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.

What climate change means at farm level

A photo by Heather Downing of the kids and me out on the farm for the Earth Hour cookbook, which appeared in The Age today

When journalist from The Age Liam Mannix asked me how climate change was affecting our farm, the answer was: in every possible way, beginning with the circle of life.

When I was a girl, we used to get the ute, the tractor and our gumboots bogged every winter. It rained and rained and rained and rained and…you get the picture. Well, not any more. With the odd exception, the winters are warmer and drier these days. Boggings are a rare novelty for my kids.

This has some real benefits. Warmer, drier winters are much easier on the cows, calves and the grass. Much easier on us, too (plugging through deep mud in horizontal rain is character-building stuff)! We can grow a lot more grass in winter and that’s fantastic.

Less than fantastic are the changing shoulders of the season – sprummer and autumn. Spring can come to an abrupt halt very early in November these days and we often wait much longer into autumn for rain.

Every rain-fed farmer like me tries to match the cow’s natural lactation curve with the grass’s growth. In fact, the amount of grass the cows harvest is the number one predictor of dairy farm profitability. So, looking at the new growth patterns, we took the plunge a few years ago and shifted the circle of life to match. Now, calves begin to arrive in early May rather than mid-July.

Our decision is backed by hard data. Dairy guru, Neil Lane, has researched local statistics and found that farms just 10 minutes away have seen falls in production of 1 tonne of dry matter per hectare and increasing risk around late spring and autumn. On our 200 hectare farm, that’s 200 tonnes every year valued at roughly $300 per tonne we lose. That’s a lot of ground to make up.

But all is not lost. Dairy farmers are adapting at break-neck speed. We are on the cusp of breeding cows that are more resilient to heat and, in the meantime, have a very well-practised regimen to protect our cows from heat stress.

We are growing different pasture species like cocksfoot, tall fescue and prairie grass with deep root systems to tap into subsoil moisture. Planting at least 1000 trees per year creates micro climates that shelter both our animals and our pastures.

All of this makes practical, business sense and it also helps me feel better about our children’s futures. We are doing something!

That’s why I agreed to talk to The Age for this article and why we were happy to be featured in the Earth Hour cookbook.
It’s thrilling to see the great stuff farmers across Australia are doing in response to climate change. Now, if we can communicate that to foodies and the animal welfare movement, just imagine the possibilities.

The Earth Hour cook book makes climate change matter to foodies

The Earth Hour cook book makes climate change matter to foodies

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.

Well hello, Luscious Legs, how pregnant are we?

luscious legs

Ooh la la!

These shapely legs belong to the beleaguered wearer of “The Shirt”. Apparently, it was too hot to wear long pants or anything waterproof today doing a Big Job.

Anyhow, the Big Job was a special occasion: we got to find out how pregnant we are (or more correctly, how pregnant the cows are). Preg testing qualifies for the title of Big Job because it entails lining up 125 cows a day for an internal examination by the vet. Not painful for the cows but a big change in routine like this always means added excitement.

The good news is that almost all of our 250 milkers have indeed conceived to our irresistible team of bulls. All expectant cows will take a two-month holiday before calving and we will greet the next generation from late April onwards.

A sizeable group of cows will not calve at all in 2013 – I pulled the plug on mating early – and will instead enjoy our company twice a day, seven days a week for the next 18 months.

Life goes on

Daily tasks on a dairy farm are a great reminder that, no matter what happens, life goes on.

Newborn calf welcomed by the cow

New life

While the floods have given us a good shaking, the circle of life continues to turn. We lost one cow last night because her calf tried to come out with all four feet at once but were delighted to assist the delivery of this lovely little calf.

Most cows manage calving on their own with ease (at least relative ease compared to human birth) and we don’t intervene unless we must for the sake of the cow and calf.

Typically, cows tend to head off to a quiet spot on their own to calve, often pacing around and around as the contractions begin. We look for two front feet first, then a nose. The calf should seem to be diving out of the cow! The whole labour shouldn’t take more than two hours or so.

Wow! After seeing thousands of calves born over my lifetime, it still amazes me.

