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Foot and Mouth Disease

PLEASE NOTE: 
If you have been to Bali/Indonesia in the past three months please notify us before coming on farm. If you have, do not wear shoes, clothing or bring equipment which you traveled with onto our farm, or any farm in Australia for 6 months. Please avoid coming onto our farm for 7 days after you return. Please work with customs officials to declare all high risk products and follow their advice.
From all at HOFC, thanks for working with us.

Many of you may have heard in the Australian media about the current risks of foot and mouth disease (FMD). We thought we’d take this opportunity to reach out to all our readers to talk about the risk, how it could affect everyone throughout our society and give you some tools to help reduce the risk of what would be the devastating outcomes if there was an outbreak in Australia.
We consider our farm at the Harcourt Organic Farming Coop in the high risk category because unlike many farms we are very open to the public with customers coming on site to collect produce, running tours to engage people in their food system and hosting many volunteers and staff. However this also gives us a great opportunity to reach out to the greater community and help them get up to speed with managing the risk as a whole community.

What is FMD?

FMD is a highly contagious virus of cloven hoofed animals. These include cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, deer, camels etc of which Australia has many, both domestic and wild. It spreads rapidly between animals through breath, saliva, mucus, milk and faeces. It can be excreted by animals for up to four days before clinical signs appear. FMD virus can also be spread on wool, hair, grass or straw, by the wind, or by mud or manure sticking to footwear, clothing, livestock equipment or vehicle tyres which is why management of human behaviour becomes very important. Clinical signs of FMD are the appearance of blisters between the toes, on the heels, mammary glands, lips, tongue and palate. This is not to be confused with Hand-Foot-and- Mouth disease which humans can contract, the two are non related. When animals develop lesions on their feet and mouths it can become incredibly painful leaving them unable to eat and walk which are both critical for animals to survive and thrive. FMD is not a food safety concern. The virus may remain infective in the environment for several weeks to months.

What’s the history of FMD?

FMD has not been seen in Australia for 130 years. Australia was a very different country then; there were fewer at risk animals, and their movement was on a much more localised scale meaning containment was much simpler.
The disease is present in parts of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and South America.
The most well known outbreaks for many Australians will be from 1967 and 2001 in the UK. The 2001 outbreak had 2000 confirmed cases and as a result 6 million cows and sheep were killed with an estimated cost of £8bn. Outbreaks like this are devastating for an entire nation. Farms were in lockdown: no animals could be moved around the country and possibly contaminated  vehicles, equipment and humans were traced and decontaminated as they came and went from farms. All animals on neighbouring farms to an outbreak had to be culled regardless of condition. Rural areas were filled with the smoke from piles of burning animals for weeks, halting tourism for many areas and resulting in a general downturn for rural economies. The long term impact on the mental health of all involved is still felt.

What is the current risk to Australia of a FMD outbreak?

In May 2022, an outbreak of FMD was reported in cattle in Indonesia; Bali being the Indonesian island much favoured by Australian holiday makers. This has significantly increased Australia’s risk, from 9% to 11.6%, of the virus reaching our shores which would have severe consequences for Australia’s animal health and trade.
FMD is most likely to be introduced through contaminated, illegally imported animal products (live animals, semen or uncooked meat or unprocessed dairy products from FMD-affected countries or zones) or through objects (e.g. footwear, equipment) contaminated with the virus, that come in contact with susceptible animals.

How might it impact Australia as a country?

A large FMD outbreak in multiple states across Australia is estimated to have a direct economic impact of up to $80 billion over 10 years. This is largely due to the size of Australia’s export market, with nearly two thirds of Australia’s beef and lamb grown for export. If there is a confirmed case in Australia it would halt the market overnight.
An animal standstill would be brought in immediately meaning animals couldn’t be moved between properties.
Tracing and surveillance of all animal movements would be used; trucks, feed, sale yards, processing facilities etc. The livestock traceability programme in Victoria means  all  sheep and cattle are electronically tagged for quick traceability of animal movements via the National Livestock Identification System (NLIS).
Culling of all animals within a 3km radius of confirmed cases.
Emergency vaccination would be a part of Australia’s response to contain and eradicate FMD. As it is a live vaccine our stocks are stored overseas and cannot be used until an outbreak occurs.  Once a vaccination programme is rolled out we will lose out export status of ‘free from FMD, without vaccination’ which would affect trade.

How might it impact our community and HOFC?

In the current situation with FMD still not in the country, we will be working to educate, monitor and restrict the movements of people returning from Indonesia/Bali onto the farm.
If the disease is detected in Australia we will then implement stricter restrictions on farm; foot baths or farm only footwear and restricted access to the public. Depending on where the outbreak is this may result in stopping farm shop collections, stopping farm tours and workshops, heavily restricting who and how people come onto the farm which in turn would significantly affect all people/businesses within the coop and our greater community.
I currently do move animals between properties – cows to the bull, heifers out on adjistment as our property here is not set up to house all animals involved in Sellar Dairy: we would need to reduce or stop these movements.  
The aim is to avoid worst case scenario. If a case was confirmed within 3km of the farm we may have no choice but to cull our herd, no matter their health or interaction with neighbouring animals. Even worse would be if we were the farm to host an outbreak due to someone coming on farm with contaminated footwear.

