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.

As the grass grows golden everything changes again

Feed bails

The new feed ration ready for tonight's diners


I shouldn’t admit this but I use the lawn as a bit of a guide to pasture growth rates. Our lawn is far from manicured and includes just about every grass species known to man. Of course, it’s not grazed either, so it’s really easy to see how it is performing. And, this week, we raised the mower’s cutter deck in an attempt to preserve its greenness.

That’s not to say I don’t watch the paddocks like a hawk. Out on the farm, we’ve been battling to prevent the grass from bolting to head, raising seed heads atop stalky stems that fill the cows with fibre rather than goodness. The seed heads also signal senescence – a type of hibernation for grass – dramatically reducing growth rates.

It means that rather than being able to graze a paddock, say, every 21 days, we must rest it for up to 60 days when summer really kicks in. To manage this, we strip graze the paddocks so the cows get a much smaller yet still fresh portion each day. With less grass on offer, we must make up the daily ration with supplementary feed. I have some gorgeous vetch hay waiting in the shed and there’s all that silage we baled just a few weeks ago.

My first step though is to lift the amount of grain we’re feeding to balance out the increasing fibre in the grass. Just a 1kg boost – easy enough to turn up the dial but, oh, what a performance it turned out to be!

The feed system is governed by a timer rather than a checkweigher, so we have to guess how much extra time to dial up, scoop samples into buckets, weigh and review if necessary but the scale’s batteries were flat. Determined to get it right though, I dumped a 1 litre juice bottle on top of a bucket of the current ration and, with Clarkie’s help, set up a rudimentary scale with a scrap metal rod suspended from a roof truss with hay band. It wasn’t glamorous but it worked a treat!

All I want for Christmas now is a yard hydrant wash system, an underpass and a pasture meter like Graeme’s.

Gotta be quick to respond as Spring springs

Spring has pounced…at last and with a flourish!

Each week, I monitor the growth rate of our grass and by golly it’s shot away in seven days. This means we can offer the cows a larger slice of each paddock per day, knowing that we won’t run out of grass or punish the pastures. We treat our little ryegrass plants with TLC, you see.

To explain why, I’ll need to tell you a little bit about the ryegrass plant (only a speed-date style of introduction because I know you’re probably not as excited about watching grass grow as I am).

In most cases, rye grass only ever grows three leaves per plant before the oldest leaf dies off. It’s at its best when it has 2.5 to 3 leaves, which is also when it grows fastest because it has the most “solar panels” to generate sugar and sustain itself.

The grass draws on sugar reserves stored in its stem to produce the first leaf, the second is self-sufficient and the third offers about 50% more herbage than the first two combined.

If you let the cows chew the grass down too hard or bring them back when it’s just used up its sugar reserve to get the first leaf out, you do enormous damage to the plant. It may not recover and will certainly take a long time to get up and running again.

Because Australian milk is sold at such low prices, we have to be super efficient and that means grazing the pasture at its most productive rather than relying on lots of expensive grain. A DPI expert once told me that what farmers do in the 12 weeks of Spring dictates how profitable we are for the whole year, so I am extra vigilant at the moment.

With the warmer, drier weather of the last week, we’ve seen growth rates soar. Rather than taking about 14 days to emerge, the first leaf is out in seven or eight. I’ve asked Wayne to reduce the amount of grain we’re feeding the cows (just by half a kilo every four days so we don’t upset the bacteria in their finely tuned digestive systems) and I’ll ring the silage contractor tomorrow to give him the heads-up.

That same DPI guy also told me that it doesn’t cost anything to be on time but being late in farming could cost a year’s profit. I’d better get out there!

What did one bull say to the other?

Aussie cricketers are infamous for sledging but, judging by last night’s performance, they have nothing on our Jersey bulls.

Three of these testosterone-fuelled bovines are in with the last of the cows due to calve and they are sharing a very strict pre-calving or “transition” diet that involves virtually no grass – just grain and cereal silage and hay. So, when I arrive with the grain trailer, everyone rushes over and tucks in before they miss out. Well, not quite everyone.

