5 weird and a little bit gross facts about a cow’s stomachs

Lots of people know that cows digest grass using four different chambers rather than a single stomach but here are some (warning: many of them are a bit gross) weird facts you might not have heard:

  1. A cow can produce up to a litre of gas (CO2 and methane) per minute. She’s not a farter though, she’s a burper!
  2. A cow can produce 150 litres or more of saliva in a day.
  3. The first two chambers – the reticulum and rumen – can hold a whopping 150 to 200 litres of solids and liquid in total.
  4. Actually, we’re not really feeding the cow but the bacteria and protozoa in her rumen, which use fermentation to digest 70–80% of the digestible dry matter in the rumen.
  5. The rumen has a pH of about 6 or 7, so isn’t a true stomach. It’s not until the feed reaches the fourth chamber, the abomasum, that the pH drops to 2 and acid digestion begins. This is the cow’s true stomach.

The Aussie dairy carbon hoofprint


Something of a wet blanket was thrown over the World Milk Day celebrations last week in the form of a story in The Guardian and on the ABC about dairy’s carbon footprint.

Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet, according to the scientists behind the most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet.
– The Guardian, June 1 2018

The story was based on a study published in the journal Science that was based on almost 40,000 farms in 119 countries.

Being something of a “greenie” myself, I know how much emissions vary depending on how we farm and that was reinforced by a chart in The Guardian’s story. The lightest cheese footprint really is quite light! But where does Aussie dairy sit in the spectrum?


To learn more, I asked Catherine Phelps of Dairy Australia for answers. Thank you, Cathy, for these incredibly comprehensive answers!


MMM: How much does the farm gate carbon footprint for dairy vary around the world?
CP: There is a wide variation in the carbon footprint for dairy.

A 2010 study by the Food and Agriculture Organisation on Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG) from the Dairy Sector (2010) reported the highest emissions of about 7.5kg carbon dioxide equivalent per kg of fat and protein corrected milk (FPCM) for sub-Saharan Africa.

The developed regions of the world had the lowest footprints of 1 – 2 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent per kg of FPCM. Asia, North Africa and South America have intermediate levels of emissions.

The Australian dairy industry 2010 carbon footprint study of farm gate GHG emissions reported the average GHG emissions to be 1.1kg of carbon dioxide per kg of FPCM. Per unit of production Australian dairy producers have one of the lowest carbon footprints in the world.

MMM: Why is there such a variation?
CP: Differences in carbon footprints are usually related to the efficiency of the production system, cow genotypes and the quality of the forage.

In arid or humid zones where producers are reliant on native grassland, the quality of the feed is poor and milk production per cow is low. The genotype of dairy breeds best suited to poor quality feed and/or high temperature and humidity is often adversely correlated with milk production efficiency.

The majority of GHG emissions from Australian dairy production systems are methane from enteric fermentation (57%); followed by methane and nitrous oxide from urine and dung (18%).

MMM: What have Australian dairy farmers done to reduce their carbon footprint and how has it changed over time?
CP: Between 1980 and 2010, the Australian dairy industry reduced its carbon footprint per kg of FPCM by 30%.

This reduction is due to improved production efficiencies, examples being better quality pasture and selection of higher genetic merit cows. Enteric methane emissions represent energy losses from the digestive process. Improving feed quality, breeding animals with increased feed conversion efficiency and use of specialist feed additives reduces the amount of energy lost as enteric methane.

Increased adoption of good practice manure and nitrogen fertiliser management is also contributing to the lower carbon footprint.

MMM: Does combining animal farming and cropping have any environmental benefits?
CP: This is not an easy question to answer. The practices implemented by an individual producer are often more important than their type of farming system with respect to environmental impacts.

The argument for mixed farming over specialised livestock or cropping systems is usually based on the assumption that animals can utilise cropping waste, or take advantage of grazing cereals with the outcome being greater productivity per unit of land. In addition, animals contribute nutrients to the soil through manure and pasture can act as a disease break crop and/or soil conditioner.

Whether a mixed farming system is more environmentally beneficial will depend on the management practices being implemented. For example, a zero tillage cropping system may have less impact on water quality and soil health than a mixed farming system with a high proportion of conventional cropping.

