Farm meets laboratory

It takes a lot of science to make our dairy farm tick these days. Our place is no factory farm either. With around 250 free-range milking cows, it’s a very typical Australian dairy farm.
Yet, only today, I have been keeping four different labs busy:

Environmental lab: what’s in our water?

Sampling water from the farm dam

Don’t fall in!

We’re considering moving the water supply from the river to the dam but need to be sure the water is up to scratch first. While we don’t irrigate our farm, we need high quality water for the cows to drink and to keep the milking machinery hygienic and sparkling clean. We’re having it tested for minerals and nasty bugs like e-coli.

Animal health testing lab – looking for hand grenades in the grass

GrassClippingsOur farm has volunteered to be a ‘sentinel’ for the spores that cause the life-threatening condition of facial eczema. Collecting samples from a couple of paddocks only takes a few minutes but it could save hundreds of cows untold suffering.

Dairy nutrition lab – feeding the bugs that feed the cows

Yesterday, someone on Twitter asked Dr Karl how cows manage to get fat on grass while humans lose weight on veggies. The secret lies in four-chambered guts filled with life-giving bugs that do a lot of the work for the cows.

Our bovine ladies are athletes – each gives us around 7,000 litres of milk per year – and they and their bugs demand nothing short of perfection from us as chefs! Feed reports allow me to balance the cows’ diets with the right mix of fibre, energy and protein.

Soil nutrient lab – getting the dirt on our soils

Soil data allows me to apply the right fertiliser in the right amounts to the right places – lifting the productivity of our farm, reducing costs and preventing leaching into the river. I test the soils of all our paddocks every year. Some would regard that as wildly extravagant but a $110 test is nothing compared to the cost of a tonne of excess fertiliser.

Dairy farming is still the earthy, honest lifestyle it always has been but, these days, it pays to be a touch tech-savvy as well.

EDIT: Oh my goodness! Mike Russell (@mikerussell_) just pointed out that I forgot the bleeding obvious: the testing of our milk! It’s tested to an inch of its life – fat and protein content, sugars and cell counts are all tracked daily. Thanks Mike!

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.