What’s so special about this calf?

Emily Brown of Linderlan Brown Swiss is a very clever young woman and dairy farmer and I am really pleased she accepted an invitation to write a guest post for me. Over to you, Emily!

First I’d like to thank The Milk Maid Marian for inviting me to do a guest blog! I feel very honoured and somewhat famous…

I’d like to introduced you to Olga, a brand new baby calf born recently, what’s so special about her you ask? (apart from how obviously adorable she is of course!) Well lots of things!

Olga the calf

Olga


Olga is a pure bred Brown Swiss dairy calf, she is four weeks old and loves to drink milk, eat grain and hay, and run circuits of the calf paddock at full speed with all her mates, but that’s not all, Olga came into the world in a very unusual way!

Olga was born via embryo transfer. This is where a superior cow is selected to produce embryos which get implanted into other, less valuable cows, resulting in more offspring from the very best cows. This is done by a special vet who gives the mother or ‘donor cow’ injections to stimulate multiple eggs to be formed, kind of like when someone has twins or triplets. They are then fertilised via artificial insemination, and after seven days flushed out and either implanted into another cow, or frozen to be implanted at a later date. Olga’s mum made six in one go!

So why do dairy farmers sometimes do embryo transfer? Well, we are always looking to use the best technology to ensure that we are breeding the healthiest, most productive animals we can. This enables them to live longer and better lives, which is great for the animal and the farmer!

But there’s another reason Olga’s mum was selected to produce embryos: not only has she lived a long time and produced a lot of high quality milk but two of her daughters and one of her grand-daughters have won Champion of their age groups at the biggest and most glamorous dairy show in Australia – International Dairy Week. This is where the most beautiful cows of the six dairy breeds strut their stuff every year.

Olga's Mum

Olga’s Mum

Let’s hope little Olga follows in her big sisters footsteps in the future, but with a little brother or sister on the way 10 weeks after she was born she might have some competition!!!

Olga's crew

Olga’s crew

What is going on in the calving paddock?

Calving trouble

Trouble with a capital T

A cow lying on her side with her legs stuck straight out like this is not a good sign. “She’ll just be in the throes of calving,” I told myself as Zoe, baby and I bounced across the calving paddock.

It was not to be – the little cow was trying to push out a massive bull calf who had become stuck just after his shoulders. His tongue was pink, his eyes shone but, sadly, he was gone. Our attention turned immediately to the cow for if left too long, she would almost certainly suffer paralysis.

We keep a strong rope in the calving paddock’s medicine chest to help with calvings when necessary. Although we select bulls with smooth shoulders and of medium stature in an attempt to avoid trouble, calves are sometimes just too big, turned the wrong way or the cow is simply too weary to manage it on her own.

Dairy cow calving medicine chest

Emergency supplies are kept in a chest in the calving paddock

I looped the ends of the cord around the calf’s feet, stepped into the circle and eased back with the cow’s contractions. Nothing. I tried again but the calf could not be budged. Heavy reinforcements in the shape of husband Wayne were called in and, thankfully, the calf was out.

By then, I’d discovered there was another cow in trouble. 196, who is 14 years old, had earlier given birth to a beautiful heifer calf and when I went to check on her, this is all she could manage.

Milk fever

My legs aren’t working!

Dear old 196 was suffering from milk fever. This is really a metabolic disorder suffered by cows who just can’t get enough calcium into their blood streams after calving. Calcium is vital in the control of muscles, which is why she didn’t have the energy to stand up. Because the heart is a giant muscle, milk fever can also cause heart failure and immediate treatment is vital.

We minimise the risk of milk fever by feeding the cows very differently in the three weeks before calving. Instead of grass, they get hay that’s low in potassium and grain, while we add anionic salts to their water. This regimen encourages the cows to release calcium into their bloodstream so it’s available in the hours of peak demand after calving. When milk fever does strike, we give the cows a drip that includes calcium and sugar. Most cows are as right as rain again in no time, as was 196!

Both cows taken care of, we turned around to go and goodness gracious, it was all happening, including yet another calving underway!

Calving Paddock

It’s all happening in the calving paddock!

Twin calves confuse cows as well as the cocky

This is what I found when I got to the calving paddock:

Who's who?

Too many calves, not enough cows.

 
Yep, two calves having a drink but what about that one over there sitting down? Twice the size of the other two but clearly still a newborn…

I watched the cows and calves for a few minutes while shifting the fence and during that time, the big one took a fancy to me as the mother cow (yes, I know what you’re thinking!).

