Weird farm facts: what does a cow and a hair dryer have in common?

via GIPHY

Yep, it’s a heatwave. Dairy cows hate heatwaves. How much? Take a look at some of these weird facts from Dairy Australia’s Cool Cows website:

  • Each of our dairy cows gives off body heat equivalent to a 1500-watt hair dryer on a hot day.
  • Cows eat 10-20% less when the air temperature is more than 26°C.
  • A cow making more milk is more easily heat stressed.
  • Each dairy cow can drink 200-250 litres per day in hot weather – double the normal intake.
  • A heat stressed cow makes less milk for one to two days afterwards. If she’s heat stressed for two days in a row, milk production can be affected for a fortnight.

Suffice to say, the weatherman has our attention. Farmer levies fund a Temperature Humidity Index (THI) forecast that gives us a heads-up on just how tough it could be on the cows.

A THI of over 68 has a measurable impact on milk production, not to mention our cows’ wellbeing. As you can see, the forecast has us reaching a THI of 83. Nasty.

THI

THI Dairy Forecast http://dairy.katestone.com.au/

We’re onto it. To help keep the cows cool, we milk earlier in the morning and later in the afternoon when the sun is low.

The cows have a paddock with enough shade and water for everyone that’s close to the dairy. We serve up a light meal of silage just beyond the trees, so they can sneak out from the shade, have a nibble and go back where it’s cool for a nap.

The dairy yard is sprinkled with water, giving the cows a welcome shower while they wait to be milked. Inside the dairy, ceiling fans whir above the cows for maximum comfort.

There are three water troughs on the way to the night paddock, which is a juicy crop of emerald-green millet. Better than being at the beach!

via GIPHY

 

Of course our cows are sentient

Heifers and Zoe reach out

“You can trust me”

Any dairy farmer who does not know her cows are capable of feeling pain and suffering, or pleasure and comfort, should be stripped of her licence.

Yet this simple concept, called sentience, has created one hell of a ruckus after the Victorian government released its Animal Welfare Action Plan this month. All sorts of farm leaders have railed against the use of the term, calling it a “slippery slope” and claiming it could actually hurt animals.

“…the introduction of sentience will cause adverse welfare outcomes for animals as production systems are thrown into chaos. It will render some farm businesses unviable, causing job losses and untold economic damage to regional communities and cripple the supply chains that rely on these businesses.” – VFF media release, January 5, 2018

As a farmer who works with cows every day, I have no idea what’s prompted this outrage but I do know it’s got nothing to do with whether cows are sentient or not. Of course they are.

Farmers are animal practivists: we balance what’s best for the welfare of our cows all the time. How long do we keep treating that downer cow or should we euthanase now? And the big one: should we rear the calves with the herd or away from their mothers?

I get the feeling that our agripoliticians are on the offensive because they’re worried what the animal activists rather than practivists out there will do with the inclusion of sentience in welfare law.

The problem is that everybody knows cows are sentient. To deny it makes farmers look either cruel or willing to say anything at all to avoid being accountable. How we achieve the best outcomes is certainly very debateable but the need to consider cow comfort is not.

The importance of cow comfort is already well accepted in dairy circles. Cows and farmers do better when animal health and wellbeing is a priority. Goodness, it’s practically a science of its own! A quick Google reveals dozens of research papers on the subject.

The minister is being very courageous. It’s about time our leaders were, too.

 

Dairy industrial action

inmilletlores

Day shift conditions are far superior to those at night

In a wave of industrial unrest over the weekend, dairy cows at Milk Maid Marian Inc began staging sit ins. On Saturday afternoon, the herd voted not to go into the night paddock until entitlements for the evening shift matched those enjoyed during the day.

An apology and explanation from the employer that the limited volume of dam water could only provide for daytime millet and turnips was enough to move the cows through the gate. But once again faced with the stark reality of honey-coloured pasture, the milkers voted unanimously to reinstate their stop work action.

goldpaddock

“You have got to be joking!” was the theme of the stop work meeting

After threatening to blockade the flow of milk, the cows entered into a fresh round of negotiations with the farmer on Monday.

The new remuneration package includes 6kg of grain pellets during milk harvesting, three hours of access to turnips following the morning milking, five hours of access to freshly irrigated shirohie millet and nightly silage to offset the honey pasture.

Addressing the herd, union secretary Pearlie Girlie said the industrial action was a wake-up call for the dairy sector.

“We understand and appreciate that the dairy sector is facing headwinds,” she said, “but weather conditions are no excuse to cut the living conditions of those at the coal face to unworkable levels.”

“All parties in the supply chain need to bear their fair share of the risk. In fact, those with the deepest pockets have the greatest responsibility to shoulder the load.

