O-week for a young cow

The first member of the class of 2012 has calved and she’s lovely! To help her learn the ropes, we’ve had her with the milking herd for a couple of weeks prior to calving. The noises of the dairy are already familiar and the dinner served during milking must have been divine because she only kicked at the cups once – even though it’s the first time anyone’s handled her teats, let alone milked her.

That’s a big deal for us as farmers. A quiet cow is a happy cow and that means she lets down her milk readily and is less likely to suffer mastitis. And we are less likely to get hurt. In the dairy, we have to reach between the powerful hind legs of 550 kg cows, 500 times a day. Getting kicked can mean broken fingers, hands, arms and faces.

Anyhow, this young cow is a pretty cool customer, even when being pestered by a silly pup who wants to slurp up some delicious cow poo (never let a farm dog lick your face).

Do you have the stomach to adopt a heifer?

I was amazed by Mike’s comment suggesting an “adopt a heifer” program following my last post about the impact of falling milk prices on my dairy cows and even more amazed by the responses it generated.

One of my fellow dairy farmers, Jessa, has had the same thought but a few reservations have held her back. The biggie is: “What if the heifer dies?”.

To that, I’d add: “What if the heifer turns out to be infertile, bad feet that send her lame often or gets intractable mastitis?”. The reality is that, ordinarily, she’d be sent to market. There is no ‘fat’ in the price farmers are paid for their milk and, consequently, no room for infirm passengers on farm. How would you feel if your adopted heifer had to go? Especially if I posted a picture of her big brown eyes.

The scenario gets at the heart of what it is to be a farmer. We love animals. But we can only look after them properly if we are profitable farmers and that means some animals are created more equal than others (with apologies to Mr Orwell).

Farm animals are cherished but not in the same way as pets – mostly. I still remember the day 30 years ago when my father sent Queen Bessie to market. For a decade or more, Queen Bessie stood regally at the head of the dairy entrance demanding scratches until she simply became too old to thrive. Dad was shattered for weeks but, nevertheless, she was sold.

It’s only with a philosopher’s eye for the big picture that farmers manage the balancing act of love, business and the welfare of the herd. Could you stomach it or is that where the “adopt a heifer” experiment would come unstuck?


When the wheel falls off – literally

What a day. We have our heifers (teenage cows) on agistment an hour’s drive east of the farm and it’s time for the girls to meet their beaux.

The plan was to tow two of the four Jersey bulls up in the tandem trailer and return with two immature heifers. Well, for a start, the bulls had grown since last year (wouldn’t have been surprising if I’d thought a bit about it) and there’s only room for one. “Never mind,” say I as Fernando the bull leaps aboard greedily following my trail of grain, “at least we’ll manage to draft out the two young heifers and bring them back. We can send the other bulls up in a truck another day.”.

About 60 kilometres into the trip, the jolly bull leans on the back of the stock crate and sways like a Hawaiian dancer. Not just a little but a lot. Singing stops.

“Sorry Zoe, Mama has to concentrate for a bit.”

After a few deep breaths, the frightening fishtail irons itself out and I gently up the revs. Fishtail again. Ease off again to 60km/hr and Fernando stands up straight.

“Holy cow!”

After one more repeat, I decide it best to play it cool and nurse the flaming bull into town.

“This is bull#$%t” (muttered under breath)

Get to the yards – padlocked.

“What the?”

Turn around to have a think and, wow, an apology to Fernando is certainly in order. One of the trailer wheels is hanging on by a single nut. No wonder nobody dared tailgate me, even at 60km/hr. I’d figured the cowards were wary of an Aussie (green and gold) shower over their gleaming duco.

Dig out the car’s spare (thankfully the tandem has Ford Falcon hubs), borrow one nut from each of the other three wheels, find another gate for Fernando and limp home in the rain. Feeling blonde but blessed tonight.

Breech birth but cow hates hospital

Cow facing a breech birth

Cow facing a breech birth

This cow led us on a merry dance. Zoe and I had spotted a single, dry hoof on its way out and up the wrong way – a sure sign of big calving trouble. Two front hoofs should appear to “dive” out of the cow, closely followed by a nose and it should all happen too quickly for the membranes to dry in the sun.

Despite her predicament (breech births are difficult and life threatening) and little Zoe’s sage advice, 1063 raced around the paddock like the Artful Dodger. She even paused defiantly for me to take her picture before we set off on another game of cat and mouse. Eventually, we got her into the yards and, 25 minutes later with a lot of help from Clarkie, 1063 gave birth to a stillborn bull calf. We were just glad she was okay.

As in humans, breech presentations are unpredictable and unpreventable. Most calving problems at our farm are caused by calves that are just too big. To minimise the likelihood of difficult calvings, we choose bulls with narrow shoulders and medium rather than large statures. We also mate our maiden heifers (cows who have never calved before) with Jersey bulls. Because this breed is significantly smaller than the Friesian cows we milk, the calves pose little risk for heifers.

Which of these cows is the mother?

Which is the mother cow?

Which is the mother cow?

This morning, we found a new heifer calf curled up in a corner of the calving paddock. She’d been licked clean but judging by her tucked up sides, she hadn’t had a drink. Why not? Her mum was nowhere to be seen. This is not uncommon – cows often leave their calves in remote spots while they go off to have a feed or a drink, so we got the calf up and tried to attract the mother cow’s attention with our best imitation of plaintive-sounding calf noises (not “moo” but something like “mmmmbeaaaaargh”).

Two aunties immediately rushed over. We call cows that haven’t calved but would love to steal someone else’s poddy an “aunty” and they can be exceedingly convincing. Not this time. They still had bulging bellies and no sign that anything had been recently stretched (IYKWIM). The mother was clearly not particularly maternal and was still waiting for her milk to come in properly.

The only thing to do was to organise a line-up. Cows due to calve within the next three weeks get a daily ration of grain that is half what they’ll get when they rejoin the herd in the dairy, so we spread their breakfast out and did an inspection. Who do you think it was?