Are you my Mother?

Are you my Mother?

Having decided I wasn’t much chop as a mother cow, this suckie decided to try his luck with another cow. A serious tussle ensued between the two mother cows over the same calf and eventually, this girl ended up with two heifer (female) calves about the same size and the other cow claimed the big bull calf. Phew!

No rest for the mother of twins

A perfect multi-tasking mother!

I say “Phew!” because the female twin of a bull calf is likely to be an infertile “freemartin” so it was extra important that the pair was two females.

And did you say “eew” when you saw the first photo? Apologies if you were eating! If not and you have a strong stomach, consider this article on eating your own placenta.

Welcome to the Big Outdoors, suckies!

Yesterday, these seven to 10-day-old calves rediscovered the joy of the Great Outdoors. They’ve been in our little calf shed since birth, warm and safe from foxes. Most importantly of all, we’ve been making sure they’ve had enough colostrum – the special milk produced by cows in the first days after calving – to set them up for long, healthy lives.

Early morning greeting as the farmer tends her animals

With a scorching 36 degrees Celsius forecast today, Zoe and I decided to get out on the farm nice and early. Amazingly for mid summer, it still looks lovely and green.

Cool morning

Cool before we cook

One of the first things we did was check on a calf in the sick bay. Dubbed “Pinky” by Zoe, this calf is about the same age as my own baby Alex – eight months – and is thriving but had an umbilical hernia that vet Pete operated on last week. We are spraying her with a pink disinfectant and fly repellant to keep her wound nice but it looks horribly inflamed as a result. She’s camping in a small paddock by the shed with a friend to minimise the amount of running around she does for the next week or so.

Pinky

Pinky recovers in the company of a friend

Zoe and I also stopped to top up Charlie and Lola’s pantry and say good morning to our semi-nocturnal Maremma guardians.

Charlie the sleepy Maremma

Good morning sleepy head

But it was a far less cuddly creature that greeted me when I went to check the milk chart.

Chart

Aaaargh...look who came out to greet me!

Yikes! Got to take the good with the bad!

Why we raise calves away from the herd

We don’t leave calves with the herd because, if we did, many would die and I’ve discovered that, sadly, many do die on hobby farms in the district despite the best intention of their carers.

On our farm, we take calves into a shed when they are one day old. They are kept in a pen on a bed of clean sawdust with one or two other newborns so we can make sure they suckle well and get enough colostrum (special antibody-rich milk produced by a cow immediately after calving) in the first vital 48 hours of life. This long-time farming practice has been supported by studies, which show colostrum intake affects the health and milk production of a cow right thoughout her life.

We can’t take for granted that the calf will get enough colostrum in the paddock because some calves just don’t get the idea of suckling early enough and some cows (often the youngest) are not the most attentive of parents.

Another good reason to keep the calves separate from the herd is to prevent the transmission of Bovine Johnes Disease (BJD). Calves are the most likely to be infected by this horrible and fatal wasting disease, described this way by DPI Victoria:

“Cattle are usually infected when less than 12 months of age. However, due to a long incubation period, clinical disease is often not seen until the affected animal is 4 or 5 years or older. Signs may appear after a period of stress such as calving, poor nutrition, heavy milk production or any other cause.

As the bacteria lodge and multiply in the wall of the small intestine, the cow responds by producing inflammatory cells. This combination of bacteria and cells leads to a thickening and distortion of the gut wall. Eventually the gut fails to absorb water and nutrients. In dairy cattle, the first sign is often a drop in milk production. Affected animals then develop chronic diarrhoea. Cattle gradually lose weight and become emaciated, while still maintaining a good appetite. They may also develop ‘bottle jaw’, a swelling under the jaw.”

After about a week, most calves are really good feeders, so we take them out into a small grassy sheltered paddock with a group of about 20 other calves. From there, they “graduate” to a larger paddock with up to 40 other calves. After they are eating about 1.5kg of pellets or grain each per day plus hay, they are weaned. Well fed and in the company of their peer group, this is a stress-free and exciting time for the calves.

The calves are fed a special high protein (18%) ration of grain, together with grass to keep them growing at their optimum. They are split into size groups so that none of the little ones miss out. Left in the herd, the smaller ones would not be able to compete for this essential food for growing bodies.

