When the wheel falls off – literally

What a day. We have our heifers (teenage cows) on agistment an hour’s drive east of the farm and it’s time for the girls to meet their beaux.

The plan was to tow two of the four Jersey bulls up in the tandem trailer and return with two immature heifers. Well, for a start, the bulls had grown since last year (wouldn’t have been surprising if I’d thought a bit about it) and there’s only room for one. “Never mind,” say I as Fernando the bull leaps aboard greedily following my trail of grain, “at least we’ll manage to draft out the two young heifers and bring them back. We can send the other bulls up in a truck another day.”.

About 60 kilometres into the trip, the jolly bull leans on the back of the stock crate and sways like a Hawaiian dancer. Not just a little but a lot. Singing stops.

“Sorry Zoe, Mama has to concentrate for a bit.”

After a few deep breaths, the frightening fishtail irons itself out and I gently up the revs. Fishtail again. Ease off again to 60km/hr and Fernando stands up straight.

“Holy cow!”

After one more repeat, I decide it best to play it cool and nurse the flaming bull into town.

“This is bull#$%t” (muttered under breath)

Get to the yards – padlocked.

“What the?”

Turn around to have a think and, wow, an apology to Fernando is certainly in order. One of the trailer wheels is hanging on by a single nut. No wonder nobody dared tailgate me, even at 60km/hr. I’d figured the cowards were wary of an Aussie (green and gold) shower over their gleaming duco.

Dig out the car’s spare (thankfully the tandem has Ford Falcon hubs), borrow one nut from each of the other three wheels, find another gate for Fernando and limp home in the rain. Feeling blonde but blessed tonight.

Lucky to be alive

Zoe drives the David Brown

Zoe drives the David Brown

I used to mow and rake the hay with this tractor and the brakes were so hard to operate, I had to stand up to put all my teenage weight on them to get the David Brown to stop. Those were the days before Roll Over Protection Systems (ROPS), let alone cabins, on tractors.

Today’s tractors must have ROPS by law and most have cabs as standard. Thank God. My husband, Wayne, was unloading a B-Double truck of hay recently, when one of the huge rectangles (8x4x3) weighing just over 500kg fell off the front end loader tynes, bounced off the tractor where the windscreen meets the roof and came to rest perfectly balanced on the bonnet. Without the ROPS built into the cabin, he would almost certainly have been killed.

Even though we are much better protected these days, tractors and quad bikes cause almost all the deaths on Australian farms. The introduction of ROPS on tractors was really contentious back in the 1990s (was it that long ago?) and now, the introduction of Crush Protection Devices on quads is causing the same controversy today. The sooner we just put them on and get on with it, the more lives we’ll save.

When the lights go out on farm

Jumping off the milk vat

Zoe leaps off the vat ladder to her Papa

Our power has become so unreliable I’ve given up resetting the microwave clock but this is far from the most serious consequence for our dairy farm. Unfortunately, we use a lot of power. There are water pumps, milking machines and, most critically, refrigeration. Our milk is stored in a stainless-steel 17,500-litre vat before it is collected by the tanker.

The vat keeps the milk at a steady 4 degrees Celsius to keep it fresh. As part of the co-op’s quality assurance program, the tanker driver records the temperature upon collection. If the refrigeration fails, we need to organise immediate collection to prevent a quality failure.

The most common cause of problems with the vat are power outages or spikes that mean we have to manually reset the compressors. That’s what happened yesterday and the milk was not kept cool enough. The co-op’s lab will test the milk to make sure it remained fresh. Fingers crossed.

Power outages also affect milking of course. There’s nothing worse than being halfway through milking when the power goes off and looks like staying off for a while. The dilemma is whether to let the cows out and know they won’t be comfortable overnight or keep them waiting in the yard and hope it comes back on quickly.

A little while ago, the electricity infrastructure company rang to do a customer satisfaction survey. I don’t think they were expecting quite the ear-bashing they got!

New technology sparks a revolution on farm

I will never look at cow poo the same way again. A revolutionary technology arrived at the farm this week that is a huge win for the environment and for the farm.