“Those who choose to ignore this fundamental truth will see production fall accordingly.”

When Spring doesn’t spring

Spring is the time of plenty and everything here is timed to match it.

Young, innocent magpies sit for young scientists

Young, innocent magpies sit for young scientists

Landcare swings into action on the farm

Landcare swings into action on the farm

And the grass grows like a weed, which we turn into silage for the cows to eat over summer and winter.
GrassAngels

But what happens when Mother Nature turns off the tap?

SoilMoistureSept

The sea of red shows just how dry it has become. Soil moisture levels are at historic lows in our part of Gippsland and farmers around here are struggling to get even small fractions of the normal silage yield tucked away for summer and next winter. We normally get around 800 rolls of silage to sustain the cows over summer and winter but may get 10% of that this year.

The man who cuts our Spring harvest describes the season as “bleak”, while our agronomist says most locals without irrigation “don’t know what to do” and are pinning their hopes on a November flood.

To be fair, we didn’t get so far into the red overnight. I saw it coming. We have been at rainfall decile 1 (out of 10) right through winter and it’s barely rained since. The blasts of heat we’ve had in the last couple of weeks were just the icing on the cake. It feels like drought. It measures up like drought, too.

Coping with El Nino
What have I done to prepare? First, we regretfully sold a lot of cows so there are fewer mouths to feed. Next, we planted turnips extra early on the river flats so they could get their roots down deep while there was still some moisture to support the seedlings.

Crops are sown so the cows will have lush green feed in summer

Crops sown so the cows will have some lush green feed in summer

Aside from this, I’ve been hammering the phone calling every man and his dog about securing large quantities of hay before it’s all gone while harassing pump, pipe and sprinkler people to get a little irrigation system up and going. If I have to talk about head, pressures and flow rates any longer, I think my own head will explode!

The system will mix water from our dam with the manure we collect from the dairy yard together to water a small crop of millet and chicory. It’s a great way to recycle the nutrients from the farm, protect our river and ocean, make the farm more resilient to climate change, offer the cows something green to eat and keep the milk flowing.

I haven’t done it all on my own because getting through a season like this demands a lot of expertise. I’ve been very lucky to have help from DEDTJR feed planning expert, Greg O’Brien, to model different scenarios and their financial impact on the farm as part of the Feeding Impact program.

The program provides a great framework for getting proactive about feeding decisions and brings farmers together to learn from each other. It’s great to know I’m not the only one in this position and I always marvel at just how generous groups of farmers can be with their moral support and advice.

Our nutrition consultant, Peter De Garis, and feed supplier, Jess May, have helped me create a balanced diet for the cows with not too much protein, too little energy and just the right amount of fibre.

Agronomist Scott Travers has offered his advice on the right type and timing of crops to keep feed up to the cows for the next few months. Fonterra irrigation and nutrient distribution advisor, John Kane, has kept me sane when assessing everything to do with pumps and pipes.

Farms like mine are small but very complex businesses. If I walk past you down the street looking a little distant and perplexed, you’ll know why.

The calm before the perfect storm for one nervous dairy farmer

A perfect storm is brewing. Collapsing global dairy markets, a fodder shortage, and a strengthening El Nino.

Milk price uncertainty

Just across the ditch, NZ dairy farmers are drowning in despair after the dominant Kiwi milk processor, Fonterra, this week cut its farmgate price forecast to $3.85 per kilogram of milk solids, down from $5.25. The announcement followed hot on the heels of yet another set of disastrous Global Dairy Trade auction figures.

The Global Dairy Trade auction results of 4 August

The Global Dairy Trade auction results of 4 August

 

Most NZ milk is sold via the Global Dairy Trade auction and an article from Stuff.co.nz neatly explains the situation for NZ dairy farmers:

DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle said the news was grim, but not unexpected and many farmers would now be in survival mode.

The drop in milk price would result in $2.5 billion dropping out of rural economies, Mackle said. 

“Milk price is now half what it was in 2013/14. We calculate around nine out of 10 farmers will need to take on extra debt to keep going through some major operating losses,” Mackle said. 

“For the average farmer you are looking at covering a business loss of $260,000 to 280,000 this season but for many it will be a lot more than that.”

It would have a big impact on rural servicing businesses. Drops like this had a cascading effect through rural economies, Mackle said.

DairyNZ analysis showed the average farmer now needed a milk price of $5.40 to break even.

Just a few months ago, dairy industry analysts were forecasting a return to better international commodity prices at the end of this year but opinions seem to be changing, suggesting that there will be not one but two years of pain ahead.

What does this mean for Australian dairy farmers like me? Well, the largest processor of Australian milk, Murray Goulburn, forecast a closing (or end of year) price to farmers of $6.05kg of milk solids just before its partial ASX float. It hasn’t yet revised that closing price but its biggest competitor, Fonterra Australia, says it will announce the results of its own July price review this week.

