Milking in a snake pit

In the midst of a wild storm that pelted the farm with hailstones the size of Maltesers, Wayne texted me a photo from the dairy. That was unusual. I only ever get texts from the dairy when there’s been a disaster.

The first of 14 rows

The first of 14 rows

It all looked okay on my phone’s tiny screen, so I literally shrugged my shoulders, put it down to a fit of boyish exuberance over the hail and turned my attention back to making dinner and the four-year-old yanking at my shirt.

It all became clearer when Wayne arrived home at half past eight.

W: Did you get my text?
M: Yeah, what a hail storm!

W: (Rolling of eyes) So, you didn’t look at it.
M: Yeah, we saw the hail up here too, the kids wanted to go out there and eat it!

W: (zooming into a section of the picture on his phone) Have a closer look…
M: Oh.

CopperheadMovingCloseLoRes

M: When did that happen?
W: (Look of pride) First row.

M: First row?! What did you do?
W: I had my face close to a cow, putting on the cups, when I felt something fall on the top of my boot. I just kicked it off without really thinking about it, expecting it to be a piece of rubber or something that had come loose. But when it didn’t feel stiff enough, I looked down and saw it f*@#&ing wriggle away.

For a minute, I just stood there frozen, then grabbed a bit of poly pipe and tried to whack it but the pipe got snagged in the gear above the pit. I hosed it up the other end of the pit and let it eat frogs. Every time it came too close, I hosed it again.

M: But how did you get rid of it?
W: I didn’t. It’ll probably find its own way out or Clarkie’ll find it in the morning. I’ve written a note on the whiteboard.

While Wayne was brought up in the city, Clarkie is a genuine bushman. I’ve seen him pick up a huntsman spider like it was a hamster and the man really can command a lasso and crack a stockwhip off the back of a horse. Wayne’s theory was Clarkie’d think nothing of milking cows in a snake pit.

M: (Incredulous) And what if he doesn’t read the whiteboard? And what if the thing winds itself around the stainless steel and gets him in the goolies? And what if he can’t see it at 6am and spends the whole milking semi-petrified wondering where it is? Clarkie’s good but, come on, Wayne!
W: Well, I’ll ring him now and let him know.

Obviously, Wayne and I have different OHS management styles.

While Wayne was phoning Clarkie (who apparently just laughed, whether that was hysterically or not, I can’t say), I was phoning a snake catcher.

About an hour and 20 minutes’ drive away, Jeff from VenomWise was the closest snake catcher I could find. The man was amazing. I told him I thought we had a copperhead in the dairy and that it had to be gone before 6am. It was already 9pm and all he said was: “I’ll leave right now but could you do me a favour and have someone keep an eye on him so I know where to find him?”

Since my mother was here for a rare one-night’s visit, Wayne insisted he would go on snake duty. So, taking a packet of cheezels, he pulled up a seat in the silent, empty milking platform to watch over his reptilian dairy hand.

This was the next text:

CopperheadCoilLoRes

I made a morale-boosting call.

M: Is he good company?
W: (Animated) Did you see where he is? I couldn’t see him when I came in, so I went down into the pit to have a look and thought he’d gone until I came back up to the steps. I’ve just walked over the bloody thing!
M: (Belly laugh) Just stay on the platform, eat your Cheezels and stay away from the fridge, for God’s sake!

This text came through a few minutes later:

CreepyJointSpiderLoRes

Another morale-boosting call was in order:

M: You’re getting freaked out by a huntsman?
W: I leant over the steps to have a closer look at the snake and as I held onto the banister, this bloody thing ran over my hand.
W: (Said with passion) This is a f*@$ing creepy joint!

Wayne’s lonely vigil finally came to a close at 10.30pm when, true to his word, Jeff from VenomWise arrived. Jeff suspected the metre-long snake probably fell from the rafters when the hail hit.

Wayne may not be a bushman but I’m proud of a man who milks for three hours in a snake pit and then misses dinner to sit with it for another hour and a half to make sure his mate’s safe in the morning.

The sun is up and so is the sparky (or, the day began pear-shaped)

Dairy cows are rounded up before dawn but, today, they slept in. We had a bit of a disaster in the dairy last night that would have meant the girls missed breakfast. That certainly would not do, so while they waited for the sparky to weave his magic in the grain auger control box, this is how the cows enjoyed watching the sunrise.

Sleeping in

Sleeping in

Two hours later than normal, with steaming breath and swaddled in layers of clothes to ward off the still chilly air, the kids and I had the rare treat of a family morning round up.

Rounding up was noisier than usual, too!

Rounding up was noisier than usual, too!