The herd is also a tough place for little creatures. Our cows are classed as medium-stature Friesians, yet weigh in at an average of 550kg each. I’d hate to have calves weighing just 40kg in a yard with 250 car-sized cows twice a day.

My brand new shiny thing is being licked all over!

Oooh. Look what I’ve bought.

BIG calf feeder

It's a monster!

I have been coveting one of these 1000kg capacity grain feeders for a couple of years now. Normally, we have to lug a tonne of calf pellets into troughs by hand every week. That’s a lot of 20kg bags and a lot of aching muscles.

The stars came into alignment this month though, when our store had a special on the 1000kg capacity monster and the stockfeed company announced they would supply us with calf feed in one-tonne bulk bags that we can handle with the tractor’s front end loader.

Calf food in a bulk bag

A week's dinner for our calves includes pasta

The feed is a mixture of grains that have a combined 18% protein content to help the calves grow big and strong and even includes pasta. The calves have wasted no time getting into their new dinners served up in my shiny new toy. Oh man, oh man, oh man!

Is it cruel to use bulls to get dairy cows in calf?

Bull  waits for cows

Hello ladies!

A dairy farmer speaking with ABC Rural reporter Michael McKenzie the other day didn’t really get to explain himself after suggesting that using bulls rather than artificial insemination was linked with inductions.

For decades, it’s been pretty standard practice on Australian dairy farms to use straws of frozen sperm rather than natural matings. Artificial insemination (AI) doesn’t hurt and using frozen semen allows farmers to select traits from the best bulls around the world.

Each bull is given a numerical rating for the characteristics they pass on to their daughters. The scope is amazing – everything from teat length through to temperament is measured – and we can use that information to select sires that will correct problems in the herd. If, for example, we have quite a few cows with short teats, we can choose a mate whose daughters tend to have unusually long teats.

In this way, our cows get naturally healthier and stronger, generation after generation. Better legs and feet means less lameness, while better udders means less mastitis (oh, and susceptibility to mastitis itself is on the list, too!).

There is a drawback though. People are rarely as good as bulls are at detecting when a cow is fertile. Bulls curl back their lips to seemingly drink in the pheromones undetectable to humans while frozen semen may also be less potent than that of a bull.

For this reason, most farmers who aim to have the herd calve over just a few weeks use AI followed by a short period of natural matings with “mop up” bulls.

The farmer was trying to say that he used just the AI, effectively mating his cows over less time. That’s his choice but I can’t see how it has any impact on whether a farmer uses drugs to induce an early calving. If you want a lot of calves in a short time, feed the cows well, choose sires well ranked for fertility and pull the bulls out early.

As you can see from other Milk Maid Marian blog posts, I believe inductions for any reason other than the welfare of the mother cow should be banned. I am not alone – most dairy farmers detest it. The practice is already almost wiped out, with only 1.58 per cent of Australia’s dairy cows induced in 2010. Still too many but a long, long way off the epidemic suggested in media reports.

Better care for bobby calves

There’s some good news about the welfare of our most vulnerable charges: young calves.

I hate selling any of our animals but we simply can’t keep all the bull calves. Our solution is to sell them to a neighbour over the river who grows them out until they are big, powerful two-year-olds. Not all dairy farmers have this option though and send them to market as young “bobby” calves.

For a long time now, there have been standards to ensure they are strong enough and fully fed before they leave the farm but once we hand over their custodianship, we could only rely on the decency of their buyers. The good news is that while governments have not been able to reach a consensus, the people involved with bobby calves have taken the lead and announced new national standards concerning their care.

The electronic scanning technology is already in place to make sure the standards are kept and I really hope that monitoring reveals the people who take calves from farms are already doing better than we expect.

I knew our heifers would be okay but I had to check

Yearling heifers

Our yearlings look lovely in their holiday home

Back in June, we were in big trouble. We’d had waaaay too much rain and there literally wasn’t enough dry pasture on the farm to feed all our animals.

I decided we had to send our precious heifers away on agistment. We were lucky enough to find a caring farmer just an hour away with just the right amount of land. While we know they are in good hands, it’s our responsibility to check in on them every few weeks and see how they’re going. Well, here they were today – looking great!

You can tell when yearlings are feeling good. They literally jump out of their skins. I walked into their paddock and caused massive excitement as they leapt and frolicked all over the place.

It’s been 12 weeks since their last drench and vaccinations, so we’ll organise another dose in the next fortnight to keep them looking terrific. They’ll meet their Jersey beaux later in the spring.