pasture was longer.

To get ready to close the pastures, Mike is draining the water tanks. We always drain them at the end of the season. We disconnect the hoses so they don't freeze and break.

Why today? This 27 degree morning, there was a thin sheet of ice on top of one of the water tanks. The heifers had broken through it to drink.

This morning Mike also had to replace the pressure pump for the parlor hose. It's a miniature version of a pressure washer. It boosts the water pressure so you can spray the parlor well during and after milking. They go bad on a fairly regular basis, just from using them every day. If the switch gets left on and you're not spraying, it heats up and melts the components inside the pump. Even if that doesn't happen, like this time, it just gets to a point where it isn't working well and has to be rebuilt.

No matter the form - drinking, frozen, rushing - water's a big deal on a dairy. Not as big of a deal as milk, but close.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Cows love to scratch themselves on ... anything. Buildings, trees, barn walls. They don't seem to be too particular.

Have you ever seen anyone lean against a door frame and scratch against it? That's what cows look like.

When I was visiting Triple H Farms, I saw their Lely cow brush. The theory is that since cows want to scratch themselves, you might as well make it easier for them. Lely's marketing material says that good cow comfort results in a "healthier and more productive herd."

This is an automatic brush. When they touch it, it turns on. It looks like a big car washer brush:

I watched as the cows left the robot milker and took their turn with the brush. They obviously enjoyed it.

On the streets of San Jose in Costa Rica there were several men selling back scratchers. They just had them fanned out in front of them, hawking them.

That is, I assume they were selling them. Maybe if you walked close, they'd just scratch your back. Resulting in a healthier, and more productive crowd!

Sunday, November 13, 2011


I went to the calf barn with Kris tonight. A waterer had been running ... had overflowed, with a little stream running out of the barn. (Nice drainage, anyway!) Kris fixed it - there was a tiny pebble that had gotten lodged in part of it, and once he freed that, it started working again. It took him awhile, though, because he had to take the entire thing apart and put it back together again.

I remember when we were growing up here and my sister asked my dad how he knew how to fix everything. He told her he didn't start out that way - just when you HAVE to fix things, you learn by doing.

I'm sure Kris never took a class on waterer maintenance. But when the calves HAVE to drink, you figure it out pretty quickly.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Veterans Day

Thank you, veterans! 

Did you see the MSU vs. UNC game on the aircraft carrier?  So awesome.  It's been a nice tribute.

My family went to the Veterans Day parade today.  My dad is a veteran, my brother's currently serving in Iraq, our employee Mike is an Army vet who served in Desert Storm. 

It's nice to be surrounded by people who volunteered to serve our country.  (All we do is serve your dinner.)

Veterans, we're proud of you, we're grateful for you - you've done so much for us.  Thank you!

Thursday, November 10, 2011


It snowed today!  Then it was sunny.  Then it snowed.  Then it was sunny. 

I looked for a rainbow, but I didn't see one.  It only seemed fitting that there would be one on such a strange-weather day.

When the first snowflakes started falling, my kids and I raced outdoors.  The heifers were in the pasture across the road, and they were just as excited.  They took off - as a herd - and galloped across the pasture.  They were running and kicking and looked ... like spring calves.  Not heading into winter.

Last night I called Kris to see if the boys could come and work with him.  The wind was wild.  Whipping, relentless - crazy.  He answered the phone, obviously outside.  I could barely hear him.  I heard, "No, not today.  (Wind sound.) I'm on the roof." 

"He's on the roof," I reported to my kids.

"Our roof?" one asked, running to the window to look up at the house.

"I'm assuming the barn roof ..." I said, suddenly unsure.  I guess it could be any roof. 

Turned out I was right.  He had to nail down part of the roof that had started flapping in the windstorm.  It wasn't really fun for him to do it at that moment, but at least it happened before the first snowfall.  Followed by sun.  Followed by snow.  Followed by sun.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Time change

I just heard a news story about how the time change affects animals. They mentioned dogs and cows in particular.

We milk the cows at 5:00am and 3:30pm every day.  To account for the time change, Kris asked the Sunday milkers to pretend that the clocks didn't change until after the morning milking.

Side note - isn't it funny how cell phones have changed this, too?  If you want to set your alarm on your cell phone, you have to account for the time changing at 2:00am as it's supposed to.  On an even funnier note, when I was in Costa Rica my friend Aimee's phone was an hour off the entire week.  UNTIL the last day, when it changed in the middle of the night.  Result?  She woke up really late for her flight.  Still made it.  Happy ending.  But, keep up, satellites.

