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.

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.

Valentine’s Day on the farm: what it means to love your animals

The sweet Jamie and Zoe

The sweet Jamie and Zoe

Meet my new love, Jamie. A “leopard Appaloosa”, he’s not the prettiest horse on the planet but he may well be the sweetest. At the ripe old age of just eight, he was the embodiment of freedom for some of our most vulnerable Australians as a Riding for the Disabled (RDA) mount.

Certainly, he has the calm, unflappable nature required but he got bored of walking gently around and around an arena. For Jamie is quite a character, smart enough to drink Coke from a can or juice from a box.

Farm life suits this inquisitive fellow down to the ground. There are always people coming and going, cows on the move and Jamie loves nothing better than a ride in the bush. We feed him carrots, brush his silky spotty coat until it gleams, take care of his health, smother him with affection and, in return, Jamie keeps me sane and more alive than I’ve felt in years. It’s a contract written in love.

Jamie wears his heart on his hide

Jamie wears his heart on his hide

I’ve always considered myself a horse rider even during the last seven years of being horseless. When Zoe was just a toddler and the grief from my father’s death was still raw, I had to put down my best friend, Mistral. No matter what the vet tried, she was in debilitating pain with arthritis.

Mistral

Mistral

Over the 22 years we were together, Mistral and I came to trust each other implicitly; we could face anything together. Her loss was devastating. But I owed it to her.

Anyone who cares for animals has to be courageous and selfless enough to put their well-being first. That’s what we aim for every day here on the farm when we are making decisions that affect their lives. And, let’s face it, nearly everything we do has an impact on the animals who share our home.

Farmers are accused of not talking about animal welfare enough. It’s difficult, just as raising the topic of child welfare would be, err, unpopular at a kindergarten barbeque. Nobody wants to have their parenting or animal care standards questioned – it’s insulting. But maybe it’s something we need to face with the same selflessness and courage we animal lovers expect of ourselves when it counts.

Work with me to look after our cows

I want to give every one of our cows a better life. It may sound grandiose but I think of myself as their guardian.

BoldHeiferLoRes

I am not a corporation, not a money-hungry investor looking to tear a quick buck off the backs of our cows. No, I am in this for the long-term, not five years or a decade but for the generations beyond mine. Every time I plant a new trailer-load of trees, I imagine the deep shade they will cast when my children reach middle age.

How we planted trees 40 years ago

How we planted trees 40 years ago

Every calf we rear is fed with enough colostrum to bless her with a long and healthy life, not just until market day. And the herd is scrupulously isolated from disease like BJD, not just for now, but for generations of cows to come.

No rest for the mother of twins

A perfect multi-tasking mother cow!

I’m not an aberration, not a monster, just a farmer doing her best. So don’t tell me I am cruel if you don’t understand – or approve of – the way I care for our animals. Sit alongside me in the paddocks and, together, perhaps we can work out a better way.

 

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

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

One woman’s kindness is another’s cruelty

Animal welfare is one of those things that often falls into the realm of sex, politics and religion. It’s an emotionally-charged topic at the best of times and when standards need to be set, conflict is inevitable. Consider this:

“Rear the calf in safety away from the herd so it can lead a healthy life”
vs
“Take the calf from its mother so farmers can steal the milk”

Both statements put the calf first, yes, but advocate diametrically-opposed practices. Vets say science supports the hand-rearing of calves, animal rights bodies say that’s immoral. So, what’s a farmer to do? At the moment, farmers have a lot of freedom to do whatever we think is right, so long as the calf’s healthy.

But animal welfare is increasingly becoming a political hot potato as vocal lobby groups demand more of a say in, and greater scrutiny of, farming practices. We farmers can’t stick our heads in the sand and hope this will all go away.

And, to be frank, many of the farmers I’ve discussed the issue with would like to see our representatives raise the bar to match the standards almost all of us meet every day. Few choose farming as a career just for the money (that concept never fails to raise a chuckle) – most do it because we love being outdoors with the animals. Why should we let a few rotten apples bring us all down?

But who decides what those standards should be? The dairy community? Well, no, we can’t do it by ourselves because external input is important to progress. The attitudes of the wider community have to be part of the decision-making process.

The thorny question really is: who represents the views of the wider community? Neilson research presented by Courtney Sullivan at the Australian Dairy Conference a couple of years ago showed that most Australians have little knowledge of where their food comes from, that they are aware of their ignorance and that, to put it bluntly, ignorance is bliss. Price was the main driver. Quality was taken for granted.

Ironically, this is a view that is eschewed by farmers and animal welfare bodies alike. It probably comes about because we farmers are trusted to do the right thing – a perception that some animal welfare activists would like to change.

Farmers have the opportunity to be proactive and show the good faith of the community is deserved. Why on earth not?

PS: If you want to know more about how we rear our calves and why, the answers are here on the Milk Maid Marian blog.

A very unpopular dairy blog post

I suspect I am about to make a lot of enemies because there is an elephant in the room and few are in a position to point it out.

Here are the facts:

  • the last season has been dreadful
  • dairy farmers have free access to lots of information about we can keep cows healthy during fodder shortages
  • many dairy farmers who couldn’t afford skyrocketing feed costs have sold a lot of cows at ridiculously low prices so they can feed the remainder of their cows properly
  • farmers have gone broke but kept their cows healthy
  • cows do not starve overnight and watching them weaken over weeks or months would be more than I could bear yet reports of them dying in their hundreds have hit the national news

I was stunned. Perhaps people who would normally sell their cows off long, long before they reached the point of starvation couldn’t for some reason? Maybe they were hoping for a miracle? Maybe they were in denial?

It just doesn’t ring true, at least not for hundreds of cows as media reports suggest.

And it’s come out today that some published pictures of “starving cattle” were actually the carcasses of cows that had died of other causes. In fact, the vet whose leaked email urging MPs to act sparked the media stories, Dr Mike Hamblin, has since told Warrnambool newspaper The Standard that there is no animal welfare problem in SW Victoria:

“Warrnambool veterinarian Mike Hamblin said there was no animal welfare crisis in the region and that he believed farmers were looking after their livestock well in a difficult financial situation. Dr Hamblin said that while some stock were thinner than normal, he had not seen any starving.”

Yes, people need help. Yes, it is wonderful that the media stories have finally got the Victorian government to reach agreement with the Commonwealth on low-interest loans.

But do we really need to paint already suffering farmers as cruel by presenting pictures of dead cows to our political leaders before action is taken? The reality is that most farmers skip their own dinners to feed our animals. These dirty tactics may have won concessional loans for a few farmers but they have blown a lot of trust and, at the end of the day, we will all be the losers.

There has to be a better way to avert what is a genuine human crisis than fabricating an animal welfare one.

Inconvenient dairy truths

I am not a spokesperson for the dairy community. I’m simply an average dairy farmer who likes to write.

The way my family cares for our cows is very typical of what happens on farms right across Australia. It’s important that more of us share what we do, why we do it and why that matters with non-farming Australians because there is much to be proud of.

It’s equally important that average dairy farmers like me are constantly challenged to do better and that we, in turn, challenge others involved in dairy to improve the way we care for our land and cows.

I am ashamed when dairy spokespeople try to defend the indefensible actions of the minority of farmers who cling onto practices that the rest of us wouldn’t entertain. It’s embarrassing that I have done so little to try to influence them to represent (and lead) all of us.

Someone who has gone beyond the call in her role as Dairy Australia’s animal welfare manager is Bridget Peachey, who was never afraid to tell the good stories and work with farmers to lift our standards. Bridget leaves DA this week and I will miss her leadership, knowledge and sense of what really matters to farmers and the animals in our care.