The cows seemed to take it all in their stride but we are lucky this has happened late in the season when milk production is falling away. Farmers are so fastidious about rising early because a late morning milking means painfully-full udders and the risk of mastitis. Wayne took the opportunity to do a heap of other farm chores while the feed system was repaired and will milk the cows late tonight to help even things out for the cows again.

A big thank you to Dutchy the sparky for getting out of bed so early on a frosty Sunday morning. It turns out that, in dairy country, the cows rule the lives of farmers, their families and even the local electricians.

Cows having a sleep in

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.

Hot milk

Remember yesterday’s 41 degree Celsius heat? Now, imagine you were standing outside in it being blasted by 250 1500-watt hair dryers. How do you feel now? Ready to do athletics?

Grazing the lush crop

Icy poles for cows

Believe it or not, each of our dairy cows gives off body heat equivalent to a 1500-watt hair dryer on a hot day. Yet, incredibly, each still made an average of 29 litres of milk for us yesterday. We nursed them through with some very careful planning based on the principles of the Cool Cows program.

  • Wayne got up an hour earlier to milk before the sun’s rays began to sting and milked two hours later than usual. This meant that the cows spent less time in the sun on the concrete yard waiting to be milked.
  • We hosed the whole yard down about 45 minutes before the afternoon milking. It’s amazing how much cooler the yard felt afterwards.
  • The yard sprinklers were activated as the cows came towards the yard. (You remember the fun of dancing through sprinklers on the lawn!)
  • The cows’ diet changed a little for the day. The cows got a little more grain, a little more green crop and a little less hay yesterday. It takes more energy to digest high-fibre foods, which adds to heat stress. Rather than feeding out the hay during the day, Wayne stayed up late and offered the cows a “night-cap” in the relative cool of the evening.
  • We chose the coolest paddock on the farm, ringed by the deep shade of mature willow trees.
  • On a hot day, dairy cows can slurp up a staggering 250 litres each. Our extra-large troughs ensured they had plenty of fresh, cool water to drink when they chose to emerge from their hideouts.

Poor girls. According to the Cool Cows program leader, Dr Steve Little, dairy cows start to seek out shade when it gets to about 25 degrees C. I think the farm’s cows, dogs and humans all felt the need to go into summer hibernation yesterday.

A most unlikely frog habitat

An automatic wash system keeps our milking machines spotless and hygienic. A series of warm, hot, hot and cold water cycles swish through all the stainless steel night and morning, carrying with them powerful alkali and acid detergents. Milk is very sticky stuff and we need to keep the pipework clean for high quality milk and to look after the health of the cows.

At the same time, we are all told that frogs are one of the first creatures to succumb to chemicals in waterways. The dairy pit, then, must be the most unlikely of frog habitats yet Freddy and Freda call it home.

Frog habitat like you've never seen it before

Frog habitat like you've never seen it before

Freddy and Freda are long-term residents of the dairy and make a journey from under the milk receival can at the north end of the pit to a dark spot under the steps at the south end as milking progresses. If anyone can tell me a little bit more about these tiny little frogs, please do!

Freddy frog

Freddy and Freda blend in beautifully with their concrete habitat

How big are Australian dairy farms? And what is a “mega dairy”?

There’s a lot of talk of factory farming at the moment. Animal activists use the phrase to shock us and judging by the comments in response to John Bunting’s Journal, average US dairy farmers are afraid of being overtaken by “mega dairies”.

While Australia’s dairy farms are getting bigger, I haven’t heard of anything on the scale discussed by our American counterparts, so I thought I’d ask the gurus at Dairy Australia for the official stats.

It turns out that the vast majority of Australian dairy farms are still family-owned. Only 2 per cent are corporate. This does not surprise me. As leading farm consultant John Mulvany points out, corporate investors demand higher returns on their assets than the meagre 1 or 2 per cent that most dairy farms achieve. Second, paid labour is both expensive and inflexible in this highly volatile industry. This bothers me because it assumes that farm families should not expect the same standard of living as their employees.

The average Australian dairy herd has 220 milkers and here is the breakdown of herds across the spectrum:

small

medium

large

x-large

xx-large

total

% farms

26%

38%

24%

6%

5%

100%

% milk

8%

27%

31%

13%

20%

100%

What’s perhaps even more interesting (and heartening) are the definitions of size.

Small: Herd size of less than 150

Medium: Herd size between 150 – 300

Large: Herd size between 301 – 500

X-large: Herd size between 501 – 700

XX-large: Herd size greater than 700

So, when the US talks of mega-dairies milking thousands and thousands of cows, Aussies talk of XXL dairies milking more than 700.

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.