Dairies pamper their cows with massages, waterbeds

Veterinarian Sara Gilbertson performs a chiropractic adjustment on a dairy cow in Cleveland, Wis., May 16, 2012. While there is no scientific data to back up the claims, dairy farmers say they believe contented cows give more milk, and are turning to creative tactics to keep their cows comfortable, from waterbeds to rest on, to classical music in the barn and the occasional massage. AP Photo/Dinesh Ramde

(AP) CHILTON, Wis. - Lucky, a 7-year-old dairy cow, had been walking with a limp for several weeks when veterinarian Sara Gilbertson was called. Instead of prescribing painkillers, Gilbertson tried an unusual new therapy — a chiropractic adjustment that included a full-length spinal massage.

Gilbertson rubbed the Holstein's spine by gently squeezing it from neck to tail, pausing to apply firm pressure to one hip and readjust several vertebrae. The cow stood in calm silence, moving only enough to reach another mouthful of hay. Later, as Lucky reclined on a bed of sand, Gilbertson noted with satisfaction how relaxed and comfortable the animal seemed.

Cow comfort has become a key concern for the nation's farmers, who have known for generations that contented cows give more milk. The traditional techniques for keeping cows happy aren't complicated — feed them well, keep the temperature comfortable and give them room to move around. But some dairy farmers are turning to a new array of creative options intended to keep cows as mellow — and productive — as possible.

Some farmers have installed waterbeds for their cows to rest on, while others play classical music. And some hire animal chiropractors to give older cows a tuneup and correct minor issues in calves, all part of the effort to ensure maximum milk output.

Do the methods really work? There's no sound scientific data to back up the claims, but dairy farmers say they can see the difference with their own eyes — cows are giving more milk, the milk quality is improving and the herds seem to be enjoying the indulgences.

"It's kind of like how an athlete with a sprained ankle isn't as productive," said Larry Meyer, 36, whose parents own the dairy farm in Chilton, Wis., where Lucky and another 115 dairy cows live. "If you can get a cow healthy and back to normal, it makes a difference in their productivity."

Veterinarian Sara Gilbertson performs a chiropractic adjustment on a dairy cow in Cleveland, Wis., May 16, 2012.
AP Photo/Dinesh Ramde

Cows can suffer injuries if they slip on a slick spot of concrete or get stepped on by another 1,500-pound bovine, and some calves get their necks kinked during the birthing process. The injuries can cause pain when the animals stand, making them reluctant to jostle for food and leading to compensatory injuries. That, in turn, leads to less milk production.

That's why farmers are willing to spend about $75 per session for a chiropractic adjustment.

"The cows tolerate it incredibly well," said Gilbertson, the veterinarian. "They may be apprehensive at first, until they figure out how good it feels."

Meyer didn't have specific figures on how much milk Lucky gave following her chiropractic treatments, but because her mother was the most productive cow in the herd, he wanted to make sure Lucky was in good shape.

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