A standard Hazard Analysis table can be a great resource for evaluating the risk of FMD. Currently Australia’s probability sits at 11.6% and the consequences would be ‘very high’.

What can we do to minimise the risk of an outbreak?

After the last two and a half years everyone should be well and truly familiar with the process of ‘minimising the risk’ and quarantine.
So while FMD has not been detected in Australia, let’s keep it simple. If you have been to Bali/Indonesia in the past three months or intend to visit, do not wear shoes or clothing or bring equipment which you traveled with onto our farm, or any farm in Australia for 6 months. Give them a good clean and put them in the back of the cupboard to quarantine. In general it’s good practice to always give footwear a good clean before entering any livestock property, especially if returning from overseas.
If you have been to a country where FMD is present, we ask you not to enter a farm in Australia for at least 7 days.
Please work with custom officials to declare all high risk products and follow their advice. Easiest option is to just not even try to bring animal products from countries where FMD is present into Australia.
If FMD is detected in Australia we will move to enforce stricter rules as to who and how people are allowed onto the property, but hopefully it will not come to this!
For those with animals, early detection enhances the feasibility of the successful eradication of FMD. If you suspect FMD in your animals it is a notifiable exotic disease and any suspected or confirmed cases must be reported immediately to Agriculture Victoria on the Emergency Animal Disease Watch Hotline 1800 675 888 (24 hours, 7 days a week), to your local Agriculture Victoria Animal Health and Welfare staff or your local private veterinarian.

For more information

The Australian Veterinary Plan or AUSVETPLAN FMD Response

Help us to keep Australia Foot and Mouth disease FREE.

CSA dairy pick-ups only from market this week

Like most of the country we farmers are also battling the winter sicknesses and due to being short staffed the only thing we will be sending to market this week is the CSA dairy subscriptions. So unfortunately that means no sales of dairy or veg. Hopefully we’ll all bounce back quickly and be back at market ready to sell next week. Reiterating that if you have a dairy CSA subscription the lovely Lucy will be there to hand it over and tick off your name tomorrow.

Thanks for sticking with us.

Tess

frosty mornings on the farm.

The circle of life

This is my  reflection on the life and death of our two beautiful steers, Otis and Rupert.  This is possibly the most controversial part of dairy, the part many would prefer didn’t exist and in fact something which many would not even consider. Our first on-farm kill, which has taken up multiple days over the past two months, may be quite confronting.  Many may prefer to not think about the death that is involved in dairy at all. However anywhere you have life, you also have death and I think it is incredibly important to be transparent about this. Many of the problems with our food system are due to the disconnect between what the consumer wants to think about and the actions which farmers must take in the current market. 

Do not fear though. This post is not all doom and gloom; in fact for me this has been quite a positive process and one I want to share. I also own that it is a story told from my human perspective.

Otis and Rupert

Rupert was born September 7, 2019 in the middle of a gorse patch for maximum protection – a spectacular Illawara dairy shorthorn, son of Joyce. I was always pretty sad that Rupert was a boy as he was the only chance I’d have for a pure Illawara born on-farm and he had the most spectacular coat.

Otis was born to Berta on February 20, 2020. Once a boof head, always a boof head. He was always my most advanced animal in the art of escape.

A common sight of Otis being returned to his paddock.

Both of these boys were an absolute pleasure to work with, very gentle in nature (exaggerated by their lack of testicles!) and grew into very handsome boys. From the moment they were born and I checked between their legs, their future was determined. I’m sure this played a big part in the psychology of my relationship with them both in life and death, this didn’t however have the slightest impact on the respect, love and pats I gave them.

Dinner company after market

When the time came, we had two choices: to send them off to the abattoir and sell the meat, or to kill/butcher on-farm having never experienced a moment of stress, and we share the meat among family. (All meat in Victoria must go via the abattoir if it is to be sold.) We chose the latter. And I’m so glad we did.

Fortunately Oli is an experienced hunter so I could feel confident in our ability to get it right, first time. Now I’m really wary of romanticising this but Otis and Rupert literally died standing calmly next to us, apricot in mouth. I’d be pretty happy if that’s how I go.

I was vegetarian for 15 years, I now only eat meat from an animal that I’ve had some connection to in it’s life.  I need to feel comfortable with the whole story of the meat on my plate. I had only been at the goat farm for a week when I had an epiphany. Sitting in the shed with an old goat while she died, something changed in my thinking:  it’s not about the death, it’s about the life. It’s about every moment up until that last breath. What was the quality of life? Were you treated with respect? These are the things to fight for. So that’s where I sit now, running a livestock business where yes, my boys will die sooner than most of my girls, but I will do my best to make their lives equally valued.

I always find the moment of death shocking as I’m sure most people do. Until I have touched the body and know it is now just flesh, even killing a mouse makes me uncomfortable. To come to understand the magic of life is an incredible experience.  One moment there is this creature, living, breathing, growing, feeling, thinking, and then the next…nothing, flesh. Holding an organ which is now just meat,  I cannot comprehend all that it was once capable of. To me this is magic. Nature is truly incredible. So strong and resilient yet so vulnerable.