A different approach is to identify practices which boost productivity whilst reducing environmental impacts. Some of these will be common across farming systems, others will be relevant to a particular system and its location. For example using a nutrient management plan to inform fertiliser/manure applications and identify and remediate soil constraints will improve soil health and farm profit whilst reducing the risk of nutrient loss regardless of the farming system.

MMM: If Australians adopted a vegan diet, what difference would that make to the area of land needed to sustain us?
CP: Recent research based on the Dutch diet reported carbon emissions could be reduced by approximately 2.9 tonnes/person by eating vegan. However the nutrients lost by avoided animal products would need to be compensated by plant-based products. To obtain the nutrients provided by dairy an individual must eat more fruit and vegetables than the recommended daily portions.

The same research estimated the amount of land needed to produce the extra plant food is equal to the land used by dairy. The carbon emissions from the extra food were similar to dairy. Similar research has not been conducted in Australia.

A US study found the removal of animals from the agricultural system resulted in diets with excess energy that were deficient in essential nutrients. There was potentially a decrease in the area of land required, however to support the nutritional needs of the US population nutritional supplements would be required.

The outcome determined that is a challenge to scale up plant-based diets to meet the nutrient needs of whole populations, due to land availability, soil type and climate.

MMM: Aside from eliminating animal foods, what are the implications of a vegan diet and lifestyle?
CP: When considering the environmental impact of various agricultural products it is important to consider the full nutritional value delivered by different foods. Multiple research papers have found that whilst it is possible to meet essential nutrient requirements through vegan diets this can be a challenge in reality.

Without careful balancing such diets are likely to be deficient in various micro-nutrients and fatty acids including calcium, vitamin A, Vitamin B12 and vitamin D. These nutrient deficiencies can be difficult to manage at a population level. Products like dairy are nutrient dense and an excellent source of many essential micro-nutrients and fatty acids.

There are alternative lifestyle options for reducing individual greenhouse gas emissions that don’t involve a significant change in diet.

For example driving a smaller car, reducing air travel, or sequestering carbon by planting more trees. A passenger on a return flight from Melbourne to London return will be responsible for producing approximately 11.2 tonnes of carbon emissions (https://www.treesforlife.org.au/carbon/calculate-your-impact/ready-use-calculations).

Planting five trees will sequester one tonne of carbon.

person s left hand holding green leaf plant

Photo by Alena Koval on Pexels.com

About the mycoplasma bovis bug in Aus that NZ will kill 150,000 cows to erase

The NZ government announced yesterday that it will cull another 126,000 cows in addition to the 26,000 already slaughtered in an attempt to rid the country of mycoplasma bovis.

The massive cull has already led to heartbreak for Kiwi farmers but NZ’s peak farming body says the anguish is worth it.

“Federated Farmers believes getting rid of this insidious disease is preferable to living with it, for years on end, probably without any compensation available for farmers in future when it does hit and can’t be controlled,” NZ Federated Farmers wrote in a statement.

The bug has been in Australian herds for decades so I’m really grateful to veterinarian Dr Zoe Vogels for her explanation of the M. bovis basics. Thanks Dr Zoe!

MMM: What is Mycoplasma bovis?
ZV: Mycoplasma bovis is a bacteria that likes to live inside cows – generally in the respiratory system and the udder and joints. Infected cows will shed bacteria from mucous membranes and in their milk. It grows slowly and likes special conditions in the lab so can be difficult to diagnose. You might have heard about the bulk milk PCR test: this looks for the DNA of Mycoplasma rather than trying to grow it.

MMM: How common is it in Australia?
Mycoplasma’s not super common, but every dairying district would have farms that have had it diagnosed – either at present or in the past.

MMM: How do animals get it?
Cows are generally infected during milking time via infected milk on hands, gloves, milking equipment or antibiotic tubes. Where animals have pneumonia and respiratory shedding, close contact/poor air quality will play a role in spread.Calves seem to be most often infected by being fed waste milk that has mycoplasma in it from mastitis cows, but the respiratory spread will also occur.

