Category Archives: Research

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

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Filed under Animal Health and Welfare, Community, Environment, Farm, Research

Soaking up smarts for summer from Mr Silage

DEPI's "Mr Silage", Frank Mickan

DEPI’s “Mr Silage”, Frank Mickan

Chomping on a rye grass stalk with rain trickling down his face, Mr Silage gave it a nod of approval: “Still tastes sweet!”.

Mr Silage, as DEPI’s Frank Mickan is colloquially known, is a living legend. Continue reading

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Filed under Farm, Research

Suck it up, princess and a farmer’s election year wishlist

There’s been a bit of biffo on Twitter and on dairy farming forums of late. Some people are clearly very angry with our leaders. Others are polite but rather bluntly say “suck it up, princess”.

I’m in between.

I want to be among the top 10 per cent of Australia’s dairy farmers. Not because I am a nutty type A personality but because only the top 10 per cent make a good living. So, tonight I’m up late wrangling spreadsheets, casting a sharp eye over our budgets and trying to benchmark our performance.

That doesn’t stop me from wanting better from our politicians so that Victorian dairy farmers get a fair go. We’re not subsidised like our US or European competitors and we don’t have a free trade agreement with China like the world’s best dairy farmers across the Tasman, so we need to be lean, efficient and smart to survive.

To do that, we need:

  • relief from the carbon tax that puts us at an instant disadvantage
  • a more level playing field. Forget subsidising cars and get on with the China FTA.
  • to deal with the duopoly
  • most of all, to invest in ag R&D.

Being smart has historically been our strength, but no longer. Sue Neales of The Australian reports that:

“Australia’s spending on agricultural R&D has also dropped internationally from 9th to 16th place, according to a global study presented at the same conference.”

“Treasury last year predicted the value of agriculture to the nation could grow from its current size equivalent to 2.5 per cent of national gross domestic product, to 5 per cent by 2050, surpassing the manufacturing sector.”

If we are destined to become agricultural dunces, dairy farmers battling to survive on a tilted playing field will never manage the growth needed to make Australia Asia’s food bowl.

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Because diesel is the new asbestos

Diesel Bobcat without windscreen

Breezy is beautiful

Diesel fumes have always left me feeling sick and it turns out my queasiness is justified. A report in the West Australian explains:

“Researchers from the WA Institute for Medical Research and the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research found that children with fathers who were exposed to diesel exhaust fumes at work about the time of conception were 62 per cent more likely to have brain tumours.”

“The results, published in the International Journal of Cancer, also showed that children of women exposed to diesel fumes at work before the birth had twice the risk of brain tumours.”

Scary stuff? Yes. According to the WHO, diesel is the new asbestos.

“Experts at the World Health Organisation (WHO) say diesel engine exhaust fumes can cause cancer in humans. They say they belong in the same potentially deadly category as asbestos, arsenic and mustard gas.”

We are lucky to live far from city pollution but we do have a diesel car, diesel tractor and diesel UTV that gets me and the kids around the farm. That new UTV came with a roof and windscreen – a combination that, ironically, may have threatened our children’s health. Unfortunately, it seems the windscreen created negative pressure and built up a vacuum that sucks air from behind and around the UTV back over the cabin. With it came a lot of dust and a strong smell of diesel fumes.

The windscreen is now stacked neatly against a garage wall and we are breathing easy once more.

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Filed under Farm, Machinery and equipment, People, Research, Safety

Farmers just need to…

Complete the sentence: “Farmers just need to…”

A few I’ve heard recently are:

  • “Work smarter”
  • “Be more innovative”
  • “Drive for >5% cost reductions”
  • “Scale up to meet the world’s insatiable need for protein”
  • “Don’t JUST farm. Add a few more feathers to your cap”

Most of these comments have been made quite flippantly, with little or no background knowledge of Australian dairy farming and, to be frank, they give me the irrits.

What makes me really angry, though, is when our leaders parrot the “Scale up to meet the world’s insatiable need for protein” line.

We farmers need to justify investing more money, blood, sweat and tears in growth – both to our families and our bankers. Unless farm gate prices for milk increase substantially, that’s a very difficult proposition. According to official figures, most of the state’s dairy farms have a return on investment of 1 to 3 per cent, forcing a focus on financial survival. Much higher returns can be made elsewhere with less work and far lower risk.

To those whose simplistic response is “work smarter, diversify or value-add”, let me point out some realities. Click the link to see how the average Australian dairy farmer is paid compared to dairy farmers around the world:

https://milkmaidmarian.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/figure-8-international-farmgate-milk-prices-us-per-100kg.pdf

What does this mean for a farming family like mine? We want to improve the farm, so Wayne and I are both holding down second jobs (in other words, we are not “just farming”). The plan is that these improvements will make the farm more profitable and sustainable. We are making progress but farm life is currently anything but sustainable from a personal point of view. You just can’t work this many hours forever.

