Yesterday, Monday the first of April, 2013, I started working at an organic dairy farm just outside of Ashurst. For my program, we need to complete 4 weeks of practical work on a dairy farm before the second half of third year (we also need 4 weeks on a sheep and beef farm, three weeks at a horse farm/stud, and three weeks of “other” which can be just about anything). I didn’t know where I was going until I got there, and didn’t know when I needed to show up until around 9pm Sunday night, BUT it has been a good experience so far.
The farmer, K, is very nice; as is his wife D. They have been share milkers on this farm for 2 years, arriving just as the snow hit in 2010, and will be leaving after this season. The owner of the farm went from Father (who inherited it from his father) to Son some five years ago, and this year went back to Father (as Son was driving it into the ground). After this season the farm will no longer be Organic, mostly because Son did such a terrible job that it really can’t be saved with anything but conventional methods.
The paddocks are full of weeds that were allowed to grow because of “bio diversity”, most of the herd is suffering from severe subclinical mastitis, there are a number of lame cows due to stone bruises and abscesses, there are several “carry over” empty cows that are costing money, and then there are the problems with the milking shed (which is 30 years old and so a problem with Father more than Son, though Son didn’t see fit to FIX the problem when he had possession of the property).
Yesterday my classmate and I arrived on the farm around 8:00 am and were given the grand tour. We saw the milking shed, were regailed with the problems associated with the particular shed, and shown the paddocks with the cows. We learned to drive the quad bike and where everything was, and spent a good deal of time sitting and chatting. After several cups of tea and coffee we headed across the road to where a fence was down due to a fallen tree. When we arrived the farmer informed us that the fence had been down for several years, but that Son didn’t care to fix it. There were several trees with branches or whole trunks laying across the fence, and one enormous blackberry bush had taken over the middle of the downed fence. If you haven’t had the unique pleasure of pruning blackberries, I highly recommend welding gloves, anything less and the spines will make you bleed. They are as bad as, if not worse than, roses. We started at the top of an incline and the farmer used his chainsaw to hack away branches, which my classmate and I then dragged beyond the fenceline and chucked down a hill. When the chainsaw got too dull, we broke for lunch.
After lunch we went back to the hill and attacked the blackberry bush with chainsaw and pruners and a rake. It took a few hours but we managed to clear enough back to find the fence post and wires. We had to reset one of the posts because it had been knocked over by the fallen tree, and we found another post that we couldn’t fix but got the wires out of it so we could mend the fence enough to keep the cows in. By that time it was about time to go bring the herd in for the second milking (our first) of the day, so we drove down and herded them back to the milking shed.
Cows walk excruciatingly slowly. They need to keep their heads down to watch where they are going so that they don’t hurt themselves. When the race (the part they walk on between paddocks and the milking shed) is bad, they have to walk even slower. The races on this farm are atrocious. The farmer is exceedingly fed up with them, but Owner won’t fix it because Owner doesn’t have to deal with it. So the cows walk at around 4 km/hr, and the slowest ones are closer to 1-2 km/hr because limping on rocks sucks.
Cows also balk at changes in ground, inclines, and changes in light. The transition from the race to the yard is dirt to concrete, this is pretty standard and not terrible. The first concrete part then goes to a sharp ramp (think the sloped curbs in some suburbs) which the cows don’t like so they stop and won’t go up. Then there’s the light inside the milking shed, or the lack thereof because there is nolonger a roof to hold the light in. So the cows won’t go into the shed to be milked. There are two rows of 20 cows and one row of 20 milkers. This means you put one side in, milk them, fill the other side and swap the milkers, and while the second side is being milked the first is moving out and the third is moving in. Only, as I said, the cows don’t want to go into the shed so a good deal of time is spent convincing them (by yelling and patting and turning on a moving electric fence to push them from behind) to move forward. All of this means that we milk 180 cows slower than other farms milk 400. We finished milking and were on our way home by about 5:30pm.
Today, we woke up for the 5:30 am milking. Which meant picking up the cows in the dark and bringing them to the dark milking shed at a ridiculous time in the morning. My classmate and I drove the quad bike out to get the cows while the farmer set up the shed. Cows have surprisingly good night vision, and still balk at all of the same things. We milked the same routine as before, but a little faster since my classmate and I were a tad more experienced and the cows were slightly less inclined to poop on everyone.
Once the girls were milked, two were drafted off and held while the rest of the herd went on to the new pasture. One of the cows needed a new ear tag so that she could be properly identified for the Herd Test that afternoon, and the other was severely lame in her left hind foot. We put her in the crush and her head in the headbale (which took quite a lot of effort because she really did not want to go), and tied up her leg to have a look at it. The poor thing had an abscess that went from the sole of her outside claw all the way to the top of it where it blew out making a visible crack where hoof met hair. The farmer took his hoof trimming knife and cut away the hoof to expose the abscess track to the air (which kills the anaerobic bacteria). Her other claw (remember cows have two toes) was fitted with a stylish shoe to protect it while she walked on it (rather than standing on the sore side). She was then put out in a near by paddock so that she didn’t have as far to walk to be milked in the afternoon.
After milking was breakfast followed by attempting to get the irrigation system set up. We collected hoses, laid hoses, ran out the big black hose so that the irrigator was at the far end of the paddock, went to turn it on, and the engine was broken. Which was a manly man type job to fix (since I could tell that it was definitely an engine when looking at it and not much else), so my classmate and I stood around with our fingers in our noses (figuratively) waiting for some kind of instruction. About an hour later the engine part that needed fixing was removed and we were sent back to the house for lunch. While awaiting further instruction (drinking tea, eating sandwiches, and talking to the farmer’s wife), the farmer’s wife made an executive decision that since we weren’t needed for the afternoon milking we should get to go home early. All were in agreement, and we were home by 2:30 pm, just in time to get yelled at by Mr. Shadow about the state of his breakfast.
The reason we weren’t needed for the afternoon milking was that the farmer was having the herd tested for performance and Somatic Cell Count (level of body cells in the milk which indicates the level of mastitis in the cow). This requires special equipment which was delivered while we were fixing the cow’s foot after milking. These specialised thingamajigs collect samples from each cow and record things about it so that the farmer can tell which cows are producing the most, which are full of mastitis, and which are producing the valuable milk solids. These numbers let him know which cows need to be dried off and which can be kept milking till the end of the season. This process takes longer and requires logging numbers while hooking up the milkers. Too many people in that tiny shed would just make things worse, so my classmate and I got to go home early and get to sleep in tomorrow.
(Published without going back over it because I am incredibly tired, please forgive the copious typos and grammar errors.)