Night sacrifice ritual on farm

Just in case you hear it from Zoe, I thought I’d better come clean: we do a nightly sacrifice here on the farm.


Where the nightly sacrifice is held

It looks innocent enough because it is! This paddock and a couple of others are being renovated with new seed this autumn and, in the meantime, we keep sending the cows back there night after night for their silage and hay – in other words, we are sacrificing the pasture. Aside from naturally building the fertility levels ahead of sowing, this allows us to give the other paddocks longer rests so there’s more high quality grass for the cows to eat during the day.

(PS: since we’re not biodynamic farmers, we are not governed by lunar cycles so you won’t catch us out in the dark doing strange things in the moonlight, either ;))

I just found out about greenhouse gases on my dairy farm

Well, that was an interesting exercise. Gillian Hayman took all our farm data and produced some colourful charts with the Dairy Greenhouse Gas Abatement Strategy calculator. Like most animal-centred farms, the vast majority of our emissions come from the methane burped up by the cows.

Source of farm greenhouse gas emissions

Where our greenhouse gases come from

In total, our farm produced 13.3T CO2e per tonne of milk solids in 2010/11 – quite a bit above the average 10.2T CO2e per tonnes of milk solids recorded by the DPI Farm Monitor Project of 2009/10. Why is it so? Ironically, it could well be because our cows eat so much grass rather than grain.

So, what should a dairy farmer do?
According to the authorities:

“Production improvement options and best management practices are most often linked to greenhouse gas emissions reduction. At present, well managed farms have few options to reduce emissions without significant changes to their farming or feeding system…A great deal of research is underway within the Australian dairy industry to decrease the release of methane and nitrous oxide from farming systems.”

In the meantime, we will keep planting trees and be judicious with our fertiliser use.

Rain post

Bah humbug! I am going to hang washing out on the line this morning, despite the Bureau’s flash flooding warnings because my diligent preparations for yesterday’s forecasted deluge seems to have put a hex on the arrival of the huge east coast low.

For a week now, the forecasters have been issuing dire alerts, urging us to get hay into sheds and move cattle to high ground. I duly grazed out the flats and arranged for the cows to go to the slopes, cranked the dam siphon into action for a day (flooding the swamp paddock in the process), brought in all the loose garden furniture and watched the radar.

A huge storm raged all day in Bass Strait but nothing arrived here. Even the easterly wind faded away to nothing and small puffy clouds arrived from the south-west. Disgusted, I finally drove up the dam wall to turn off the siphon. When I turned to see how much of a mess I’d made of the paddock in the siphon’s path, this is what I saw:

It had snuck up on me

It had snuck up on me

Wheeling around towards the south-east, I was astonished to see it even had its own “twister”!


The finger of doom?

Well, I reckon we’d be lucky to see 3mm in the gauge this morning.

The thinking behind this post is that the more public I go with my disbelief, the more likely the weather gods will shame me. So, please tell everyone you know that Milk Maid Marian says it’s not going to rain today. I dare you!

Just getting some extra cred

Remember Zoe and Pearlie Girlie?

Zoe and Pearlie Girlie back in November

Zoe and Pearlie Girlie back in November

Well, since I wrote about the tender relationship between young farmer and young cow, Pearlie Girlie decided to make a grab for power and began to scare me – taking a few aggressive strides towards Zoe and wagging her head. We’ve been making sure Zoe stays well clear of the little cow but, today, Zoe reclaimed her rightful position as boss.

Zoe is boss once more

Zoe is boss once more

Hell, no, we won’t go!

The cows have been known to take industrial action before but yesterday, they took it to a whole new level. This is what started it all:

Cows make their presence felt

"Get a mooove on and let us have our crop, NOW!"

With the onset of summer, we’ve had to give each paddock a longer rest between grazings, which means less grass for the cows. We make up for it with extra grain, hay, silage and crop. This means our arrival signals food and they watch us like hawks. My big mistake was to shift the tape in the crop paddock in full view of the herd.

