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In Deep Freeze, How One Farmer Keeps Cows Warm And The Milk Flowing

Melody Bodette
Young calves stay warm with blankets and a hay igloo at the Sweet Farm in Fletcher.

Just as Vermonters are thawing out from a subzero temperatures, snow on Thursday will be followed by dangerous wind chills on Friday and Saturday.

Those temperatures are tough on the humans, but the state is also home thousands of dairy cows. How do all those cows, and their farmers stay warm? VPR visited one dairy farm to find out.
At the Sweet Farm in Fletcher, Kelly Sweet milks 255 Jerseys and Holsteins in a modern facility using robotic milkers. Dry stock and young cows live in other barns, bringing the total number of dairy animals to around 500.

Sweet's son is the sixth generation on the farm, but the big green barn is only 5 years old and because it was built with temperature extremes in mind, the Sweet Farm weathers the cold with a bit less stress than in the past.

"If you don't build for those conditions, it's your own fault. It's not like we're retrofitting what we already have," he said. "If you've been through cold weather, and dealt with cold before you say, let's do something so we don't have to deal with that in the future."

Sweet says they don't worry about cold weather until it stays below zero during the day. "If it drops to  15 below  and then warms up during the day above zero, you're ok. If it stays below zero it gets harder. The water tanks and everything get more ice build up and it's a little harder keeping the water running in the colder parts of the barns."

Credit Melody Bodette / VPR
A calf stands in front of a 'hay igloo' at the Sweet Farm in Fletcher.

In the newer milking facility, it stays about 42 degrees, even in winter.  And all of that heat comes from the air compressor that cool the milk, another compressor for the robotic milkers, and the cows' body heat.

"I read somewhere that each cow generates 2,350 BTUs. We have 255 of them in here keeping this barn warm," Sweet said. "It's hard to believe a barn this size there's no heat in this beside the cows." Sure enough, some sources say cows give off 4,500 BTUs per hour. The barn does have insulation in the ceiling and end walls, and the side curtains have an R-value of 2. They leave the equipment they use daily in the barn so it doesn't freeze up.

"You do what you have to do to get the job done and take care of your animals. That's the key. They've got to be taken care of properly because that's how we make our living." - Kelly Sweet, dairy farmer in Fletcher

The barn is cleaned with a unique flush system using water which is recycled. Sweet says the water is cycled frequently enough not to freeze. In the older colder barns, they're cleaned by skidsteer, which takes longer in freezing weather.

In winter, when farms aren't working in the fields, they focus on keeping cows fed, watered, and happy. And calves pose a particular challenge, but Sweet has a strategy.
"Our calves are in a colder facility. We did some different stuff out there, where we took some hay, stacked some hay and made like a hay igloo," he said with a laugh. "They go in there, and the body heat from the calves [warms them.] We put blankets to help keep them warm too. Young calves just don't have the coats to keep them warm or the fat reserves." When it's really cold, the calves get moved into the milking facility where it's warmer. They get extra hay to nestle into and get their legs tucked under their bodies.

Credit Melody Bodette / VPR
Body heat from dairy cows keep the milking barn warm at the Sweet Farm in Fletcher.

The farm's Scottish Highlanders, beef cattle, do stay outside in winter, but as they're built like Wooly Mammoths with heavy coats, Sweet says they're fine as long as they have food and water and extra bedding.

As for the farmers, Sweet says they complain about the cold just like everyone else in Vermont. He says milk truck drivers have been having trouble with freezing pumps. "But you get used to it, it's not fun, but you do what you have to do to get the job done and take care of your animals. That's the key. They've got to be taken care of properly because that's how we make our living," Sweet said.

The two days of warmer temperatures helped thaw things out at the Sweet Farm, just in time for more below zero temperatures this weekend.

Credit Melody Bodette / VPR
The Sweet Farm in Fletcher milks 255 Holsteins and Jerseys.

Melody is the Contributing Editor for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.
A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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