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.

Fur flies as seven bulls join the herd

We did something desperately silly yesterday: we pushed not one but six fighting bulls along a one kilometre treck (including a road crossing) at once, just before milking time. Silly because I was very worried someone might get hurt. Desperate because they’d broken into the yearlings’ paddock.

Yearlings get as randy as a mature cow but until they’re 15 months old, their bodies just aren’t up to carrying a calf, let alone a one-tonne Friesian bull.

Strangely enough, the six jousting bulls went across the road okay. It was “Buster” who had my full attention. Buster the bull was in a group of seven until, suddenly, he was by himself over the fence. A seemingly impregnable, tightly strained eight-barb was no match for him and his mates. We hadn’t seem him exit the laneway but the fence was the worse for wear and a slow drip of blood from his tail showed he wasn’t completely unscathed.

As we approached – me, Zoe and Alex in the Bobcat and Wayne on a quad – Buster’s first response was to swing round at Wayne and put his head down. Now, that’s not a good start. That’s a threat.

Wayne very wisely stopped and feeling a little safer on the Bobcat, I called Buster’s bluff, who stood his ground. There we were in a bull to bull-bar standoff. I squeezed the accelerator and Buster pushed forward, then swung around again facing the Bobcat a-midships. Reverse, redirect, start again. This went on for about 15 minutes before we finally got Buster back out into the laneway.

We decided Buster was bound to make even more trouble with the “crew” in tow, so he had to be cajoled the entire way by himself. He was better with the cows but, even then, decided to pick a fight. Hope Buster just had PMT!

Is it cruel to use bulls to get dairy cows in calf?

Bull  waits for cows

Hello ladies!

A dairy farmer speaking with ABC Rural reporter Michael McKenzie the other day didn’t really get to explain himself after suggesting that using bulls rather than artificial insemination was linked with inductions.

For decades, it’s been pretty standard practice on Australian dairy farms to use straws of frozen sperm rather than natural matings. Artificial insemination (AI) doesn’t hurt and using frozen semen allows farmers to select traits from the best bulls around the world.

Each bull is given a numerical rating for the characteristics they pass on to their daughters. The scope is amazing – everything from teat length through to temperament is measured – and we can use that information to select sires that will correct problems in the herd. If, for example, we have quite a few cows with short teats, we can choose a mate whose daughters tend to have unusually long teats.

In this way, our cows get naturally healthier and stronger, generation after generation. Better legs and feet means less lameness, while better udders means less mastitis (oh, and susceptibility to mastitis itself is on the list, too!).

There is a drawback though. People are rarely as good as bulls are at detecting when a cow is fertile. Bulls curl back their lips to seemingly drink in the pheromones undetectable to humans while frozen semen may also be less potent than that of a bull.

For this reason, most farmers who aim to have the herd calve over just a few weeks use AI followed by a short period of natural matings with “mop up” bulls.

The farmer was trying to say that he used just the AI, effectively mating his cows over less time. That’s his choice but I can’t see how it has any impact on whether a farmer uses drugs to induce an early calving. If you want a lot of calves in a short time, feed the cows well, choose sires well ranked for fertility and pull the bulls out early.

As you can see from other Milk Maid Marian blog posts, I believe inductions for any reason other than the welfare of the mother cow should be banned. I am not alone – most dairy farmers detest it. The practice is already almost wiped out, with only 1.58 per cent of Australia’s dairy cows induced in 2010. Still too many but a long, long way off the epidemic suggested in media reports.

What did one bull say to the other?

Aussie cricketers are infamous for sledging but, judging by last night’s performance, they have nothing on our Jersey bulls.

Three of these testosterone-fuelled bovines are in with the last of the cows due to calve and they are sharing a very strict pre-calving or “transition” diet that involves virtually no grass – just grain and cereal silage and hay. So, when I arrive with the grain trailer, everyone rushes over and tucks in before they miss out. Well, not quite everyone.

Bulls fighting in calving paddock

It all started when I arrived with the grain trailer

Headbutting bulls

Nobody else was impressed

Bulls still fighting

The bulls just kept on going

Bulls still warring half an hour later

The two bulls were still warring half an hour later (sorry about the pic quality)

Love to hear what you thought the original sledge was that sparked all this off!

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!

Calving slows, now, when to take the bulls out?

Over the past week, only half a dozen cows have calved. The next decision will be when to take the bulls out of the herd.

Traditionally, our herd begins to calve in mid-July but we’re in transition towards a new start date. Because the winters seem to be warmer and the springs shorter here, we began to mate the cows last July for an April 20 start to calving (like people, cows have a nine-month gestation period).

This is designed to match the cows’ peak production of milk with the peak growth of grass and reduce the need to maintain high energy levels over summer, which is a tough time to keep fodder up to the cows on a rain-fed rather than an irrigated farm.

So, when to stop? Some farmers arrange mating dates to have a couple of batches of calves throughout the year, relatively few calve all year round and most aim for seasonal calving over a period of eight to 12 weeks. These days, it’s becoming increasingly hard to get all the cows in calf each year and not all cows need to be pregnant annually to produce well. Extended lactation, as it’s called, is now very common for a portion of dairy herds and, according to the gurus like Greg O’Brien at the Department of Primary Industries, could be quite viable.

Since I want to shift our start date and rapidly shorten the calving season from our current transitory (and excruciating) six months, I’m inclined to be reassured by Greg’s advice and pull the bulls out earlier rather than later. Last year, it was New Year’s Day, this year, I’m considering mid-November. It’ll be mostly the late calvers who miss out under this regime and because we’ll be mating again in July, extended lactation is even less of an issue – it’s not a two-year lactation, anyhow.

In the next couple of weeks, we’ll arrange a pregnancy test for the cows who either calved early this year or didn’t calve at all. The vets are confident of due dates when pregnancies are at least eight weeks.

Wish me luck!

Why we don’t want huge calves like this whopper

Huge calf

Big calves are a big risk

This calf was born yesterday and, sadly, survived only a few minutes, leaving his poor mother exhausted. Having sat her up, Wayne and Zoe are giving her a dose of sugars, calcium and mineral salts to give her a boost after her ordeal. Big calves tend to cause a lot of calving trouble and are also often stillborn. We’ve had a few this year, which I think is partly due to the wonderful condition of the cows.

We do actively try to keep the size of calves manageable in other ways. When we are selecting bulls for our herd, we look for those who have a record of easy calvings (though not too easy in case we end up breeding cows with hopelessly tiny pelvises) and those of medium stature. We don’t want to breed giants and internationally, Holsteins have been getting bigger and bigger.

As well as the calving ease, our desire for medium-sized cows is about fitness. Most of the semen originates from lines bred in America and Europe, where cows live in barns most of the time and walk very little while, here in Australia, our cows live out in the paddocks all year round.

I think they have better lives as a result but the downside (if you can call it that) is that they must be fit enough to walk from the paddock to the dairy and back twice a day. Massive bodies are hard on feet and legs.