A very unpopular dairy blog post

I suspect I am about to make a lot of enemies because there is an elephant in the room and few are in a position to point it out.

Here are the facts:

  • the last season has been dreadful
  • dairy farmers have free access to lots of information about we can keep cows healthy during fodder shortages
  • many dairy farmers who couldn’t afford skyrocketing feed costs have sold a lot of cows at ridiculously low prices so they can feed the remainder of their cows properly
  • farmers have gone broke but kept their cows healthy
  • cows do not starve overnight and watching them weaken over weeks or months would be more than I could bear yet reports of them dying in their hundreds have hit the national news

I was stunned. Perhaps people who would normally sell their cows off long, long before they reached the point of starvation couldn’t for some reason? Maybe they were hoping for a miracle? Maybe they were in denial?

It just doesn’t ring true, at least not for hundreds of cows as media reports suggest.

And it’s come out today that some published pictures of “starving cattle” were actually the carcasses of cows that had died of other causes. In fact, the vet whose leaked email urging MPs to act sparked the media stories, Dr Mike Hamblin, has since told Warrnambool newspaper The Standard that there is no animal welfare problem in SW Victoria:

“Warrnambool veterinarian Mike Hamblin said there was no animal welfare crisis in the region and that he believed farmers were looking after their livestock well in a difficult financial situation. Dr Hamblin said that while some stock were thinner than normal, he had not seen any starving.”

Yes, people need help. Yes, it is wonderful that the media stories have finally got the Victorian government to reach agreement with the Commonwealth on low-interest loans.

But do we really need to paint already suffering farmers as cruel by presenting pictures of dead cows to our political leaders before action is taken? The reality is that most farmers skip their own dinners to feed our animals. These dirty tactics may have won concessional loans for a few farmers but they have blown a lot of trust and, at the end of the day, we will all be the losers.

There has to be a better way to avert what is a genuine human crisis than fabricating an animal welfare one.

Angry mob stages a mootiny

They were right. There simply wasn’t enough grass left in the paddock for a repeat visit and, in the wash up of a riotously great 6-year-old birthday party, we were late on the scene.

We arrived on the river flats to find the first 50 or so cows out of the dairy staging a “stand-in” outside the entrance to the rejected paddock. I turned to set up an alternative just 100 metres the other direction and they marched towards us, disgusted to find I had taped off the lane behind us. While I set everything up and my little party-goer took a siesta, a few members of the mob broke ranks and began to filter in to graze the drabs.

After the party

She’d partied hard.

Of course, that meant we had to get them out and that’s when the trouble really started. Everyone else followed us in and were totally confused when we wheeled around and tried to push the surging mob back out from whence they came. Well, it took five minutes and a lot of determination to move them 40 metres.

Then they went the wrong way up the lane and it was my tough little farmer who convinced them to, very reluctantly, turn once again.

Angry mob of dairy cows

The ragged party goer came to life when presented with a challenge and was there behind them in the dust

A heartbeat after I took this pic, the leaders saw the opening to the fresh paddock and, like a stampede of New Years’ Day shoppers, they were off.

Why you shouldn’t write a blog

It’s a lot of fun writing the Milk Maid Marian dairy blog and I’d love to see more Australian dairy farmers blogging too.

When I get a few minutes to talk to other dairy people at the Australian Dairy Conference in a few weeks, I’m hoping one or two will be inspired to begin the conversation online. But why should they? The 365-day commitment of dairying makes them very busy people by definition. And why should we constantly have to justify ourselves to everyone else as one reader of The Land asked?

“The Aussie Farmer has to wonder if he has any hope when people supposedly representing us – such as Matt Linegar in his role with the NFF perpetuate the idea that we need a “social licence to operate”. Wake up! Australian food is some of the best food in the world – grown at world quality standards. If you run off the Australian farmer through whatever measure – you are still going to need to eat. Where is the food going to come from then? Will they give two hoots about “social licences”? Truly hungry people care about not starving. Another cost we will be expected to bear.”
Posted by Frustrated Farmer, 9/01/2012 10:54:23 AM

The Frustrated Farmer makes quite a few points in this single paragraph. First, Australian food production is world-class and should be appreciated; second, we need to produce food; and then there’s the hint that maybe our leaders ought to be handling the advocacy on our behalf. All good points.

I write the blog because I am disappointed that there’s so little available online for consumers who don’t swallow the misinformation of extremist groups without asking questions. I’m really grateful that there are Aussies out there who care enough about the things that matter to me (animals, country living, the land and great food) to want to know more about what farmers do and why we do it.

