A cow more dangerous than a bull

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The aggressive 1570 in the yards

1570 came roaring out of the dozen cows and calves, head lowered, eyes bulging. I had nothing. No dog, no stick and nowhere to run.

I’d been standing on the side of the road to shepherd the group across from the calving paddock to the dairy when she broke from the rear of the ambling mob.

She was as angry as an ambushed tiger mother and, as she lunged towards me, I knew I was in real trouble.

I’ve been there before. A couple of years ago, a cow we were attempting to treat for blood poisoning left me with a dislocated jaw and badly bruised ribs. That was a first-calving heifer but 1570 was a 650 kg fully-grown cow. A 6-year-old in her prime.

I meant to shout an intimidating bellow but, instead, out came the gurgling, shrieking, involuntary scream of a cave woman facing a sabre-tooth tiger.

And, then, with a whoosh, the quad bike appeared between us. Not exactly a white knight but close enough, thank you Wayne!

1570 and I met up again at the yards a few minutes later. Me safely on the other side of the fence. I wasn’t doing anything to threaten her – just standing quietly. Again, no dog, no stick, no history.

The reality is that some cows just go a bit bonkers when they calve. I wasn’t the only one – she was banging her head against other cows, too.

If she doesn’t settle within a day or two, we will sell her. Making the cows’ welfare top priority is ingrained in a dairy farmer’s psyche but this type of aggression can be both genetic and lethal. We simply can’t take the risk.

So, if you happen to be anywhere around cows and calves, don’t assume they’re simply gentle herbivores. Be careful.

Don’t have a dog with you. Be quiet and calm. Make sure there’s someone with you. Take a stick that can be used to make yourself look wider – or as a last resort – defend yourself.

EDIT: Having used hers to call for help after being trampled, fellow dairy farmer, Donna Edge, reminded me on Twitter that it’s also a good idea to bring your mobile phone and as Lauren Peterson suggests, download the http://emergencyapp.triplezero.gov.au app so the emergency services can find you.

Calves teach farmer a lesson in stakeholder engagement

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Every milk maid has to be part kelpie. We spend so much of our time herding cows from place to place every day, it’s almost instinctive. Without thinking, I move just far enough into the cow’s field of vision to urge her left or right without worry or fuss (most of the time!).

But, when it comes to moving young calves, it all goes out the window.

A new group was ready to graduate from the hay-shed paddock out into the rising one-year-old area. It’s about a 500 metre walk past half-a-dozen paddocks. My first challenge: to get them out of the paddock.

Walking around behind the poddies, I try the conventional arm waving to get them moving towards the wide-open gates. Nope. Find myself surrounded with curious muzzles at every quarter.

Next attempt is to whistle a merry tune and hope they’ll follow the Pied Piper. A handful do. The rest, meh. Apparently not that curious.

I have a brainwave. The calfeteria is undergoing repairs at the moment but what about the trailer? Hook it up, partially fill with calf bait (aka pellets) and arrive full of fresh hope. A handful follow. The rest, meh. Apparently not that hungry.

The phone rings. I slump on the Bobcat seat and leave the little blighters to their own devices. One tip-toes out the gates with all the quivering daintiness of Bambi. Oblivious to the talk about whitepapers and indices, out struts another with the confidence of a young and innocent Simba.

While I struggle to comprehend the basics of futures and options, out come Mowgli, Nutsy and Cottontail. Before I know it, the whole cast is wandering off up the laneway.

True, Alex and I later have to rescue some who strayed a little too far. But maybe this was the way it should have been all along. Stakeholder engagement on the farm is often something that has to happen strictly on someone else’s terms.

On your marks for Spring on the farm

Spring starts tomorrow

Spring starts tomorrow


I’m excited. Fertiliser’s going on, calves are still being born and raised, almost all of the milkers are in and we are joining again with an eye to the next generation. The grass is growing a new leaf every seven days and, before we know it, the silage harvest will start.

This is the make or break time of year when everything has to be done right. Miss cutting a paddock of silage by a week and it could mean buying in expensive fodder later, miss a cow’s readiness to mate and it could cost you $250 in lost milk, miss a problem calving and it might cost a cow’s life.

All our skills are tested in Spring – from biology through to animal behaviour – so we need tools to help us.

We stick “scratchy tickets” on each cow’s back to make it easier to see when she’s ready to mate. Okay, she’s got no chance of winning the lottery but the silver coating of these stickers gets rubbed off when other cows leap onto her back in response to her hormonal cues, revealing hot pink, yellow or orange tell tales underneath.

The results of summertime soil tests and the advice of our agronomist allow us to maximise the performance of our pastures while minimising the impact on the environment.

Knowing when silage involves crawling around the paddocks keeping a close eye on grass growth, then entering the results into a clever little “Rotation Right” spreadsheet devised by our guru friends at DEPI.

But raising calves and watching over expectant cows? That’s a whole lot of tender care, time and generations of farming knowledge (yes, yes, combined with the latest advances in science).

This is when a farmer really knows she’s alive!

But we don’t get tornadoes in Gippsland

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
– Wizard of Oz

Hayshed gets a makeover

Hayshed gets a makeover

Our dairy farm now boasts a hay shed roof that spans 20 acres. Bits of it, anyway.

We knew yesterday’s winds were coming, so had shifted the cows, heifers and calves to shelter.

The calves big enough to be weaned in the next couple of weeks were bunkered down in the hay shed when Mother Nature began her renovation work. Thankfully, none of them or the Maremmas who live with them were injured.

Nor were any of the yearlings who could have escaped through crushed fences Alex and I discovered during “border patrol” this morning. We count ourselves very lucky.

Alex aboard the lazy milk maid's chainsaw

Alex aboard the lazy milk maid’s chainsaw

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.

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.

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?