Author Archives: milkmaidmarian

About milkmaidmarian

Our family (me, my husband, little girl and boy) have a medium-sized farm in Gippsland, Victoria. Our farm is rain-fed rather than irrigated and has been in the family for generations. We love our farm and cows. We hope our blog, Milk Maid Marian We hope this blog helps other Aussies get a taste of life on the land.

The fragility and strength of a calf

I was out on a routine tour of the farm measuring pasture growth when I saw an unfamiliar white rectangle in the distance. It turned out to be a calf all alone in the milker’s overnight paddock, rump turned towards the icy rain you get in snow weather. It was two-thirty in the afternoon and, somehow, a cow that should not have been anywhere near ready to calve, had calved during the night and been brought in for the morning’s milking leaving her newborn in the paddock.

This can happen. Pregnancy testing is not perfect. Maternal instincts vary. Calves hidden in the grass are almost impossible to see at the 5.30am roundup. All so excusable but face-to-face with the abandoned newborn, unforgivable, too.

The calf was a strong, snowy-white heifer who seemed relieved to see me and stood quietly as I gathered her in my arms, staggering under her 40kg weight. There was about a kilometre’s travel along the track to the warmth of sheds, so the only option was to hold Snowy tight on my lap as I drove. I say “on my lap” a little loosely. The gangly calf had her rear trotters on the floor by my right foot and her neck pinned under my left elbow.

All went remarkably well until I took my foot off the accelerator as we reached an electric rope stretched across the track and Snowy decided to seize control, stomping on the pedal hard, sending us careering into the rope at high revs. A few moments later and me feeling a little less casual about my copilot’s role in the journey, we were on our way again. As we rounded the knoll, the sun broke out and I saw the first arrivals for the afternoon milking clustered at the yard entrance.

Would Snowy’s mother be there? Urging Snowy under the wire towards the cows, I hoped for a miracle and out of the group marched a mostly white cow freshly painted with question marks. There are lots of signs, some of them quite subtle, when a cow is ready to calve and Wayne had spotted some changes in Snowy’s mother that morning.

Snowy's mother claims her.

Snowy’s mother claims her.

Watch here as Snowy briefly follows an aunt before being tucked back in again for a drink by her mother.

Snowy and her mother spent the evening together and both are now doing really well. Calves are resilient little creatures but they really do need extra TLC in their first few days to set them up for long, healthy lives.

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Filed under Calves, Cows, Farm

The great Aussie family dairy farm vs the corporate 10 bagger

MorningWorkersLoRes
With all the gorgeous artworks blu-tacked in pride of place and treats devoured, the kids and I spent much of Mother’s Day together in the great outdoors maintaining fences. They rode their bikes through the puddles while I launched an all-out attack on the tangles of blackberry canes shorting out the hot wires.

Not that any of that is unusual: right across Australia, there would have been kids helping to get in the cows, feed the poddies or hose the yard. In fact, 98% of Australian dairy farms are family affairs and everyone gets their hands dirty.

The other 2% of farms are corporate-owned and this group seems to be growing fast. Everyone from Gina to the Chinese see dairy as the new white gold and investment dollars are flowing in fast.

Investors want control and they only want to invest their big wads of cash in big operations, not in average farms like mine. They boast that consolidating farms, achieving economies of scale and enhanced bargaining power with the processors will turn dairy farms into lucrative “ten baggers“.

On the other hand, large corporate farms are not always appealing to their prospective neighbours. They have large footprints in small communities fearful of increasing numbers of trucks growling up and down quiet country roads, massive effluent ponds and, perhaps most controversially, large sheds housing large herds.

The new Chinese owners at Kernot in Gippsland, for example, must be wondering whether their investment really is welcome. Opposition to the proposed largely housed dairy operation from Kernot locals has been furious.

The concerns of Kernot residents has been amplified by the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance, which says “dairy intensification is not the way to a fair food future” and took a stand against the farm on April 17 in commemoration of:

“April 17th, the International Day of Peasant and Family Farmer Struggle is an occasion to recognise the negative impacts of the industrialised food system on small-scale agriculture, and to remember those who have died fighting for their right to food and the freedom to produce it.”

