Dairy is delicious! Ice cream, butter, milk, and yogurt: many of us eat some form of milk-based product several times a day. Unless you’re buying directly from the farmer though, it’s often difficult to know where your dairy products come from. Here at the Billings Farm in Woodstock, Vermont, we’ve been in the dairy business for 145 years, with our award-winning herd of Jersey Cows. As an educational center serving more than 55,000 visitors per year, we are committed to being open about our farming practices and the way we care for our herd of 70+ cows, heifers, and calves.
We’ve compiled this handy guide to share information about what it takes to keep our Jerseys healthy, productive, and content: their diet, how we breed them, and much more…
If you have a question we haven’t addressed or would like to learn more, please contact our farm manager Alayna at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please remember: you can visit our wonderful Jersey cows and other animals at Billings Farm & Museum in Woodstock, Vermont, every day from 10-5 during our season (April 1st to October 31st) and 10-4 weekends/vacation weeks (November to February).
About our Cows
Our herd enjoys evenings and nights outside during the warmer months.
Jerseys are one of six major dairy breeds in the United States. Although Billings Farm began importing Jerseys from the Isle of Jersey back in 1871, today only a small percentage of the dairy cows in America are Jerseys. While Jerseys produce milk rich with butter fat (making it ideal for dairy products), they’re relatively small and low-producing compared to Holsteins, the black and white breed that make up the vast majority of cattle in this country.
The typical Jersey weighs between 800 -1100 pounds and stands around 48 inches tall. Sometimes, visitors remark that they look skinny, but all of our animals are well within the correct weight-range. Prominent hips and pins are healthy in dairy cows, where bulk is much less important than it is in the beef industry. Unlike beef cattle, dairy cows use their energy to produce milk instead of fat, and are rightly considered the athletes of the bovine world!
Below you’ll see Fireball, one of our foremost show cows. She’s considered the ideal shape for a Jersey, from the straightness of her back, the composition of her udder, and her deep, springing rib (characteristics we refer to in the industry as her dairy character).
Fireball, one of our show cows.
A lively breed known for being prima donnas, Jersey cows are feisty, smart, and enjoy acting out. If socialized early, they can form amazingly close and affectionate bonds with humans and other animals. As an educational farm with a small herd, it’s possible for us care for our cows individually, rather than as numbers or statistics. Every animal at Billings Farm has a name and we take their health and personality into account when making decisions, as you’ll see below…
Farm Manager Alayna with Brianna, one of our show cows. Interactions like this are importantin creating a positive and happy barn environment.
Billings Farm Jerseys are used to getting a lot of attention from the public (and love it).
We’re committed to breeding animals for longevity as much as for production. With this personalized care, our cows live far longer than the industry average of 5 to 7 years – with some Billings Jerseys reaching 13 or 14 years.
Sapphire, our oldest cow as of writing, turned 14 in the summer of 2016.
The Dairy Barn
The Billings Farm dairy barn is the nerve-center of our dairy operation. An average of 30 milking cows live here, with additional space for heifers (young females who have been bred but aren’t milking yet). Most of our girls have a large stall on either side of the central isle, with their own mattresses and 24/7 access to water via a fountain they can operate with their noses. The larger cows (and those who have health concerns) live in their own larger box stalls.
The Billings Farm Dairy Barn from the central isle. The floor is cleaned several times a day by our farm staff to ensure the highest level of hygiene possible.
A closer look at the individual stalls in the Dairy Barn. They have been built to accommodate a Holstein, which is much larger than a Jersey.
Bounty, one of our best-known show cows, relaxing in her private box stall.
During the summer, when the weather is warm enough to be comfortable, our Jerseys leave the barn following the afternoon milking and spend the night in the pasture where they graze and can socialize as a herd.
Our herd, heading out to pasture for the overnight.
Proper nutrition is critically important for dairy cows, to ensure they have the energy to produce milk and as well as provide nutrients for their offspring during pregnancy. An average Billings Jersey consumes about 80 pounds of food daily – a balanced diet of grain, baleage, corn silage, and dry hay and grass (during the summer). They drink the equivalent of a bathtub of water EVERY DAY!
Jerseys are almost always hungry (and quick to let you know it).
We’ve developed a comprehensive feeding schedule designed to maximize their intake and keep them healthy. Cows, like many people, are picky eaters. At one time we fed them separate portions of their diet, but we we soon discovered that they would nose away the feed they didn’t like to focus on the most appealing ingredients. To address this, we invested in a mixer wagon, which is basically a giant blender. We add the various dietary components and the mixer mushes them together into what we call T.M.R. or a Total Mixed Ration.
An example of TMR (Total Mixed Ration).
Our new mixer wagon, where we mix the TMR.
Our Jerseys are fed T.M.R. twice a day when they’re in the barn and are given a huge amount of hay on top of that. During the summer when they’re let outside to pasture every night, they also have access to a smorgasbord of free choice baleage and all the grass they can eat.
One of the Billings Farm pastures our Jerseys use during the warmer months.
When you spend time in the barns and see how much cows sleep, it’s easy to overlook the fact that cows are hard workers – each producing between 6 and 8 gallons of milk each day that is used in making Vermont dairy products, including our own 100% raw milk cheddar cheese.
We milk our Jerseys twice a day: at 4:00 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Because they are milked in their stalls rather than in a milking parlor, (common at most commercial dairy farms) our girls remain in their comfort zone as much as possible.
Prior to milking, the cow’s teats are tipped in a hydrogen peroxide solution and an iodine solution to prevent infection. Milking is done with a Delaval milking machine, which takes about three to seven minutes per animal. Hand milking would take 30 minutes per cow!
Breeding and Pregnancy
As visitors to the Billings Farm may notice, we don’t keep bulls on site. Jersey bulls are known to be aggressive and difficult to handle. Instead, we rely on Artificial Insemination (A.I.) for breeding, allowing us to draw from a much larger gene pool of potential sires from all over the United States. This practice makes it much easier to maintain superior genetics within our core cow families and has resulted in many prestigious awards from the Jersey community.
After a Jersey cow has been bred, it takes approximately nine-and-a-half months before she gives birth. During this period, the expectant mother is monitored frequently. For the final two months of her pregnancy, she’s removed from the milking line to “dry off” and turn all of her energy into providing nutrients for her calf. During the warmer months, our dry cows are put out to pasture full time, returning to the barn to give birth.
Two weeks before they’re due to calve, our cows are moved to a private stall at the rear of the barn and monitored regularly by our farm staff. Most Jerseys give birth without needing any help, but we’re always on standby for those that do! Once born, the calves spend their first few hours with their mother before being moved to our nursery just down the hall. This allows us to monitor the newborns for health concerns, protect their immune systems from harmful pathogens, and make sure they are eating well.