Category Archives: Cows

Dairy industrial action

inmilletlores

Day shift conditions are far superior to those at night

In a wave of industrial unrest over the weekend, dairy cows at Milk Maid Marian Inc began staging sit ins. On Saturday afternoon, the herd voted not to go into the night paddock until entitlements for the evening shift matched those enjoyed during the day.

An apology and explanation from the employer that the limited volume of dam water could only provide for daytime millet and turnips was enough to move the cows through the gate. But once again faced with the stark reality of honey-coloured pasture, the milkers voted unanimously to reinstate their stop work action.

goldpaddock

“You have got to be joking!” was the theme of the stop work meeting

After threatening to blockade the flow of milk, the cows entered into a fresh round of negotiations with the farmer on Monday.

The new remuneration package includes 6kg of grain pellets during milk harvesting, three hours of access to turnips following the morning milking, five hours of access to freshly irrigated shirohie millet and nightly silage to offset the honey pasture.

Addressing the herd, union secretary Pearlie Girlie said the industrial action was a wake-up call for the dairy sector.

“We understand and appreciate that the dairy sector is facing headwinds,” she said, “but weather conditions are no excuse to cut the living conditions of those at the coal face to unworkable levels.”

“All parties in the supply chain need to bear their fair share of the risk. In fact, those with the deepest pockets have the greatest responsibility to shoulder the load.

“Those who choose to ignore this fundamental truth will see production fall accordingly.”

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Free range milk in Australia

jamieoliver

Jamie Oliver has a new cause – free range milk. Of course, his focus is on the UK but what about here?

There are housed dairy cows in Australia but I’ve never seen one because they’re very rare – so rare, I don’t even know how many hours I’d need to drive to show you one.

When we talk about the “cow shed” here, we mean the dairy. Aside from milking time, our cows spend their days out in the paddock grazing pasture and munching silage or summer crops.

Dairy cows are much more commonly housed in difficult climates. Teats exposed to snow in Europe or the USA can freeze, while cows exposed to desert heat in Saudi Arabia can die of heat exhaustion. Keeping cows indoors in those conditions not only makes sense, it’s the only humane thing to do.

There are some cases, though, where cows are kept permanently indoors, just to make the most milk possible. Advocates of housing say the cows live lives of luxury and are not forced to walk long distances and endure the discomfort of bad weather.

I’ve got some sympathy for those arguments. On the other hand, studies suggest that cows prefer access to pasture and then, there are videos like this one showing Dutch dairy cows being let outside for the first time after winter.

Really intensive farms are popping up around the globe where thousands – even tens of thousands of cows – are housed and milked up to four times per day.

I’ve never been to one of these places, so find it hard to pass judgement on them but it’s even harder to forget watching a cow leap for joy as she greets the great outdoors.

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Filed under Animal Health and Welfare, Cows, Farm, Pastures

Meet the commercial cow challenger

Every cow is beautiful in her own way. Strong and dignified, yet warm and nurturing, it’s hard not to fall in love. But some cows are just more beautiful than others. Red, for example, is one of our favourites.

redwhiteyearling

Red as a yearling (teenager)

She’s a lovely quiet heifer with a very nice udder that milks out easily and Red has had no health issues since she joined the herd. Plus, there’s the X factor. Red is one of the first naturally polled (hornless) calves born on the farm and she was sired by a Holstein bull carrying a recessive red gene. No other cow in the herd looks anything like her, so you can see her from a mile away.

But does all that add up to a winning cow? To find out, we have entered Red in the local Commercial Dairy Cow Challenge. (If you live nearby me and want to enter too, you’d better get onto it now because entries close on Wednesday! The cows are judged on farm and there’s no need to wash, clip or shine the cows, so get onto it!)

I invited the Challenge’s chief steward, Aaron Thomas, who knows a thing or two about cow contests to help me scout for talent amongst the herd.