“Died fighting”? Should I rage against intensification and, emulating French farmers, demand some form of protection so that I may remain a peasant?

Source: Daily Mail

That’s not really the style of Aussie farmers. We get cranky at local discussion groups and carry on milking. Why? I think it’s partly because there is no real solution. We can’t have tariffs because we rely on free trade for a fair go in international markets, we don’t have cheap labour or the lax laws of many competitors (and would rightly rail against that anyhow) and even a superpower co-operative cannot offer enough protection for exposed farmers when bitterly cold trade winds blow.

The difficulty is that we produce a commodity that is traded on now dizzyingly volatile international markets. Surviving and thriving on the rollercoaster demands the ability to keep costs low in tough times. Ironically, that hits corporates particularly hard, who must keep paying wages no matter what and whose investors tend to have less patience to ride out the bumps.

Unless the big corporates have access to especially favourable and stable markets, like the A2 Milk phenomenon that underpins the huge sheds of cows owned by the Perich empire, there are interesting times ahead for all of us – big and small.

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How Gallipoli put Grandpa on the land

Grandpa is the little boy in the gateway

Grandpa is the little boy in the gateway

My grandfather, Harry, first saw Melbourne on his way to Gallipoli. I imagine it felt like a ticket to a new life after a childhood framed by tragedy.

When his mother died giving birth to his brother, little Harry was left in the care of his Irish grandmother. He worked her hillside farm hard and, at one stage, never left the property for the good part of a year. The stories my own father passed down to me spoke of a Harry abandoned by his father and shown little pity.

When war came, Harry became an ANZAC light horseman and carried water to the front line. My aunt Heather says dysentery “saved him” from the Western front and nearly a year later, he was home and regarded as a man.

In 1917, Harry applied to secure a parcel of land under the soldier settlement scheme. The inspector recommended against it and his report forewarns of a battle too great for a returned soldier.

GrandpaSoldierSettler4cropLoRes

Mr Dermody’s advice made sense. I’ve been there many times and tried to imagine how it must have been 100 years ago. The valley is sweet but the property, known as Yosemite, does indeed reach up “precipitous” faces lined with cattle track terraces. Impossible country to farm with a tractor, nigh-on impossible with a fern hook and crosscut saw.

Although still recovering from dysentery and the psychological damage of war that he called “neurasthenia“, Harry’s ambition is palpable in his own submission.

GrandpaSoldierSettler6crop

Against the odds, Harry made it. And after his first two children were born around 15 years later, he built a new house with his bride, Pearlie, in the foothills down the valley.That is the place I remember when I think of Grandpa. Heather recalls her father wanting to sign up again in 1939 only to be told farmers were to remain on the land. So, she says, he resolved to buy the land we farm now in order to “do his duty and grow more food”. A notion almost incomprehensible in this era of plenty.

It’s to that lonely boy’s courage in the face of battle – both on the shores of Gallipoli and later in the hills of Gippsland – that I owe this farm. I will not forget.

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How our milk is tested for antibiotics

Milk testing

Yesterday, I explained why and how we use antibiotics to treat a cow who falls ill in the herd, together with what we do to make sure no antibiotics get in the milk that leaves the farm.

In this post, Fonterra’s quality manager for milk supply, Sarah Carter, answered a few questions about how the milk is screened for antibiotics by the milk factory.

MMM: Why is it important to keep antibiotics out of milk?
SC: Customers, consumers and markets have very clear requirements that dairy products are to be free of antibiotic residues. The two main reasons for this are: the risk of causing allergic reactions in humans (e.g. from penicillin), and the concern about a build-up of antibiotic resistance as a result of consumption of dairy products containing low levels of antibiotics.

MMM: What does the law say about antibiotics in milk?
SC: In Australia, the Australian Pesticides & Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) assesses agricultural and veterinary chemicals, such as cattle antibiotics, as being suitable and safe for use. They set Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) after undertaking a thorough evaluation, including a dietary exposure assessment. These MRLs apply to domestically-produced foods, and are set well below the level at which any residues would be harmful to human health. The MRLs are set at levels which are not likely to be exceeded if the approved label instructions on the antibiotic product are correctly followed.

