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.

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.

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.

What climate change means at farm level

A photo by Heather Downing of the kids and me out on the farm for the Earth Hour cookbook, which appeared in The Age today

When journalist from The Age Liam Mannix asked me how climate change was affecting our farm, the answer was: in every possible way, beginning with the circle of life.

When I was a girl, we used to get the ute, the tractor and our gumboots bogged every winter. It rained and rained and rained and rained and…you get the picture. Well, not any more. With the odd exception, the winters are warmer and drier these days. Boggings are a rare novelty for my kids.

This has some real benefits. Warmer, drier winters are much easier on the cows, calves and the grass. Much easier on us, too (plugging through deep mud in horizontal rain is character-building stuff)! We can grow a lot more grass in winter and that’s fantastic.

Less than fantastic are the changing shoulders of the season – sprummer and autumn. Spring can come to an abrupt halt very early in November these days and we often wait much longer into autumn for rain.

Every rain-fed farmer like me tries to match the cow’s natural lactation curve with the grass’s growth. In fact, the amount of grass the cows harvest is the number one predictor of dairy farm profitability. So, looking at the new growth patterns, we took the plunge a few years ago and shifted the circle of life to match. Now, calves begin to arrive in early May rather than mid-July.

Our decision is backed by hard data. Dairy guru, Neil Lane, has researched local statistics and found that farms just 10 minutes away have seen falls in production of 1 tonne of dry matter per hectare and increasing risk around late spring and autumn. On our 200 hectare farm, that’s 200 tonnes every year valued at roughly $300 per tonne we lose. That’s a lot of ground to make up.

But all is not lost. Dairy farmers are adapting at break-neck speed. We are on the cusp of breeding cows that are more resilient to heat and, in the meantime, have a very well-practised regimen to protect our cows from heat stress.

We are growing different pasture species like cocksfoot, tall fescue and prairie grass with deep root systems to tap into subsoil moisture. Planting at least 1000 trees per year creates micro climates that shelter both our animals and our pastures.

All of this makes practical, business sense and it also helps me feel better about our children’s futures. We are doing something!

That’s why I agreed to talk to The Age for this article and why we were happy to be featured in the Earth Hour cookbook.
It’s thrilling to see the great stuff farmers across Australia are doing in response to climate change. Now, if we can communicate that to foodies and the animal welfare movement, just imagine the possibilities.

The Earth Hour cook book makes climate change matter to foodies

The Earth Hour cook book makes climate change matter to foodies

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.

Continue reading

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

Charged by a cow

It all happened in slow motion. I was walking across the paddock to offer our vet, Sarah, a light steel pigtail post for protection when the cow we were so desperately trying to save squared up to me, lowered her head and charged.

I managed to strafe her face once with the spring steel rod but it did nothing to deter her.  Collecting me under the chin with her neck, she effortlessly threw her pathetic matador into the air. Luckily, I was not trampled; as my head hit the ground I saw her white belly soar through the sky as she cantered off towards the distant corner of the paddock.

I stood up, sobbing, laughing and shaking. My jaw sat unnervingly askew and my head was already sore but I was still alive and walking.

After three x-rays and a CAT scan, I’m home again, neck in a brace and feeling chastened for the anxiety I caused my ashen-faced children, who witnessed the whole thing. So, what went wrong?

The cow was a terrified first-time calver (“heifer”) in big trouble. She’d been down for a couple of hours with a rotten calf inside and sprang up miraculously the moment Sarah arrived.

1. My instincts were right that she was cranky but I didn’t know her and should have been triply careful.

2. I got off the Bobcat and walked to the vet. Why oh why didn’t I drive to the vet?

3. The vet was on the ground instead of in the Bobcat. I’d already called for extra help on wheels and if we’d waited another five minutes, this would never have happened. A vet’s time is valuable but not more valuable than life itself.

In other words, I was in a rush and took unnecessary risks in the name of getting the job done even though I pride myself on being very safety-conscious. The latest WorkSafe statistics prove dairy farming is agriculture’s most dangerous job: please learn from my mistakes and take care out there.

 

 

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!

Cows are gentle herbivores, right?

I like to think I’m in charge around here but the truth is that I’m way down the pecking order. Mother Nature is Numero Uno, followed closely by the kids and the cows.

A couple of hours ago, I turned up to check whether the cows had enough feed for the rest of the day and this is the greeting I received:

I didn’t need to look at the pasture. I just did as I was told and stuck a prop up under the fence wire.

Don’t worry – they weren’t actually starving but had eaten the pasture out nicely, leaving the 4 to 6 cm residual we dairy farmers are drilled to achieve by our “Professor of Crapology” leading DEPI’s Feeding Pastures for Profit program.

Crapology is the study of cow poo. We need to be sure the cows haven’t eaten too close or too far from pats and conscientiously survey the consistency of their manure. Not too loose, not too firm, not too smelly and as little grain as possible in each gooey pie. “Just firm enough to stand your credit card up in it,” our farm consultant reminds me (and he wonders why I refuse to bring my purse on the farm tour).

Despite the protests, I think we got it pretty right but would you argue with a mob like that?

What kicked it all off: doing the Professor proud.

What kicked it all off: doing the Professor proud.