Bulls fighting in calving paddock

It all started when I arrived with the grain trailer

Headbutting bulls

Nobody else was impressed

Bulls still fighting

The bulls just kept on going

Bulls still warring half an hour later

The two bulls were still warring half an hour later (sorry about the pic quality)

Love to hear what you thought the original sledge was that sparked all this off!

A day in the life of an Australian dairy farming family

I kept a time log yesterday. Here’s how our busy but not unusual day went.

5.00am Wayne hops on the quad bike to round up the cows and slowly and quietly bring them to the dairy

5.45am Milking starts

6.30am Marian hits her desk to catch up on paperwork before Zoe wakes and checks the online forecast. All three computer models agree there’s a little rain coming tomorrow. Better get the nitrogen onto those paddocks we just grazed early tomorrow morning!

8.15am Milking’s finished and the cleaning begins

8.30am Zoe and Marian shift the effluent irrigator, fill the pump with petrol and get it going.

Zoe with effluent irrigator

Time to shift the irrigator

9.00am Marian and Zoe arrive on the Bobcat to give Papa a kiss and cuddle before we head off to feed the springers grain and anionic salts. The new calf spotted being born last night is a baby bull, who will be reared by one of our neighbours. We bring him and his mother back to the shed.

Anionic salts

Anionic salts (Zoe pic)

9.30am The milking machines, the yards and the vat room are spotless.

9.40am The three of us walk a couple of cows across the road to start their annual two-month holiday before they calve.

Cows going on holiday

Cows going on holiday

9.45am Wayne feeds three rolls of silage to the milkers

10.10am Zoe and Marian bring back two cows from the holiday paddock to join the springers in the TLC paddock.

10.45am Zoe and Marian refill the effluent pump and set it off again

Refuel Pump

Refuel pump again! (Zoe pic)

10.55am We all meet up again to feed the youngest calves and muck out pens. Discover one is sick and Wayne heads off to town to get treatment for her and refill the jerry cans.

11.30am Zoe and Marian are starving. Lunch time!

12.50pm Treat the sick calf and muck out more pens while Wayne welds up a broken gate in the dairy

1.20 pm Wayne’s off to feed silage to the dry cows, calves and heifers. Zoe and Marian take a look at the heifers to see if any should join the springers. We decide to do a big sort out in one to two weeks.

1.40 pm Refuel the effluent pump and get it running again

1.50 pm Load up 10 buckets of grain to feed to the youngest of the one-year-old calves. They are very happy to see us!

Feeding Calves Grain

Grain for calves (Zoe pic credit)

2.30 pm Check a new pasture on the way back

Zoe checks new pasture

Check new pasture

2.40 pm Quick snack and conflab with Wayne. 15 minutes later, we go off to round up while he feeds our maremmas, Charlie and Lola, and takes a bit of a break before milking.

Cows on the track

Rounding up

4.10 pm Finally get all the cows into the yard – Wayne’s already got the first 32 cows milked. The cows were in one of the furthermost paddocks from the dairy, we had to set up paddocks along the way and deal with a broken fence. Also discovered a major water leak 🙁

4.20 pm Equipped with tools, start prodding around in the mud.
Zoe’s taking pics now while Mama makes a mess.

Zoe's pic of Mama looking for the leak

Mama looks for the leak

Oops! Zoe’s got a bootful but let’s make it funny.

Zoe on the Bobcat after mud accident

After a boot full of water

The cows crowd around us on their way back to the paddock.

5.06 pm The Eureka Moment! An old (but still connected) water line has burst a fitting.

Pipe fitting

Unearthed the blasted leak

5.10 pm Outta there.

5.15 pm Set the travelling effluent irrigator on a new path, refuel pump and pull the rip cord!

5.35 pm Marian and Zoe home at last!

6.25pm Wayne’s home from milking. The end of a big day.