The perfect poo – a noble quest

Just like the mother of a newborn babe, dairy farmers spend a lot of time examining the poo of their charges.

The perfect patty?

Perfection in poo is a noble quest

It’s not easy to live on grass. The stuff is very hard to digest and that’s why cows have developed an amazing digestive system that this really nice little video explains beautifully in a little over a minute. As you’ll see, the rumen and its helpful bugs play a vital role.

Manure is the dairy farmer’s window into the rumens of the cows. If their diet gets out of balance, they can get “acidosis”, which means the bugs die off and the cows find it very hard to digest their food. Not surprisingly, this is bad news! If it gets bad enough, the cows get extremely sick but it can also be subclinical, only affecting milk production. One of the first signs is the wrong type of poo.

According to Dairy Australia’s informative Feed Fibre Future Quick Checks Fact Sheet D (c’mon DA, couldn’t you have come up with a more friendly name?):

“Manure has a porridge-like consistency. Forms a soft pile 40–50 mm high, which may have several concentric rings and a small depression in the middle. Makes a plopping sound when it hits concrete floors and will stick to the toe of your shoe. This is what you are aiming for.”

Because we’ve increased the cows’ grain ration with the onset of spring, we’ve matched that with extra fibre in the form of silage to prevent acidosis and I’ve been Chief Manure Monitor to check we’ve got it right.

I thought that when our farm consultant, Matt, arrived earlier this week he’d be proud of me. Well, he was but said that, if he was to be really picky, perhaps the poo was slightly too firm. As a consequence, we’ve upped the grain a little and backed off the silage by one roll.

Oh, the road to perfection has no end!

Feeding the cows who feed us

Gone are the days when dairy cows just ate grass. These days, there are people who get really geeky about feeding cows. Starch, protein, fat, fibre (only the right type, mind you) and energy levels can be perfected for optimal health and milk production.

This can really only be achieved when cows are fed a total mixed ration (TMR) and is more tricky when cows like ours are largely pasture-fed. Still, we can do better, so I was delighted when local DPI extension officer David Shambrook visited today to talk about what we’re feeding.

At the moment, the cows each eat just over 7kg of a rolled wheat, triticale, canola oil, limestone and salts mix during milking. The herd is also allocated about 2.9 hectares of fresh grass per day and fed two bales of top quality vetch hay (10.3 megajoules of energy and 22.8% crude protein for the benefit of farmer readers).

David had a look at the pasture they’ve left in the paddock, the pasture they’ll go to next, the milk production stats, the cows’ body condition score, whether they are chewing their cuds, their manure and rumen fill (indicated by how much a triangle of flesh bulges out). All these signs point to whether the cows are being well fed.

I have a gut feel (forgive the pun) for all of this but am determined to learn more about dairy cow nutrition. The combination of intellectual and physical challenges is one of the things I love most about dairy farming.