How do you keep cows happy in winter? These Northeast farmers have an answer

Cabot dairy farmers are using cutting-edge technology that incorporates environmentally friendly practices into their business to help improve animal care and increase milk production

REHOBOTH, Mass. -- Farmers in the Northeast deal with months of cold winters, but some of them are figuring out ways to make their cows more comfortable in the freezing temperatures. 

Since 1919, Cabot dairy farmers have gotten up before the sun rises to get to work. There’s no sleep for the weary because their cows need year-round care, seven days a week. 

However, Cabot dairy farmers are now using cutting-edge technology that incorporates environmentally friendly practices into their business to help improve animal care and increase milk production.

Consistency is vital with cows, whose ideal environmental temperature is 38 degrees.

Almeida Farms in Rehoboth, Massachusetts, invested $2 million in their smart barn technology. They can control the temperature of the barn with their smartphone.

"Quite a bit of the farm is controlled by my phone, which is really nice and always having to be here so I can check in on the cows," herdsman Katelyn Williams said. "We are always trying to keep that consistent temperature throughout the barn, and that’s really what keeps them happy."

A curtain around the barn controls helps control the temperature. Williams can adjust the curtain whenever she wants. So on a day when temperatures drop to the teens, the curtain will help keep the cows comfortable.

"We will move our curtains to kind of mirror that temperature and try to keep it at 38," Williams said. "We don’t want it to be freezing in the barn. The cows always need fresh water available to them, so we’re constantly trying to keep it right at that 30-degree mark in the wintertime."

Almeida Farms is one of about 700 New England- and New York-area farms that help make Cabot cheese. The creamery has farms in New York, Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Maine.

Williams said more farmers are turning to technology amid a labor shortage. 

At Almeida Farms, the cows get milked by robots. The automated milking system gives the cows complete control over when and how often they milk each day. Each cow will typically milk three times a day, producing 10 gallons of milk daily. 

Underneath the barn’s concrete, directional magnets help tell feed-pushing robots where to go. The feeder will come out every two hours to push up the feed, even at night, when no farmers are present.

"Which is a big time-saver for me and really helps to keep the feed available for the cows around the clock," Williams said.

Robots also help clean up the feed and put sawdust on the cows’ beds.

The cows also wear what Williams calls a cow "Fitbit" that tracks their habits, how much they are eating, how much they are moving and if they have a stomachache.

"The transponders around their neck are what identifies each cow as she goes into the robot, as well as that gives me quite a bit of data from day-to-day," Williams said. 

The devices constantly tell Williams how much activity the cows are having and their eating time.

"It really helps me determine which cows maybe aren’t feeling their best, and I can quickly identify them," William said.

And all that feed has to go somewhere. A single cow can poop up to 30 gallons every day. A squeegee constantly scrapes manure into floor grates to clean the barn floor.

On some farms, Cabot said, the manure enters into a digester where it is converted into electricity for local homes and businesses. It can also be converted into biogas to heat water or replace propane. Liquids from the manure are also used as fertilizer for crops, while the odorless solids are used in cow bedding.

And who doesn't like a good back scratch now and then? Self-activated bristle brushes provide that to cows whenever they want, in addition to keeping them clean.

So the next time you take a drink of milk or eat a piece of cheese, you can thank the innovative farmers and their use of technology that is changing farming and cow care.