The big difference between NZ dairy and Australian dairy is this: NZ exports 95% of the milk it produces, while Australia exports just 38% of its milk.  The Australian domestic milk market is much more stable than international commodity prices, so we don’t get the dramatic highs and lows of Kiwi farmgate milk prices. At least, that’s how it’s meant to work.

I’m certainly relieved to have locked in a bottom to the price we are paid for 70% of the farm’s milk. We now supply Fonterra Australia, which accepted our bid to join “The Range” risk management program that sees our price bob about between an upper and lower pair of prices. If the milk price does collapse, we’ll go backwards at a rate of knots but will still be farming next year.

El Nino: more feed needed and less to go round

Sadly, I can’t lock in even a portion of our rainfall. With a strengthening El Nino predicted to persist into next year, the Bureau of Meteorology calculates just a 30 to 35 per cent chance of at least average rainfall for our region from August to October. That means we’re likely to have less surplus Spring grass to conserve as hay and silage. It’s a double whammy because the El Nino also suggests we’re likely to need more fodder than normal over summer and autumn.

To top it off, hay prices are already unaffordable and quality hay is scarce.

The perfect storm

In other words, we’ll need more conserved feed than normal with less than usual to make ourselves and, very likely, starved of cash flow to pay for extra loads from far flung places.

A milk maid’s survival plan

So, what do we do? We’ve already begun adapting by selling off our less productive cows to limit our demand for feed. Thankfully, cattle prices are high right now and the sale of those 13 cows will feed the rest of the herd for three weeks. I’m also spending more time hunched in front of the computer looking for any opportunities to cut costs and keeping an eagle eye on our budget.

A brainstorming and planning session with agronomist, Scott Travers, has helped us plan for extra on-farm cropping with brassicas over summer.

Cows grazing forage rape

The cows will be grazing more brassicas this summer

We’ll be planting several types of brassicas (which belong to the same family as broccoli and cabbage) that mature at different times in a bid to have leafy greens available for the cows throughout summer. The big risk, however, is that the weather will be too tough, even for summer crops.

To deal with this, we are planning another infrastructure project inside the bounds of our new kangaroo fence. Water from our freshwater dam will be mixed with effluent from the dairy yard and pumped over the crop paddocks. It will help the brassicas survive a dry sprummer and summer then help re-establish pasture during an unreliable autumn.

This modest irrigation system will cost money but it will slash the cost of spreading the effluent and should pay for itself quite quickly during a year when visits from the hay truck could spell the difference between make or break.

A perfect storm is brewing and, here on the farm, we are trimming our sails to suit.

 

Mastitis, antibiotics and milk

Why do we use antibiotics on our farm? Very simply, because despite everything we do to look after their well being, cows, just like people, sometimes fall ill and need antibiotics to get better.

It’s very rare that any of our 260 milking cows become lame with an infection while digestive problems are almost unheard of here and, in any case, do not require antibiotics.

The number one illness we treat on our farm is mastitis. If you’ve breastfed a baby yourself, there’s a fair chance you’ve experienced mastitis. In both cows and women, the symptoms include swelling, warmth and redness for light cases. Nasty cases bring flu-like symptoms that, in cows, can progress to become extremely serious.

How we prevent mastitis
So, how do we reduce the incidence of mastitis on the farm? We begin even before the calf is conceived by selecting sires whose daughters show a naturally lower susceptibility to mastitis.

At the same time, we minimise the risk of infection by keeping the cows and their environment as clean as possible. Tracks are maintained so there’s less mud around to flick onto teats and cows are happy to walk straight to their grassy paddocks rather than spending their rest times on mucky surfaces.

Cows resting in the paddock

Cows resting in the paddock after milking

The cows are well fed with a carefully balanced diet that is mostly grass and we treat the cows with care to minimise stress. It’s a slow, gentle walk to the milking shed, there’s no shouting and if I see one of our cows run, there’d better be a good explanation!

The hygiene of the dairy is important, too. We clean any dirty teats before the milking machine cups go on and spray them afterwards with a mix of iodine and glycerine to disinfect and protect them. We also routinely test the milking machines to make sure they are gentle and effective.

And we’re vigilant. Not surprisingly, when you spend hours every day with the cows’ udders at face level, you notice a sore cow quite quickly. A sore cow is an unhappy cow and an unhappy cow is an unhappy milker, too. Everyone who milks in the dairy has been specially trained at a “Cups On, Cups Off” course to look for mastitis and put top priority on the comfort of our cows.

Sometimes, cows have sub-clinical infections that don’t show any symptoms, so every few weeks, we collect samples of milk from every cow and have them analysed at the local herd test centre lab.