Back to cows.  Dogs, people, animals - the time change doesn't kick in immediately.  It takes a few days for one to get used to waking up at the 'new' time. 

How does it affect our cows?  Are they waking up, mooing, eager to be milked at their 'old' time, like my kids are for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?  Are they like the dogs in the news story, waking up and barking at the wrong time?

Well, not our cows, I guess.  Every day for them is a little different.  If it's cold, they like to hang out in the barn until they're milked.  If it's nice, they hang out on pasture until someone herds them in to be milked.  After they're done, they're free to go and do what they want, same as before.

They eat, they sleep, they get milked.  Apparently an hour difference doesn't matter much to them.  Really, they're only working a few hours a day anyway.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

When do cows calve?

Kris has told me that cows don't like to give birth when it's rainy.  He said they usually hold out for a nice, clear day.  We've often speculated on their ability to control when they give birth.

Today I read an article about women on the same subject.  From the Wall Street Journal:

"Women have some control over when they give birth, a study suggests—and they don't want to give birth on Halloween.

Researchers looked at all U.S. births, 1996-2006, during the two-week windows around Halloween and Valentine's Day—the theory being that connotations of hearts and candy were more pleasant than those of ghouls and goblins.

Indeed, "spontaneous" births rose 3.6% on Valentine's Day, compared with other days in the two-week window, while caesarian deliveries rose 12.1% and induced births 3.4%. But on Halloween, spontaneous births fell 5.3%, caesarians 16.9% and induced births 18.7%. The researchers said the rise and fall of spontaneous births suggested that women can "expedite or delay" them "within a limited time frame."

"Influence of Valentine's Day and Halloween on Birth Timing," Becca R. Levy, Pil H. Chung and Martin D. Slade, Social Science & Medicine (October)

So!  Studies show that humans have a little bit of control over when they give birth.  If women were having them in a pasture, I bet they'd show more of a preference for sunny days, too.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


This morning I started when I saw the thermometer ... 25 degrees. 

The scraper tractor wouldn't start.  It was too cold.  We're going to have to start plugging it in at night.

It's frosted three or four times by now.  My son told me he licked a frosted-over leaf and that it tasted like snow.

The calves are tucked away in the new barn, ready to sit out the winter.  The cows don't seem to mind the cold.  They still stay out on pasture, even though the barn is available.

The cows have a lot in common with my kids.  They're seemingly impervious to cold. 

I was standing at the door today wearing three layers of clothes and a hat.  My kids?  They ran outside barefoot. 

I guess it's going to take more than a number on a thermometer to convince them summer's over.  Maybe more leaf-tasting.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


I had to run some errands today, and Kris asked me if I could stop by the vet.

What was my task? Besides picking up some medicine, I had to take in stool samples.

There were three test tubes, filled with manure, in a neatly closed plastic bag. (My kids were absolutely delighted. It was the first time we transported manure in our car on purpose.)

Kris wanted to take in the stool samples to check if the calves need to be treated for coccidiosis. Coccidiosis is a parasite, and one of the symptoms of having it is diarrhea. If you don't treat it, calves can get really sick and even die.

It affects mainly young calves, meaning ours are old enough that they'll soon not be affected by it. So, Kris wanted the vet's help in seeing how he should be treating them.

I was very conscious of the manure in my car. I drove carefully. A car crash is one thing ... a car crash that ended in spilled manure would mean I'd be far less willing to go to the vet next time.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Farm sweet farm

While I was gone, Kris had some cement pads poured in the old calf barn area.

We poured them so we can have more freestalls for the heifers when they outgrow the new barn.  We're doing this because we're raising more calves than we have in previous years.  Hope they like their new digs!


When we were driving in Costa Rica, I could not stop looking at the fences that lined the roadside. Their fence posts were trees.

How did they do them, I wondered. Did they plant ALL those trees? Did they have fence posts, string the barbed wire, then add the trees? Why were they all about the same size?

I finally found a guide who knew the answers. He said that about 15 years ago Costa Rica made a law that corporations building fences had to make living fences. They do this by planting trees. He said that in about 4 months, the tree is big enough to support wire. Then, you can break off the branches, stick them in the ground, and make more fast-growing fence posts. He listed about 5 types of trees they can use, like machete trees.

I've been with Kris when he's digging a fence post. He has to use an auger or a post hole digger. Sticking a branch in the ground seems a lot easier.

It's the same no matter what country you're in - whether you're pouring cement or growing a fence - it's all for the cattle.