Slurry Kat

New effluent technology

While most of the manure produced by our cows (and they dump a massive 40 litres each every day!) goes straight back onto the paddock, we do have to wash away the stuff that drops on the dairy yard while they’re waiting to be milked.

Rather than allow it to pollute our waterways, we collect it in an effluent pond to be applied on the paddocks as fertiliser. Sounds ideal but, unfortunately, there’s been a deal of guesswork in knowing exactly what’s in it and what rate to spread.

The only way until now was to agitate the pond (at significant expense) and send a sample off to a lab before agitating it all over again and getting it out with a slurry tanker that literally splashes it all over the pasture like Vegemite on toast.

The local and forward-thinking Bowden’s Agricultural Contracting owner, Wayne Bowden, has just bought a Slurry Kat that monitors the nitrogen content of the effluent as it’s pumped out and lets me choose just how much is applied per hectare.

In practice, that means instead of saying: “Aaah, about a quarter inch thick, please”, I can say “60 units of N per hectare, please”. Wayne can even tell me how much phosphorous is going on.

Why do I care? It means less likelihood of leaching excessive nutrients and we don’t use too much or too little bought-in fertiliser.

How the Slurry Kat works
The Slurry Kat system involves three tractors:

  1. An agitator that ensures the heavy slurry at the bottom of the pond isn’t left behind
  2. A pump stationed at the pond to push the effluent out to the paddock at up to 160,000 litres per hour via a 5″ hose.
  3. The spreader tractor, which uses lots of hoses to dribble the effluent along the ground in lines.
Agitating the effluent pond

Agitating the effluent pond

Effluent agitator and pump

The front tractor pumps the effluent up the umbilical hose

Slurry Kat spreading effluent

Slurry Kat spreading effluent

How it helps us manage our effluent for a better environment and greater productivity
Aside from the extra information and control the system brings us, the benefits are:

  • Safety. Because there’s no need to reverse a tanker up to the effluent pond dozens of times, there’s less chance of someone falling in.
  • Lower greenhouse gas emissions. Manure dribbled onto the ground rather than splashed onto a plate and sprayed means less volatilisation of its nitrogen.
  • We can affordably apply effluent to paddocks 1.5 km from the effluent pond rather than limiting ourselves to those close-by.
  • Less odour. I couldn’t smell it from the road.
  • Lower access requirements – less damage to tracks and paddocks near gateways
  • Quicker return to pasture because there’s no thick slurry to wash off leaves.

Slurry Kat lines after 24 hours

Slurry Kat lines of effluent after 24 hours on the paddock


I love it (and, no, I didn’t get paid to say any of this)!

Inside the dairy

Inside the dairy

View from the dairy pit

I realised there’s something missing from this blog about the daily life of a dairy farmer and that’s the one job that must be done twice a day, every day: milking! So, here’s a pic of the spot where it all happens. Ours is what’s called a herringbone dairy. The cows stand on platforms on either side of the pit with their tails facing us. Each cow has a stall to herself to make sure she isn’t squashed or bossed off her feed by bigger or more dominant cows.

Our dairy has 32 sets of milking machines, so we can have 16 cows on each side and is equipped with automatic cup removers (those orange cylinders overhead) that take the machines off when the flow of milk decreases. This is a labour-saving device that also means there’s less risk of cows being over-milked. The curly blue cords hanging down are dispensers for a mix of iodine and glycerine that we spray on the cows’ teats to keep them soft, crack-free and hygienic.

At the nose of each cow is a bail that holds grain for her to eat while she’s being milked. It’s a nice way of helping cows enjoy their time in the dairy and ensures nobody misses out on her ration of supplementary (that is, additional to grass) high-energy, high-protein feed. We control the amount of grain that’s dispensed with a timer dial on the white box overhead at the centre of the pit.

You’ll also see a whiteboard near Zoe. We write notes on this about which cow needs treatment, with what, and for how long.

I took this pic without cows because it’s nice and light that way but am working on a video to show you what happens when the dairy’s in action. Let me know if there’s anything you particularly want to see.