MMM: What are the symptoms?
The signs present differently in different situations, in cows the most common symptoms we’ve seen are mastitis (often multi quarter and non-curing and won’t grow anything on normal lab culture) and swollen joints/limbs. Sometimes cows can have pneumonia or ear infections, some countries report abortions.In calves we generally see joint infections (in multiple joints) and sometimes pneumonia and ear infections.

MMM: Is it treatable?
Unfortunately, Mycoplasma doesn’t respond well to antibiotics. Antibiotics such as penicillin work by stopping the formation of a bacteria cell wall during their growth phase and Mycoplasma doesn’t have a cell wall, only a thin surrounding membrane.

how antibiotics work cartoon ZV.jpg

There are some antibiotics that are more likely to be effective, but these don’t always work. Mycoplasma is also able to evade the immune system by camouflaging itself from white blood cells and antibiotics and can form biofilms which also protect it from the immune system and antibiotics.

MMM: What should I do if it affects my farm?
ZV: In the words of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, don’t panic!
Sit down with your vet, make sure you get your head around how the disease spreads and set out a plan of action. It is important to work out how prevalent it is in your herd, generally through culturing of clinical mastitis cases.

While you are working this out, you will have to plan how to minimise chance of transmission between cows during milking time (such as rapid detection and segregation of clinical cases). These are the same principles that apply to minimising the spread of other mastitis pathogens such as Staph aureus and Strep ag.

You will also have to minimise the risk of transmission to calves by feeding the lowest risk source of milk, such as milk replacer or pasteurised milk. What option you choose will depend on your own farm’s circumstances.

ADF answers conflict of interest questions

Terry Richardson2lores

Terry Richardson, ADF president

The ACCC’s Mick Keogh has slammed national peak dairy body, Australian Dairy Farmers for inaction, telling The Weekly Times there were “significant issues with funding sources of ADF”.

According to The Weekly Times article, processors give the ADF about $1 million annually, which it says is more than double the funding from farmers.

It quoted Mick Keogh as saying: “The questions raised with us by dairy farmers was the extent that those funding arrangements coloured their (ADF’s) view of a mandatory code.”.

Milk Maid Marian asked ADF president Terry Richardson to answer some questions and is grateful for his responses.


MMM: How is ADF funded?

TR: As has been widely reported in recent years, ADF receives funding from a number of sources, including State Dairy Farmer Organisations and investment returns.

Processor funding is used to facilitate project work on their behalf.

MMM: What percentage of ADF’s funding comes from processors?

TR: Funding from processors is via a fee-for-service contract in delivering the agreed Australian Dairy Industry Council’s (ADIC) investment plan.

MMM: How has that model and percentage changed over time and why?

TR: Processor funding was introduced in 2014, but since that time this component has substantially declined.

MMM: What involvement does the ADF have with processor communications? Why did a media release from the ADPF come from an ADF email account?

TR: ADF is not involved in ADPF communications. We do not discuss messaging because we do not want to compromise our position as a farmer representative organisation. However, past practice has been that ADPF has access to ADF’s media network.

MMM: What influence does the processor funding have on ADF policy and how do you create a firewall between this funding and the interests of dairy farmers to avoid conflicts?

TR: ADF has a clear mission statement to provide collective representation for dairy farmers. Processors are not involved in any policy decisions made by ADF.

ADF and ADPF operate independently of each other. Processors are entitled to express their views just like anyone else, but their opinions do not affect the representation we give to dairy farmers.

MMM: How will ADF’s funding arrangements change in future?

TR: We urge farmers who are not members of State Dairy Farmer Organisations to join, have their say and influence the policy direction of dairy advocacy.

Thank you very much, Terry, for offering answers to Milk Maid Marian.

ACCC suggests a Sheriff for the Wild West

Imagine you own a small family business with just one product that you may only sell to one customer for the next 12 months.

That same customer sets the price for your product and the terms. It informs you of the quality of your product and any penalties that apply to failures it deems to have been caused by you rather than during its own handling.

The bare facts are that you sell 100 per cent of your highly perishable commodity to this customer but all of that amounts to less than a thousandth of its supply. You are tiny.

