Jousting for poll position

Scuffles broke out right across the paddock as the weak winter sun lit the stage for a bovine pugilism festival. The cows were feeling magnificent and, unable to contain their energy, were ready to take on all comers.

jousting jousting2 jousting3

The kids and I love watching the cows “do butter-heads” and the cows seem to love it, too. For every pair or trio engaged in warfare, there will be a group of curious onlookers and one scuffle seems to inspire more outbreaks.

Does butter-heads have a serious purpose though? Yes, it does. The herd has a very structured pecking order. Cows come into the dairy in roughly the same order every milking and the smallest and most timid are inevitably last. Mess them up by splitting the herd into seemingly random groups for a large-scale vet procedure like preg testing and you can expect trouble. There are cows thrust into leadership positions who don’t want to go into the yard first and lots more poo than usual.

I am sure that in days gone by, these battles were often fought to the death. Strong, razor sharp horns with 550kg of muscle and bone behind them are fearsome weapons. Our calves have their horn buds removed as painlessly as we can manage it early on to avoid far greater traumas later in life and for our own protection.

Soon, they will be spared even this discomfort. Dairy cows are being bred “polled” (without horns) and, eventually, we will have a herd that is naturally hornless. It’s not easy finding suitable polled bulls yet but our breeding centre tells me that demand from dairy farmers for polled semen is now “huge”.

I have my eyes on a couple of German polled beaux for our ladies. I only hope we can get them in time for this year’s mating season.

A milk maid’s Mother’s Day

Zoe is sound asleep still gripping a book propped upright on her chest with the rollicking Fantastic Mr Fox in full swing on her CD player. Alex is prostrate with both arms up around his ears.

Today was tough for my little people. Alex got himself soaked and in trouble with Mama for tossing stones into a trough while Zoe learnt the hard way not to swing on a gal gate beside a hot wire.

We were desperate to get a whole list of farm jobs done before the rain came and it was action stations all day. Now, as the first shower of a forecast two or three inch deluge tip-toes across the farm house’s iron roof, it seems all very satisfactory.

Zoe, Alex and I fed two batches of cows, treated a sick calf, repaired two fences and a gate (what is it with the bulls?), brought in a load of wood, planted a tree, sorted 24 cows from a mob of 60, shifted the teenagers and got out two new mums with their calves.

A real team effort

A real team effort

And, in amongst all that, I was treated to the most marvellous Mother’s Day. Wayne cooked a Moroccan chicken lunch and I was presented with all sorts of very meaningful mementos. I am very, very lucky indeed.


This cow cannot take a trick

The last cow into the dairy on Friday morning had Wayne stumped. It had been an uneventful milking, she’d gobbled up her ration of grain for breakfast but, when Wayne turned to spray the teats, there she was calmly sitting underneath her neighbour. No matter what we tried, there she stayed, refusing to budge. This little cow is only five years old, six months in calf and in great health. We didn’t want to lose her.


Sarah the vet was duly called but could find nothing wrong. We figured she’d just slipped and was gathering her nerves before trying to get back up. She didn’t. She wouldn’t, even to follow a tempting trail of wheat.

Mmm, you smell nice

Mmm, you smell nice

When the time for afternoon milking came around, Wayne had to slither her along the platform and then lift her over a fence with the hip clamps. We sat her in the shade with grass, silage and water. She ate well, looked bright and feisty but her legs just wouldn’t work. It was an enormous relief to see her up and about at daybreak on Sunday morning, pushing against the gate to get back with her herd mates.

She still looked a bit tottery yesterday afternoon, so we let her have the afternoon off but felt really confident she was going to be alright.

So when I had to move the cows unexpectedly at lunchtime and saw her being pushed backwards down a slope towards the gully by a big bully cow, my heart leapt into my mouth. With the bully heaving low under her belly, the poor little cow toppled sideways – seemingly in slow motion – into this ignominious position.


Now, this crazy-looking pose called “dorsal recumbency” is deadly for a cow. I had minutes to get her upright. For emergencies like this, I carry a heavy drag chain in the Bobcat and had her sitting upright again in less than five minutes. It’s a delicate job that has to be done with a lot of grunt and that’s always a risky combination.

Thank goodness, it worked. After some gentle coaxing from me and enthusiastic yapping from Patch, she struggled to her feet and joined the herd. Fingers crossed, little cow.

Hot milk

Remember yesterday’s 41 degree Celsius heat? Now, imagine you were standing outside in it being blasted by 250 1500-watt hair dryers. How do you feel now? Ready to do athletics?