I also admire the men and women who give up lots of their time to selflessly represent agriculture at endless meetings or, as @payntacow does, by inviting them into their farms (aka homes) to experience farming first-hand. Then, there are the thousands of other dairy farmers who donate their time to the CFA, the SES or the kindergarten fundraising committee. This is something I cannot do, so I write the blog.

The generosity of people from all walks of life is a constant source of inspiration. If you’re a dairy farmer thinking of blogging, do it if you want to but, for goodness’ sake, not if it’s just another impost.

Why are so many people interested in a cow’s vulva?

There have been just over 10,000 views of my blog since I started it in April and I’m delighted to have struck up conversations with so many people in such a short time but something has got me stumped.

The second most common term people used to reach the Milk Maid Marian dairy blog via a search engine was “cow vulva”. Why is this so fascinating? I’ve only referred to it once in passing in the blog. If my naivety is telling and I have offended anyone with its mention, please accept my apologies.

Farm life is educational but not “discreet”. Five-year-old Zoe knows how babies are made and, equally, what it means to die, simply by observing the cycle of life as it unfolds here every year.

I’d love some suggestions about future posts, so please don’t be coy!

Teen tells her personal story of dairying in South Africa

I’ve been mightily impressed by the incredibly entertaining dairy blog of one very clever South African teenager, Firn Hyde, and asked her to send in a guest post.

Hello everyone in Australia and beyond. First of all I’d like to thank Marian for the very kind invitation to contribute to her fabulous blog. It’s much appreciated!

I’m Firn Hyde, the teenager of Hyde Family. We live in the Highveld of South Africa and run a small dairy called Hydeaway Farm, where we embrace our slogan – “Names Not Numbers”. My mom, Dinki, and dad, Jon, run it together; Dad is also a computer programmer and works in Johannesburg, so Mom does a lot of the daily management while Dad works on maintaining machinery and fences. Their two daughters, myself (fourteen years old) and Rain (twelve) complete the Hyde Family.

Firn Hyde

Dinki, Firn and Rain Hyde with Holstein heifers, Hermoine and Kaleidoscope, bred by Brett Gordon at the Standerton show

Mom and Dad chose to homeschool the two of us and in doing so gained two valuable farm labourers. Whilst Rain is a ballet dancer and does the more domestic jobs, I like to get dirty and work with the animals. This is definitely a family business. It’s a dream we all chase together.

We milk 90 registered cows and own Hydeaway Jersey Stud. We love Jerseys for several reasons, among them size, calving ease, temperament and their golden, creamy milk. The cows and many of the Jersey heifers go out to graze during the day. We would love to have beautiful pastures like Marian’s, but at present the best word for our grazing is “veld”, which is something between “grassland” and “wilderness” in our native language, Afrikaans. Due to the poor quality grass we supplement them with good eragrostis hay.

Hydeaway Jerseys grazing on the veld

Hydeaway Jerseys grazing on the veld

By far the more successful part of our farming operation is the heifer raising. Holstein heifers arrive here at 3 months of age. They live in small but grassy paddocks and eat pellets and hay, growing to about 350kg at the age of 12 months, when they are artificially inseminated by yours truly. We keep them until they’re 7 months pregnant, then their owner takes them home to be milked.

Hydeaway Farm raises heifers for other South African dairy farmers

Hydeaway Farm raises heifers for other South African dairy farmers

In S. A., it’s generally the big farmers that do the best; they say you can only do it profitably if you milk upwards of 300 cows and grow your own feed. Total mixed ration is more popular than pastures, and cow housing is apparently the way to go but we find the idea of keeping cows inside 24/7 positively sickening. Yes, we are sentimental, but the cows are happy doing what cows are supposed to do; graze and interact in a herd.

Altogether, there are roughly 500 cattle living on our farm. Oh yes, and they all have names, every last one. Walking through the paddocks is asking to be thoroughly licked and slobbered on.

The single greatest difference between dairying in Australia and S. A. is probably the labour. Labour in our country is relatively cheap, but unskilled. We have 13 workers, with at least 11 on the farm at any one time, and in harvest season other farmers can have over 40.

I’ll wrap up by telling all the dairy farmers out there to hang on. With just 2600 dairy farmers left in South Africa, we’re a declining breed. Those that are left are, for the most part, pretty special.