The cow’s milk production prowess is not considered by the Challenge judges – it’s all about the way the cow is put together. Even so, this is no mere beauty contest. All the elements that make a cow look good have long-term health benefits.

I asked Aaron to offer a quick appraisal of Red’s redeeming features and to identify some of his own favourites. Next, we did something decidedly silly and sought out our ugliest cow so Aaron could explain why ugliness is a health hazard for dairy cows. I videoed his appraisal of both cows. Poor Aaron. I suspect it may have been physically painful to discuss the poor second girl in detail.

Anyhow, the good news is that sentimental favourite Red and four of her herd mates are in the Challenge thanks to Aaron’s expert eye and encouragement! There are different classes for cows of all ages and the judge will visit the farm next week to assess the fab five. Fingers crossed!

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The haves and have nots of Australian dairy

CowTongue

I’ve had requests from farmers, investors, the media and even politicians for an explanation of how milk prices work (or don’t). I’m going to start with the factors that affect the price a dairy farmer in Australia’s south-eastern states receives.

  1. Who buys Old Macdonald’s milk?

The opening prices of most of the processors are in:

ACM $5.30
Bega $5.00
Lion (variable option) $5.00
NDP $5.00
Warrnambool Cheese & Butter $4.80
Fonterra $4.73
Longwarry $4.60
Burra Foods $4.40 to $4.60
Murray Goulburn $4.31
ADFC To be advised

It’s a massive spread of prices, with the top almost 25 per cent higher than the bottom. And it doesn’t stop there. The pricing systems are incredibly complex, with the prices no more than weighted averages. I know of a farmer supplying MG, for instance, who will receive just $3.79kg MS for his milk. I’ll explain that later in this post.

But, why, you ask, doesn’t Old Macdonald simply choose the buyer with the highest price?

It’s easy to change factories. You just call, make an appointment, fill in some forms and voila, a new sign hangs on the gate! But the reality is that there are lots of other factors in play:

  • Not all processors collect milk in every region. ACM, for example, does not collect milk from Milk Maid Marian’s district.
  • Many farmers are tied up with debts to their current processor or incentives for flat milk supply that would see them penalised tens of thousands of dollars for leaving.
  • Some farmers are contractually bound to the processor as part of share acquisition or “Next Gen” programs.
  • Then, there’s the waiting list. Processors tell me that since the opening prices were announced, there are hundreds of millions of litres of milk on waiting lists for new homes right now. The processors will cherry-pick those that suit their ideal profiles. In fact, many processors already have too much milk and have simply closed their books.

2. The breed of cows and what they’re fed
As a rule of thumb, if you’re not familiar with this industry pricing, you can convert prices expressed in kilograms of milk solids (kg MS) into cents per litre (cpl) by dividing by 13. So, $5.30 per kg of milk solids equates to 41 cents per litre and $4.31 equates to 33 cents.

It’s a formula that works pretty well for the 80% of Australian dairy cows that are the classic black-and-white Holsteins.

But not if your cows are Jerseys. Around 11% of Australian dairy cows are Jerseys, which produce around 30% less milk than Holstein Friesians but a lot more fat for every litre. According to ADHIS statistics, HF cows’ milk contains an average 3.83% butterfat and 3.24% protein, while Jersey milk is creamier at 4.76 % fat and 3.67 % protein. This means that returns from Jerseys appear higher than those of HF in terms of cpl and lower in terms of dollars per kg MS.

3. When the cows give the most milk
Every cow produces no milk for two months until she calves, then her milk production increases steeply for a couple of months before tapering off again. We call this her “lactation curve” and when you add together all the herd members’ curves, you get a farm’s “milk supply curve”.

It makes sense to have the herd’s milk production peak when there is the most grass in the paddocks. Inevitably, that’s in Spring. Of course, if all herds peaked in Spring, it would cause big trouble for the processors. The entire Australian dairy milk supply is getting less and less seasonal over time because the processors offer more money for “off peak” milk.