To see the anatomy of a creature also helps me connect more to my own body. While my body ages and my knees have become weak I now have a greater understanding of how they move and the combination of layers of muscle that support them.

Yet, all this wouldn’t have been enough for me to do that again.  We’re not huge meat eaters, so I don’t think I could have justified the death and work which followed if it were just as a source of protein for Oli and me. These large animals are not for a household but for a community. We had a team of four on the kill days, Katie, Hugh, Oli and me (although I ended up supervising after a mishap with a knife). Even with four, the size of the animals was back breaking, so much meat, SO much fat!

We hung them for four weeks which was followed by two butchering days. I’m not sure what we would have done if it hadn’t been for the help of Matt whose past life involved butchering. We were joined by Fi who also came with experience and sharp knives as well as Ella. Gathered around a long bench the conversation flowed, the steaks were cut and bagged, mincer grinding and a lunch of kings. Then I got to share it with people I love. This was special.

Butching photos by @ellaellington

We took the hides down to the Ballarat tannery and are awaiting their completion. I could write a whole post on this wonderland. The last tannery in the country doing private hides. Seventh generation. Katie and I now scheming to find someone to start a tannery on farm.

So, while the whole journey was an experience of great power, I’m glad it won’t come around for another couple of years.

Thank you and good bye Rupert and Otis.

When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life.’

Mufusa, The Lion King
Otis

New market hours 2:30-5:30

Dear Castlemaine Farmers market customers. We are very sorry to leave this to the last minute but the market hours will be changing starting this Wednesday 16th. New permanent hours will be 2:30-5:30. Hopefully this will suit many of you who work until 5 better and these hours wont change between summer and winter again so you can fully settle into a routine. So please do come down on Wed to see us at the Harcourt Organic Farming Coop for dairy, fruit and veg, Western reserve, Castlemaine, every Wednesday.

Tess

The people

In my blog posts I have covered many components which make up Sellar Farmhouse Creamery. I haven’t yet talked about the amazing humans who bring my crazy dreams to fruition. So as we come to the end of our second year of both milk production and a global pandemic which has seen struggles in every unsuspecting corner of the community, I’d like to take this moment to mention those whose energy and love make this dairy possible.

The countless farmers who have taught me invaluable lessons, grown the feed, sold me the cows, provided the bulls and supported me, even when they often think I’m mad.

Tanya from Burrum Biodynamics with a grain delivery

My family for their life time of support without which I never would have arrived where I have.

My niece Georgia helping with the wash down

My community and customers who encourage and hold me when things are rough and celebrate with me, and the cows, when things go well.

Our greater Co-op community here on farm. We’ve been through a lot together these last three and a half years. Members have come and gone, hair has been pulled, bodies hugged, tears shed, laughs had, the best food in the world eaten, systems constantly changed and every time I walk over to our shared space and hear the laughter of others I’m so incredibly grateful to be engaging in this seriously vulnerable business of small scale farming along side other like minded folk.

Coop members receiving the Agribusiness and Business of the year awards for the Mt Alexander council this December. Three members weren’t able to make it on the night, plus our ever expanding staff and vollies.

Obviously, thanks go to my other half – Oli. With no life ambitions to become a dairy farmer he has helped me build my dreams every step of the way, literally. He built all our infrastructure including the pasteuriser, and regularly gets dragged in for jobs I need a hand with: many Stout-loads of feed collected, utes unbogged, tractors unbogged, furnace wood cut, paddocks slashed, equipment fixed, stories of cow adventures listened to.

At the advise of a local dairy farmer, Iggy stopped kicking the cups off after two days of Oli sitting on her at milking.

And then my wonderful staff, without whom I may have completely lost my marbles by now. For the past two years I have had a relief milker do Friday mornings for me and from time to time two days in a row so I can get further afield. Finding someone who I can trust to hand over my herd to is not easy. Being this size and new into the business I can’t justify employing someone for more than a day a week: however, training someone from scratch might take six months plus before I can be confident that they will observe if something is wrong, with a cow or system, and then know the right course of action to take. To integrate into my herd and be boss lady; to run a mobile milking parlour surrounded by orchard and market garden, to deal with break outs when they happen, (I don’t want to come up to the farm just because the cows are eating the broccoli) and being confident to push the cows around is really important.

After only a few months of milk production, Bridget started to work with us. I actually started the same week with Bridget at Holy Goat back in 2013. She came with an animal science degree, experience on multiple dairies and in the same dairy factory which shaped many of my systems. Bridget set the bar very high. Others at the co-op regularly heard me say when I arrived on Friday afternoons ‘Bridget’s awesome, everything’s done, clean, where I like it’. I should mention that I’m a very pedantic person: having someone I can instruct once and from then on find the tasks done exactly how I’d requested is a dream. Many of you locals will remember Bridget from markets last year, you would have seen her belly grow. Bridget and Micheal gave birth to Fletcher in September. She worked up until August, stopping bottle washing shortly before as her belly was in the way. We are very hopeful that Bridget is just on maternity leave and will return some day. For now she is still involved by adjisting my heifers on their 15 acres so as to free up more pasture here for my milkers. Fingers crossed this will be the start of a future dairy interest for Fletcher: I’m always scheming.

