Valentine’s Day on the farm: what it means to love your animals

The sweet Jamie and Zoe

The sweet Jamie and Zoe

Meet my new love, Jamie. A “leopard Appaloosa”, he’s not the prettiest horse on the planet but he may well be the sweetest. At the ripe old age of just eight, he was the embodiment of freedom for some of our most vulnerable Australians as a Riding for the Disabled (RDA) mount.

Certainly, he has the calm, unflappable nature required but he got bored of walking gently around and around an arena. For Jamie is quite a character, smart enough to drink Coke from a can or juice from a box.

Farm life suits this inquisitive fellow down to the ground. There are always people coming and going, cows on the move and Jamie loves nothing better than a ride in the bush. We feed him carrots, brush his silky spotty coat until it gleams, take care of his health, smother him with affection and, in return, Jamie keeps me sane and more alive than I’ve felt in years. It’s a contract written in love.

Jamie wears his heart on his hide

Jamie wears his heart on his hide

I’ve always considered myself a horse rider even during the last seven years of being horseless. When Zoe was just a toddler and the grief from my father’s death was still raw, I had to put down my best friend, Mistral. No matter what the vet tried, she was in debilitating pain with arthritis.

Mistral

Mistral

Over the 22 years we were together, Mistral and I came to trust each other implicitly; we could face anything together. Her loss was devastating. But I owed it to her.

Anyone who cares for animals has to be courageous and selfless enough to put their well-being first. That’s what we aim for every day here on the farm when we are making decisions that affect their lives. And, let’s face it, nearly everything we do has an impact on the animals who share our home.

Farmers are accused of not talking about animal welfare enough. It’s difficult, just as raising the topic of child welfare would be, err, unpopular at a kindergarten barbeque. Nobody wants to have their parenting or animal care standards questioned – it’s insulting. But maybe it’s something we need to face with the same selflessness and courage we animal lovers expect of ourselves when it counts.

Work with me to look after our cows

I want to give every one of our cows a better life. It may sound grandiose but I think of myself as their guardian.

BoldHeiferLoRes

I am not a corporation, not a money-hungry investor looking to tear a quick buck off the backs of our cows. No, I am in this for the long-term, not five years or a decade but for the generations beyond mine. Every time I plant a new trailer-load of trees, I imagine the deep shade they will cast when my children reach middle age.

How we planted trees 40 years ago

How we planted trees 40 years ago

Every calf we rear is fed with enough colostrum to bless her with a long and healthy life, not just until market day. And the herd is scrupulously isolated from disease like BJD, not just for now, but for generations of cows to come.

No rest for the mother of twins

A perfect multi-tasking mother cow!

I’m not an aberration, not a monster, just a farmer doing her best. So don’t tell me I am cruel if you don’t understand – or approve of – the way I care for our animals. Sit alongside me in the paddocks and, together, perhaps we can work out a better way.

 

The freedom to be a cow

It’s not just Cheeky Girl who magically appears out of nowhere. I had to go down to the paddock after milking to check on the cows and found myself being stalked by a tall, dark stranger.

It’s a lot of fun just sitting, watching the cows. Real individuals, some are curious, some are timid, some haughty but, without exception, dignified.

There’s a fine balance in our interactions. Yes, we milk the cows but it is they who dictate the flow of our days, months and lives. Everything from wedding dates to annual holidays are chosen to avoid calving season, a time when all hands are focused on the safe arrival of the next generation.

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The Life of the Dairy Cow

1441 aka "Cheeky Girl" on the left

1444 aka “Cheeky Girl” on the left with the pink nose

Meet 1444, known to us as “Cheeky Girl”. If you were in the paddock alongside me, she would certainly want to meet you. As a calf, a yearling and now, a mature cow, Cheeky Girl’s always been one of the first in the herd to wander up to you in the paddock. You’re busy working on the fence, you turn around to see who’s sniffing you and there she is, every time!

Vegan group, Voiceless, today launched an “expose” of cruelty to Australian dairy cows called The Life of the Dairy Cow: A Report on the Australian Dairy Industry. Continue reading

Skeletons in the dairy case

CowsDairyTrack

We know we are not perfect, we realise we must do better and we are proud of how far we have come.