Three floods in 30 days

Sunrise

Red in the morning, shepherd’s warning

It all started with this glorious yet ominous sunrise over the first heavy frost of the year. But the chill of the glittering, icy landscape (and the weather forecast, for that matter) gave no hint of what was to come – three days of rain that have limited us to just two paddocks for the milking herd until the third flood in 30 days releases its grip on the farm.

Flood three

The third flood in 30 days

Normally, a minor flood like this one wouldn’t cause us any angst. We’d still have two-thirds of the farm, after all. The river flats are cut off but we also have undulating paddocks that never see a flood.

Unfortunately, we are halfway through calving and need to have six different groups of cattle in different paddocks: calves, large and small yearlings, dry cows, springing (soon to calve) cows and milkers. We also have nine “high ground” paddocks out of action due to renovation.

On top of this, we have been making up for punishing the high ground during the last two floods with remedial doses of fertiliser, including urea.

Urea is 45 per cent nitrogen, an element that is every bit as essential for plant growth as sunshine and rain. It’s even fed to animals sometimes to boost the protein level of their feed but too much of a good thing can be lethal. Nitrate poisoning brings a sudden, horrific death.

According to University of Melbourne guru Richard Eckard:

“The timing of grazing, relative to nitrogen fertiliser application, may adversely affect cows. Figure 1 shows the pattern of nitrogen uptake, as nitrate-nitrogen or crude protein in the plant, after grazing and subsequent application of nitrogen fertiliser. The following observations, from Figure 5.1, are important:

  • depending on condition, it usually takes around 4 to 5 days for the applied nitrogen fertiliser to dissolve into the root zone and to be taken up by the plant;
  • nitrate levels in the plant peak around 7 to 14 days post nitrogen application;
  • protein levels in the plant peak slightly later, usually around 16 to 18 days;
  • usually nitrate levels in the pasture drop off to acceptable levels by 18 to 21 days post nitrogen application.”

In other words, don’t let the cows into the paddock for 18 days after you spread urea. It’s 10 days right now.

Oh bother, oh dear, holy cow. I want to go home! (Hang on, this is home. Damn.)

What is going on in the calving paddock?

Calving trouble

Trouble with a capital T

A cow lying on her side with her legs stuck straight out like this is not a good sign. “She’ll just be in the throes of calving,” I told myself as Zoe, baby and I bounced across the calving paddock.

It was not to be – the little cow was trying to push out a massive bull calf who had become stuck just after his shoulders. His tongue was pink, his eyes shone but, sadly, he was gone. Our attention turned immediately to the cow for if left too long, she would almost certainly suffer paralysis.

We keep a strong rope in the calving paddock’s medicine chest to help with calvings when necessary. Although we select bulls with smooth shoulders and of medium stature in an attempt to avoid trouble, calves are sometimes just too big, turned the wrong way or the cow is simply too weary to manage it on her own.

Dairy cow calving medicine chest

Emergency supplies are kept in a chest in the calving paddock

I looped the ends of the cord around the calf’s feet, stepped into the circle and eased back with the cow’s contractions. Nothing. I tried again but the calf could not be budged. Heavy reinforcements in the shape of husband Wayne were called in and, thankfully, the calf was out.

By then, I’d discovered there was another cow in trouble. 196, who is 14 years old, had earlier given birth to a beautiful heifer calf and when I went to check on her, this is all she could manage.

Milk fever

My legs aren’t working!

Dear old 196 was suffering from milk fever. This is really a metabolic disorder suffered by cows who just can’t get enough calcium into their blood streams after calving. Calcium is vital in the control of muscles, which is why she didn’t have the energy to stand up. Because the heart is a giant muscle, milk fever can also cause heart failure and immediate treatment is vital.

We minimise the risk of milk fever by feeding the cows very differently in the three weeks before calving. Instead of grass, they get hay that’s low in potassium and grain, while we add anionic salts to their water. This regimen encourages the cows to release calcium into their bloodstream so it’s available in the hours of peak demand after calving. When milk fever does strike, we give the cows a drip that includes calcium and sugar. Most cows are as right as rain again in no time, as was 196!

Both cows taken care of, we turned around to go and goodness gracious, it was all happening, including yet another calving underway!

Calving Paddock

It’s all happening in the calving paddock!

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!

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!