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.

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 freedom to be a cow

It’s not just Cheeky Girl who magically appears out of nowhere. I had to go down to the paddock after milking to check on the cows and found myself being stalked by a tall, dark stranger.

It’s a lot of fun just sitting, watching the cows. Real individuals, some are curious, some are timid, some haughty but, without exception, dignified.

There’s a fine balance in our interactions. Yes, we milk the cows but it is they who dictate the flow of our days, months and lives. Everything from wedding dates to annual holidays are chosen to avoid calving season, a time when all hands are focused on the safe arrival of the next generation.

Continue reading

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

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!

It’s late

The story of Cliffy Young has just finished on the tele but Wayne is still slogging through his own ultra-marathon at the dairy. It’s 10pm and it’s been a tough day that started at 5am.

As I was rattling the kids around the house in readiness for Nippers this morning, Wayne was having some youngster trouble of his own. A freshly-calved heifer simply sat down on the milking platform behind her neighbour. Now, if you’ve worked in or watched a herringbone dairy in action, you’ll say that doesn’t happen.


It did.

The cows are lined up at right angles to the pit we stand in to position the cups, with their buttocks against a “bum rail” that’s designed to guide them into position for milking and prevent a cow from falling onto a milk maid.

It didn’t.

A cow spooked by her reclining sister leapt up and backwards, falling rear-first into the pit, brushing Wayne’s cheek with her hoof on the way down as a weld in the bum rail gave way under the strain of this 550kg crowd-surfer. Thankfully, Wayne and the two cows-a-leaping are fine but the machinery was not. With four machines out and the broken bum-rail, milking took hours longer than normal and the clean-up and repair job was a 6-hour undertaking.

I’m really grateful to Clarkie, who broke his long weekend to come and help wield a welding stick, feed the cows and round up at 6pm.

Wayne will up again at 5am tomorrow. It’s 10.30pm now and, finally, the dairy lights have gone out. What will tomorrow bring, I wonder?

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.


After a nose dive

Even where it’s not wet, we manage to get nice and dirty

Today was one of those days.

Zoe fell over in the yard and got her left side covered in muck. Then she fell into a drain and got her belly muddy. Then this!

Save me

Save me, Mama!

Apparently, a good daily diet of dirt is good for you, innoculating you with beneficial bacteria. If so, Zoe is already set up for life!

It’s been another busy day. Aside from the normal milkings and feeding, this typical winter’s day on our dairy farm brought:

  • Four new calves and one assisted birth
  • The job of sorting heavily pregnant cows from those who are on “holidays”
  • Repairs to a quad bike after its electrics were savaged by hayshed rats
  • Feeding our 47 new calves
  • Moving young stock around to eat new pastures
  • Mucking out calf sheds
  • A little drama

A little drama? Yes, while we were sorting out the “springers” (cows about to calve) from the mob of dry cows, somebody decided to try out for the Bovine Olympics and crash over/through a six-strand barbed wire fence. The culprit was a cow who’d clearly had enough of Romeo the Bull. Unfortunately, she – and Romeo in turn – blundered into a paddock of yearlings, who found the whole affair incredibly exciting.

The whole scene must have looked rather comical: cow desperately zig-zagging through the paddock hotly pursued by Romeo, visibly equipped and amorous, followed by a roaring Bobcat staffed by a giggling 6 year old and white-knuckled mud-spattered farmer, plus a teen on another quad, Patch the yip-yapping pup and 60 bucking yearlings.

Thankfully, the besotted Romeo didn’t latch onto any of the yearlings and the cow seemed relieved to be out of there, so the carnival was over almost as quickly as it began.

You have to laugh!

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.

Does my bum look fat in this? Absolutely, sorry Honey

Cow rear

“Does my bum look fat in this?”

Yes, 1108, I’m afraid it does.

How do you know when a cow is fat? It’s not the size of her belly that counts – it is the hollows around her tail and 1108 barely has any. Come to that, she barely has any milk either, which is why she’s got a red stripe painted on her rear. 1108 should be in calf but my suspicion is that she’s not.

We have her and another five cows booked in for pregnancy tests on Tuesday and if she’s in calf, we’ll treat her with a mastitis preventative and send her on holiday to a paddock across the road. If there’s no calf, she will have to be sold.

While many of our cows do not fall pregnant every year, most of them milk well until they are blessed by the bull the next season. In fact, joining cows only every 18 months (“extended lactation“) is now considered a viable strategy for Victorian farmers.

It’s something that we have adopted here for cows that don’t conceive quickly and it works for almost the entire herd.

Fingers crossed, 1108.