Tuesday, 17 October 2017

It's mulberry season again

This evening I hit three mulberry trees on my run with Rusty and for a change she let me stop for a bit to pick and munch (a trade for letting her stop and sniff). My favourite tree from last season did not disappoint. 

Two years ago I'd seen another tree with an abundance but as it was greatly pruned last year I didn't get any of its fruit. I got it this evening and these must be the sweetest I've ever eaten. 

Further on I joined a young boy picking white mulberries. I've often found them to be disappointing in flavour but these were good. I brought a handful home for Celliers and the children to try.

Rusty doesn't eat mulberries.

Last year I made a few mulberry desserts. I plan to make at least one in the next week to properly celebrate the season's abundance.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Learning about retail

YOLO is a big learning curve for me. A lot of what I have been doing comes from 'educated' gut instinct and it was good to have some of this verified.

Setting prices for products is difficult. We know our production costs and also need to make something on each item to cover salaries, marketing and other business expenses. But pricing isn't as simple as 1 + 1 = 2 because the price has to be one that the market will be prepared to pay for the product. For us, this means compromising to give our customers the most reasonable deal.

Our YOLO Compost Tumbler was very kindly 'hosted' by a gardening place for a few weeks to gauge interest from the public. Despite August and September being our busiest months to date, I didn't receive a single order through them. As I had to be out their way on Thursday, I dropped them a quick note to say I'd be through and that I'd collect my tumblers. I also thanked them for being so willing to put my compost tumblers on display and that I hoped in time, as our brand builds, that there will be more demand from the public for our product to be in their store.

The guy replied to say they'd had lots of interest but that the price had put people off. As I believed that my YOLOs were priced there at my recommended price, I'd been thinking that what was missing was the one-on-one interactions that we've enjoyed at expos and which the compost tumblers would have missed at his place.

It was only after I collected the tumblers that I saw the price tags...

We sell the small double at R2,295.00. Their price: R3,469.95.
We sell the medium double at R2,995.00. Their price: R4,159.95.

No wonder!

Unfortunately hundreds of potential customers may have been put off ever considering a YOLO Compost Tumbler but there is also a silver lining in that now have confirmation of what the market is not prepared to pay. I wouldn't either!

If people are not composting already, by any means, our YOLO Compost Tumbler is the best solution for them - apartments, townhouses and homes with gardens. But, starting to recycle organic waste from your kitchen and garden doesn't happen overnight. This is a 'behaviour change' process and it comes with a price tag, unless you have space in your yard for a compost heap in which to dump organic material. Whether a person decides to go with a YOLO Compost Tumbler, bokashi system, hot bin or wormery, it costs to buy something to help you turn organic waste into nutrient-rich compost.

We're still in the first few months of our business and while we have a long way to go, we're doing things right by considering the customer first. 

Want to know what our most popular YOLO Compost Tumbler colour combinations are? From the beginning, green-yellow has been a favourite combo. We introduced our brown and grey colours in late August and have seen a rise in the popularity of green-brown. Green-orange is a favourite in the medium and large sizes while brown-grey is also currently trend in these sizes. The orange-yellow combo comes in waves. We have made a number of units in 'outlying' combinations like grey with green, orange or yellow; these look amazing too.

When in Parys... go kayaking!

This weekend was a treat with a visit from my dear friend Allison. This was her first chance to come and see and experience my new (almost two years!) home.

The water is low, at around 30 cumec, but this also makes it a very friendly level. Some bumpy rocks in places but with easy-to-negotiate rapids, especially for beginners. We put Allison on a sit-on-top whitewater kayak - the same as mine - and she did superbly on her first time on our Vaal River. She took a swim early on, which is never a bad thing because once a swim is done then there is no need to spend the rest of the trip in anticipation of one. She also swam on the last rapid - but only after unintentionally catching a good surf on the wave.

I had a good outing too - no swims bar one at Gatsien while surfing. I'm learning more techniques, like ferrying across the river using the current and also surfing in rapids. Both are good fun and I'm enjoying the benefit of improved skills.