Bridget told me very early on that she was going to be leaving which left me with ample time to find her replacement. I was just about to advertise for this role when my friend and fellow dairy schemer, Mel asked if she could have the role; sometimes things just fall into place. I was able to have a good 4 months of training before Mel smoothly took over from Bridget. Mel also comes with previous dairy and agriculture experience and with a herd of her own milking goats. So once again I counted myself lucky. Having an employee who is planning to one day open their own dairy is a great asset as there is a real vested interest there to understand the systems. Watch this space for when Mel gets her mad dreams up at running.

It’s also nice having people to talk to about the animals. As they are really my extended family, I could spend all day talking about their personalities, who did what today etc, not super interesting to most folk but this is something which brings me great enjoyment being able to share with Bridget and Mel.

I’ve been lucky again to have a young woman, Meg start with me this last week. As she’s still at high school she’s going to be bottle washing and feeding out for me one afternoon a week. Hopefully this role will be able to grow over time and the memories of working with these beautiful creatures will stay with her for a life time.

I’m sure there are many people I’ve missed. To anyone who thinks that’s them, then thank you. From the bottom of Berta’s heart, thank you all. May the grass grow, the milk flow and the dairy maids unite.

x

Women’s land army during the war.

Grass converters

What a magnificent Spring to be a dairy farmer in Central Victoria. The grass is vibrant, the sun is out, the soils moist and the cows couldn’t be happier.

Picnic Gully Nov 2020

I thought I’d take this opportunity to tell you a little about what the cows eat to create their beautiful milk. I think it’s magic that they can convert grass into milk and while I’m sure there is a little magic in there, mostly it is an equation of inputs = outputs. This is why I always say that to have great milk you must follow the chain back. Nutritious milk comes from healthy cows, who have a healthy gut function, who eat nutrient dense feed which comes from a well balanced soil. Once again we come back to this long known, often forgotten fact, that human health is completely dependent on soil health.

For about two months every Spring, milk costs about 1/3 to produce as it does the rest of the year in Central Victoria. Not known as a dairy region, for much of the year the pasture feed quality is too low to support dairy cattle and supplementation is needed. Often you may look at a paddock and think ‘there’s grass there, can’t they eat that’ and for any non lactating animal you may be right. You may think my girls are just spoilt and fussy; however if you push a dairy cow to eat something because she has nothing else to eat, the supply and quality of her milk will drop, which is counterproductive to the whole operation.

Summer 2019

We practise holistic/managed grazing here on the farm. The mobile milking parlour gives us the flexibility to be always on the move following the grass, then giving it plenty of time to recover. More on this to come in a future blog. The seasons are constantly changing: Summer pasture rotation is often more about avoiding bare ground than it is providing growing feed. With an early Autumn break we often get in one quick rotation of the short green pick before the ground gets cold and growth really slows down over the winter months. Then Spring comes, grass regrowth/recovery can be a matter of days and we fly around the property trying to get the most out of pastures before they bolt to seed.

All of the different feed stock effects the milk and we are constantly trying to balance their grazing feed with supplementation to have a constant product. Short green grass is high in sugars and often protein giving a sweet milk, rich in flavour. But at certain times there might be undesirable flavours present in the milk. We have one plant growing in some areas which is an allium grass which has a strong garlic smell. When you walk up to a cow grazing this grass the stench is intense. While this can actually be a good thing for the animals to flush any parasite out of their system, it does taint the milk. I know where the big patches of this grass are on the farm and reserve them for the dry animals, however there will always be a few plants the milkers eat and sometimes in winter you may notice a slight garlic smell, strongest in the cream. This plant is a bulb, growing in and breaking up compacted ground, a wet summer will knock it out as the bulbs rot.

Alluim grass

Many say capeweed taints the milk, however I’ve not had this experience. The cows actually milk very well off capeweed but it can very quickly give them metabolic problems, which in a ruminant leads to many other ailments such as feet problems, mastitis, milk fever, bloat etc. Capeweed is also a sign of bare ground over summer, nature doing the quickest thing it can to cover the ground. Unfortunately though, when it dies off in summer it then leaves a big bare patch again. Over this last 12 months we’ve seen the capeweed dramatically reduce on the farm and be replaced with clover. Now clover really does produce a good milk, but once again, too much of anything can be problematic.

Clover

The annual grasses are all starting to go to seed at the moment. The big change I notice is the brome grass. The cows love it when its growing but the second it grows a seed head they won’t touch it. You can see in this photo that they have eaten the clover to the ground and avoided the patches of brome.

Clover eaten, brome avoided/brome forming seed heads

I also thought I’d share with you some numbers around the cost of feed v milk produced throughout the year.

