This is what I found when I got to the calving paddock:
Too many calves, not enough cows.
Yep, two calves having a drink but what about that one over there sitting down? Twice the size of the other two but clearly still a newborn…
I watched the cows and calves for a few minutes while shifting the fence and during that time, the big one took a fancy to me as the mother cow (yes, I know what you’re thinking!).
Are you my Mother?
Having decided I wasn’t much chop as a mother cow, this suckie decided to try his luck with another cow. A serious tussle ensued between the two mother cows over the same calf and eventually, this girl ended up with two heifer (female) calves about the same size and the other cow claimed the big bull calf. Phew!
A perfect multi-tasking mother!
I say “Phew!” because the female twin of a bull calf is likely to be an infertile “freemartin” so it was extra important that the pair was two females.
And did you say “eew” when you saw the first photo? Apologies if you were eating! If not and you have a strong stomach, consider this article on eating your own placenta.
In the naughty spot
This is the dairy’s naughty spot and this cheeky young cow spends a lot of time there.
She’s a clever little thing and has noticed that there’s often grain under the feed bails when her sisters become a tad overenthusiastic tucking into breakfast. She lurks in the exit race waiting for her chance to quite literally “clean up”. The problem with this is that nobody else can get past her and a traffic jam ensues.
This morning, Wayne’s shooed her away three times and tried squirting her with the hose but her behaviour has continued to be “not acceptable”, so here she is in the “naughty spot” (with apologies to Super Nanny). She’ll be allowed out when she writes “I will not get in the way” 50 times and all her sisters have left the dairy.
When Zoe’s city cousins came to visit the other day, they were horrified to see one of our cows with a crimson udder. “Oh my God, she’s bleeding!” cried one of the boys.
Painted but not quite like this Picasso Cow (thanks to Libby Lambert for the pic!)
“No, it’s okay, she’s just painted,” laughed Zoe.
They were almost as astonished by Zoe’s reply as they were horrified by the thought of all the bleeding.
Why do dairy farmers paint cows?
We buy paint for cows in bulk. We use orange to denote a freshly calved cow still producing colostrum, blue when we want to keep an eye on a cow for some reason, red when she’s undergoing treatment and green once the treatment is complete.
The red paint is a warning to everyone who milks the cow – first, she needs treatment and, second, her milk must not enter the vat. Instead, it is collected in a separate bucket and discarded. Thankfully, Australia’s food safety regulations are very stringent and no trace of antibiotics may be present in milk.
You might also see cow’s backbones right near their tails painted different colours. But that’s a story for mating season.
Wayne, Clarkie and vet Pete are down there at the dairy right now with half of our cows for the second day in a row. I suspect none of them are having fun.
It’s preg test and vaccination time. This is not a job for someone carrying a baby on her stomach because it is intense and there’s the risk of being hit by a kicking cow but it’s a must.
The “7 in 1” vaccinations protect the cows from a multitude of diseases. According to the supplier:
Blackleg, tetanus, malignant oedema, pulpy kidney and black disease are all clostridial diseases and are amongst the most common causes of death of cattle around Australia.
In all cases unvaccinated stock contracting these five diseases have very little chance of recovery. In fact often the first clinical signs seen by producers are dead cattle.
It also protects anyone working with our animals from a very nasty cow-borne disease called leptospirosis that can leave people ill for months – even hospitalised.
The preg tests let us know when to send each cow on her annual two-month holiday before calving. This rest helps her through late pregnancy and sets her up for a whole new season in great health.
Zoe and Pearlie Girly have a unique relationship
Meet Pearlie Girly. Just like her equally cheeky mate, cow 33, Pearlie Girly is a young crossbred cow with an extra dose of personality. Since she is always one of the last in the herd to come into the shed, we get to spend a lot of time with her and Zoe has struck up a curious relationship with the little cow.
Pearlie likes Zoe. Zoe likes Pearlie. Pearlie lets Zoe pat her on the shoulder. Pearlie says “Enough!” and that’s it for the rest of the trip to the dairy. Oh, to be queen of one’s domain…
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:
Can you see the missing calf?
Can’t see it? Look here:
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!
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.
Cow facing a breech birth
This cow led us on a merry dance. Zoe and I had spotted a single, dry hoof on its way out and up the wrong way – a sure sign of big calving trouble. Two front hoofs should appear to “dive” out of the cow, closely followed by a nose and it should all happen too quickly for the membranes to dry in the sun.
Despite her predicament (breech births are difficult and life threatening) and little Zoe’s sage advice, 1063 raced around the paddock like the Artful Dodger. She even paused defiantly for me to take her picture before we set off on another game of cat and mouse. Eventually, we got her into the yards and, 25 minutes later with a lot of help from Clarkie, 1063 gave birth to a stillborn bull calf. We were just glad she was okay.
As in humans, breech presentations are unpredictable and unpreventable. Most calving problems at our farm are caused by calves that are just too big. To minimise the likelihood of difficult calvings, we choose bulls with narrow shoulders and medium rather than large statures. We also mate our maiden heifers (cows who have never calved before) with Jersey bulls. Because this breed is significantly smaller than the Friesian cows we milk, the calves pose little risk for heifers.
Beth was one of the herd’s matriachs and one of our favourite cows, too. We’d feared, however, that this would be Beth’s last season. She was finding it hard to put on weight, despite being wormed, vaccinated, treated with antibiotics and rested. Aged 11, Beth was not the oldest in the herd but certainly qualified as one of our senior citizens.
What made Beth stand out was her totally unflappable demeanour. She would not be hurried, was always one of the last to leave the paddock and was often paired with youngsters unfamiliar to the dairy as a calming influence.
When she died today, it was difficult to explain to little Zoe. “But Beth is always here,” she said. With so many of Beth’s daughters, grand-daughters and great grand-daughters in the herd, perhaps she’s right.
Cow 506 beginning to calve at 11.50am
By the time I took this photo at 11.50 yesterday, I’d been watching over cow 506 for an hour or so. She’d been showing all the classic signs of a cow about to calve: restlessness, getting up and down. It was a relief to see her labour had progressed. I came back again an hour later to make sure everything was okay and look what I found! Licking her little one with gusto, she looked very comfortable.
Cow 506 licks her newborn at 1pm
Of course, it’s not always this simple. Sometimes the calf is too big, sometimes breech, sometimes the cow herself has a problem. With 340 cows set to calve over the next few months, it’s an anxious time for us.
To make it easier to keep an eye on our ladies, we do a weekly sort-out, drafting cows that are about three weeks from calving out from the rest so they can get extra special TLC in our calving paddock. This paddock is small and close to the house and dairy. We check it three times a day and, if any of the cows look like they’re about to calve, we hop up during the night to check them as well. Some of the signs are a swollen vulva, mucus, tight udder and unusual behaviour. The reality is though that, despite breeding programs meddling with the cow’s biology for thousands of years, almost all of them calve quite easily.
I hate comparing women with cows but, at almost 36 weeks myself, I can’t help wondering why it seems so much more complicated for us!