MMM: How and when is the milk tested?
SC: Most, if not all, dairy companies test tankers of milk for antibiotics prior to unloading at the factory, to avoid any contaminated milk entering the supply chain.

A number of dairy companies will also have the individual farm milk samples randomly tested during each month to further discourage farmers from taking a risk and allowing a vat-load of milk to be collected where perhaps a treated cow had been accidentally milked.

At Fonterra, we have both these measures in places – we are very clear that to maintain and build the market relevance of our dairy products, dilution with milk from other farms in the tanker is not the solution.

MMM: How sensitive are the tests?
SC: There is quite a wide range of tests available to detect antibiotics in milk, and the detection limits for antibiotics vary between tests. All dairy companies have their antibiotic testing procedures audited by the relevant state dairy regulatory authority (such as Dairy Food Safety Victoria) to ensure that their chosen test method is suitable for purpose and based on a risk assessment.

Different test methods will have different sensitivities to the various active ingredients found in commonly-used antibiotics – there is a technical information note available on the DFSV website which lists the common tests and their detection limits.

MMM: What happens if antibiotic residues are detected?
SC: If antibiotics are detected at the tanker level (prior to unloading into the factory), the entire tanker load is rejected and the milk disposed of (e.g. via the factory environmental management system).

Traceback testing is undertaken on all farms on that tanker load, to identify the source of the issue. We then undertake an on-farm investigation to get to the root cause of the problem and put measures in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again. All antibiotic-positive tankers must be reported to the state dairy regulatory authority, and followed up with a report stating the findings of the on-farm investigation.

If antibiotics are detected on a random farm sample test, we again undertake the on-farm investigation to help the farmer identify what went wrong. We also undertake a trace-forward to check for any impacts to products manufactured from this milk.

Farmers receive a penalty for supplying antibiotic-contaminated milk, and this penalty increases significantly if it happens again – fortunately, repeat offenders are incredibly rare, which demonstrates that the investigation and corrective action process achieves what it’s meant to.

At Fonterra we also encourage our farmers to get in touch with our SupportCrew milk quality specialists, who can assist farmers with advice and support to minimise the risk of mastitis in the first place.

Thanks Sarah!

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Filed under Dairy Products, Fonterra, Milk quality

Mastitis, antibiotics and milk

Why do we use antibiotics on our farm? Very simply, because despite everything we do to look after their well being, cows, just like people, sometimes fall ill and need antibiotics to get better.

It’s very rare that any of our 260 milking cows become lame with an infection while digestive problems are almost unheard of here and, in any case, do not require antibiotics.

The number one illness we treat on our farm is mastitis. If you’ve breastfed a baby yourself, there’s a fair chance you’ve experienced mastitis. In both cows and women, the symptoms include swelling, warmth and redness for light cases. Nasty cases bring flu-like symptoms that, in cows, can progress to become extremely serious.

How we prevent mastitis
So, how do we reduce the incidence of mastitis on the farm? We begin even before the calf is conceived by selecting sires whose daughters show a naturally lower susceptibility to mastitis.

At the same time, we minimise the risk of infection by keeping the cows and their environment as clean as possible. Tracks are maintained so there’s less mud around to flick onto teats and cows are happy to walk straight to their grassy paddocks rather than spending their rest times on mucky surfaces.

Cows resting in the paddock

Cows resting in the paddock after milking

The cows are well fed with a carefully balanced diet that is mostly grass and we treat the cows with care to minimise stress. It’s a slow, gentle walk to the milking shed, there’s no shouting and if I see one of our cows run, there’d better be a good explanation!

The hygiene of the dairy is important, too. We clean any dirty teats before the milking machine cups go on and spray them afterwards with a mix of iodine and glycerine to disinfect and protect them. We also routinely test the milking machines to make sure they are gentle and effective.

And we’re vigilant. Not surprisingly, when you spend hours every day with the cows’ udders at face level, you notice a sore cow quite quickly. A sore cow is an unhappy cow and an unhappy cow is an unhappy milker, too. Everyone who milks in the dairy has been specially trained at a “Cups On, Cups Off” course to look for mastitis and put top priority on the comfort of our cows.

Sometimes, cows have sub-clinical infections that don’t show any symptoms, so every few weeks, we collect samples of milk from every cow and have them analysed at the local herd test centre lab.

