Feeling stressed? Come and sit in the grass with the cows

“What’s so special about that?” asked Zoe. “Nothing, and that’s why I thought we should put it on the blog.”

Apart from the twice-daily walk to and from the dairy, this is how our cows spend their time.

You won’t see footage like this anywhere else, I suspect, and certainly not on 4 Corners. There’s nothing sensational about it except perhaps that, right before your eyes, these cows are transforming grass into one of nature’s wonder foods (while wondering what the hell I’m doing sitting on their breakfast).

My paddock handbag

Look into a woman’s handbag and you see deep into her soul. Tucked into its folds, you’ll find clues about what makes her feel secure, competent and even sexy. Oh, and boring stuff like grocery lists.

That’s how I like to think of my paddock handbag. Escaped heifers, broken fence, tired kids on board? No problem – with my paddock handbag, I’m Superwoman. Compartment A (the glovebox) is kitted out with wipes, toys, snacks and drinks. Compartment B has just about every tool to deal with almost every agrarian contingency.

TailgateTools Ready for surgery

Toolbox top A good girl scout is always prepared…

The big guns

And if all else fails, the big guns

I guard my paddock handbag with my life. Yes, the fellas are allowed to borrow select items from time to time but must promise to return said item on pain of death. Call me a drama queen with control issues? Maybe so, but I dare you to return toddler on the verge of a meltdown to within cooee of home “just to grab another set of pliers” and then whisk him away again. It had better be an exciting agrarian emergency with helicopters (aka “copot”), trains and whooshing irrigators aplenty or we’ve already lost the battle.

On second thoughts, maybe I’ll get a padlock fitted to that paddock handbag.

The working dog from St Albans

Patch Rounds Up The Yearlings

I was born to do this

Patch runs rings around them - literally.

Just look at his face. When Wayne collected Patch from suburban St Albans this Easter, it was clear he was a working dog breed (or three) but I doubt his rescuers from Homeless Hounds would have envisaged this. Only problem is, he likes it too much.

It took me nearly half an hour to retrieve him from the yearling paddock and when he decided to round up Zoe yesterday, I decided something had to be done, and fast. You must not, cannot let a working dog get out of control, no matter what.

I called Paul Macphail of Beloka Kelpies for help and, 20 minutes later, Zoe, Alex, Patch and I were in training at his school in Welshpool. Paul quickly summed Patch up as a tad “arrogant” and swiftly put him in his place. I have not been a tough enough boss.

A litte while later, Patch, who had never seen a sheep before, was in the pen working a mob and then in the paddock masterfully bringing another (albeit rather tame) mob back to Paul. Just like Babe, really. Pig dog turns hero. “He’s a natural,” says the laconic Paul.

I am so impressed, I will be back at Paul’s with Patch in a week to see if I he will reach his calling as a semi-automatic dairy cow rounding up dog with the speed of a cheetah and the gentleness of a dove.

Night sacrifice ritual on farm

Just in case you hear it from Zoe, I thought I’d better come clean: we do a nightly sacrifice here on the farm.

Sacrifice

Where the nightly sacrifice is held

It looks innocent enough because it is! This paddock and a couple of others are being renovated with new seed this autumn and, in the meantime, we keep sending the cows back there night after night for their silage and hay – in other words, we are sacrificing the pasture. Aside from naturally building the fertility levels ahead of sowing, this allows us to give the other paddocks longer rests so there’s more high quality grass for the cows to eat during the day.

(PS: since we’re not biodynamic farmers, we are not governed by lunar cycles so you won’t catch us out in the dark doing strange things in the moonlight, either ;))

Simple stupidity reigns supreme

The paddock wrapped around the dam has suffered from months of saturation – to the point where about half a hectare has been unusable. It sits in the path of the dam spillway and the record wet of 2011 left the dam overflowing all year.

Spillway mess

The spillway "swamp"

Now, there’s a way to avoid this. A small manual diaphragm pump sits on the dam wall and allows us to siphon water over the edge through the natural waterway that runs through the heart of the farm.

It hasn’t been used for years but I have memories of my thin elderly father getting it going very easily. When Wayne and I had a go last autumn though, the thing just flipped up and down so ridiculously easily we knew it wasn’t sucking properly. A quick investigation revealed a perished rubber diaphragm, which we had replaced. Then the PVC pipe through the dam wall turned out to be broken. Fixed that. Ready, set, still no go. It was so hard to pump that Wayne turned beetroot red with the effort and finally, the cast lever arm snapped in the willing arms of Rob the plumber.

Turns out the diaphragm was upside down and now even Zoe can work it.

Working the siphon is much easier now

Working the siphon is much easier now

Hallelujah!

Flowing siphon

At last, the water flows (where we want it)

And the stupidity? If this whole litany of mini-disasters wasn’t enough, I was soooo excited to get it going today that I forgot I was flooding tonight’s paddock and had to stop it again a mere 45 minutes after doing a victory dance. Ah well. As @Sam_Grains would say, “Keep calm, farm on”.