Grazing the lush crop

Icy poles for cows

Believe it or not, each of our dairy cows gives off body heat equivalent to a 1500-watt hair dryer on a hot day. Yet, incredibly, each still made an average of 29 litres of milk for us yesterday. We nursed them through with some very careful planning based on the principles of the Cool Cows program.

  • Wayne got up an hour earlier to milk before the sun’s rays began to sting and milked two hours later than usual. This meant that the cows spent less time in the sun on the concrete yard waiting to be milked.
  • We hosed the whole yard down about 45 minutes before the afternoon milking. It’s amazing how much cooler the yard felt afterwards.
  • The yard sprinklers were activated as the cows came towards the yard. (You remember the fun of dancing through sprinklers on the lawn!)
  • The cows’ diet changed a little for the day. The cows got a little more grain, a little more green crop and a little less hay yesterday. It takes more energy to digest high-fibre foods, which adds to heat stress. Rather than feeding out the hay during the day, Wayne stayed up late and offered the cows a “night-cap” in the relative cool of the evening.
  • We chose the coolest paddock on the farm, ringed by the deep shade of mature willow trees.
  • On a hot day, dairy cows can slurp up a staggering 250 litres each. Our extra-large troughs ensured they had plenty of fresh, cool water to drink when they chose to emerge from their hideouts.

Poor girls. According to the Cool Cows program leader, Dr Steve Little, dairy cows start to seek out shade when it gets to about 25 degrees C. I think the farm’s cows, dogs and humans all felt the need to go into summer hibernation yesterday.

The dairy farmer’s calendar

Summer is the laziest time of year for a dairy farmer but when Wayne and I started writing a “to do” list yesterday, my head began to spin a little. Not satisfied with a mild head rush, I went on to draft a rough calendar:

The Annual Milk Maid’s To-Do List

Lazy Summer Days

  • Milk cows
  • Pay bills
  • Deal with crises (pump breakdowns are popular this season)
  • Begin drying cows off for their annual holiday
  • Make hay
  • Have we conserved enough fodder? Consider buying more
  • Begin feeding silage, crops and hay
  • Return cow effluent back to pastures
  • Spend a day changing rubberware in the dairy
  • Control blackberries
  • Vaccinations, drenching, branding, preg testing
  • Big maintenance projects (the stuff you put off the rest of the year)
  • Dream of the next Great Leap Forward

Autumn Anxieties

  • Milk cows
  • Pay bills
  • Deal with crises (milk quality issues popular this season)
  • Continue drying cows off for their annual holiday
  • Special feeding regime for expectant cows
  • Welcome and nurture new calves
  • Test soils for nutrient levels
  • Repair cow tracks
  • Sow new pastures
  • Fertilise pastures
  • Return cow effluent back to pastures
  • Chase revegetation grants and order trees
  • Maintenance
  • Still feeding silage and hay
  • Nude rain dancing in full swing

Winter Woes

  • Milk cows
  • Pay bills
  • Deal with crises (calving emergencies popular this season)
  • Welcome and nurture new calves
  • Fence and spray areas for revegetation
  • Spend a day changing rubberware in the dairy
  • Feed three groups of cows different rations
  • Mating program in full swing
  • Consider another drenching
  • Buy new gumboots and practise rain dancing in reverse
  • Redo budgets after milk factory announces opening price
  • Keep chin up

Supercharged Spring

  • Milk cows
  • Pay bills
  • Deal with crises (unpredictable weather popular this season)
  • Train the new members of the herd
  • Visit the accountant (and maybe the banker)
  • Fertilise, fertilise, fertilise
  • Vaccinate and wean calves
  • Thoroughly clean and disinfect the calf shed
  • Plant trees
  • Control thistles
  • Make silage
  • Sow summer crops
  • Make grass angels

I know I’ve missed stuff – lots of it – but it should give you an idea of what happens day-to-day and season-to-season on our very average Australian dairy farm. So, dear Reader, as we head into 2013, what do you want to know more about?

The hard lessons of life on farm

Message for Papa

Every farmer is by nature a philosopher. You must live for the big picture, cherish the little things and remember that, no matter what, the wheel continues to turn.

This week, a cow died in labour and two more gave birth to bulls. We felt sad about the death of a favourite but welcomed two of her sisters back into the herd. Farmers know that death is an inescapable fact of life.

Even so, it was different when a friend’s dog was killed in a freak tree-felling accident. It’s much harder to be philosophical about a the passing of a man’s best mate and I felt sick just hearing about it.

It’s times like these that throw the delineation between farm animal and pet into stark relief. Animal activists often ask farmers and meat eaters whether they would eat their own pets. Of course not. Does that make a compelling case for veganism?