Now, imagine that this, your omnipotent customer, makes a decision that unfairly costs you tens of thousands of dollars. What do you do?

You call or write a letter, hoping and praying that this customer does the right thing. But if it doesn’t?

This scenario is reality for Australian dairy farmers and it’s not healthy. It’s almost irrelevant whether the processors are doing the right thing at the moment or not because such an imbalance of power is irresistible. History proves it so.

The industry’s answer has been to develop a voluntary code, which does help to benchmark standards of behaviour but offers no independent umpire, no penalties and no redress for breaches.

The ACCC says that’s not sufficient protection for farmers with so little bargaining power. It wants a mandatory code with an independent umpire and penalties for breaches. I, for one, hope the regulator’s recommendations are implemented sooner rather than later.

Federal agriculture minister David Littleproud doesn’t seem averse, responding to a request for comment from Milk Maid Marian with: “I’m glad farmers’ concerns have been shown to be justified and will go through the ACCC’s report carefully.”.

A Mexican standoff as the sun sets on MG


The sale of MG to Saputo is formalised tomorrow. I’m so pleased for shareholders who feared losing the entirety of their nest eggs that some certainty is restored.

Even so, I’m very sorry to see the loss of the last southern Australian pacemaker co-op. Our farm may have fled MG during the Gary Helou hurricane but until then, it had always been a co-op farm, even before MG made it to our part of Gippsland.

The co-op’s mission was always to maintain the balance of power for farmers in an industry where, typically, each small family business supplies a highly perishable commodity to just one multinational customer. And for that multinational, our milk price represents the single greatest cost.

Should we be alarmed?

Well, tomorrow, we enter the wild west of farmgate milk pricing with something of a Mexican standoff.

You see, under the terms of the now infamous Bonlac agreement, Fonterra is obliged to match or better the price the leading processor pays its farmer suppliers. And, er, that leading processor now appears to be Fonterra itself for most of this season, only to be overtaken by Saputo with its purchase of MG.

At the same time, outgoing MG boss Ari Mervis says Saputo has, “committed for at least the next five years to pay a competitive milk price which is no less than the greater of the price WCB pays its suppliers and the final weighted average Farmgate Milk Price published by the two largest processors in the relevant region.”.

In most regions the two largest processors will be MG/Saputo and Fonterra. In effect, they’re promising, when it comes to farmgate pricing, they will match or beat themselves and each other.

What a mess. While we have the attention of policy makers, farmers must ignore the advice to focus purely on what we can control inside the farm gate. After all, that’s what lost us the co-op in the first place.

It’s high time farmers turned our attention to how farmgate prices will be set once the milk shortage supporting competition is no more.



Dairy’s brains trust on climate change


Dairy Australia’s Cathy Phelps was one of the star presenters at a climate change risk management day run by Farmers for Climate Action with the support of the Gardiner Foundation in Yarram. It stoked plenty of interest from farmers who weren’t able to make it on the day, so I invited Cathy to share some of her insights for Milk Maid Marian.  

MMM: An average increase of 2 degrees temperature doesn’t sound like a lot. How would it affect dairy farmers?
CP: The challenge for dairy farmers is not incremental changes in average temperature but increased frequency of climate extremes. Climate change increases the variability of temperature and rain patterns. Extreme events, such as floods, droughts and heat waves and associated risks such as price volatility, pests and diseases become more likely. The timing of when these extreme events occur and their severity will significantly impact how quickly a farming business may recover.

MMM: How will those effects vary in different dairying regions? Are some more vulnerable than others?
CP: The type of impact will vary, some regions may be most impacted by changes in water availability, others by increased frequency of temperature extremes. For example in many areas of Victoria, spring pasture growth is becoming much more variable from year-to-year, generally starting four weeks earlier and also finishing earlier. In the Northern Irrigation Area of Victoria, reduced water availability and summer heat waves is favouring annual winter-active pastures over perennial pastures or deeper rooted species such as Lucerne and tall fescue. Cows that are used to high summer temperatures are less impacted by abnormal heat events than cows in regions where summer temperatures are more moderate.