You can see here the cost difference in producing milk in Summer (Feb $1.25 ltr) vs Spring (Oct 34c ltr). Keeping in mind this is just the cost of feeding the animal, not the cost of labour, running the factory, farm and sales. The long term aim is to be on a property which could grow much more of our feed, reducing this cost. Currently we are reliant on the rich volcanic soils at Wombat Forest Organics for our hay, the cropping landscapes of Burrum Biodynamics for our grains and pulses, Waltanna farms for the linseed mix, oaten hay from Rathscar, Laucke for our bran and storm harvested kelp from Marrawah in Tassie. Everything certified organic from inspiring farmers working to regenerate out landscapes. As I write this though I realise that the production of every bottle of milk is much more a group effort, with the various contributors working as a community rather than me in isolation.

Oli unloading the pulses and the hay arriving (a semi twice a year)

Our aim here is to be constantly building diversity of feed stocks for the animals so they are able to get all the nutrition they need to look after themselves and produce nutrient dense, delicious milk. When I close my eyes and dream of my farming future, it involves meadows with 100+ species of forbs and grasses, paddocks lined with tree fodder crops, sparkling clear water and of course, my lovely herd.

Losing Stella

Well it’s been a while since I’ve done any farm updates and to be honest it’s been a pretty rough winter.

It was always going to be a hectic winter with four calving, pushing my system, which is designed for two calves at a time, to the limits.

Pluto

As you may remember, I was most concerned about Luna as she was very sick in her previous calving. However, this time she didn’t skip a beat. When Pluto was born he had 48hrs where he couldn’t stand or drink without me for some reason, but from then on you wouldn’t know he’d had a rough start.

Selenite aka Sellarnights aka Falcor

Then came Quartz with Selenite, born one wet and cold morning, the most perfect little heifer of all time. She’s my first pure Dairy Shorthorn calf, sharing her paternal lineage with Pluto. She’s had no need for a halter as she happily goes into the pen at night on her own and I’m filled with joy that this little nugget will be a future milker.

Selenite, Pluto, Quartz

Nancy was next with her mini-me bull calf; Billy Button. As my new cow, Nancy is an older girl who started her life as a milker but had spent the last two years raising calves. Things didn’t go so well for Nancy. A retained placenta pushed her immune system to it’s limits and the moment she came into milk I had doubts that she’d ever be a milker. For 6 weeks we managed her mastitis. A rock hard udder which tested Staph positive in three quarters. These test results made the decision for me that I couldn’t keep her. She went on antibiotics to, at least, allow her to recover. Which gave this beautiful natured cow and her gorgeous little boy the chance to leave the farm happy and healthy last week to return to where I bought her from.

Nancy (early) and Billy Button

For full transparency here, I have really just outsourced something which I felt uncomfortable about. Nancy’s fate will quite possibly be culling. The chance of her getting sicker if allowed to calve again is very high. I had the opportunity to send her back which I was grateful for. I had to make the hard decision that I need to focus my energy on the rest of my herd and my business. I spent a lot of time, emotional energy and money on Nancy to not be able to use a drop of her milk. This is not fair on the rest of my animals.

And Iggy, of course she had to steal the spotlight on my birthday by calving with Marianne (Faithful). Another completely bonkers heifer from a break-in with the neighbours bull. I wont keep Marianne as a milker so she’ll be looking for a home in a beef herd once weaned. The main question my nephews and nieces had when Iggy calved was did she lose any weight and the question is no, she is still the size of a bus.

Iggy and Marianne

I love winter, my English heritage is strong. We’ve had double the average rainfall in July, the soil is at capacity, dams full, 200 trees planted, growth everywhere with the lead into Spring looking fantastic. However the other side of the scales is moisture brings bacteria and feet problems. Daylight hours lead to a race against the light most days. Farm access becomes very limited so as not to get bogged or damage soils.

So what lessons have I learnt. DON’T calve in winter! If there are any problems, it’s a miserable time to be sick and I don’t need to increase my workload when the daylight hours are so limited. I also need to look very hard at my feed and minerals; what excess’s and deficiencies might be going on, how can cows enter calving with the best possible chance. Lastly, don’t buy cows which have already lactated, you just never quite know what going on in that udder, Nancy was the 4th cows I’ve had to let go for this reason.

As Spring starts, it’s easy to feel better about everything. This started a couple of weeks ago. I got a shiatsu, sat by the Loddon on my day off, meditating and thinking about the things in my life which give and those that take. I came back into my body. But as I drove into the farm that Friday afternoon I just had this feeling in the pit of my stomach that I had one last hurdle to cross.

My beautiful Stella, daughter of Luna had reached breeding age. She spent a week with the bull. When I picked her up she was sore and miserable. Then 5 days later I found her dead. No sign of a struggle, in fact I think she died in her sleep. No external signs to indicate what happened. I do know however that when a bull broke in with her when she was young she had a similar (but non-fatal) response, thus I thought she would be fine. I would have liked to have been in a position to autopsy her but late on a Saturday evening was not the time, so my best assumption is that she had some kind of internal damage, either from birth or from the previous mating. Which does mean that things where set in motion long before and for her to have gotten in calf could have been much worse.

Luna and Stella

It hit me hard, harder than I expected. I’d been preparing myself for losing my first cow, but not like this. I’d assumed it would be around calving, particularly a vulnerable cow like Berta or Luna. Not Stella, a heifer, in prime condition, after a trip to the bull. I was in shock. She was such a beautiful cow, with the same wacky energy as her mum, I was really looking forward to her joining my herd. The universe seems set on me not increasing my milking herd, first Olive, then Nancy and now Stella!

watching her grow

So the days following this I really did feel like what’s the bloody point, ‘we do all this just for a few litres of milk, are you serious!’