It’s a lot of work but it’s important work. The comfort of the cows is our number one priority and there are implications for the quality of the milk, too. If there is too much mastitis in the herd, our milk has a shorter shelf life.

One thing we don’t do, however, is include antibiotics in the cows’ feed. Routine antibiotic use is not legal and would mean that none of our milk would be useable.

Treating mastitis
When we find a cow with mastitis, we don’t wait to see whether she goes downhill, we treat her immediately with the medicine prescribed by (and only available from) our vets to help her recover fast. Antibiotics help the cow feel better in a day and we keep on milking her so that her udder is well drained and kept as soft as possible.

Making sure milk is free from antibiotic residues
The milk we collect from a treated cow is tipped out until there is no risk of antibiotic residues in the milk. The antibiotics come with quite precise details of how long they remain in meat and milk. It’s critical information because nobody wants food laced with antibiotics, especially those with life-threatening allergies.

As precautionary measures, we:

  • paint the cow’s udder red as a warning to everyone in the dairy that she either needs more treatment or to have her milk disposed of,
  • write her treatment needs and the time her milk needs to be withheld from the vat on a whiteboard in the dairy for all to see, and
  • record all her treatment details in a quality and treatment register.

After she has finished a course of treatment, we check the cow again to be sure the infection has cleared up.

Testing for antibiotic residues
Even with all these protocols, it’s good to know that if milk contaminated with antibiotics somehow got into the vat, there are more safeguards in place. In the next post, a guest from milk processor, Fonterra, will explain how they test our milk for antibiotics.

The bottom line
Our cows live good, healthy lives and rarely fall ill but when they do get sick, we give them the best treatment available straight away. For people and animals alike, antibiotics are our last line of defence against misery and death, so we use them only when really needed and then with great care. And I don’t want to go back to a world without them.

Cows are gentle herbivores, right?

I like to think I’m in charge around here but the truth is that I’m way down the pecking order. Mother Nature is Numero Uno, followed closely by the kids and the cows.

A couple of hours ago, I turned up to check whether the cows had enough feed for the rest of the day and this is the greeting I received:

I didn’t need to look at the pasture. I just did as I was told and stuck a prop up under the fence wire.

Don’t worry – they weren’t actually starving but had eaten the pasture out nicely, leaving the 4 to 6 cm residual we dairy farmers are drilled to achieve by our “Professor of Crapology” leading DEPI’s Feeding Pastures for Profit program.

Crapology is the study of cow poo. We need to be sure the cows haven’t eaten too close or too far from pats and conscientiously survey the consistency of their manure. Not too loose, not too firm, not too smelly and as little grain as possible in each gooey pie. “Just firm enough to stand your credit card up in it,” our farm consultant reminds me (and he wonders why I refuse to bring my purse on the farm tour).

Despite the protests, I think we got it pretty right but would you argue with a mob like that?

What kicked it all off: doing the Professor proud.

What kicked it all off: doing the Professor proud.

Feeling stressed? Come and sit in the grass with the cows

“What’s so special about that?” asked Zoe. “Nothing, and that’s why I thought we should put it on the blog.”

Apart from the twice-daily walk to and from the dairy, this is how our cows spend their time.

You won’t see footage like this anywhere else, I suspect, and certainly not on 4 Corners. There’s nothing sensational about it except perhaps that, right before your eyes, these cows are transforming grass into one of nature’s wonder foods (while wondering what the hell I’m doing sitting on their breakfast).

Dairy delight: silage supreme

The warm sweetness of fermented natural sugars swathed in the aroma of rich plum pudding make gourmet Silage Supreme irresistible.

Last weekend the conditions were perfect for the creation of a few thousand servings of this dairy delicacy.

Today, bunkered down in the office as water rattles down the drainpipes, I thought it was the ideal opportunity to relive the fleeting appearance of Spring by sharing the recipe with you.

So, next time you see cows eating “artificial, plastic food”, you’ll know the truth: it’s gorgeous, 100% pure luscious springtime grass lovingly preserved for a rainy day (or, perhaps, a scorcher).

Ah well, back to today…

WetHibiscus

WetOct

Lovers behind the shelter shed

Lovers

Lovers

I was out shifting fences yesterday when, through the trees along the gully, I heard the tell-tale staccato of furtive lovers nearby. And there they were, in a hidden pocket of the paddock, him licking her flank, she still undecided.

I crept closer to take a snap and uh, oh, I’d been spotted. Like guilty teens behind the shelter shed, the pair straightened up, stared belligerently (if a little gawkily) and wanted to know what I was looking at.

What else should I expect? It is springtime, after all. Isn’t a cow entitled to a little privacy?