Perhaps we are dullards and are just not efficient enough but I doubt it. The farm I run now bears almost no resemblance to the farm of my childhood 30 years ago. It’s the same 500 acres but we milk 50 per cent more cows and each produces around 55 per cent more milk than her ancestor did in the 1980s: a huge leap in productivity.

Although these numbers are impressive, we are far from exceptional. According to Dairy Australia, Victoria’s raw milk production peaked in 2001-02 at 7.4 billion litres – more than double the 3 billion litres produced in 1980-81. Yield per cow also increased from 3,012 litres in 1979-1980 to 5,864 litres in 2008/09.

Sadly, we are unlikely to continue to make such gains. Our brains trust, the Victoria’s Department of Primary Industries, is being savagely pruned, reducing our ability to innovate and work smart. We don’t enjoy the subsidies that support our US and European counterparts or the free trade agreement with China that advantages our Kiwi neighbours. And now, we face an estimated $7000 carbon tax cost that will nobble us even further.

The playing field is far from level and getting steeper all the time.

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Filed under Community, Dairy Products, Research

Farm meets laboratory

It takes a lot of science to make our dairy farm tick these days. Our place is no factory farm either. With around 250 free-range milking cows, it’s a very typical Australian dairy farm.
Yet, only today, I have been keeping four different labs busy:

Environmental lab: what’s in our water?

Sampling water from the farm dam

Don’t fall in!

We’re considering moving the water supply from the river to the dam but need to be sure the water is up to scratch first. While we don’t irrigate our farm, we need high quality water for the cows to drink and to keep the milking machinery hygienic and sparkling clean. We’re having it tested for minerals and nasty bugs like e-coli.

Animal health testing lab – looking for hand grenades in the grass

GrassClippingsOur farm has volunteered to be a ‘sentinel’ for the spores that cause the life-threatening condition of facial eczema. Collecting samples from a couple of paddocks only takes a few minutes but it could save hundreds of cows untold suffering.

Dairy nutrition lab – feeding the bugs that feed the cows

Yesterday, someone on Twitter asked Dr Karl how cows manage to get fat on grass while humans lose weight on veggies. The secret lies in four-chambered guts filled with life-giving bugs that do a lot of the work for the cows.

Our bovine ladies are athletes – each gives us around 7,000 litres of milk per year – and they and their bugs demand nothing short of perfection from us as chefs! Feed reports allow me to balance the cows’ diets with the right mix of fibre, energy and protein.

Soil nutrient lab – getting the dirt on our soils

Soil data allows me to apply the right fertiliser in the right amounts to the right places – lifting the productivity of our farm, reducing costs and preventing leaching into the river. I test the soils of all our paddocks every year. Some would regard that as wildly extravagant but a $110 test is nothing compared to the cost of a tonne of excess fertiliser.

Dairy farming is still the earthy, honest lifestyle it always has been but, these days, it pays to be a touch tech-savvy as well.

EDIT: Oh my goodness! Mike Russell (@mikerussell_) just pointed out that I forgot the bleeding obvious: the testing of our milk! It’s tested to an inch of its life – fat and protein content, sugars and cell counts are all tracked daily. Thanks Mike!

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Filed under Animal Health and Welfare, Cows, Environment, Milk quality, Pastures, Research

Dogs and ducks, genomics and designer bulls

Training working dogs with ducks

Paul McPhail training working dogs with ducks

Outside the pavilion, hundreds watched working dog trainer Paul McPhail show how young dogs are schooled herding ducks. Inside the pavilion, a small crowd lunched with researchers investigating genomic testing of bulls.

This scene from the Dairy Expo at Korumburra yesterday struck me as a really interesting statement about modern farming. It’s the meshing of age-old skills and cutting-edge science.

Zoe and I couldn’t resist watching the pups – one just four months old – rounding up the ducks. The warmth of Paul McPhail’s training and the dedication of his dogs were mesmerising. Nor could I resist the chance to find out what science will bring to our dairy farm in the next few years. One of the most interesting was the genomic testing – as distinct from genetic modification – of bulls.

Normally, bull calves are selected for breeding based on pedigree and their conformation or “type score”. Their semen is then collected and used to breed daughters, who must then get in calf so we know how fertile they are, and then be milked at age three before we know the real value of the bull as a sire.

It’s all based on observed and measured performance. On the other hand, genomic testing compares the DNA of new sires with the DNA of historically well-performing sires as a benchmark. More work needs to be done to increase the reliability of this testing but it promises a shortening of that four-year timeframe.

There is also hope that the testing will soon be affordable for mass screening of our cows. We will be able to verify the parentage of our animals and gauge their genetic merit very early on. This should “speed up” improvements in our herd with powerful animal welfare outcomes. By better selecting cows for breeding, we should be able to reduce the number that become lame, have bad udders and need to be treated for mastitis.

The scientists, who were from the DairyFutures CRC and are also working on designer forages, will help Australia’s dairy farmers remain competitive on the world stage.

Exciting stuff!

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Filed under Animal Health and Welfare, Calves, Cows, Farm, Research