MMM: What impact will climate change have on the profitability and productivity of Australian dairy farms?
CP: Research conducted by Dairy Australia in partnership with dairy farmers and their service providers found that for dairy regions in south-east Australia the expected impact on productivity is approximately 0.6% per year (but could be as high as 1.2% for businesses that have not adopted strategies to mitigate climate change). This research found the rates of productivity gain required to counteract the impact of climate change on farm profitability would need to be achieved over and above what is considered ‘business as usual’. The impact of this reduction in productivity on farm profit will be dependent on the extent to which dairy producers in other countries are impacted by climate change.

Immediate impacts of changing temperatures on farm profit are already being experienced through increased frequency of heat events. The estimated impact of Victorian November heat wave on farm profit as measured through reduced milk pick up was $3000/farm (see below), not including any carry-over effect well beyond the event.


MMM: How is efficiency and resilience linked?
CP: To beat the cost-price squeeze, businesses often respond by becoming more efficient, optimising returns/unit of input. For dairy businesses being challenged by increased climate volatility this may not be the most sustainable approach as a system running close to optimum will be more vulnerable to shocks such as extreme dry or wet periods. A climate resilient farming system is one that can withstand shocks such as more frequent and extended dry periods, heatwaves or floods.

One strategy to mitigate increased climate volatility and increase resilience is to create buffers in the system, for example increased fodder reserves or greater use of Farm Management Deposits. Buffers reduce reliance on outside inputs. In favourable seasons excess dry matter can be harvested and stored for feeding in less favourable periods. Higher winter growth rates and shorter sharper springs offer an opportunity for additional fodder conservation.

MMM: Does DA anticipate regulation similar to that in NZ?
CP: Currently farm level agriculture activities in Australia are exempt from carbon regulation. In New Zealand agriculture is also exempt however there are plans to bring agriculture into the NZ emissions trading scheme at some stage. It is highly unlikely on farm agricultural activities will be included in any Australian emissions trading scheme in the short to medium term. Pressure on dairy businesses to report and reduce their carbon emissions is coming from customers such as Mars, Unilever, Nestle and McDonalds. These multinationals and many others have made public commitments to reduce the carbon emissions of their supply to chain to meet the COP21 Paris agreement.

MMM: What can farmers do to adapt to climate change?
CP: Australian dairy farmers are already adapting to climate change by:

  • securing inputs (water, fodder reserves, land),
  • mitigating impacts (increasing shade and shelter – Cool Cows, changing pasture species, installing a feed pad),
  • adjusting to suit changed pasture growth conditions (e.g. changing calving times), and;
  • investing in irrigation.

Additional strategies include:

  • developing business management skills to better understand the risk trade-offs between optimising/intensifying their farming business versus building in redundancies/buffers,
  • learning more about the potential value of new precision technologies, data driven decision support tools and different pasture/forage species to mitigate the impacts of climate change for their farm,
  • building understanding of the reliability of short term and seasonal forecasting for their locality to enable more informed decision making around tactical decisions such as increasing fodder reserves, use of nitrogen, culling lower performing cows, and;
  • exploring climate analogues to identify dairy areas where the current climate is similar to their projected future climate.

New and emerging precision and automated technologies, improved connectivity and bioengineering all offer opportunities for Australian dairy businesses to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Thank you very much, Cathy, and also to Farmers for Climate Action and the Gardiner Foundation for holding the day in Yarram.

Disillusioned dairy

Even though dairy prices were flying high when I took over the reins here as the hopeful but heavily indebted next generation in 2008, the Global Financial Crisis was already forming.

I could see the international commodity prices were going into freefall but, as late as October, our factory rep said there was no need to worry, our milk price wasn’t affected.

A few weeks later, as farmers were congregating for Christmas parties, the announcement came that our milk price could no longer defy gravity. From February, it would be 40 per cent lower. It was the first time the price had dropped like that in more than 30 years.

The entire industry kicked into action. Dairy Australia offered information sessions on budgeting and cost control measures while bankers rushed to refinance loans. I was impressed. It was a crisis but we all pulled together.

The fallout from the 2016 dairy crisis is different. There’s been the same flurry of post-crisis activity from Dairy Australia and the bankers but farmers want more than that and, two years later, we have not “moved on” like we did last time.

