The fragility and strength of a calf

I was out on a routine tour of the farm measuring pasture growth when I saw an unfamiliar white rectangle in the distance. It turned out to be a calf all alone in the milker’s overnight paddock, rump turned towards the icy rain you get in snow weather. It was two-thirty in the afternoon and, somehow, a cow that should not have been anywhere near ready to calve, had calved during the night and been brought in for the morning’s milking leaving her newborn in the paddock.

This can happen. Pregnancy testing is not perfect. Maternal instincts vary. Calves hidden in the grass are almost impossible to see at the 5.30am roundup. All so excusable but face-to-face with the abandoned newborn, unforgivable, too.

The calf was a strong, snowy-white heifer who seemed relieved to see me and stood quietly as I gathered her in my arms, staggering under her 40kg weight. There was about a kilometre’s travel along the track to the warmth of sheds, so the only option was to hold Snowy tight on my lap as I drove. I say “on my lap” a little loosely. The gangly calf had her rear trotters on the floor by my right foot and her neck pinned under my left elbow.

All went remarkably well until I took my foot off the accelerator as we reached an electric rope stretched across the track and Snowy decided to seize control, stomping on the pedal hard, sending us careering into the rope at high revs. A few moments later and me feeling a little less casual about my copilot’s role in the journey, we were on our way again. As we rounded the knoll, the sun broke out and I saw the first arrivals for the afternoon milking clustered at the yard entrance.

Would Snowy’s mother be there? Urging Snowy under the wire towards the cows, I hoped for a miracle and out of the group marched a mostly white cow freshly painted with question marks. There are lots of signs, some of them quite subtle, when a cow is ready to calve and Wayne had spotted some changes in Snowy’s mother that morning.

Snowy's mother claims her.

Snowy’s mother claims her.

Watch here as Snowy briefly follows an aunt before being tucked back in again for a drink by her mother.

Snowy and her mother spent the evening together and both are now doing really well. Calves are resilient little creatures but they really do need extra TLC in their first few days to set them up for long, healthy lives.

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

Watch a calf being born

Although we keep an eagle eye over cows as they approach calving time, most give birth perfectly naturally without any help from us just like this lovely lady. Her calf was up and walking within the hour and running by the afternoon. These little animals are amazing sprinters! Just ask eight-year-old Zoe, who tried and failed miserably to outrun a three-day-old calf this morning!

Stealing the calf’s milk

There’s an urban myth that dairy farmers rear calves away from the herd so we can harvest the special buttercup-yellow milk that comes with the first milkings after calving called colostrum. The irony is that one of the main reasons we collect calves early is to ensure they get plenty of colostrum.

According to a Dairy Australia fact sheet on colostrum management:

“Unlike humans, the placenta of the cow keeps the maternal blood supply separate from that of the unborn calf. This prevents the transfer of antibodies from the cow to the calf before birth and the calf is born with no ability to fight disease.”

“Colostrum is the substance that provides the antibodies that form the main protection from infectious diseases for the calf in the first 6 weeks of life, until the calf can develop antibodies of its own. Without colostrum, a calf is likely to die.”

What’s more, calves need it immediately, as DA goes on to explain:

“It is important to be clear about two key facts relating to colostrum:
• The calf’s intestine absorbs the large IgG molecules easily straight after birth
• The intestine’s ability to absorb antibodies decreases after birth—it decreases by 30–50 % within 6 hours of birth
• It stops completely between 24 to 36 hours after birth”

Yes, it’s vital to our calves.

We don’t sell a drop of the precious stuff (few farmers do, which is why it’s so expensive) and we’re not allowed to mix it with the rest of the milk because it goes off quickly. “Stealing colostrum from calves” is certainly not why we raise the calves away from the herd.

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.

AutumnGardenAlexCowsLoRes

What’s so special about this calf?

Emily Brown of Linderlan Brown Swiss is a very clever young woman and dairy farmer and I am really pleased she accepted an invitation to write a guest post for me. Over to you, Emily!