Quad bike politics put farmer safety at risk

Right now, there’s an unseemly squabble going on about the safety of quad bikes or ATVs. Everyone agrees that too many people are being injured and killed using these indispensable farm tools, so a working group was formed to find the answers. Disappointingly, the working group is so badly fractured, it’s better described as a “non-working group” marred by walkouts.

The main source of disagreement seems to be over anti-crush devices or rollover protection systems (ROPS). Unionist Yossi Berger is a strong advocate of the anti-crush devices. The representatives of the quad bike manufacturers contend the anti-crush devices may bring new hazards and advocate better rider training.

Both sides point to different research outcomes and claim the other sides’ research is flawed. I’m incredibly disappointed with this bickering. The issue is too important and the confusion it causes paralyses farmers from taking action.

The way I see it is this:

First, if you ride a quad bike in a dangerous fashion, no amount of protective equipment will prevent you being hurt. Like cars, trucks and forklifts, quad bikes are powerful, heavy vehicles that need to be treated with respect. For this reason, training and rider behaviour is undeniably an important part of quad safety. When someone comes to work at our farm, they must undergo an hour-long induction on safe quad bike riding and operation.

AND

Second, even if you are a careful rider, there will be times you’ll make a silly mistake (all humans do!) or you’ll encounter an unexpected hazard. For this reason, we need to make sure the quad bike is well maintained, designed to be as safe as practicable and that we use appropriate safety gear.

The word “appropriate” is key here, too. Even the most impressive safety equipment is useless if it impedes the user to the point where they bypass or sabotage it. That’s why seatbelts on a farm quad would not add to safety – nobody would use them because we get on and off frequently and because you need to move your body with the bike (aka “dynamic riding”). The implication of no seatbelts is that any large ROPS structure would certainly present new hazards. Flipped off the bike, you could well be crushed by its structure. This is one of the arguments maintained by the bike manufacturers, who also say that ROPS could interfere with the balance and handling of bikes.

The good news is that an Australian company has designed an anti-crush device that deals with both of these issues. The Quadbar is a strong hoop-shaped structure that can be fitted to the towbar and rear of practically any quad. It doesn’t get in the rider’s way and, is so light, it’s hard to imagine how it could affect the handling of a quad. The slender profile of the Quadbar also means that there’s less risk of being pinned by the bar than by the large surface area of the quad.

Quadbar in action on the farm

Quadbar in action on the farm

I got one fitted just last week and next time we get our second quad serviced, we’ll have a Quadbar fitted to that as well. Everyone here seems to appreciate the Quadbar’s added safety but there is one drawback: the structure around the tow ball makes for a very tight fit and skinned knuckles. Our next step is to fit jockey wheels to our small trailers so this isn’t such a problem.

Quadbar fitted to the towbar

A tight squeeze

And if ever you needed a reminder not to let visiting children go for joy rides on your quads, consider these statistics. According to a study quoted on Farmsafe, around 25% of all child deaths were visitors to the farm, but 50% of those killed on quad bikes were visitors. Quad bikes are also the most common cause of death for children 5-14 yrs on farms. Don’t let it happen on your farm.

I must have offended the tractor god

Zoe plays on an old relic while we prime the modern equivalent

Zoe plays on an old relic while we prime the modern equivalent

The more modern pump

Our almost indestructible pump

I don’t like spending money on tractors. They depreciate very quickly and, so long as it’s reliable and reasonably comfortable, we don’t need anything flash. Yes, so long as it’s reliable. Oh dear. This is the second tractor we’ve bought in four years.

The first one was nothing but trouble (spent half its value in repairs in 18 months) so we traded it in on one that a friend had owned and said was solid as could be. Less than a year later and after fitting a new turbo, its engine needs rebuilding. Aaaargh. Any suggestions for an offering to appease the tractor gods?

The farm’s main water pump, on the other hand, works away tirelessly without complaint. Occasionally, the foot valve on the suction line gets jammed open with sticks and that’s what happened today. There’s nothing more critical than water, so we were onto it straight away. Of course, water disasters only ever seem to happen at milking time – maybe water lines have pheremone sensors that can tell when you’re a little bit stressed!