What would you say to the trendy vegetarian?

We just had a young man staying with us who announced he’s become a vegetarian. When I asked why, he said it was because he liked what PETA says about not taking the life of another creature.

I try to be very open-minded but as soon as someone says “PETA says…”, I must admit that the fire doors of my mind slam shut. I was instantly infuriated. Just wanted him to leave but couldn’t say so. Instead, I told him he’d have to go a lot further than giving up chicken, pork and beef burgers.

As the weekend worn on, he ate copious amounts of eggs, dairy and…seafood. Quizzed a little more closely, he said his “vegetarianism” was really for health reasons. I urged him to see a dietician to make sure he has enough iron and vitamin B but he’s okay – he eats corn at least twice a week.

The experience has opened my eyes to the value of nutritional education when it comes to making food and lifestyle choices. Becoming a vegetarian or vegan is trendy. Thinking about supplements and vitamin B12 patches is not. Yet, according to experts cited in Wikipedia, “Poorly planned vegan diets may be low in vitamin B12, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, iron, zinc, riboflavin (vitamin B2), and iodine.”

What would you say? In the meantime, grab a Coke and enjoy this hilarious clip on trendy diets from Mamamia.

What we feed our dairy cows

When I think of feed for our dairy cows, I think of grass. Unlike cows in much colder climates, ours live in the paddocks all year round and pasture is the “bread and butter” of their diets. Really, apart from hay baled in the summer and fed out in the depths of winter, that’s all our cows used to eat when I was a kid.

Everything changed, though, when a vicious drought desiccated Australia in 1982/83. That year, a massive dust storm blanketed Melbourne, ensuring that even inner-city dwellers felt the searing fury of mother nature. Like their neighbours, Mum and Dad cut every expense they could, right down to cancelling their newspaper subscription.

In desperation, they turned to grain to supplement the cows’ diets. And never looked back. We’re lucky in Australia to have such great wheat growers practically on our doorsteps. With grain at reasonable prices, we are able to buffer our cows from mother nature’s tantrums, keeping our cows well-fed, no matter whether it rains too much or too little. It also means our cows are able to produce more milk from less land – something that’s increasingly important as the population continues to climb.

Just as I created a breakfast for Zoe with the right building blocks of protein, fibre and carbs this morning, we offer the cows fibre, starch, protein and energy in the form of hay, silage and GM-free grain to top up their grass. So yes, Australian dairy cows are still pasture-fed but, these days, their diet has just a little added variety.

Making up for the heat

Do you tend to eat less in the heat? I do and so do our cows. This is the third day of hot weather here and there’s another on its way.

Once the mercury rises over about 25 degrees Celsius, the cows begin to find it uncomfortable. We’ve sent them to a shady paddock for the day and to make up for the fact that they’ll spend most of it under the spreading branches of the willows, we’ve also changed their feed pattern.

Shady paddock

A cool spot for a hot day

According to the gurus at Cool Cows:

  • Cows will eat less overall, so increase the energy density of your diet where possible. More starch or added fat can be useful tools.
  • The risk of ruminal acidosis is increased during hot weather by several factors:
    • Cows prefer to eat in “blocks” in the cooler times of the morning and evening each day in hot weather;
    • Cows tend to select against low quality forage/fibre; and
    • The natural buffering system the cow relies on to combat ruminal acidosis does not work as well in hot weather.
  • Feeding of a high quality fibre source in the diet that helps maintain a stable rumen, but still contributes energy rather than just gut fill, is therefore essential in hot weather. For high-producing herds already being fed plenty of starch via grain / concentrates, this is particularly crucial.
  • Recent research work in Arizona (where they know a bit about heat!) suggests that heat stressed cows switch metabolism and have an increased need for glucose within their bodies. Feedstuffs and feeding strategies that either provide the cow with more glucose or spare the amount she uses in her normal body processes may therefore be useful in hot weather.

For these reasons, they’re getting some extra grass tonight in a fresh new paddock. What about the farmers? Lots of refreshing baths for baby Alex, the minimum of farm chores and an early morning sojourn into the cool forest.

A cool place to hang out

A cool place to hang out

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.

The art of caring for new mums

New mums deserve TLC courtesy of our researchers

There’s a real art and a science to looking after cows in the lead-up to, and just after, calving. As you can imagine, cows need an incredible amount of calcium to both grow their calves and to produce milk.

You’d think that adding extra calcium in their diets would be a good idea, wouldn’t you? Well, actually vets tell us that adding calcium is one of the worst things you can do to a cow that’s about to calve. It makes her much more likely to suffer from a life-threatening disorder called “milk fever”, where the body cannot produce enough calcium to power her muscles (including the heart).

Instead, we must choose feeds that encourage the cow’s body to draw calcium from her bones and that will help her adjust to the diet she’ll receive as a member of the milking herd. If we don’t get the feeding regime right during the two to three weeks before calving, cows are more likely to have trouble calving, develop lameness, lose weight, produce less milk and get sick with mastitis.

Ironically, too much grass at this time also spells big trouble. It generally has a high dietary cation anion difference (DCAD), which doesn’t help get precious calcium into the bloodstream. That’s why cows in our calving paddock have access to short but clean grass, anion salts in their drinking water, cereal hay and half the ration of grain they’ll get in the dairy. They’re too precious to treat with any less TLC.