Jousting for poll position

Scuffles broke out right across the paddock as the weak winter sun lit the stage for a bovine pugilism festival. The cows were feeling magnificent and, unable to contain their energy, were ready to take on all comers.

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The kids and I love watching the cows “do butter-heads” and the cows seem to love it, too. For every pair or trio engaged in warfare, there will be a group of curious onlookers and one scuffle seems to inspire more outbreaks.

Does butter-heads have a serious purpose though? Yes, it does. The herd has a very structured pecking order. Cows come into the dairy in roughly the same order every milking and the smallest and most timid are inevitably last. Mess them up by splitting the herd into seemingly random groups for a large-scale vet procedure like preg testing and you can expect trouble. There are cows thrust into leadership positions who don’t want to go into the yard first and lots more poo than usual.

I am sure that in days gone by, these battles were often fought to the death. Strong, razor sharp horns with 550kg of muscle and bone behind them are fearsome weapons. Our calves have their horn buds removed as painlessly as we can manage it early on to avoid far greater traumas later in life and for our own protection.

Soon, they will be spared even this discomfort. Dairy cows are being bred “polled” (without horns) and, eventually, we will have a herd that is naturally hornless. It’s not easy finding suitable polled bulls yet but our breeding centre tells me that demand from dairy farmers for polled semen is now “huge”.

I have my eyes on a couple of German polled beaux for our ladies. I only hope we can get them in time for this year’s mating season.

This cow cannot take a trick

The last cow into the dairy on Friday morning had Wayne stumped. It had been an uneventful milking, she’d gobbled up her ration of grain for breakfast but, when Wayne turned to spray the teats, there she was calmly sitting underneath her neighbour. No matter what we tried, there she stayed, refusing to budge. This little cow is only five years old, six months in calf and in great health. We didn’t want to lose her.

SheShallNotBeMovedFriday

Sarah the vet was duly called but could find nothing wrong. We figured she’d just slipped and was gathering her nerves before trying to get back up. She didn’t. She wouldn’t, even to follow a tempting trail of wheat.

Mmm, you smell nice

Mmm, you smell nice

When the time for afternoon milking came around, Wayne had to slither her along the platform and then lift her over a fence with the hip clamps. We sat her in the shade with grass, silage and water. She ate well, looked bright and feisty but her legs just wouldn’t work. It was an enormous relief to see her up and about at daybreak on Sunday morning, pushing against the gate to get back with her herd mates.

She still looked a bit tottery yesterday afternoon, so we let her have the afternoon off but felt really confident she was going to be alright.

So when I had to move the cows unexpectedly at lunchtime and saw her being pushed backwards down a slope towards the gully by a big bully cow, my heart leapt into my mouth. With the bully heaving low under her belly, the poor little cow toppled sideways – seemingly in slow motion – into this ignominious position.

UpsideDown

Now, this crazy-looking pose called “dorsal recumbency” is deadly for a cow. I had minutes to get her upright. For emergencies like this, I carry a heavy drag chain in the Bobcat and had her sitting upright again in less than five minutes. It’s a delicate job that has to be done with a lot of grunt and that’s always a risky combination.

Thank goodness, it worked. After some gentle coaxing from me and enthusiastic yapping from Patch, she struggled to her feet and joined the herd. Fingers crossed, little cow.

Herd meets hound

Our dairy cows are used to being rounded up morning and night, seven days per week and love routine. They amble in at a very leisurely pace at about 1.5 to 2km an hour. This is frustratingly slow if you’re in a hurry but it’s great for their well-being.

Now, we took Patch out with us (tied up in the back of the Bobcat) to round up the cows for milking last night. As soon as we got to the paddock, he decided to bark in a very commanding fashion and I had to growl and rap him on the nose. Ignoring my warnings, he barked again. It was then that the herd decided to take control.

Took moments for Patch to get the message, sit down and stay quiet. Took a long time to get the cows heading in the right direction. I suspect today Patch will be a better dairy dog.

Why we raise calves away from the herd

We don’t leave calves with the herd because, if we did, many would die and I’ve discovered that, sadly, many do die on hobby farms in the district despite the best intention of their carers.

On our farm, we take calves into a shed when they are one day old. They are kept in a pen on a bed of clean sawdust with one or two other newborns so we can make sure they suckle well and get enough colostrum (special antibody-rich milk produced by a cow immediately after calving) in the first vital 48 hours of life. This long-time farming practice has been supported by studies, which show colostrum intake affects the health and milk production of a cow right thoughout her life.