Here’s an excerpt from my own farm’s income estimate to show you just how much the price changes over the year with Fonterra.

FonterraTotal

For MG suppliers, the shift can be far more dramatic if suppliers elect to provide “flat milk” but I would need to dedicate a blog post to explaining this aspect of its system.

The differences in payment systems mean that even if a farm receives the average milk price from one processor, it might not from another.

4. Compulsory charges and levies
Most processors have compulsory charges that come off the headline price. These are not trivial and amount to tens of thousands of dollars. In my farm’s case, we pay a transport levy that amounts to 35 cents for every kilogram of milk solids we sell. On top of these, there are Dairy Australia and Dairy Food Safety Victoria levies.

5. Bonuses for the big and beautiful
If you think you’re across all that, don’t forget there are productivity incentives that favour larger farms and MG still has a growth incentive for farms supplying more milk than the year before. These can be very significant. There are also quality bonuses (and/or penalties) with different processors having different benchmarks.

6. Clawbacks
As you might already know, both MG and Fonterra dramatically dropped their prices for May and June to bring back the overall price. They have both come up with “support packages” for suppliers. Farmers are now beginning to pay for those. Fonterra suppliers are on interest-only this year and principal repayments will begin in the next financial year. MG suppliers are paying off their packages in the form of an artificially-lowered milk price already.

7. Special deals
Farmers were outraged back in 2012 when it was revealed that even the co-op was offering special deals for the really big farms. Nobody can say for sure how common these are today.

The bottom line is that every farmer needs to get an individual income estimate from processors to be sure what their milk price really is and what it would be if they supplied a different factory. Not all milk is created equal.

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Filed under Cows, Farm, Fonterra, milk price, Murray Goulburn

Fingerprinting a dairy cow

I hate paperwork with a passion but a little ink drawing on one archived oversize envelope had me leaning back in my chair, smiling. And here it is.

Cameo

You see, there was a time when my Dad didn’t pay much heed to details like ear tags. Every herd member was known by the spots on her hide. There was “Lipstick” and “Lipstick’s Daughter”, later joined by “Lipstick’s Granddaughter”. There was “Milk Jug” and, most infamously, even “Sicking Monster”.

And if there wasn’t a name for the cow, he seemed perpetually blessed with inspiration for a fresh christening. It was such a logical, foolproof identification system that Dad was always mystified when a family member failed to understand which cow needed to be drafted from the mob. “Sicking Monster”, for example, was obviously the young cow sporting a large irregular C-shaped black blob with another smaller blob near the opening of the C.

The day Dad drew Cameo began with a decree that dutiful daughter should retrieve three cows from the paddock. Following his post-milking nap, Dad was appalled to find only two cows in the yard. “What about Cameo?”

I’d spent a good half an hour trudging around the herd of 200 cows looking for an obvious Cameo and failed. What you see here is the documentary evidence of on-the-job training.

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Filed under Cows, Family and parenting, Farm

When Spring doesn’t spring

Spring is the time of plenty and everything here is timed to match it.

Young, innocent magpies sit for young scientists

Young, innocent magpies sit for young scientists

Landcare swings into action on the farm

Landcare swings into action on the farm

And the grass grows like a weed, which we turn into silage for the cows to eat over summer and winter.
GrassAngels

But what happens when Mother Nature turns off the tap?

SoilMoistureSept

The sea of red shows just how dry it has become. Soil moisture levels are at historic lows in our part of Gippsland and farmers around here are struggling to get even small fractions of the normal silage yield tucked away for summer and next winter. We normally get around 800 rolls of silage to sustain the cows over summer and winter but may get 10% of that this year.

The man who cuts our Spring harvest describes the season as “bleak”, while our agronomist says most locals without irrigation “don’t know what to do” and are pinning their hopes on a November flood.

To be fair, we didn’t get so far into the red overnight. I saw it coming. We have been at rainfall decile 1 (out of 10) right through winter and it’s barely rained since. The blasts of heat we’ve had in the last couple of weeks were just the icing on the cake. It feels like drought. It measures up like drought, too.

