Meet the commercial cow challenger

Every cow is beautiful in her own way. Strong and dignified, yet warm and nurturing, it’s hard not to fall in love. But some cows are just more beautiful than others. Red, for example, is one of our favourites.


Red as a yearling (teenager)

She’s a lovely quiet heifer with a very nice udder that milks out easily and Red has had no health issues since she joined the herd. Plus, there’s the X factor. Red is one of the first naturally polled (hornless) calves born on the farm and she was sired by a Holstein bull carrying a recessive red gene. No other cow in the herd looks anything like her, so you can see her from a mile away.

But does all that add up to a winning cow? To find out, we have entered Red in the local Commercial Dairy Cow Challenge. (If you live nearby me and want to enter too, you’d better get onto it now because entries close on Wednesday! The cows are judged on farm and there’s no need to wash, clip or shine the cows, so get onto it!)

I invited the Challenge’s chief steward, Aaron Thomas, who knows a thing or two about cow contests to help me scout for talent amongst the herd.

The cow’s milk production prowess is not considered by the Challenge judges – it’s all about the way the cow is put together. Even so, this is no mere beauty contest. All the elements that make a cow look good have long-term health benefits.

I asked Aaron to offer a quick appraisal of Red’s redeeming features and to identify some of his own favourites. Next, we did something decidedly silly and sought out our ugliest cow so Aaron could explain why ugliness is a health hazard for dairy cows. I videoed his appraisal of both cows. Poor Aaron. I suspect it may have been physically painful to discuss the poor second girl in detail.

Anyhow, the good news is that sentimental favourite Red and four of her herd mates are in the Challenge thanks to Aaron’s expert eye and encouragement! There are different classes for cows of all ages and the judge will visit the farm next week to assess the fab five. Fingers crossed!

Fingerprinting a dairy cow

I hate paperwork with a passion but a little ink drawing on one archived oversize envelope had me leaning back in my chair, smiling. And here it is.


You see, there was a time when my Dad didn’t pay much heed to details like ear tags. Every herd member was known by the spots on her hide. There was “Lipstick” and “Lipstick’s Daughter”, later joined by “Lipstick’s Granddaughter”. There was “Milk Jug” and, most infamously, even “Sicking Monster”.

And if there wasn’t a name for the cow, he seemed perpetually blessed with inspiration for a fresh christening. It was such a logical, foolproof identification system that Dad was always mystified when a family member failed to understand which cow needed to be drafted from the mob. “Sicking Monster”, for example, was obviously the young cow sporting a large irregular C-shaped black blob with another smaller blob near the opening of the C.

The day Dad drew Cameo began with a decree that dutiful daughter should retrieve three cows from the paddock. Following his post-milking nap, Dad was appalled to find only two cows in the yard. “What about Cameo?”

I’d spent a good half an hour trudging around the herd of 200 cows looking for an obvious Cameo and failed. What you see here is the documentary evidence of on-the-job training.

First day of spring and the bulls are a-leaping

It’s officially the first day of Spring in Australia and it feels like it, too. This was the view from the garden this morning. I almost wanted grass on my rice cakes!

House paddock

Welcome to Spring!

The cows seem to feel it, too. They play “butter-heads” (as Zoe calls it) at almost every turn and are shedding their scruffy winter coats, revealing glossy new hair underneath. The male of the species, I must say, is also enjoying himself.

We run three bulls with the herd while resting another group of four at any one time because it’s hard work jumping on cows all day (yes, I know what you’re thinking). There was a change of shift for the bulls this morning and I thought I’d capture a little of the courting game for you.

The first bull opened with an impressive display, enrapturing the cows, well not quite…Oh dear – I have a video but YouTube is taking all afternoon – sorry. Let me put it this way, while Buster bull roared, sang and dug up dirt, the cows simply continued to eat. I told you the grass was good!

The next step is to have a good sniff of everyone.

Sniffing bull

Ooooh, you smell gooooohd!

The curled lip is called the “Flehmen Response” and shows the bull thinks she might just be “in the mood”.

Sadly, she wasn’t. He got it wrong and she quickly scurried off. Oh well, Bully Boy, better luck next time!

Feeding the cows who feed us

Gone are the days when dairy cows just ate grass. These days, there are people who get really geeky about feeding cows. Starch, protein, fat, fibre (only the right type, mind you) and energy levels can be perfected for optimal health and milk production.

This can really only be achieved when cows are fed a total mixed ration (TMR) and is more tricky when cows like ours are largely pasture-fed. Still, we can do better, so I was delighted when local DPI extension officer David Shambrook visited today to talk about what we’re feeding.

At the moment, the cows each eat just over 7kg of a rolled wheat, triticale, canola oil, limestone and salts mix during milking. The herd is also allocated about 2.9 hectares of fresh grass per day and fed two bales of top quality vetch hay (10.3 megajoules of energy and 22.8% crude protein for the benefit of farmer readers).

David had a look at the pasture they’ve left in the paddock, the pasture they’ll go to next, the milk production stats, the cows’ body condition score, whether they are chewing their cuds, their manure and rumen fill (indicated by how much a triangle of flesh bulges out). All these signs point to whether the cows are being well fed.

I have a gut feel (forgive the pun) for all of this but am determined to learn more about dairy cow nutrition. The combination of intellectual and physical challenges is one of the things I love most about dairy farming.

Cows with attitude

The video footage showing an Irish “cowdini” making her escape got me thinking about some of the characters in our dairy herd.

First, there was the infamous “Lipstick”, who terrorised me as a child. She didn’t like to be messed with and she didn’t baulk at the flailing arms of anyone under 6′ tall either. Her daughter and grand-daughter, who bore the trademark black lips and white face were equally as formidable.

Queen Bessie was, on the other hand, a charming yet dignified old lady. Big brown eyes and long lashes batted drowsily as she soaked up loving scratches. One of the few times I saw tears well in Dad’s eyes was when Queen Bessie died after more than a decade of owning the square of yard at the entrance to the dairy.

Thirty years on, Zoe is in love with Pearlie Girlie. This diminutive three-year-old hangs back during rounding up and is happy to be patted until she decides enough is enough and dismisses her young adorer with a regal toss of the head.

A dog has a master, a cat only servants, and cows…courtiers.