Like with all relationships in life, the better they are, the stronger the loss is felt. To have life filled with love is, I believe, what makes this crazy existence worth living. So I choose to maintain my love for these ladies, even if it will make it harder to say goodbye to them all eventually.

Luna and Stella last summer

The light at the end of the tunnel though was my customers, community and wider networks. To witness what it means to people to have connection with the land, people and animals where their food comes from makes it all worth while. It’s highlighted for me the importance of direct customer contact for small scale agriculture.

Dropping her off at the bull.

Thank you all for going on this journey with me.

R.I.P Stella Bella

Calf at foot

Life is very hard for Blue and his dam Daisybell

Here at Sellar Farmhouse Creamery we run a calf-at-foot practice where calves spend their first three months nursing from their dam.

We’re currently gearing up for four cows calving over the next three months so I thought this was as good a time as any to talk about the pros and cons to running our system.

The modern dairy cow produces far more milk than required to raise her calf so sharing that milk when done fairly isn’t detrimental to the calf. There are many factors to keep in mind when deciding how to raise dairy calves; whether practicing immediate removal, through to cows nursing until they next calve, every dairy farmer has a system which works best for their situation.

Quartz and Onxy

Time

Raising healthy calves takes time however you choose to do it in a dairy system. Removing calves young means you then have to invest the time in bottle feeding them. Running calf at foot means you have to spend time training, separating and weaning cows and calves. If the calf has no need for humans to feed them, building a relationship of trust takes much longer.

Health

This is a very complicated debate. At it’s core, I don’t think many would argue that calves allowed to nurse from their mothers grow up to be healthier more resilient animals. They also tend to be healthier calves as their dam will change her milk to the needs of her calf. If a calf gets scours the dam will lick it’s bottom, create the antibodies needed and pass them back to the calf in her milk, incredible. The overall protein structure of healthy milk, feed fresh, at body temperature is also the most digestible feed source for a young calf. To be cost effective, some dairy’s feed the mastitic milk to calves which then can lead to gut problems due to degraded protein structures and bacterial overload. So when breeding for future milkers, cows raised on their dam tend to be more resilient. In many ways a cow is little more than a rumen on legs, thus healthy gut = healthy cow.

Monte and Carlo feeding from Ginger

There are risks though from raising calf-at-foot. If you’ve ever watched a calf feed you’ll know they are not gentle. Unlike the consistent, smooth milking cups, a calf can be very violent when feeding, often creating cuts, bruising, pulling and once the milks all out they will continue to suck until mum kicks them in the head and walks off. This increases the risk of a damaged udder which can lead to infections and mastitis. The flip side of this is that the best thing for an infected udder to be regularly milked out which the calf can help with.

Johne’s disease is another key reason for removing calves young. A chronic wasting disease caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium avium subsp. paratuberculosis. It invariably leads to the death of the animal. One of the key ways it is spread is through milk and thus an infected cow will infect her calf if left to nurse. Different states have different restrictions surrounding Johne’s disease and how serious it is taken. But for many dairy’s who test positive, removing calves is a obvious measure to eventually breed the disease out of their herd.

Physiological

This is the ongoing ethical debate which is always problematic as we humans try to anthropomorphise animals. Some will argue it’s better to do it quickly at the start before a bond is formed as it’s more traumatic later on, others will argue that it’s cruel to remove a calf while it’s still nursing. I think probably all arguments have some merit. There is also the case that all animals are individuals and particularly in the breeds which have been breed specifically for dairy, many of the maternal instincts have been lost. Meaning that there are cows out there who don’t give a stuff about their calf, while others will destroy you if you try to come between them.

All I can talk to is the experience I’ve had which is that that first week after calving my cows are super hormone charged, then things settle down a bit. They are also highly vulnerable in those first couple of months and thus for me, the less stress I can put on the cow the better. My priority will always be the health of the cow, what she needs she gets. If her calf is far too violent and damaging her udder then I need to restrict the time they spend together, I learnt this the hard way with Berta.

The bond shared between cow and calf is a beauty to watch, even when reunited as adults it remains strong.

Berta is incredibly maternal, Iggy and her bond is just as strong 3 years on.

Cost

If raising calves separate to there mother you are either paying for milk powder or using the milk you’ve just milked out of the cows.

There are wages to calculate from having to prepare milk, feed calves and clean equipment, plus in my experience there are significant hours spent treating sick calves, mostly from scours. However with the calf-at-foot program, while I still have the hours of training, separating and weaning calves, I believe this comes in as less hours. There is beauty in reuniting dam and calf in the morning after milking and often tears (mine) in the evening as I chase calves around the paddock trying to catch them.

cheeky monkey gets creative

However the main reason people separate calves is that we are in the business of selling milk, not raising calves. So you’re aiming to raise a calf for less cost that you can get for it’s mothers milk. This may be by selling calves young and letting someone else pay to raise them, using lower quality milk which you wouldn’t sell anyway, buying cheaper milk powder, feeding less and in many set ups, culling the boys very early. If dairy calves where valued for meat as they should be then there would be far more incentive to raise them. The other factor is that if we moved back towards dual purpose breeds such as the Dairy Shorthorn then their bull calves would carry the same value as beef animal, thus the incentive to grow them out.

