Life in the farm lane

Image courtesy of Dynamite Imagery / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Dynamite Imagery / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Something has shifted in me. Standing on the footpath on a balmy Melbourne evening only last month, I was afraid.

Just a couple of metres and a shallow gutter was all that separated our tender little family from a roaring battery of motorbikes, cars, buses and even semis bouncing along the bitumen at 80km/hr. I gripped Alex’s still baby-soft hand protectively and found that despite his fascination with the unfamiliar lights, sounds and smells, I could take it no longer.

It wasn’t always like this. I lived in the city for a decade or so, growing my career and establishing a flourishing micro business that fed my curiousity. True, it always felt as though I were on a camping trip rather than at home but I had my bearings.

Perhaps it was the fear that comes with being a mother that propelled me to usher the little people back to our hotel room. Perhaps it was simply that I am now acclimatised to life in a different lane: the farm lane.

The background sounds tonight are the chorusing of frogs and the intermittent bellowing of bolshie bulls. The scent that wafts through my office window is pure freshly cut grass. Gentle, calming, natural.

But don’t be fooled. Nature sets the pace here, where a sense of urgency courses through the day. She demands the farmer rises before dawn to gather the cows, who must also be fed and protected from her vagaries, only to congregate once again at sunset. And if something goes awry, whether mechanical, physical or personal, Mother Nature is unforgiving.

We, too, know deadlines, budgets, the rat race and all the anxieties they bring. Like most parents, we worry that our children are somehow missing out, and, like most children thrust into the realities of adult responsibilities, we despair that so much is passing us by.

Don’t imagine we are so different: what binds us is so much stronger than that which divides us.

Rush hour in the farm lane

Rush hour in the farm lane

Changing down to go up a notch

It seemed Mother Nature had played a classic nasty trick on us: the false break.

Each autumn, we take a punt on when the first downpour that heralds regular rains has arrived. Too early and some seed just won’t germinate costing us thousands in fresh seed and fertiliser, too late and we could miss out on autumn growth altogether, costing us thousands in replacement feed.

We get it right most of the time but when the early rains aren’t followed up with more, we end up with the worst of all worlds: seedlings shrivelling in the sun. That’s the way it was shaping up this season until we got 26mm of rain just the other day. Wow, what a relief and what a difference it makes.

The rains have come and the farmer and her cows are ecstatic!

The rains have come and the farmer and her cows are ecstatic!

Oddly enough, this means the cows will get less rather than more grass in the short term. This follow up rain was our signal to pile on the fertiliser across a huge slab of the farm to ensure the grass gets ahead before falling temperatures and longer nights slow growth once more. While the fertiliser does its job, we have to keep the cows away, limiting them to a smaller than normal area for grazing.

Just another couple of weeks to go, moos – until then, it’s a smorgasbord of grain, hay and silage.

Modern farming and nostalgia

Although I was just a tween during the 82/83 drought, I remember it vividly. That was the year the school bus was overwhelmed by a dust storm and the year my parents cancelled the newspaper deliveries just so they could be sure they’d saved every dollar they could.

It was also the first year we fed our cows grain and, gosh, it taught us a lot. Cleaning up, I stumbled across some notes written by my father’s farm consultant (and even a farm consultant was a new concept) that December:

“Feed grain, increasing slowly to 4kg, watching carefully for signs of grain poisoning.”

Grain poisoning is not funny but that little sentence make me laugh out loud. These days, cows start the season on 4kg, which is seen as pretty much a minimum supplement level, even in the flush of spring. No risk of grain poisoning there.

We manage dry spells so much better now than we did then and the cows, the farmers and even the environment are the winners. No longer are paddocks stripped bare, exposing the topsoil and all the life in it to the cruelties of the Australian summer. We graze just enough to keep the grass from becoming stalky.

This modern way of farming also means the pastures are quicker to respond to the rains when they do come. Just look at it.

Just add water...

Just add water…

Modern farming attracts plenty of critics but I think that, in many ways, the way we farm now would make our early environmentalists very proud indeed.

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.

The hard lessons of life on farm

Message for Papa

Every farmer is by nature a philosopher. You must live for the big picture, cherish the little things and remember that, no matter what, the wheel continues to turn.

This week, a cow died in labour and two more gave birth to bulls. We felt sad about the death of a favourite but welcomed two of her sisters back into the herd. Farmers know that death is an inescapable fact of life.

Even so, it was different when a friend’s dog was killed in a freak tree-felling accident. It’s much harder to be philosophical about a the passing of a man’s best mate and I felt sick just hearing about it.

It’s times like these that throw the delineation between farm animal and pet into stark relief. Animal activists often ask farmers and meat eaters whether they would eat their own pets. Of course not. Does that make a compelling case for veganism?

Not in my view. All our animals will die one day, irrespective of the cause. What makes us ethical custodians is the quality of life we provide.

People and animals tell the farm’s story

This was Zoe on the Bobcat as I moved the electric tape in paddock 6 on Friday. It really was sunny enough to dig out the zinc!

Yes, two pairs of oversized sunglasses are apparently “hot” right now

I’d been away from the paddock for a week and things had got away. It’s newly sown to a high performance grass and zoomed off once the saturated soil turned to plasticene over a balmy few days. We had to get the cows in at once if there was any chance of keeping grass quality levels up over Spring.

At this time of the year, it’s really important to divide the paddock into small strips. Let them into the whole lot at once and most will be wasted as the engorged cows make nests to sleep it off. The trick is to have the cows absolutely full to pussy’s bow, but only just. It’s good for the cows, good for milk production and good for the grass.

The grass on the right has just been grazed, the grass on the left is for dinner

Grass growth will have come to a skidding halt over the last couple of glacial days though. Everything is mushy and muddy all over again. Including Patch.

Whadda you mean I can’t come inside?