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?

Not because I’m a nasty farmer

A grainy video of people holding their children down while they were being stabbed with pins would cause outrage around the world…until someone explained they were lucky kids receiving lifesaving vaccinations.

It’s a similar thing with farming and that’s one of the reasons I write a dairy farmer’s blog – so you have the explanations about our practices that you deserve.

Since I started writing Milk Maid Marian almost two years ago, I’ve had people express their relief about the truth about all sorts of topics but one that never seems to go away is: “why do you take the calves away from their mothers?”.

The reasons why we raise the calves away from the herd are compelling. And, if you thought the risk of animal wasting disease, Bovine Johnes Disease was remote and a poor justification, read this heart-breaking news story about a Queensland cattle station, where BJD is new.

Farmers are cautious, yes, but it would be cruel to be anything less than scrupulous about the way we raise our youngsters, don’t you think?

How a girl becomes a cow-girl

Zoe gets cows. She really undersands them but there’s still lots to learn and, early this morning, we had a fun little lesson with the “teenagers” on the farm.

Step one is to lie down nice and still in the grass. Step two is to stay still (and quiet). Step three is to wait a little bit longer.

Heifers and Zoe reach out

“You can trust me”

If you’re patient enough, they’ll come. Snuffling, chewing their cud and nudging forward little by little with unbridled curiosity. It’s not exactly “Gorillas in the Mist” but it is an awesome, humbling experience and everybody should try it.

People and animals tell the farm’s story

This was Zoe on the Bobcat as I moved the electric tape in paddock 6 on Friday. It really was sunny enough to dig out the zinc!

Yes, two pairs of oversized sunglasses are apparently “hot” right now

I’d been away from the paddock for a week and things had got away. It’s newly sown to a high performance grass and zoomed off once the saturated soil turned to plasticene over a balmy few days. We had to get the cows in at once if there was any chance of keeping grass quality levels up over Spring.

At this time of the year, it’s really important to divide the paddock into small strips. Let them into the whole lot at once and most will be wasted as the engorged cows make nests to sleep it off. The trick is to have the cows absolutely full to pussy’s bow, but only just. It’s good for the cows, good for milk production and good for the grass.

The grass on the right has just been grazed, the grass on the left is for dinner

Grass growth will have come to a skidding halt over the last couple of glacial days though. Everything is mushy and muddy all over again. Including Patch.

Whadda you mean I can’t come inside?


I bought it but I don’t want to use it


The circle of life in stainless steel

I paid handsomely for this German-engineered (whoops, I mean Danish) tool but I hate it. The charmingly-named Blitz Gun is used specifically for killing cattle. Importantly, it’s not a typical gun and operators don’t need a shooter’s licence. The Blitz arrived this afternoon by courier and I’ve only just opened it gingerly for a closer look.

Until now, we’d relied on professionals to euthanase our cows. Two knackery men serviced our area and the waiting time for suffering animals was brief but after one sold his business, it stretched to a single daily round. That meant the prospect of cows struggling through icy nights. That, I believe, is not good enough.

As farmers, we cannot stop the circle of life from turning but we can do our best to look after our animals the whole way through.


Heifers home from boarding school

Heifers return home

“State your business!”

Youngsters of practically any species are funny, curious creatures and young cows are no different. These are our calves of 2010, back home after spending a season with Madeline, a farmer an hour up the road. Does home feel familiar? I hope so but in any case, these little cows have a bravado beyond their years and they weren’t showing any nerves as we sidled up to them.

At two years, they are about to calve for the first time and join the milking herd. It’s bound to be an exciting time for all concerned. Suffice to say, I’m rushing around the milker’s paddocks shoring up all the fencing for a good workout over the next couple of months and hoping they will be as quiet and gentle as the class of 2011!

Three floods in 30 days


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.)

The morning after

I lay awake listening to rain on the roof and when dawn broke, this was the view that greeted Alex and me yesterday.

Flood June 4

No better than the day before – even the water troughs disappeared!

Wayne was in Melbourne, Zoe still curled up in bed. The cows were missing their milker, Clarkie, who was on the other side of the flood waters. Sticklers for routine, they’d started coming into the yard and would not be happy! As soon as Zoe woke, we packed breakfast and headed off in the car, looking for a way through.

Flooded road

The most likely option

I sat contemplating the water for a couple of minutes and turned back – not worth the risk. After about three-quarters of an hour of back road exploration, we made it to town! A quick call to Clarkie and he was on his way.

Yay! Our patience is rewarded![/caption]

The cows were milked a few hours late but everyone was safe and Zoe made it to school in time for morning tea. The rest of the day was spent hunkered down with farm consultant Matt, poring over spreadsheets, while Alex entertained us with his antics. The waters are still quite high today but this afternoon’s farm tour will reveal the extent of the damage.

All part of the thrills and spills of life on the land and I guess we had better get used to it – if the scientific community has it right, the climate rollercoaster will only get more and more “exciting”.

Two floods in ten days

My kitchen is a picture of domestic bliss: gingerbread men fashioned by Zoe in the oven, chicken curry in the pressure cooker. But the reality is that Zoe is home early from school because the roads to town are sure to be cut by now with the second flood in 10 days.

The second flood

Groundhog day

A neighbour tells me he tipped 94mm out of the gauge this morning and it hasn’t stopped raining since. The cows are on high ground (as is the house, thankfully) but they ate those pastures out only a week ago to give the flats a chance to recover and the grass is still short.

What will we do? Redo our budgets, then call the gravel contractor to get first in line for track repairs, followed closely by the fodder supplier.

The cows will have soft, tender feet so we’ll have to take them extra gently along the tracks and we’ve already earmarked a “sacrifice” paddock to spare our saturated soils from pugging and compaction.

None of this would be too, too terrible if it was November but it’s only June 4 and as the wry @Hoddlecows noted on Twitter, optimism about the new season seems to be washing away with the flood waters.

What on earth are these cows doing?

“Rounding up the cows” took on a whole new meaning tonight. In the middle of the herd was a huddle of cows encircling a rather ordinary-looking yet obviously extraordinary patch of grass.

Mystery In Grass

Even after I chased them away, the cows were drawn to this mysterious patch of grass

What on earth could they sense? Blood, perhaps? Not that I’m suggesting anything but the only time I’ve seen cows go “crazy” in this way was after they passed yards in the old days after dehorning was done. It was a messy, deeply unsettling affair and the cows could smell it from a mile away.

We all hated the job but Dad explained it was kinder than having the cows down the pecking order gored with the sharp horns of their merciless superiors. Thankfully, these days we are able to cauterise the horn buds and spare the cows the trauma.