So what do we do?

At Sellar Farmhouse Creamery, calves live an average of 3 months with their mother depending on when the cow is ready to drop to once a day milking. Calves have the day and evening milk while I take the morning.

Our average process for weaning calves:

week 1 – stay with mother all the time

week 2-3 – Calves spend the night in a pen attached to the milking parlour, while they cannot put their heads through the fence to drink the cow can reach into the pen to groom and have contact with the calf. This allows her the ability to go out and graze, then return to check on the calf. After morning milking the calf is reunited with the cow who will have milk left for feeding her calf.

week 4-12 – Calves gradually spend longer on their own, in the pen to begin with and then separated by an electric wire. They begin to live independently to their mothers and visa versa. The aim is to always have two cows calving together so calves are never left on their own and have a buddy.

week 12 onwards – eventually the calves are only let back in with their dam for a quick evening drink and eventually this stops completely when the cow is considered good to be milked only once a day.

Doris awaiting release

A fantastic resource for running calf-at-foot which helped me work through many of the obstacles is Smiling Tree farm in the UK.

Next up is Luna, due to calve on the 17th of May. She’s the only one from this batch I’m worried about, last time she went down with milk fever and due to bad udder odeama and low immune system she lost the use of one quarter. Thankfully she’s first so I’ll have time to really focus on preventative treatment and giving her lots of support.

Then we have Quartz in June. Both her and Luna were with a handsome white Dairy Shorthorn bull. The new lady Nancy is due any time from mid June and Iggy the tart who prefers the neighbours bull (not my choice!) is due mid July.

These calvings will increase my milking herd to 8 and allow me to finally open up some more CSA subscriptions. So if you’re on the waiting list keep an eye on your inbox (and often junk mail) over this period as you may get instructions for subscribing.

Lets hope for a smooth run!

Luna (left) with her last calf Stella. Their bond remains very strong.

Life and Death

I was sure Olive was about to calve here on day 18.

Waiting, waiting, waiting. I feel like there’s been a lot of waiting for the past 6 weeks. Waiting for Olive to calve and as a result; waiting for more milk so I can a). meet my CSA orders and b). sell some milk at the market, waiting to write a blog post about it, waiting to move two of my nearly dry cows out of the milking herd, waiting to know if Olive was going to have a heifer or a bull, waiting to know if she was going to have an easy birth or a hard one like last time, waiting for her to bloody calve!

So we waited and we waited. She was due on the 27th of Dec but showed no signs of calving or bagging up (udder growing/filling), other than being enormous. After 8 days I had a feel, there was definitely something in there! I was sure she was loosening up in preparation. We waited. Day 23 I had another feel, yep no question, there is definitely something like a small head in the pipeline. All this time Olive showed no sign of being sick and so we were happy to let her do it her way. Then 24 days after her due date we got a organics derogation to induce her. Our amazing vet Nadia came out and had a feel before planning to inject her. She then pulled out the small remains of a calf which had probably died a few months ago. All that was left was possibly the neck, a couple of feet and some ribs. Olive had shed the rest herself without me noticing and all without showing the slightest sign of something being wrong.

All that remained

So I have a healthy cow, tick, no difficult birth, tick, no need to induce, tick, however, my most consistent milkers is not in milk or in calf. A bad place to be as a dairy cow! I’ve been told many times to put her on a truck, however I’m going to give Olive another go. In a month she should be good to go back with the bull and then we wait, nine long months!

As a result of this I’ve put in my order for a new pregnant milker. Another Illawara dairy shorthorn who we’ll need to have on the property for six months for her milk to be certified organic.

Then we have Joyce. Dream cow! Calving extraordinaire.

Joyce and Willow

Two days before she’s due I drive up the driveway to see Joyce with her perfect little heifer. This cow never skips a beat. Joyce is the Buffy family line so Willow is the obvious choice for a red head. Joyce was back on the line this morning, no training required and one massive bag of colostrum which Willow has hardly made a dint on.

First day back in the milking parlour.

The first 5 days of lactation, the milk is kept out of the vat until it settles into straight milk not colostrum. As of Friday this week we will have a decent amount more milk going into the vat and out to our customers. Hopefully with the cooler weather this next week the other milkers will also increase their yield. They’ve had a drop over these hot few days, putting their energy into staying cool under the trees and not being super excited about eating.

Thank you everyone for being patient and understanding while our supply is low. Working with such a small herd leaves me very vulnerable to drops in milk. Thanks for supporting small scale dairy!

Flow rate

Norma Jean and Doris Day just finished milking.

There’s a lot to consider when planning to have a steady milk flow all year round. Particularly when you are working with such a small herd, one cow can completely throw out your predictions. The coming couple of months are going to be very tights for milk supply at Sellar Farmhouse Creamery so I thought I’d take the opportunity to share some of the contributing factors which lead to this.