Ruben is paddling like a star. Celliers took the photos and Estienne, who is training to be a river guide, came down with us for the fun of it. We put in at Otters Haunt and paddled about 10km downstream to take out at our friend's place. It was a beautiful day with sightings of two goliath herons, a grey heron and a likkewaan that swam across the river towards us.

On Wednesday at the paddling club Celliers is going to get me and Ruben into polobats - the canoe used for playing canoe polo. Last week he taught a young paddler to learn how to do handrolls (rolling the polobat using your hips and hands - no paddle) and this will be good practice for me and Ruben too (and another young paddler has asked him to teach her too). 

Next week or the week after I'll get back into my sit-in whitewater boat to practice rolls and I'll also spend more time with the sit-on-top playing and surfing at Gatsien. 

This is a summer for learning.

Allison taking a rapid beautifully.

Allison coming through in style.

Allison missed the line (to the right of where she is) and showed us how to negotiate a shelf. She did good and recovered from a near flip to make it downstream. 

Ruben and Celliers.

Estienne coming through.

Me. Having fun.


Me and Allison.

Ruben totally rocking.

Ruben doing so very well.

Monday, 9 October 2017

'Lazy Sunday' river paddle and run

Yesterday I had one of my best activity days in ages. While my running has been regular and consistent for many months, I haven't done much in the way of distance as I run with Rusty and I have been very short on time. To get in some distance, I decided to run home from the take-out at the end of our river paddle -  a perfect combo.

I haven't tripped the river since last summer, where I probably set a record for the number of swims down rapids (3!). The river has been up a little - at around 35 cumec - so it was a good level to run.

There was Celliers, me, Ruben (9), Kyla (12), Hugh, Eric (12) and Karen. Ruben, Celliers, Hugh and Eric have been on the water quite a bit recently and Ruben is paddling beautifully. He and Eric take turns leading through the rapids - very sweet. Karen regularly paddles on the river while Kyla has paddled less than me.

Well, 35 cumec is just lovely! No swims for any of us! Yay!

The river is looking magnificent with green-leafed weeping willows on the banks, birds twittering all over and everything looking bright and sparkly after the recent rains. I didn't take along a camera so I don't even have photos to show you.

We took a route down that I haven't taken before. The Vaal River around here has many islands and channels and not all of the channels allow passage. I really like the narrow channels with vegetation on either side. It is quite magical. The rapids were all great and I didn't even have any near swims. Clean runs that felt good.

When we got down to Gatsien ("See your ass") rapid, the last one before the take out, we hung around there to surf the wave. This is where we have local kayak rodeos because this rapid forms a really great wave. This was my first time surfing and I had a blast. I even did a bit of manoeuvering in the rapid and a few time got in and out without swimming. Of course, I did take two swims too - it is a good rapid to swim with little risk as you get washed out immediately.

I'm paddling a sit-on-top whitewater kayak, which suits my novice status. This run and the surfing has definitely added to my skills and confidence and I'll definitely do more of this before getting into my sit-in whitewater kayak. I also need to do a lot more rolling practice. With the sit-on-top I can take a swim and then climb on again. A sit-in is more of a mission. Nonetheless, a good skill to acquire and work on later in the season.

Off the water, I changed into my running gear and set off for home. The first two kilometres is dirt road and the rest is tar. With about 6km to go I phoned my mom. She was ready and waiting to bring Rusty to me so that I could run the last bit with my doggy - getting in her run for the day.

Dark clouds has been threatening and within a few minutes of my mom heading off we could fee a few drops. And then more drops. And then a downpour. Rusty handled it well and with 2km to home we took shelter under the roof of the Indian shop near the bridge. If it had just been me I would have kept running but I am cautious of putting Rusty off playing with me! I sent Celliers a message to say we were fine and that we'd head out again once the rain passed but he was already on his way to find out. Minutes later we were in the bakkie - Rusty looking very relieved.

So, a very good morning with a successful paddle and a lovely run. I aim for many repeats this summer.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

When you feel like you can run forever

It doesn't happen often. Last night I had one of those runs where you feel like you can run forever. The temperature was mild, the air was fresh, I was out with Rusty and I just felt... good.