They were a fairly disgruntled bunch – it was their third day in the paddock and even though they’d just stuffed themselves with five rolls of silage and vetch hay, they wanted out.

We dutifully finished setting up their dessert settings and returned to the “main dining room” to escort them to the crop. Sounds ideal? Well, not quite. The gate out of their paddock was in the opposite direction of the crop, so they effectively had to walk 75 metres and do a U-turn.

At first, they simply refused to move, pretending they didn’t understand what we meant by our standard “C’mon girls” call. So we upped the tempo a little by Unleashing the Zoe and tooting the horn but they just milled around us.

In desperation, I asked Zoe to hop aboard the Bobcat for safety and started a concerted campaign of whizzing backwards and forwards accompanied by furious tooting. It was like trying to push back the tide. I moved one end of the herd, the other half swelled back towards the crop.

Knowing that Wayne was in the adjacent garden building Zoe’s cubby, I figured he’d come to assist soon. He didn’t. “WTF is he doing?”

It took 15 minutes of encouragement to get them the 75 metres to the gate and about three minutes for them all to make it to the crop from there. “Oh, that’s what the humans meant!”

So where was Wayne? In the house, sharing chocolate biscuits and coffee with the neighbours while we unwittingly entertained them in the paddock. Apparently it was very funny.

Find out why these cows are soooo excited

Do you know why these cows are so excited? Surprisingly, it’s not my cinematography skills (apologies) but the prospect of a wonderful meal of luscious green rape.

We planted the rape crop on November 19 to provide some quick, high energy, high protein food for the cows during summer. It was done at low cost and with the intention of grazing it off as soon as the caterpillars launched an attack because I don’t have the stomach for chemical warfare on farm.

With clouds of white butterflies hovering over the crop, I decided today was the day. We sectioned off a small part of the crop with a temporary electric fence and let the cows in for a belated Christmas feast. Really, it was more of an appetizer because you have to make sure cows don’t gorge themselves on brassicas to prevent the dreadful kale anemia.

Cows grazing forage rape


Cows, sunburn, hand grenades and zinc

Have you ever had sunburnt nipples? If so, spare a thought for cows that need to be milked twice a day who succumb to the oddly-named “facial eczema”. This condition leaves the skin incredibly sensitive to light, to the point where whole sheets can burn and peel off.

We normally don’t get it in this part of the country but it’s been a problem for the Kiwis for decades and we’re lucky to be able to learn from our trans-Tasman dairying friends because it appeared in our part of Australia last summer and we are desperate to avoid it this year.

Dozens of our poor girls suffered burns to the white sections of their skin. It was hideous and we felt devastated. The only treatment is sunscreen, rest, shade and anti-inflammatories.  We also gave the cows extra drench to make sure their systems were as robust as possible.

The good news is that the New Zealand experience shows that we can help to prevent facial eczema. The key is to understand the cause: spores that look like hand grenades under a microscope.

Yesterday, the local pub was packed with dairyfarmers as we heard from a Dairy Australia project team that includes legendary dairy vets, Jacob Malmo and Jack Winterbottom, DA’s feed guru Steve Little,  and nutritionist, Andrew Debenham. In a nutshell, this is what they had to say:

Grass + humidity = fungus that generates spores

Cows eat grass and spores → spores release a potent mycotoxin called sporidesmin into the gut

Mycotoxin damages liver → liver cannot deal with chlorophyll properly → skin tissue sensitive to sun → sunburn

While the sunburn is the most obvious sign of facial eczema, the other symptoms can include diarrhoea, bloody urine, jaundice, a drop in milk production and even liver failure.

The Kiwis have found that zinc binds up the mycotoxin, inhibiting its ability to release free radicals and cause damage. We have to be quite careful with it though because too little is ineffective and too much zinc is very toxic indeed. It seems the best way to provide it to the cows is mixed into the feed, which we’ve been doing on our farm now for a month. The other downside is that it’s only known to be safe to feed for 100 days – not long enough to get through the summer/autumn danger period. After that, we will need to take regular blood samples and make sure zinc levels aren’t getting too high. I’ve arranged for the vet to come next week  to be sure our cows are getting just the right amount.