First I’d like to thank The Milk Maid Marian for inviting me to do a guest blog! I feel very honoured and somewhat famous…

I’d like to introduced you to Olga, a brand new baby calf born recently, what’s so special about her you ask? (apart from how obviously adorable she is of course!) Well lots of things!

Olga the calf

Olga


Olga is a pure bred Brown Swiss dairy calf, she is four weeks old and loves to drink milk, eat grain and hay, and run circuits of the calf paddock at full speed with all her mates, but that’s not all, Olga came into the world in a very unusual way!

Olga was born via embryo transfer. This is where a superior cow is selected to produce embryos which get implanted into other, less valuable cows, resulting in more offspring from the very best cows. This is done by a special vet who gives the mother or ‘donor cow’ injections to stimulate multiple eggs to be formed, kind of like when someone has twins or triplets. They are then fertilised via artificial insemination, and after seven days flushed out and either implanted into another cow, or frozen to be implanted at a later date. Olga’s mum made six in one go!

So why do dairy farmers sometimes do embryo transfer? Well, we are always looking to use the best technology to ensure that we are breeding the healthiest, most productive animals we can. This enables them to live longer and better lives, which is great for the animal and the farmer!

But there’s another reason Olga’s mum was selected to produce embryos: not only has she lived a long time and produced a lot of high quality milk but two of her daughters and one of her grand-daughters have won Champion of their age groups at the biggest and most glamorous dairy show in Australia – International Dairy Week. This is where the most beautiful cows of the six dairy breeds strut their stuff every year.

Olga's Mum

Olga’s Mum

Let’s hope little Olga follows in her big sisters footsteps in the future, but with a little brother or sister on the way 10 weeks after she was born she might have some competition!!!

Olga's crew

Olga’s crew

My brand new shiny thing is being licked all over!

Oooh. Look what I’ve bought.

BIG calf feeder

It's a monster!

I have been coveting one of these 1000kg capacity grain feeders for a couple of years now. Normally, we have to lug a tonne of calf pellets into troughs by hand every week. That’s a lot of 20kg bags and a lot of aching muscles.

The stars came into alignment this month though, when our store had a special on the 1000kg capacity monster and the stockfeed company announced they would supply us with calf feed in one-tonne bulk bags that we can handle with the tractor’s front end loader.

Calf food in a bulk bag

A week's dinner for our calves includes pasta

The feed is a mixture of grains that have a combined 18% protein content to help the calves grow big and strong and even includes pasta. The calves have wasted no time getting into their new dinners served up in my shiny new toy. Oh man, oh man, oh man!

Spot the missing calf

A cow calved in the herd on Saturday. This isn’t supposed to happen. All the cows are pregnancy tested between eight weeks and five months after joining to confirm their status and due dates but the tests are not infallible. We obviously missed 585 somehow and she arrived in the dairy sporting afterbirth.

Zoe, Alex and I headed down to the paddock to find her calf but it was nowhere to be seen. We checked drains and even wombat holes but still nothing. It was easy to spot the patch of squashed grass and membranes where 585 had given birth and I expected the calf to be nearby. After an exhaustive search, we decided to put the cows back in the same paddock overnight and see whether the calf emerged from its hiding place.

It didn’t, so we looked again. And here it was:

Spot the missing calf

Can you see the missing calf?

Can’t see it? Look here:

Spot the missing calf

Can you see him here?

Yes, the little creature had either fallen or walked into the river down a very steep bank, got across and found a nice sunny spot for a snooze. What a great little survivor and what a relief!

Fortunately, our neighbours across the river raise our bull calves and Dave was pleased to find the calf in perfect health and rang to thank me for the express delivery. We won’t be floating calves across for you as a regular service though, Dave!

Weaned calves acclimatise to new surroundings with maremma guardians

Weaned calves take in their new surroundings

Weaned calves take in their new surroundings

We’ve weaned a bunch of calves and they love their new surroundings by the forest. When I took this picture, they were still a little overwhelmed, walking quietly around the paddock.

At our farm, calves are weaned relatively late. The calf rearing experts say you can wean a calf as soon as she’s eating at least 1.5kg of grain or pellets per day but, in my view, it doesn’t hurt to offer them milk for a bit longer. Calves are the future of our dairy farm and we don’t skimp on their wellbeing.

