We keep around 320 Fresian cows at the farm. They are all black and white and look like this girl below, who stands 1.5 metres tall,is 2.5 metres long and weighs between 600 to 700 kgs.
Each cow has a number freeze branded on her rear so that she can be recognised and eartags for official identification (which frequently fall out). There are far too many cows for individual names and the computer only understands numbers, although pedigree cows often share the name of their parents.
To the untrained eye all cows tend to look the same but in reality they are as different as you and me. They vary in size a lot. They often have different shaped heads and bodies with some taller or fatter than others. The most obvious difference is the amount of black and white on their bodies and the patterns it shows. Fresians typically have a white triangle above their eyes but this girl here has a white stripe to the nose. They also have white 'socks' too, meaning white most of the way up the leg. They are all different to look at and the more time you spend with cows the easier it is to recognise them.
Cows by nature are docile animals and rarely agressive. They only tend to show aggresion when they have a calf at foot but you can never be too sure. The rule of thumb when dealing with an animal of this size is to be careful and give them plenty of room to move. They may appear large, dopey and uncoordinated but cows are remarkably quick for their size and could maim or kill in an instant, if the mood should take them. They all have individual personalities like the rest of us, so you can not guarantee how they will react to you. Its better to be safe than sorry.
Cows are happiest when they are part of a group or herd. As their instinct is to live together in a herd, that is the best way to keep them on the farm. We only seperate cows from the herd for important events such as calving.
The photo below shows about 280 cows grazing together in the spring.
How much does a cow eat?
As you would expect with large animals cows do eat a lot. And milking cows have an enormous appetite, typically eat between 10 and 18 percent of their bodyweight every day. Thats 50 kgs of dryish food or 100kgs of fresh grass. To put it another way, a milking cow could eat the weight of a vw golf in grass in 12 days. Cows are particularly well adapted for eating so much, as their stomach is split into four compartments. This allows them to regurgitate eaten food whilst they are lying down and to chew it again to break it down. This is known as chewing the cud and its happens for about 8 hours a day. Cows often do this lying down and they like to spend at least half of the day off their feet.
So is it true that cows also lie down if its about to rain? No, thats an old wives tale. If you see them lying down in the field together its likely that they are chewing their cud after a big grazing session and just resting.
Why do cows have such an enormous apetite?
Well, partly because they are such a large animal but mainly because a milking cow can produce huge quantities of milk and needs to eat a lot of food to do so. The nutrients from the food that she eats is digested in her stomachs and absorbed into the bloodstream.
Amazingly, for every litre of milk a cow makes, more than 400 litres of blood must travel around her udder to deliver the nutrients and water for making milk. A cow has about 45 litres of blood in her body, so her blood is always on the move around the udder to keep making milk.
What do cows eat?
The cow's main food is grass which they graze from the fields for much of the year. In the winter they are fed silage which is made from excess grass which is harvested (silaging) in the summer. This is fed with maize and fodder beet which is grown by neighbouring farmers. Cows are also fed a wheat or barley pellet in the milking parlour which is high in energy helps to balance their diet.
How much milk does a cow produce?
All cows are different, like all people are different and their ability to produce milk varies hugely. There are many different breeds and strains of breeds of cow which determines how much milk they can produce.
The cow in the picture above is a holstein fresian and is capable of producing over 40 litres of milk per day. Her milk is used for drinking and is low in butterfat. But many other breeds, such as a Jersey, produce less milk but with more butterfat and protein in it. This is often used for making cheese.
The graph below shows how much milk a holstein cow can produce during her lactation. She starts off producing a few litres per day which will peak to over 35 litres per day, 2 months after calving. Her milk yield will steadily fall as her lactation continues, dropping down to merely a few litres before she is dried off.
Different types of cow are used on different sorts of farms. The black and white Fresian/Holstein cow is more suited to an indoor life as it prefers lots of dry food to eat. Jerseys, Guernseys, Shorthorns and other traditional British breeds are better suited to grazing grass outside and although they produce less milk they are also cheaper to look after.
Sometimes farmers cross one breed with another to produce a cow that has the best of both breeds. That is what is happening at the farm now as my Holstein/fresians are being bred with a Jersey Bull. I am hoping to produce an animal with good milk production, that also is better suited to eating grass and living outside.