It’s a lot of work but it’s important work. The comfort of the cows is our number one priority and there are implications for the quality of the milk, too. If there is too much mastitis in the herd, our milk has a shorter shelf life.

One thing we don’t do, however, is include antibiotics in the cows’ feed. Routine antibiotic use is not legal and would mean that none of our milk would be useable.

Treating mastitis
When we find a cow with mastitis, we don’t wait to see whether she goes downhill, we treat her immediately with the medicine prescribed by (and only available from) our vets to help her recover fast. Antibiotics help the cow feel better in a day and we keep on milking her so that her udder is well drained and kept as soft as possible.

Making sure milk is free from antibiotic residues
The milk we collect from a treated cow is tipped out until there is no risk of antibiotic residues in the milk. The antibiotics come with quite precise details of how long they remain in meat and milk. It’s critical information because nobody wants food laced with antibiotics, especially those with life-threatening allergies.

As precautionary measures, we:

  • paint the cow’s udder red as a warning to everyone in the dairy that she either needs more treatment or to have her milk disposed of,
  • write her treatment needs and the time her milk needs to be withheld from the vat on a whiteboard in the dairy for all to see, and
  • record all her treatment details in a quality and treatment register.

After she has finished a course of treatment, we check the cow again to be sure the infection has cleared up.

Testing for antibiotic residues
Even with all these protocols, it’s good to know that if milk contaminated with antibiotics somehow got into the vat, there are more safeguards in place. In the next post, a guest from milk processor, Fonterra, will explain how they test our milk for antibiotics.

The bottom line
Our cows live good, healthy lives and rarely fall ill but when they do get sick, we give them the best treatment available straight away. For people and animals alike, antibiotics are our last line of defence against misery and death, so we use them only when really needed and then with great care. And I don’t want to go back to a world without them.

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Filed under Animal Health and Welfare, Cows, Dairy Products, Farm, Milk quality

50 shades of green in an electrifying Easter

The big ones who weren't scared of me this morning

The big ones who weren’t scared of me this morning

There’s nothing black and white about being a farmer like me; there are about 50 shades of green. For this greenie farmer has a big problem that is not widely appreciated outside farming circles and, in fact, denied altogether by greenies of a different shade. It’s a kangaroo problem.

The side of the farm that adjoins state forest hosts about 300 kangaroos and wallabies every day and they’re quite literally eating us out of house and home. Last year, we and the cows harvested around 10 tonnes of dry matter per hectare (DM/ha) on the non-forest side compared to just 5 tonnes DM/ha on the half of the farm that sits next to the forest. The bottom line: it’s not even paying its share of the mortgage.

How could a few hundred macropods make such a dent in the farm when researchers say they don’t compete with cattle? First of all, the research was done in semi-arid land, which is not comparable to dairy farm pasture.

Rye grass, the dominant dairy farm pasture species, is sweet, much lower in fibre and easy to snip off at ground level if you have upper and lower teeth. Cows don’t – they only have one set of teeth and wrap their tongues around the grass to eat it – which limits how short they can eat the grass.

Kangaroos and wallabies have wonderful teeth for eating really tough native grass that also make it possible to raze less fibrous grass to ground level, which is exactly what happens on our farm.

Macropod teeth are brilliant for snipping off every last blade of grass. Source: howstuffworks.com

You could host a lawn bowls championship on our pastures closest to the bush, year round. Rye grass just doesn’t cope with that kind of pressure. It needs rest time between grazings so it can replenish its energy stores enough to push out new leaves and grow healthy roots.

Just a couple of years ago, we discovered that not even a vigorous fast-growing crop like oats can outrun our kangaroo population.

Oats eaten by kangaroos

Oats eaten by kangaroos

Oats guarded by dogs unaffected by kangaroos

Oats guarded by dogs unaffected by kangaroos

So, what are our options? We got a licence to cull 40 kangaroos a year but never fired a shot. It would be like trying to push back the tide and I have no appetite for creeping around in the chilly dawn air with a gun every week. I find it gut-wrenching enough to euthanase a suffering creature, let alone stalking Skippy.

