It started about three years ago. I had a small herd of dairy cows that comprised the leftovers from my commercial dairy that had gone broke. In the meantime, I had managed a rundown milking dairy in the Darling Downs (southeastern Queensland) that the owner decided to close and sell. Most of my premium cows were sold along with the property and I was left with the “dregs” according to the expert agents. Many had suffered during the great floods of 2010-2011 and either had mastitis or the after-effects of pink eye (known affectionately as “blight” in Queensland).
I should set the scene. My farm is three hundred acres in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, about eighty kilometers from the nearest commercial dairies. It is no longer considered to be dairy country although in the 1800s that was what it was. I run the land along organic lines but have not pursued certification. The pastures are highly diverse and include a number of species that I favor but are usually categorized as weeds, including Paterson’s curse, marshmallow, dock, milk thistle, Scotch thistle, and stinging nettle. Clovers and medics thrive and I have added winter-dormant lucerne (the winter-active proved to be inactive), turnips, prairie grass, plantain and chicory to the inherited rye, phalaris and cocksfoot. Come summer, paspalum, Yorkshire fog and couch grasses respond to storm rains.
In the late spring of 2011, my herd of around thirty cows started to calve. The majority were first-calving heifers with a few old girls with three teats. Two of the heifers had stillborn bulls and very full, well-formed udders. One looked pure Jersey and the other a Jersey-Holstein cross. I decided to milk them in the crush using a borrowed single-bucket milker and about seventy-five meters of extension cord. At this point I should admit that all my cows had become ridiculously quiet from feeding them hay and from placing their water trough directly behind the house. When they were drinking, I would stand beside them and stroke them quietly.
Therefore the business of milking posed no problem at all, save for the Jersey’s tiny teats! Fortunately the two youngsters (who were soon named Sweetie and Stripey) tolerated me sitting beside them with the bottom crush gate open and the top closed. Their attitude was influenced by the provision of a delicious muesli-like preparation suitable for cows and horses. There was no kicking and no resentment. They milked wonderfully and it soon became evident that I was in need of milk drinkers aplenty. These two were providing more than fifty liters per day between them.
What I did with the raw milk (and continue to do) is a story for another day. However, the development of a dairying system suited to a small farm in a remote area with limited available resources is a study appropriate to many modern landowners.
Since that momentous first milking with Sweetie and Stripey, my herd has expanded to more than fifty milking cows, plus twenty dries and a further thirty joined and unjoined heifers. They are largely mongrels, being of Brown Swiss, Jersey, Aussie Red and Friesian heritage. Let me say, however, they can milk, forage, calve with ease and are absurdly affectionate. I give them all names and use this name to bring them to the milking parlor one by one. As soon as the “newbie” learns the sound of her name, she responds when called. Their primary diet is the biodiverse pasture, supplemented by hay when required. At milking they receive the horse-dairy mix at a rate of three to four kilos depending upon their condition, production and insatiable greed.
What, you ask, is different about this herd and almost all others? Firstly, they are never ill, never get mastitis and have a calf every year. They are milked once a day and they raise their calves at the same time. What calves! Playful, healthy and not an instance of scours in the intervening three years. Not one cow or calf on the property has been drenched or inoculated, very few are de-horned, no antibiotics have been required, and no lameness has been seen. Yes, there have been deaths, but very few from calving problems and everyone does lose a cow or a calf from time to time. Rightly or wrongly, I blame snakes for most of the casualties.
The milk has been tested regularly for cell count, standard plate count, E. coli and solids. Quality and cleanliness have been outstanding. Quantity has been more than adequate. If more milk is needed, the calves can be separated overnight and re-join their mothers after milking. When conditions are favorable, this is unnecessary with first-calving heifers producing more than eighteen liters per day and older cows up to twenty-five liters.
What are the financial advantages?
1. Labor is an obvious one. Being a virtual one-woman band, milking once a day is a real bonus, and there is no need for anyone other than casual labor from time to time. I have a regular supply of Wwoofers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms), and the cows are so quiet they can be milked by a novice (and a stranger) within a day or two.
2. Calf rearing: requiring no buckets, no feeding, no cares. The calves are kept clean and healthy by their mothers and both animals have the natural pleasure of being together. Even when separated at night, they quickly understand the routine provided that they can see and hear each other. Weaning of heifers is done over a week (when the calves are about five or six months old) with cows again having visual access to the calves but no physical contact.
3. The increased value of the bull calves that can be sold at four to five months as milkfed veal. A premium price for this otherwise worthless asset is a major benefit.