Coping with El Nino
What have I done to prepare? First, we regretfully sold a lot of cows so there are fewer mouths to feed. Next, we planted turnips extra early on the river flats so they could get their roots down deep while there was still some moisture to support the seedlings.

Crops are sown so the cows will have lush green feed in summer

Crops sown so the cows will have some lush green feed in summer

Aside from this, I’ve been hammering the phone calling every man and his dog about securing large quantities of hay before it’s all gone while harassing pump, pipe and sprinkler people to get a little irrigation system up and going. If I have to talk about head, pressures and flow rates any longer, I think my own head will explode!

The system will mix water from our dam with the manure we collect from the dairy yard together to water a small crop of millet and chicory. It’s a great way to recycle the nutrients from the farm, protect our river and ocean, make the farm more resilient to climate change, offer the cows something green to eat and keep the milk flowing.

I haven’t done it all on my own because getting through a season like this demands a lot of expertise. I’ve been very lucky to have help from DEDTJR feed planning expert, Greg O’Brien, to model different scenarios and their financial impact on the farm as part of the Feeding Impact program.

The program provides a great framework for getting proactive about feeding decisions and brings farmers together to learn from each other. It’s great to know I’m not the only one in this position and I always marvel at just how generous groups of farmers can be with their moral support and advice.

Our nutrition consultant, Peter De Garis, and feed supplier, Jess May, have helped me create a balanced diet for the cows with not too much protein, too little energy and just the right amount of fibre.

Agronomist Scott Travers has offered his advice on the right type and timing of crops to keep feed up to the cows for the next few months. Fonterra irrigation and nutrient distribution advisor, John Kane, has kept me sane when assessing everything to do with pumps and pipes.

Farms like mine are small but very complex businesses. If I walk past you down the street looking a little distant and perplexed, you’ll know why.

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Filed under Climate, Cows, Environment, Farm, Fonterra

The hardest part of being a dairy farmer

When we saw her lying flat out from a distance, we hoped that she was just in the midst of calving. She was, too, only the calf wasn’t coming out the right way. Instead of seemingly diving out into the big world, toes first and nose second, the calf had his legs crossed underneath him. We must have missed him by moments because, although he did not stir, his tongue was still pink, wide eyes still glossy.

I called for Wayne straight away because I’m simply not strong enough to deal with something like this on my own. I decided to leave her lying down – Wayne was already on his way and I reckoned access to the big milk vein that runs under the cow might be a good idea, just in case.

While we were waiting, something very touching happened. Watch and see for yourself.

As soon as the calf was out, she sat up bright and feisty – tossing her head defiantly at Wayne as he tried to give her a friendly scratch. We chatted happily as we gave her two bags of glucose, calcium and minerals to help her recover. We’d saved her. The kids and I returned with a bucket of water in a rubber tyre and feed, which she gobbled up greedily.

Moments after her labour

Moments after her labour

But that night, she still wasn’t up and wouldn’t get up despite our urgings. We brought the tractor and lifted her to her feet to maximise her circulation and encourage her to take a few steps. She wouldn’t.

Next morning, her ears drooped a little and she seemed to enjoy a scratch. She was eating but refused to drink the water the kids and I had carted from the paddock trough. Now we knew she was in trouble. So-called “downer cows” that go downhill and aren’t up in 48 hours rarely recover. Still, we gave her some more medicine and lifted her again with the tractor but she simply seemed to hang limply from the hip clamp and chest strap.

During the next few visits that day, we could see she had lost the will to live. There was no fight left and even little Alex could see she wasn’t going to make it. We shifted the other cows from the paddock and, while the kids and I rounded up the milkers for the evening milking, Wayne ended her suffering.

This is the ugly side of dairy farming that you don’t see in the ads. It’s the part that farmers hate, too.

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Filed under Animal Health and Welfare, Cows