Next, I tried the great Maremma experiment. Charlie and Lola have turned out to be fantastic livestock guardians but they’re almost too good. When a threat approaches their calves, Lola stays with the poddies while Charlie ventures out to see whatever it is off the premises. They are effective for about a 50 metre radius of the calves but not hundreds of acres.

Charlie and Lola love their bovine friends

Charlie and Lola love their bovine friends

I even investigated spraying dingo urine around the boundary and all manner of sonic deterrents but found them either ineffective or impractical.

It’s come down to a cracking great electric fence. I’ve taken out a new mortgage to install it with real regret because we’ve had to remove trees to put it in and I know we’re committing ourselves to a lifetime of intensive maintenance.

The roo fence

The roo fence

The fence is only halfway around the boundary so far but I’ve already got a taste of what it takes to make it work. It will take more than one nasty shock to convince our visitors to dine elsewhere and kangaroos prefer to go under rather than over fences, so I have to keep the fence fired up all the way down to the wire that almost scrapes the ground. Longish green grass is enough to sap power from the system and have the roos squeezing under again.

I’ve spent a lot of time with my fence fault finder this Easter and I have a suspicion the fun is just beginning.

Good excuse for a walk

Good excuse for a walk

So, being an ethical farmer is not as clear-cut as you might think. If I carried on as we have been, we would be providing a great breeding ground for hundreds more roos than the bush can sustain and saved the felling of what I’m guessing was a thousand trees.

Building the fence means a more resilient farm that no longer relies on fodder bought in from across the state. It also means that I might finally be able to extend our program of planting 1000 trees a year to add to our 27 hectares of native forest on that side of the farm without the seedlings being wiped out.

Most importantly, if I am being honest, it secures the farm for our children. What would you do?

From the forest into light

From the forest into light

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Filed under Environment, Farm, Pastures

The politics of Easter eggs

kids_spring06_egg_cow.jpg

Easter eggs are now a political football with Animals Australia is using them as an opportunity to spread the word – and the guilt – about eating food laced with dairy cruelty.

At the same time, the Australian Raw Milk Movement is preaching the gospel of Vicki Jones, the woman behind the recalled milk associated with the death of a toddler. Apparently cows being treated with antibiotics when they fall ill are “paying the price” for the milk we conventional farmers provide. Better to assume no animal on an organic farm ever falls ill (or can simply “disappear” if she doesn’t respond to a massage with magic cream).

It disheartens me tremendously that treating a sick animal with the best medicine available can be dressed up as some form of cruelty but I think I’d better get used to it fast. Why? Because there are two movements gathering pace in Australia: “food fear farming” and “orthorexia nervosa”.

Food fear farming for product differentiation
You can make money from frightening mums and dads in the supermarket.

Milk that contains added permeate (which is an ugly name for milk’s natural sugars and vitamins), is pasteurised, comes from cows fed some grain or is not organic can be made scary. And non-scary milk gets a lift!

This is a basic marketing principle called “product differentiation” and is used by marketers in every consumer goods category from toilet paper to life insurance to gain market share or justify a higher price.

“When we were conventional dairy farmers I felt so frustrated at being powerless in the industry but now we are price setters and have security. It actually feels like we are running a business.”
– Vicki Jones, raw milk farmer, The Weekly Times, 17 September 2014

The reality is that as the margins around milk become tighter and tighter, we can expect to see increasingly desperate attempts to differentiate milk brands from the mainstream.

Orthorexia nervosa
Nutrition lecturer at UNSW Australia, Rebecca Charlotte Reynolds, wrote in The Conversation recently, that:

Orthorexia nervosa, the “health food eating disorder”, gets its name from the Greek word ortho, meaning straight, proper or correct. This exaggerated focus on food can be seen today in some people who follow lifestyle movements such as “raw”, “clean” and “paleo”.

Of course, food-centric righteousness comes in many forms and I’m watching as animal activists and food activists come together.

That quest for purity teamed with the need to differentiate what is otherwise a commodity product is perfect for farmers and food marketers desperate to make a dollar. Sadly, it’s often at the expense of everyday farmers and shoppers like you and me. And, if they could have their way preventing the use of basic medicines like antibiotics, the wellbeing of innocent cows.

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