To increase accessibility to local, nutritious dairy in the Castlemaine region, practicing regenerative agriculture with the utmost respect for the animals involved.
Mobile milking parlour
To our knowledge Sellar Farmhouse Creamery has the first licensed mobile milking parlour in the country. Of all our equipment it has been the greatest success and we hope to see more pop up around the country as a way to make the small scale dairy movement more financially accessible while having many positive outcomes for cows and land. We are so pleased that Dairy Food Safety Victoria can also see the benefits of this system and have been really supportive of it. yay!
Reason to challenge the norm.
Whenever you have large amounts of animals congregating in the same place regularly, it’s a given that you will end up with environmental problems. Concentration of manure creates high levels of nitrogen, the plants which then grow are usually considered weeds; cape weed, mallow, nettles etc. Severe animal impact results in dusty bare ground in summer; burning off any fertility in the soil and making a hard pack surface for water to run off. In winter a muddy pit which leads to dirty animals. As udders and teats get dirty the risk of mastitis increases and increased udder cleaning time. It’s also just not very pleasant working in mud every day, cow and human alike.
However, once you turn down the concentration dial, both these problems: fertility and impact, become incredibly valuable tools, if not vital, for restoring landscapes functions. If only you could have these elements spread out across the paddock rather than concentrated in holding yards, lane-ways and dairy parlours.
Enter the mobile milking parlour. This is certainly not a new concept. In Europe these are regularly used with smaller herds, particularly in grazing events such as the Alpage where animals spend summers moving up the mountain to take advantage of magnificent pastures. To bring the herd back down the mountain for milking daily would defeat the purpose completely. So we had many examples to offer inspiration when designing. While on my 6 month sabbatical up the east coast I spoke with many dairy farmers about this concept. It was at the dinner table at Elgaar farm in Tasmania that Joe started designing the basic trailer with me, what would work and what wouldn’t.
1.) It seemed silly to do the wash down in the paddock which would require hot and cold water and cleaning chemicals. We already have all these at the factory, so why not have all the equipment based on the back of a ute which drives back to the factory with the milk.
2.) Many of the European models don’t have a floor but we decided for hygiene purposes we wanted a cleanable floor with good airflow, which means feet and milking equipment are always off the ground. It was suggested that expanded mesh as the floor could cause damage to cows hoofs over time, Oli had acquired some old mining trommel mesh which was super strong and smooth. We have found one problem here which is that in summer when cows have hard smooth hoofs we need to put mats down where they step up and off so they don’t slip.
3.) We wanted the trailer as compact as possible for moving through gates and around paddocks. We did the calculations and with the way we milk discovered it wasn’t that much quicker to milk four than three. We then spun the stalls around so they come in one side and out the other.
4.) It has room to evolve. Currently our vacuum pump can only milk one at a time. So I milk from the middle bay, cow on left on the cups while I prep the cow on the right and visa versa, just like a micro herringbone dairy. Then if we expand to a bigger vacuum pump I can milk from the back under the verandah with cows in all 3 stalls.
5.) Calf pens. I’m running a calf at foot operation. So ideally I want all infrastructure in one. So at the back of the parlour is the pop out calf pen with roof. After a week the calves spend the nights here where they can still have contact with their mothers but can’t drink. The cow can come and go all night, checking on her calf and going out to graze. Then everyone’s near-by for milking in the morning and followed by letting the calves out for the day with their mother.
6.) The engineering of how the beast would be movable had a lot of shelved ideas. We ended up with hydraulic rams on two back wheels and a front foot which raise and lower the parlour to the ground. The only unavoidable downfall of the parlour is how top heavy it is. Driving through the paddocks must be slow and avoiding bumps and strong slopes where possible.
There is good reasons the standard for dairy is permanent infrastructure with holding yards and laneways. Animals get used to the the routine and it’s easy to train newbies as they follow the animal in front and the yards help to push them in.
So much of milking is habitual for animals. The famous Salers cow in France are milked in the fields with no restraint. Having a tame, calm herd is very important for training in a mobile milking system with no yards and lane-ways. So far it’s been successful. Within the first few days of training, all cows have been correctly in the parlour on cups. I say correctly as often the first milking or two may involve them eating off the floor and having their back legs on the ground, reluctant to fully succumb to the stall. Some have been lead in with a halter for the first few months. As Joyce is not halter trained I used make-shift yards while she learned the ropes. But when habit kicks in along with the hunger for breakfast, they all seem to walk themselves in. But this all takes time and patience. Once trained they might be waiting for my arrival or I can call a name and they come over from grazing but its a significant investment.
In stationary dairies there is usually a concrete holding yard where cows wait to come in. This and the dairy must be cleaned out with water at the end of every milking. Basically you’re mixing excrement with water, significantly increasing the volume and boy do bacteria flourish a moist environment. This ‘problematic’ waste is then held in settling ponds; making sure it doesn’t leak into any water courses and then spread back out over the paddocks with machinery. This is a huge water user, the average dairy milking 100 cows can use around 6000ltrs a day in washdown (this includes the milking lines). The advantage of milking in the paddock is I just move the parlour, preferably before there is noticeable build up of poo and bare ground. On the rare occasion that a cow poos in the parlour, I simply sweep it out and pour a bucket of water over until it’s clean. The water is quickly absorbed into the ground under the mesh flour in that case. Both the quantities of poo and water are much lower; I use 30ltrs to wash down my milking lines each morning and the airflow over the mesh means it dries much quicker.
The second important factor which influenced us to build a mobile milking parlour is that we are leasing land. I need all my infrastructure to be portable so that when I move properties I can take all my investment with me. My business is not attached to land, as my situation changes it can come with me, or it can be sold to anyone anywhere in the country.
In all, the parlour itself has cost us $5200 in materials and 210hrs of Oli’s labour. We have made a few adjustments over time, with many versions of power and vacuum pump location until we finally installed the inline milking lines.
The parlour was the first bit of infrastructure we designed and Oli built. You would think that because of this, we would come across many problems and things we wish we’d done differently. But no, there is not a mornings milking that I don’t rejoice in how well it all works.
Calf at foot
Here at Sellar Farmhouse Creamery we run a calf-at-foot practice where calves spend their first three months nursing from their dam.
There are many pros and cons to this system and dairy farmers all have to come to a place where their system works best for them and their herd.
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 you to raise your dairy calves; all the way from immediate removal through to cows nursing until they next calve.
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. As the calf has no need for humans to feed, building a relationship of trust takes much longer.
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 clean 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. Many dairy’s will 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.
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 in this case is for the 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.
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 they 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 least 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 to violent and damaging her udder then I need to restrict the time they spend together.
The bond shared between cow and calf is a beauty to watch, even when reunited as adults it remains strong.
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 the 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 I still have the hours of training, separating and weaning calves, I believe this comes in less though. There is beauty in reuniting them in the morning and often tears in the evening as I chase calves around the paddock.
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 their dam 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.
A fantastic resourse for running calf-at-foot which helped me work through many of the obsticales is Smiling Tree farm in the UK’s website.