Not in my view. All our animals will die one day, irrespective of the cause. What makes us ethical custodians is the quality of life we provide.

The positives of being a dairy farmer

It’s one year since I started Milk Maid Marian and seeing as I’ve just finished reconciling our accounts for March, I thought it perfect timing to do the same for my life as a dairy farmer, beginning with the top five positives.

Love of the land
The first one has to be love of land. I am connected to this place and think of myself as its custodian. Just being here is good for the soul.

Farm children have something special
The farm allows me to work with Zoe and Alex, even in those precious early years. The farm’s also a great teacher: respect for work, respect for the environment, animals and nature. They have seen birth, life and death first-hand and I hope they have learned to accept life with good grace yet develop inquiring minds. There’s a palpable sense of responsibility about farm kids that’s matched with the enormous freedoms of farm life.

Working with animals
Cows, calves, bulls and dogs all have their own personalities but none of them play office politics around the water cooler. Because we work with our cows at least twice a day, we get to know and appreciate the characters!

Exercise for mind, body and soul
Farming is not for dummies, lazybones or fragile souls. The challenges are immense and that can be enervating because there is always something new to learn and do.

Knowing that we are making a difference
We produce great, clean, healthy food while looking after our animals and the land. That’s very satisfying.

Early morning greeting as the farmer tends her animals

With a scorching 36 degrees Celsius forecast today, Zoe and I decided to get out on the farm nice and early. Amazingly for mid summer, it still looks lovely and green.

Cool morning

Cool before we cook

One of the first things we did was check on a calf in the sick bay. Dubbed “Pinky” by Zoe, this calf is about the same age as my own baby Alex – eight months – and is thriving but had an umbilical hernia that vet Pete operated on last week. We are spraying her with a pink disinfectant and fly repellant to keep her wound nice but it looks horribly inflamed as a result. She’s camping in a small paddock by the shed with a friend to minimise the amount of running around she does for the next week or so.


Pinky recovers in the company of a friend

Zoe and I also stopped to top up Charlie and Lola’s pantry and say good morning to our semi-nocturnal Maremma guardians.

Charlie the sleepy Maremma

Good morning sleepy head

But it was a far less cuddly creature that greeted me when I went to check the milk chart.


Aaaargh...look who came out to greet me!

Yikes! Got to take the good with the bad!

Why Australians become vegans and why it matters to this farmer

According to 2010 Newspoll research sponsored by Voiceless, only 1% of Australians call themselves vegans, with vegetarians accounting for another 5%, but the reasons why people consider veganism reveal some very interesting things about our attitudes towards food.

Overall, 56% of Australians say there are one or more things that would encourage them to become vegan. These are:
• evidence that many farming practices cause stress and pain for millions of animals every year (36%)
• evidence they can be healthy on a vegan diet (35%)
• evidence that being vegan is better for the environment (31%)
• more vegan menu items in cafes or restaurants (25%)
• being vegan costing less than their current lifestyle (23%)
• family or friends that are vegan (20%)
• more vegans in general (17%)

The research also found that “47% of Australians think making cows pregnant every year and taking their calves from them to obtain milk is unacceptable”.

Veganism is the canary of the disconnect between farmers and other Australians. Those who choose to avoid eating the food we produce on the grounds of morality are telling us we are falling short. Some will have made their minds up but most Australians are quite receptive to the true story.

The good news is I don’t think there is a large gap between mainstream dairying practices and what most Australians perceive as “ethical” farming. I do think we can bridge it if we find a way to work with others who share our passion for animals. We must also learn to talk about it with confidence and pride.

Charlie Arnot of the US Center for Food Integrity wrote an excellent post on just this topic today, which includes this comment:

For far too long, many in this discussion have resorted to attacking those who don’t share their beliefs – an “us vs. them” mentality that limits the opportunity for meaningful discussion about complex food issues. This polarizing debate is unfortunate and unproductive. What would be far more beneficial is an informed discussion of food system issues that will allow us to meet the growing global demand for food, while decreasing our impact on the environment and assuring responsible farming.

Just as a balanced diet that includes a variety of foods is a sound strategy for good nutrition, a balanced discussion of the complex issues related to food is a sound strategy for making good decisions on food policy.

I learned a great deal from agricultural leaders in Australia and I look forward to learning more. The open exchange of ideas makes everyone better. I pledge to use that same approach to other issues in the coming year. The next time someone raises a concern about today’s food system I’m going to welcome the question, encourage a discussion and learn more about the issue. I’m going to reject the appeal of culinary colonialism and work to assure we all have the opportunity to make informed choices about our food.

Hear, hear, Charlie!