4. Reduced (if not eliminated) mastitis. The calves keep the cows well-sucked and free of mastitis and udder problems. The once-a-day milking probably extends the productive life of the cow as well—less pressure on the ligaments and less chance of blown udders.
5. Increased fertility. The cows and calves run with a bull and most of the cows reproduce annually. Those that do not are culled. Artificial insemination would be equally manageable if the expertise were available.
Hence there are financial, philosophical and lifestyle advantages from running calves with dairy cows. The downside is reduction in production, but the loss is, to a large degree, offset by the removal of the need to feed the calves their five to ten liters per day.
Has this been pure good luck? Is the genetic makeup of the herd relevant and were my dairy cows truly extraordinary from both production and quality perspectives? Indeed I have always purchased the best bulls I could find from highly reputable and successful stud breeders and I know I started with good stock (in spite of the opinion of experts).
I have trawled the Internet for examples of Once-a-Day Milking (OAD) blended with running calves with their mothers. Only three models are documented—one a research project from Holland entitled “Rearing Calves with Cows”1 and two webpages—one published by Hawthorne Valley Farm,2 a biodynamic dairy in Columbia County, New York, and the other the Calf-at-Foot Dairy in Suffolk, UK.3 The information provided confirms the benefits of my experiment, but is not an exact replica given that the dairy herds in question are managed in accordance with the climatic imperatives of high latitude farming. The cattle are kept in sheds throughout the winter and “nurse cows” used at these times rather than the natural mothers.
I feel sure that my practices are not unique within the Australasian environment. However, there is no literature upon which I can rely or similar enterprises promoted on the web. Therefore, I would be prepared to have my system tested and scientifically verified. A cost-benefit analysis would also be useful based upon herd size as there may be a limit to the number of calf-at-foot cows that a dairy can manage. There is also a real need to establish a relationship with the cows and this may be impossible on dairies milking more than two hundred fifty cows. This relationship is essential for milk “let down.” Cows that feel their handler is “part of the herd” will give milk freely while those that are uncomfortable with humans refuse to milk out and retain most of their milk for their calves. The production of oxytocin (the milk “let down” hormone) seems to be greater when the cow’s udder is stimulated by friendly and familiar hands. No time for this on large dairies either.
It surprised me, as a long-term dairy farmer, to discover the depth of feeling against the treatment of dairy cows and their calves. The Internet is full of objections to this treatment and countervailing prevarications put forward by industrial-scale dairy farmers.4 One that perplexed me suggested that humans raise calves better than their mothers.5 It even stated that dairy cows lack a strong maternal instinct. I can truthfully say that some years ago I weaned some calves and sent their mothers more than forty kilometers by truck to another property. Within two days, one of the mothers returned home having crossed rivers, gorges and fence lines through a National Park and private land. Is this the behavior of a cow lacking a maternal instinct?
Separated calves have a high mortality rate resulting from scours and other infantile diseases. To reduce the chance of cross-infection, the calves are usually kept apart from one another if facilities permit. They are tethered to hutches or kept in individual stalls without the opportunity to gambol and interact with their peers. Mine rest together, play together and learn to eat grass together—the same for heifers and bulls. This is the way nature intended.
The only realistic excuse that can be given for separating calves from their mothers soon after calving is purely commercial. It is based upon conservation of milk for human consumption and the financial rewards that follow. Bull calves in Queensland are “euthanized” almost immediately after birth—but this is code for shot. The farmers in that state have failed to develop a market for the wonderful meat that milk-fed vealers can produce. You might say that my system of running male calves with cows only postpones the inevitable. However, the very best bull calves are sold as herd bulls and the others have a happy life for at least four months. At the same time, they give their mothers pleasure and relief from mammary infection.
More investigation into the pros and cons of this dairy methodology is required and I intend to conduct a comparative study over the coming twelve months using my herd and a commercial, pasture-fed control.
1. Jan Paul Wagenaar and Jos Langhout, ©Louis Bolk Instituut 2006
About the Author
Julia McKay is a former lawyer and a farmer from the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, Australia. She has more than forty years’ experience in dairy and beef cattle production with particular reference to perennial pastures in both temperate and sub-tropical regions. She is currently a PhD scholar at Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University in Canberra researching impediments to change in sustainable agriculture. She is also well-known for her work on natural sequence farming, a landscape system developed by Mr. Peter Andrews that recognizes the unique functions present in the oldest, flattest, driest continent—Australia.