We can’t take for granted that the calf will get enough colostrum in the paddock because some calves just don’t get the idea of suckling early enough and some cows (often the youngest) are not the most attentive of parents.

Another good reason to keep the calves separate from the herd is to prevent the transmission of Bovine Johnes Disease (BJD). Calves are the most likely to be infected by this horrible and fatal wasting disease, described this way by DPI Victoria:

“Cattle are usually infected when less than 12 months of age. However, due to a long incubation period, clinical disease is often not seen until the affected animal is 4 or 5 years or older. Signs may appear after a period of stress such as calving, poor nutrition, heavy milk production or any other cause.

As the bacteria lodge and multiply in the wall of the small intestine, the cow responds by producing inflammatory cells. This combination of bacteria and cells leads to a thickening and distortion of the gut wall. Eventually the gut fails to absorb water and nutrients. In dairy cattle, the first sign is often a drop in milk production. Affected animals then develop chronic diarrhoea. Cattle gradually lose weight and become emaciated, while still maintaining a good appetite. They may also develop ‘bottle jaw’, a swelling under the jaw.”

After about a week, most calves are really good feeders, so we take them out into a small grassy sheltered paddock with a group of about 20 other calves. From there, they “graduate” to a larger paddock with up to 40 other calves. After they are eating about 1.5kg of pellets or grain each per day plus hay, they are weaned. Well fed and in the company of their peer group, this is a stress-free and exciting time for the calves.

The calves are fed a special high protein (18%) ration of grain, together with grass to keep them growing at their optimum. They are split into size groups so that none of the little ones miss out. Left in the herd, the smaller ones would not be able to compete for this essential food for growing bodies.

The herd is also a tough place for little creatures. Our cows are classed as medium-stature Friesians, yet weigh in at an average of 550kg each. I’d hate to have calves weighing just 40kg in a yard with 250 car-sized cows twice a day.

Calving slows, now, when to take the bulls out?

Over the past week, only half a dozen cows have calved. The next decision will be when to take the bulls out of the herd.

Traditionally, our herd begins to calve in mid-July but we’re in transition towards a new start date. Because the winters seem to be warmer and the springs shorter here, we began to mate the cows last July for an April 20 start to calving (like people, cows have a nine-month gestation period).

This is designed to match the cows’ peak production of milk with the peak growth of grass and reduce the need to maintain high energy levels over summer, which is a tough time to keep fodder up to the cows on a rain-fed rather than an irrigated farm.

So, when to stop? Some farmers arrange mating dates to have a couple of batches of calves throughout the year, relatively few calve all year round and most aim for seasonal calving over a period of eight to 12 weeks. These days, it’s becoming increasingly hard to get all the cows in calf each year and not all cows need to be pregnant annually to produce well. Extended lactation, as it’s called, is now very common for a portion of dairy herds and, according to the gurus like Greg O’Brien at the Department of Primary Industries, could be quite viable.

Since I want to shift our start date and rapidly shorten the calving season from our current transitory (and excruciating) six months, I’m inclined to be reassured by Greg’s advice and pull the bulls out earlier rather than later. Last year, it was New Year’s Day, this year, I’m considering mid-November. It’ll be mostly the late calvers who miss out under this regime and because we’ll be mating again in July, extended lactation is even less of an issue – it’s not a two-year lactation, anyhow.

In the next couple of weeks, we’ll arrange a pregnancy test for the cows who either calved early this year or didn’t calve at all. The vets are confident of due dates when pregnancies are at least eight weeks.

Wish me luck!

Cows with attitude

The video footage showing an Irish “cowdini” making her escape got me thinking about some of the characters in our dairy herd.

First, there was the infamous “Lipstick”, who terrorised me as a child. She didn’t like to be messed with and she didn’t baulk at the flailing arms of anyone under 6′ tall either. Her daughter and grand-daughter, who bore the trademark black lips and white face were equally as formidable.

Queen Bessie was, on the other hand, a charming yet dignified old lady. Big brown eyes and long lashes batted drowsily as she soaked up loving scratches. One of the few times I saw tears well in Dad’s eyes was when Queen Bessie died after more than a decade of owning the square of yard at the entrance to the dairy.

Thirty years on, Zoe is in love with Pearlie Girlie. This diminutive three-year-old hangs back during rounding up and is happy to be patted until she decides enough is enough and dismisses her young adorer with a regal toss of the head.

A dog has a master, a cat only servants, and cows…courtiers.