We’ve chosen a paddock far from the dairy that offers shelter from cold weather and shade from the sun. Cows are kept off this pasture to minimise the risk of transmitting disease like Bovine Johnes Disease from one generation to another. Aside from buying in bulls to preserve genetic diversity, we have a closed herd and no history of the muscle-wasting BJD but it’s good practice to keep stock under 12 months old off pasture that’s been grazed by mature cows.

While the pic doesn’t show them, maremmas Charlie and Lola have been staying close to their charges and I’m hopeful the transition will extend their range.

A day in the life of an Australian dairy farming family

I kept a time log yesterday. Here’s how our busy but not unusual day went.

5.00am Wayne hops on the quad bike to round up the cows and slowly and quietly bring them to the dairy

5.45am Milking starts

6.30am Marian hits her desk to catch up on paperwork before Zoe wakes and checks the online forecast. All three computer models agree there’s a little rain coming tomorrow. Better get the nitrogen onto those paddocks we just grazed early tomorrow morning!

8.15am Milking’s finished and the cleaning begins

8.30am Zoe and Marian shift the effluent irrigator, fill the pump with petrol and get it going.

Zoe with effluent irrigator

Time to shift the irrigator

9.00am Marian and Zoe arrive on the Bobcat to give Papa a kiss and cuddle before we head off to feed the springers grain and anionic salts. The new calf spotted being born last night is a baby bull, who will be reared by one of our neighbours. We bring him and his mother back to the shed.

Anionic salts

Anionic salts (Zoe pic)

9.30am The milking machines, the yards and the vat room are spotless.

9.40am The three of us walk a couple of cows across the road to start their annual two-month holiday before they calve.

Cows going on holiday

Cows going on holiday

9.45am Wayne feeds three rolls of silage to the milkers

10.10am Zoe and Marian bring back two cows from the holiday paddock to join the springers in the TLC paddock.

10.45am Zoe and Marian refill the effluent pump and set it off again

Refuel Pump

Refuel pump again! (Zoe pic)

10.55am We all meet up again to feed the youngest calves and muck out pens. Discover one is sick and Wayne heads off to town to get treatment for her and refill the jerry cans.

11.30am Zoe and Marian are starving. Lunch time!

12.50pm Treat the sick calf and muck out more pens while Wayne welds up a broken gate in the dairy

1.20 pm Wayne’s off to feed silage to the dry cows, calves and heifers. Zoe and Marian take a look at the heifers to see if any should join the springers. We decide to do a big sort out in one to two weeks.

1.40 pm Refuel the effluent pump and get it running again

1.50 pm Load up 10 buckets of grain to feed to the youngest of the one-year-old calves. They are very happy to see us!

Feeding Calves Grain

Grain for calves (Zoe pic credit)

2.30 pm Check a new pasture on the way back

Zoe checks new pasture

Check new pasture

2.40 pm Quick snack and conflab with Wayne. 15 minutes later, we go off to round up while he feeds our maremmas, Charlie and Lola, and takes a bit of a break before milking.

Cows on the track

Rounding up

4.10 pm Finally get all the cows into the yard – Wayne’s already got the first 32 cows milked. The cows were in one of the furthermost paddocks from the dairy, we had to set up paddocks along the way and deal with a broken fence. Also discovered a major water leak 🙁

4.20 pm Equipped with tools, start prodding around in the mud.
Zoe’s taking pics now while Mama makes a mess.

Zoe's pic of Mama looking for the leak

Mama looks for the leak

Oops! Zoe’s got a bootful but let’s make it funny.

Zoe on the Bobcat after mud accident

After a boot full of water

The cows crowd around us on their way back to the paddock.

5.06 pm The Eureka Moment! An old (but still connected) water line has burst a fitting.

Pipe fitting

Unearthed the blasted leak

5.10 pm Outta there.

5.15 pm Set the travelling effluent irrigator on a new path, refuel pump and pull the rip cord!

5.35 pm Marian and Zoe home at last!

6.25pm Wayne’s home from milking. The end of a big day.