Taking care of farm animals during Illinois winters

Caring for farm animals during an Illinois winter

Whether or not you’re a parent, I think it’s pretty common knowledge that when a baby is born, those first few days and even weeks are critical for short-term growth and long-term health. It’s not so different for the calves that I spend my days caring for on our dairy farm located in Winnebago, Illinois, just west of Rockford. Our family has farmed here since the mid-1800s. My grandparents bought the farm where we’re currently located in the 1960s. Today, my brother and I manage the farm, which is part of the Prairie Farms Co-Op. Most of our milk is taken to a Rockford processing plant, which mainly provides milk cartons for schools. My role on the farm is to oversee the calves and heifers (females that haven’t yet had a calf) and manage our milking parlor.

Just like human babies, calves are born all year. However, calves are born outside, whether it’s 70 degrees and sunny or -10 degrees with 40 mph winds.

Thankfully, we’ve had a pretty docile winter so far, but winter can be a very challenging time for raising calves, as they don’t have a lot of extra energy reserves to keep themselves warm or fight off any sickness. As farmers, we know that the better we care for our farm animals, the healthier they will be, and the more nutritious, sustainably raised milk we can provide to our communities. That’s why we have routines in place to ensure our farm animals get the best start possible.

Daily calf care routine:

  • Any frozen water is replaced with fresh, warm water when the bottle calves are fed in the morning and night.
  • Special jackets are used on the youngest calves to help keep them warm.
  • Fresh straw bedding is provided daily so they have a clean, warm place to lay down.
  • Calves are monitored daily to make sure they look healthy and are eating well.

Barn tech features:

  • Our calf (and cow) barns both have curtain systems (like roller shades) on the outside walls, allowing us to keep them closed for warmth during the winter months. Thermostats on the curtains will automatically open or close based on set temperatures.
  • Calves also need good, clean air in the barn to keep them healthy, so we have ventilation tubes over their pens to help keep fresh air flowing into the barn. The tubes are designed so that they bring fresh air to the calf’s pen, but don’t create a draft on the calf that would make her cold. This way, calves get fresh air even on the coldest days of the year.

When we take these steps, we help set our farm animals up for the best success. A good, healthy calf will grow quicker, and get into the milking herd faster.

Getting our calves back to healthy

There are two big illnesses that we keep an eye on in our calves: scours (diarrhea) and pneumonia. A calf with diarrhea may lose a lot of fluids, so we’ll give her extra electrolytes along with her milk to replace the fluids she loses (kind of like Pedialyte for children). She might also get a bolus (large pill) that helps promote good gut health to help get her through the illness.

With pneumonia, calves are treated with an antibiotic to help kill the infection. We work with our veterinarian to provide medicine to calves when they’re sick – just like you may work with your doctor to treat you and your family when ill. And, when our milking cows get medicine, their milk is withheld from the market and does not enter the food supply. The milk – and meat – you buy at the grocery store never contains antibiotics.

Caring for our calves might not sound so different than caring for your children. We do our best to prevent sickness, but sometimes, farm animals just get sick. And then we do everything we can to get them back to healthy. Just like kids, our farm animals rely on us to take care of them no matter what is going on in the world. It’s so important to me and my family to provide them with the best care possible, so that hopefully they can live long, happy lives.

John and Aaron Mitchell


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