Trailside: Claira Johnson

Claira Johnson, 3 years old, helps feed the calves on the Trailside Holsteins farm.

FOUNTAIN, Minn. – With the holiday season comes the cold temperatures, and just a couple weeks ahead of Christmas, Minnesota got its first real winter freeze. At Trailside Holsteins, work is being done to protect their cows and calves during the arctic blast.

“We've been getting things bundled down for the cold temperatures, making sure everything's sealed up,” said Michael Johnson of Trailside Holsteins. “Getting is everything bedded down.”

Bedding down starts with the young calves. Trailside Holsteins raise all their own replacement heifers, so there is never a shortage of young calves to take care of on the farm.

Up to two months old, the calves are housed in individual calf huts outside.

“When we get cold weather, we’ll put jackets on all the little babies and we make sure they've got good straw bedding, enough to lay down and get insulated in,” Michael said.

If it gets extremely cold, they have doors that they will put on the huts. The doors keep the calf out of the wind and help to hold more heat inside the hut.

“For the most part, the little babies do really good in those huts, as long as they can get out of the wind and you've got enough calories going through their stomach,” he said. “They do a good job of taking care of themselves.”

The calves will receive extra solids, fat and protein, in the milk they are given during these temperatures. The extra solids give their digestive tract more compounds to work with and their bodies more calories to burn in order to generate more heat.

The milk will also be heated to a higher temperature to ensure it is still warm by the time it leaves the shed and gets delivered to the calf.

“We give them warm water twice a day and then we have to dump it before it freezes. It definitely adds more work having to keep those thawed out and unfrozen,” he said. “It's amazing, the cattle still drink a lot of water even when it gets cold. Water is still a very important ingredient in their diet.”

Once the calves are older, over two months, they get moved into a monoslope, open-front barn and are housed in groups of around four to a pen. Again, having adequate bedding down for them to lay in is a priority. The Johnsons also work to close any drafts in the barn and keep the calves out of the wind.

“The animals do okay in the cold. It’s actually the 30-45-degree temperatures that are probably some of the worst temperatures for cattle,” Michael said. “When it gets below 30, stays in the 20s, or even down to zero, cows and calves do really well.”

The trouble with the 30-45-degree temperature ranges is that it commonly leads to more respiratory diseases. When it is very cold, those disease aren’t as active, but they seem to flourish in the moderately cold weather.

The fluctuating between cold and warm also takes a toll on their immune system, making them more vulnerable to disease.

For the cows, getting them ready for winter means making sure the barn is functioning properly, getting the curtain sides up and the garage doors closed.

“Making sure all the doors are working properly is probably the biggest thing that we have to do,” he said. “Over the summer, they don't get used and things get rusted and have to be fixed. We make sure they're ready for the winter again.”

The only heat source in the cow barns is the cattle themselves. They generate enough heat to keep the barn above freezing, keeping the waters and water lines from freezing.

It is not all farm work for Michael and his family as Christmas approaches.

“My church that I'm involved in had our lutefisk dinner (on Dec. 8) and I'm in charge of all the dishwashing,” he said. “I was down at the church late washing all the lutefisk dishes at the end.”

In a town of about 1,200 people, over 800 were served the dinner. The church doors were open for about four hours as people from all over, not just Fountain, came to enjoy the Norwegian holiday treat.

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