Our cows live better lives than they did when I was a girl. Careful breeding has reduced the incidence of mastitis and lameness, while a new understanding of bovine nutrition has reduced the risk of calving trouble and helped us insulate the cows from the impact of both drought and flood. Our first generation of naturally polled (hornless) calves has just been born.

Even so, dairy farmers will one day earn a prime-time feature for all the wrong reasons. It could be someone doing the right thing that looks like the wrong thing: Continue reading

On your marks for Spring on the farm

Spring starts tomorrow

Spring starts tomorrow


I’m excited. Fertiliser’s going on, calves are still being born and raised, almost all of the milkers are in and we are joining again with an eye to the next generation. The grass is growing a new leaf every seven days and, before we know it, the silage harvest will start.

This is the make or break time of year when everything has to be done right. Miss cutting a paddock of silage by a week and it could mean buying in expensive fodder later, miss a cow’s readiness to mate and it could cost you $250 in lost milk, miss a problem calving and it might cost a cow’s life.

All our skills are tested in Spring – from biology through to animal behaviour – so we need tools to help us.

We stick “scratchy tickets” on each cow’s back to make it easier to see when she’s ready to mate. Okay, she’s got no chance of winning the lottery but the silver coating of these stickers gets rubbed off when other cows leap onto her back in response to her hormonal cues, revealing hot pink, yellow or orange tell tales underneath.

The results of summertime soil tests and the advice of our agronomist allow us to maximise the performance of our pastures while minimising the impact on the environment.

Knowing when silage involves crawling around the paddocks keeping a close eye on grass growth, then entering the results into a clever little “Rotation Right” spreadsheet devised by our guru friends at DEPI.

But raising calves and watching over expectant cows? That’s a whole lot of tender care, time and generations of farming knowledge (yes, yes, combined with the latest advances in science).

This is when a farmer really knows she’s alive!

Watch a calf being born

Although we keep an eagle eye over cows as they approach calving time, most give birth perfectly naturally without any help from us just like this lovely lady. Her calf was up and walking within the hour and running by the afternoon. These little animals are amazing sprinters! Just ask eight-year-old Zoe, who tried and failed miserably to outrun a three-day-old calf this morning!

A milkmaid’s dirty linen and why you shouldn’t see it

In the three years since I started Milk Maid Marian, I’ve written about everything we do here on the farm. I’ve got nothing to hide. Well, almost nothing.

You haven’t seen our kids running around starkers in the paddock because, goodness, there are some weirdos out there and, in any case, my little people deserve some privacy.

You haven’t seen much in the way of veterinary treatment, either. I’ve written about sick cows here and here, for example, but I’m not going to post a picture of a newly-lanced abscess; me in action using a tractor to lift a cow threatened with paralysis; or the face of a cow in recovery after eye cancer surgery.

Why not? Because it would be unfair. You might not want to see graphic images as you munch your muesli and, second, the images could be abused. In the name of a higher cause, it’s not unknown for activists to take images of cows being nursed back to health and portray them as abuse.

My family’s privacy and the potential for misleading the public are two reasons why I shudder to imagine activists creeping onto the farm or spying on us with drones. I’m naturally protective, so when an email came through from an animal welfare group on just this topic today, I read it with a sense of dread. Here’s part of what it had to say:

“Alarmingly, support for ag-gag legislation is slowly creeping into politics here in Australia.”

“Ag-gag targets undercover investigators, whistleblowers and journalists by criminalising the undercover surveillance of agricultural facilities or by requiring that any footage which is obtained must be turned over to enforcement agencies immediately rather than given to animal protection groups or the media.”

My farm – my home – is an “agricultural facility”, you see.

And, you know what? If cruelty on a farm was recorded, I’d want the information to get to the enforcement agencies immediately so the animals could be rescued straight away rather than whenever it fitted in with the media cycle, wouldn’t you?

Feeling stressed? Come and sit in the grass with the cows

“What’s so special about that?” asked Zoe. “Nothing, and that’s why I thought we should put it on the blog.”

Apart from the twice-daily walk to and from the dairy, this is how our cows spend their time.

You won’t see footage like this anywhere else, I suspect, and certainly not on 4 Corners. There’s nothing sensational about it except perhaps that, right before your eyes, these cows are transforming grass into one of nature’s wonder foods (while wondering what the hell I’m doing sitting on their breakfast).