People often ask if I get more milk in the spring. When comparing seasons then yes you probably would get more milk for the input in spring, however there are many other factors which have a stronger influence; no. 1 being how recently she calved.

It’s been a spectacular season for growing grass

The standard milk graph for a cow would see her increase each week after calving, peak at around 3 months and then decrease as she is gets close to having her next calf. Most commercial dairies, breed every 12 months. This insures that all cows have a profitable milk supply and helps to maintain clean fresh milk with a low cell count.

When calving every 12 months it’s hard to know how long a cow would naturally milk through for as she never gets the chance. To begin with, all cows are individuals. Then we add several influencing factors which will determine her milk production and how long she will milk for. Breed, family genetics, age, health history, how stressful calving was, the season, how long she was dry in the lead up to calving, what she’s eating all play a role.

My previous experience was with goats, some of whom had kidded once in their 9 year milking life and were still huge producers. I’d also heard stories of other dairies and house cows who would milk through without calving on a yearly basis. I like the idea of this as I’m in the business of milk not meat so the fewer calves I have the more energy and feed I have for the milkers. I also know that the three months after calving puts a huge strain on the cow, many health problems occur in this vulnerable period and in my books, the fewer times she has to do this the better.

As I said though, each cow is an individual (don’t they like to remind you of this!) and until I’ve worked with them all through their first lactation I have no idea who will milk through and who wont. So it’s been a learning curve and trying to manage a steady milk flow has been difficult. For example Olive has been milking now for 15 months, still has the most beautiful clean milk, producing 11ltrs a day consistently for 10 months and I’m now having to force her to dry off as she’s due to calve on boxing day. She is definitely a cow that I don’t need to breed annually. However, Joyce on the other hand calved in Sept, went from 16ltrs a day in Feb to 6ltrs in May and down to 2 in July. As I only got her in calf again in April she certainly hasn’t been paying her way for a while. This may be her breed, or her as an individual or that this was her 6th lactation and previously she’d been bread every 12 months so maybe her body was use to it, who knows. But she will definitely need breeding every 12-14 months to stay in milk production. I learnt this the hard way.

Sellar Farmhouse Creamery milking herd production Oct 2020

Most cow’s reach their peak production at around five years old, or their third lactation, so having a diverse range of ages in my herd is very important. I’ve got Berta, Joyce and Ginger between their 5th and 8th lactation’s while the rest are still in their first. Currently Berta and Ginger are producing a third of my milk each. At the other end Quartz and Norma have both started off with small udders and low production. However they will increase in future lactation’s and as they have both been a dream to calve and train they are certainly welcome in my herd.

Norma day 1 on cups

Then there is the calf-at-foot practice which I run. For the first 3 months, calves run with their dam. The first full week they spend together and then I begin to separate the calves at night in a pen attached to the parlour. This way mum can come a check in during the night, she can touch her calf but not feed it. In the morning I take 3/4 of the milk and leave one for the calf who then spends the day with thier mum. The time they spend apart gradually increases until one day the afternoon feed stops and they are weaned. So during this high production period I’m taking between 1/4-3/4 of the milk produced depending on the cow. I’ll leave the details of calf-at-foot dairying for a future blog but it’s worth mentioning here as it has a big impact on planning my milk production.

Ginger feeding Monte and Carlo after I’ve taken the front two quarters.

There is also feed at play, milk is directly a result of what the cow eats the 24hrs before hand. All milkers get a consistent feed ration at night and while milking however misjudging the quantity/quality of pasture in a paddock can impact the following days milk total by up to 15%.

These are some of the main factors I’m balancing up when trying to plan the year ahead to have a consistent milk supply. Cow’s are pregnant for 9 months so planning needs to happen a long time in advance. I aim to always have two calve at the same time so calves have a buddy, although sometimes cows (Iggy) have their own plans. This is why my sales structure is based on having 3/4 of my milk sold through CSA subscription and 1/4 through farmers market sales. The farmers market acts as a buffer, meaning that if something was to happen to a cow, or the season, then I can decrease the amount I sell, or increase if production is high, without it impacting my CSA sales.

Norma Jean calved 3 weeks ago with Doris Day. She is the first planned calving of a heifer I raised, it’s been really beautiful to watch it come full circle (Iggy broke in with the neighbours bull and had a teen pregnancy so that wasn’t my planning!). Norma has been such a super star milker, not a single kick or poo in the stall and coming in on her own after a week of leading in.

Norma Jean and Iggy at 3 weeks old May 2018
Iggy and Norma milking together Oct 2020

Next to calve is Olive on Boxing day so this is why my milk supply may drop over the next two months. Olive is a very good, consistent milker who I must dry her off now before she calves. Norma is not up for replacing her in milk quantity due to being smaller and having a calf-at-foot. Joyce is also dry now until Feb and Luna and Quartz only give me their two cents worth. The more I work with my herd and get to know them as individuals the better I will get at planning for a consistent supply. Then nature will remind me I cannot control her, throw chaos to the plan and the whole process will start again!

It’s always hard to know what’s fat and whats calf with Olive, she’s not known as Boomba for nothing!