A beautiful set of numbers

What does a farmer do when the kids are sick with gastro and it’s raining? Paperwork. Although I detest the oceans of sheets that flood my desk, the one batch that carries the same anticipation as a Christmas present is my annual set of soil tests.

Soil test results

The beautiful set of numbers that are the river flats

 
These geeky looking sheets let me know what type of fertiliser to spread and where. Now, once upon a time, the farm’s fertiliser order was pretty basic (3 in 1 on one side of the road and 2 in 1 on the other) and it shows. Some paddocks had luxury levels of phosphorous and a shortfall of potassium, while most had miserably low pH results. Accordingly, we are now spending less on phosphorous and more on potassium and lime (both standard calcium and dolomitic).

The rotten thing about acidic soils associated with high aluminium levels, as ours have been, is that they make many of the nutrients unavailable for the plants.

Getting the nutrient levels right with the help of soil testing and observing the signs of nutrient deficiencies has led to a massive reduction in the volume of inorganic nutrients we apply to the paddocks. This has saved our family tens of thousands of dollars and boosted the growth of our pastures while lowering the risk of leaching into waterways. A big win for the sustainability of the farm.

Cows say “it’s not fair!”

As you may already know from my post about the herd’s concern for OHS, cows do not stand any nonsense from farmers. They also have a strong sense of justice.

Cows say "It's not fair"!

Cows say "It's not fair"!

That sense of fair play was offended yesterday when the herd walked past those in the lush hospital paddock towards the dairy. Bellowing and pointed staring at the “cheats” still in their paddock ensued and I had to Unleash the Zoe to get the herd moving again.

It’s not just the herd that has been upset by the separation of the hospital group. The patients are reluctant to go into their paddock after milking, preferring instead to hang around on the track in the hope that they can rejoin the herd.

Cows hate being separated from their peers and, ironically, this does help when their calves are moved from the paddock to shelter. Many cows seem to prefer “adult” company.

Cows are discerning diners

Dairy cows are every bit as discerning about their food as a MasterChef judge. They don’t like grass that’s too long, a species that’s unfamiliar and, less surprisingly, anything that’s got mud, manure or urine on it.

They don’t like longer grass because it gets fibrous. Our girls are thoroughly spoilt and only lush and juicy will do – so much so, they’d rather make a bed of it than eat stalky pasture.

This means that if you don’t have the grass eaten down far enough, it will get stalkier and stalkier as time goes by and the cows continue to refuse it.

According to the gurus, we should aim for a residual of four to six centimetres after the cows have left the paddock. If there’s only enough grass for half a grazing, you’re left with the dilemma of leaving it too long and seeing quality spiral or running out of feed. The textbook answer is to skip the paddock and “top” it with a mower but we don’t have enough people to do those types of jobs.

My alternatives are to save it for silage (topping’s automatically thrown in) or graze it and move them at lunchtime. And here they are:

Moving the cows

Mmmm...dessert!

Most of our farm’s internal fences are single-strand electric, which lends them perfectly to this type of manoeuvre. It took the cows five minutes or so to realise what I’d done but you can see how enthusiastic they were about their “second course” once the first pioneering diner ventured into cow nirvana.

Spot the missing calf

A cow calved in the herd on Saturday. This isn’t supposed to happen. All the cows are pregnancy tested between eight weeks and five months after joining to confirm their status and due dates but the tests are not infallible. We obviously missed 585 somehow and she arrived in the dairy sporting afterbirth.

Zoe, Alex and I headed down to the paddock to find her calf but it was nowhere to be seen. We checked drains and even wombat holes but still nothing. It was easy to spot the patch of squashed grass and membranes where 585 had given birth and I expected the calf to be nearby. After an exhaustive search, we decided to put the cows back in the same paddock overnight and see whether the calf emerged from its hiding place.

It didn’t, so we looked again. And here it was:

Spot the missing calf

Can you see the missing calf?

Can’t see it? Look here:

Spot the missing calf

Can you see him here?

Yes, the little creature had either fallen or walked into the river down a very steep bank, got across and found a nice sunny spot for a snooze. What a great little survivor and what a relief!

Fortunately, our neighbours across the river raise our bull calves and Dave was pleased to find the calf in perfect health and rang to thank me for the express delivery. We won’t be floating calves across for you as a regular service though, Dave!

Sowing by hand

Sowing seed by hand

The only way to get seed onto the paddock

Zoe sows the paddock

Sowing by hand is a novelty

When the going gets tough, the tough get going! Paddock number 2 was so wet when it was time to sow that part of it was just not trafficable. Now that the rest of the seed has shot, we decided we’d better fill the blank spot with seed. It’s about the size of a quarter-acre house block and, normally, we’d mix the seed in with some fertiliser and spread it behind the ute but it’s still so wet, you couldn’t even ride over it with a quad bike.

So, we decided to do it the old-fashioned way: by hand. It was fun, even as the cockatoos eyed off our bounty!