Is autumn really here? No, it’s coming, so cows are going


Golden leaves carpet the farmhouse driveway. Yes, it’s autumn at last but I’m not sure whether the ash are superbly tuned into the seasons or simply too water stressed to hold onto their leaves any longer. The crisp autumnal mornings are yet to arrive – it was already 26 degrees Celsius when Alex and I checked the weather outlook just before six this morning – and the farm is again desperately dry.

But a dairy farmer is always planning ahead. Last weekend we sent a handful of cows on their annual two-month maternity leave, with a dozen or so more to join them in a fortnight.

The summer millet crops are getting their final grazing today and tomorrow so we can prepare for sowing new perennial pastures when the “autumn break” finally arrives. We’re testing the soils of each paddock so we can apply just the right levels of nutrients – enough to maintain fertility without risking leaching into the river or water table.

In anticipation of rain (and mud), our cow tracks are also about to get a makeover to help prevent two of the most troublesome afflictions for dairy cows: lameness and mastitis.

Autumn is the time when dairy farmers lay the foundations of a successful season and it’s strangely exciting. I wonder what will mark this year?

A concrete step forward ahead of winter

The entrance and exit to a dairy yard is often a miserable place. If you have an average herd of 250 cows, it gets trodden on by 1000 hoofs each day and bearing in mind that each cows weighs about 550 to 600kgs, that’s an awful lot of work. It also gets heavily “fertilised”!

Here’s how ours looked in summer.

Dairy yard entrance

Already boggy in January

I wasn’t looking forward to seeing it in winter! The rain has set in early and the feeling I have in my waters is that it’s going to be another nasty wet winter this year, so fixing up the bog-hole quickly became a high priority. Mud like this is a recipe for disaster in the form of lameness and mastitis – two things every dairy farmer tries to avoid at all costs.

Every season, we put loads of gravel in there and, every season, it seems to disappear before our eyes. I decided we had two problems: first, a concrete lip designed to force the cows to lift their hoofs, depositing the gravel back outside the yard had the twin effect of forcing each cow to step in precisely the same spot. Second, the legacy of loads and loads of gravel is that you end up building a mountain that, in our case, drained right back to the bog hole with nowhere for the water to escape.

So, we’ve taken a deep breath, got the excavator in to remove the mountain and the concreting crew in to provide a firm footing at the end of the yard.

New concrete at the end of the yard

Bog hole be gone!

Several seasoned characters have since wagged their heads, saying “You’ll only move the problem, you know…” but I don’t think it will be as bad. There’s now no need for the cows to so precisely follow in each others’ footsteps and the watery muck drains away from the track instead of into it. (Duh!) Wish us luck!

Where there’s mud, there’s mastitis

The track with one fence moved in and one more to do

The track with one fence moved in and one more to do

“Where there’s mud, there’s money,” is the old farming adage but I’m a bit of a contrarian. Where there’s too much mud, there’s also lameness and mastitis.

Muddy tracks to and from the dairy hit cows with a double whammy: they soften the hoof and then coat it with the perfect breeding ground for nasty bugs. It’s heart-breaking to see a cow hobble along, so we rest lame cows and, if their hoofs become infected, treat them with antibiotics.

Mud also contributes to mastitis, a painful infection that afflicts cows and women alike. Dairy farmers have been tackling mastitis for decades from practically every angle. We can choose sires based on the resistance of their daughters to mastitis, have learned that being quiet around cows makes them less prone to infection and developed new detection and treatment techniques. We know exactly how much mastitis is in the herd: the milk processors give us daily test results as part of their stringent milk quality standards and if our milk shows evidence of too much mastitis, we are paid less.

Dairy Australia’s web site offers some great tips on combatting both lameness and mastitis. One of the recommendations is to get cow tracks in order.

Ours aren’t bad but they could be better. One 400 metre section in particular has the fences set too far back from the gravel of the track and some cows like to walk along the sides, which quickly turn to slosh. Today, we’re moving the fences in. It’s a pretty simple job that should save us a lot of grief when winter comes.