To learn more about facial eczema and how farmers are working to prevent it, check out this Dairy Australia fact sheet and booklet. It’s a must for anyone with cattle.

Cows say “it’s not fair!”

As you may already know from my post about the herd’s concern for OHS, cows do not stand any nonsense from farmers. They also have a strong sense of justice.

Cows say "It's not fair"!

Cows say "It's not fair"!

That sense of fair play was offended yesterday when the herd walked past those in the lush hospital paddock towards the dairy. Bellowing and pointed staring at the “cheats” still in their paddock ensued and I had to Unleash the Zoe to get the herd moving again.

It’s not just the herd that has been upset by the separation of the hospital group. The patients are reluctant to go into their paddock after milking, preferring instead to hang around on the track in the hope that they can rejoin the herd.

Cows hate being separated from their peers and, ironically, this does help when their calves are moved from the paddock to shelter. Many cows seem to prefer “adult” company.

Why female elephants are called cows

“The problem with farmers is that they use all their vehicles as observation platforms,” someone told me recently and it’s true. We are always on the lookout for our animals, often without even realising it.

If the Bobcat is an observation platform, the house must be command central, so when I gazed out the kitchen window last night and saw this, I had to investigate.

Spying on the cows from the garden

Spying on the cows from the garden

The cows were gathering around a water trough rather than going into a truly delectable paddock of long yet succulent cocksfoot right nearby. This meant trouble. Either it was an empty water trough or the gate wasn’t open.

When Alex and I arrived, we found the trough brim-full and the gate wide open but the cows were angry. Angry cows mill about, urinate all over the place and sound very disgruntled. Could they have missed the open gate? I drove the Bobcat into the paddock and the mooing just got louder.

Cows outside the gate

Were the cows holding a stop work meeting?

I came back out for a “chat” and a delegate presented herself.

cow delegation

"We have an OHS issue"

It appeared there was an OHS issue to resolve. Now I know why elephants are called cows: because, like their bovine counterparts, they never forget.

During the big wet, the gateway had turned to porridge – a gooey mud that cows hate – and it was cow 33’s duty to inform me that she and her colleagues were having none of it this time. So I walked on it and she followed. As you can see, cow 33 is a young Friesian Jersey crossbred and these little cows have chutzpah beyond their years.

Once 33 had okayed the worksite, everyone else followed.

Cows entering paddock

It's good to go, girls!

Intensified farming good for the environment sometimes

There is so much to learn on a farm. Aged just 5, Zoe can correctly identify plants from rye grass to melaleuca, wildlife from willy wagtails to wedgetail eagles and stock from heifers to old cows.

Yesterday, she came across the beautiful Paterson’s Curse for the first time. It’s not a problem here – the occasional plant pops up from time to time. Zoe took this pic to remind herself of it.

Patersons Curse

Patersons Curse

When I was Zoe’s age, ragwort was the weed we battled all summer. The paddocks turned a buttery yellow in late spring and the grass and other weeds on the river flat scratched at the ute windows. I haven’t seen a ragwort plant here in years and though the blackberries and thistles persist, they are at vastly reduced levels. The grass is also tamed to juicy, shin-high herbage. I think it comes down to the intensification of dairy farming in the last 30 years.

When my brother and I were out in the paddocks pulling up ragwort in the late 1970s and early 1980s, we had 120 cows on 300 acres. Now, we milk 265 cows on about the same area (with dry stock on another 200 acres), although we might be a bit overstocked. Back then, we had three paddocks and now we have 24 on the milking pastures.

Someone reminded me that Dad never paid any attention to daylight savings in the 1980s because he couldn’t find the cows in the dark in those massive hundred-acre paddocks! Now, they are contained in 3 to 4-hectare paddocks. It means the grass is far better managed and forms a thick sward that is harder for opportunistic weeds to penetrate. It also means we are more alert to changes in the pasture – there are no more “lost forests”.