This morning, I woke to a flurry of activity on Twitter provoked by an opinion piece in The Weekly Times by farm consultant, John Mulvany.

John takes the lash to processors and farmer representative body, the UDV, saying both know there are big problems but are refusing to act.

“If nothing happens the industry will continue to decline and cost of production will rise. The lack of action by those who can create change is ‘underwhelming’.”
John Mulvany, The Weekly Times

I agree with John entirely, to this point but he loses me in the following and final sentences:

“They know they can achieve a better industry. But their short-term vision and focus on career paths have created a roadblock.”

I think that’s unfair and missing the real problem. The farmers who volunteer their time to make things happen are routinely rewarded for their efforts by getting slammed relentlessly on social media. Some of it gets pretty personal, too.

As one active volunteer and farmer, Lauren Peterson, tweeted, “…some of us haven’t given up but will if keep tearing us down. We’re not the enemy”.

The real problem is that, unless you’re one of the sheltered few already in some form of life-raft, it’s every man (and woman) for himself now. Not enough of us believe that change is even possible. We are too hurt, afraid and angry.

I’m not blaming anyone for that – I often feel much the same – but it’s hardly the mindset needed for cooperation, negotiation and innovation.

Ironically, processors fighting for our milk are unlikely to provide the leadership needed in case it’s not well received and they lose supply. Much safer to work behind the scenes recruiting key supply with special deals and locking in the masses with sign-on incentives.

What will be the circuit breaker?

On tomorrow in Yarram: practical help to future-proof the farm


The days are rapidly getting shorter but the autumn break remains missing in action. That’s not terribly unusual around here – it has always been fickle – but it’s also very dry.

And, apart from those December downpours, it’s been very dry for a long time. There’s really nothing left in the soil but grass-seed-eating crickets. It’s a tricky time.

Do you sow new pastures now and hope a meaty autumn break (rather than one of those fizzer false starts) arrives in time to sustain the seedlings or do you delay until you’re absolutely sure, only to run out of growing time before winter?

Aaargh! It’s a race where thousands of dollars ride on backing the right horse. This kind of unpredictability makes farming risky (and expensive), not just for dairy farmers but cockies of every creed and commodity.

You need experience, expertise and a bit of luck to get it right.

Tomorrow: lunch with the climate, weather and farming experts for some great ideas

Farmers for Climate Action with the support of the Gardiner Foundation and the FRRR is bringing some insights from experts to town tomorrow to help us manage the shifting seasons.

Dr Luke Shelley from the Bureau of Meteorology’s Agriculture Program will present on the applying seasonal forecasting tools and long-term climate projections to farm decisions.

Ms Catherine Phelps, Dairy Australia’s Program Leader for Land, Water and Carbon will offer tactics and strategies for managing dairy businesses facing climate variability and long-term risks.

I’ll be going and, whether you’re dairying, beef, sheep or any other type of farmer, you’re welcome to come along too (they’re even laying on lunch at the Club Hotel).

Ring Corey Watts at Australian Farmers for Climate Action on 0428 000 037 or email: vic@farmersforclimateaction.org.au to reserve your spot!

Spreading the love at Easter


Easter around here is beautiful. It’s a time when you get to see, in one glorious street parade, many of the selfless people who make our district tick.

Every Easter Saturday since I was in nappies, the town has stopped to watch the SES, CFA, Surf Lifesaving Club and a gazillion other volunteers do a hero’s turn around the Canary Island Palms that grace the length of the main street.

Actually, pretty much any sober community member is welcome to participate and they do. We waved to senior citizens rolling along on their mobility scooters, children on tinsel-festooned cattle-trucks-cum-floats, a small contingent of electric cars trailing a “The future is electric” banner and even a colossal black horse prancing anxiously as the Caledonian Pipe Band wailed behind him.

It’s a reminder of the diversity of a town so small that your own geneaology is public knowledge.

It’s the kind of event where you recognise people your father knew and introduce your own children to old friends in the same way your parents once did.

The theme of this year’s parade may have been “Wings” but it only served to remind me of our roots.