About two months ago I caught a nasty cough and throaty-chesty thing that just wouldn't go away completely. It didn't make me overtly ill, but I wasn't right either.

It was only a week ago that our whole household got hit with a virus. It started with me at about 21h00 on the Sunday night feeling nauseous and within an hour I'd started vomiting. By 01h00 I was joined by Ruben and then Kyla and then Celliers. The virus has done the rounds in town so it wasn't a food-related illness; just a bad bug.

While Celliers and the kids stayed home on the Monday, I had to be out-and-about to set up for last week's agricultural show. I got in a much-needed one-hour nap in the afternoon and a lie-down later and that was it. Fortunately by Tuesday morning I was mostly recovered.

Last night it felt so good to feel good again. Not every run is like this, but those that are keep us going.

Me and Rusty at parkrun on Saturday morning. She is running so well. The mornings are already quite warm so we took it easy - look at that long tongue. She plopped down in front of the water bowl at the finish (she refuses to drink on the route, despite a dog bowl at the turnaround and a tap towards the finish).

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

We didn't win but what an experience

We didn't win at the Sage Small Business Awards with 702; but what a good experience this has been.

From filling in the form to the on-air interview, video crew at our factory and this afternoon at the 702 studio with the other finalists, it has been an uplifting experience.

Aside from the wider exposure and subsequent orders, which we appreciate and need, just being selected as a finalist has been a pat-on-the-back to say we're OK, our product is a good one and it is interesting. This has been a thumbs-up that we needed.

We're enjoying great feedback and interactions from customers, which makes up for the generally tough time that small businesses go through to get them off the ground.

The past year has definitely not been all 'Facebook'. It has been tough and the road is not going to be any less bumpy for some time.

There is light. We're making a great product. And we're making a difference too.

I'm off on Thursday morning to head to The Garden Show in Pietermaritzburg - it runs Friday to Monday.

Hip-hip-hooray for YOLO!

Monday, 18 September 2017

Sage Small Business Awards with 702 finalist

I am caught up in the most delicious whirlwind of excitement around our YOLO Compost Tumblers.

We are a finalist in the Sage Small Business Awards with 702. Last week Wednesday I was interviewed in the evening on Bongani's show and we have had such a great response from this.

On Thursday their video crew came through to our factory and we moulded a compost tumbler shell there and then to show them the process. They have created a lovely 45-second video showcasing our small business and featuring the guys who work all the magic in the factory - Joseph M., Joseph W., Jeremiah, Abe and Thabiso.

Tomorrow afternoon I'll be in Jo'burg, at 702's studio, for the finals. I have no idea how it works but I am excited nonetheless.

The first prize is a laptop (and I'm sorely in need of a new one!), a year of Sage accounting software and R250,000 in airtime advertising on 702. Oh wow!

There are two second prizes with Sage accounting software and R125,000 in airtime advertising.

I'll be very delsighted with either of these.

That two minutes of interview on the radio can have such an impact on our business... Imagine what an effect a campaign can have!

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Moon-hunting walk

Wednesday was full moon so on Thursday evening I headed off to Otters with Rusty, my mom, her dog Tansy and Kyla. We were meeting up with Karen and her dogs Rocksy and Skally for a walk to a good vantage point to watch the moon coming up.

Selfie - that's the main Otters Haunt gate behind me and mom and Tansy coming up the track. Karen, Kyla and dogs where ahead. Tansy sometimes refuses to walk and has to be carried for some encouragement...
Me and my mom - and Tansy. I got the shadow across my face but figured it was a nice photo of me and mom together - worth posting. xxx
My mom and Kyla hadn't been to the quarry side before so it was nice to show them a new part of our regular haunt.

Skally in front. She is Karen's new companion. Sadly Karen said goodbye to very old Shadow on Wednesday. That's Rocksy near Kyla. Karen is behind Kyla and Liz and Tansy behind them. Rusty was with me.
Rusty xxx
So, we got up high and checked out the view of the hills of the Vredefort Dome and looked towards Parys from where the moon would be rising.

No moon.

So we continued along the trail, the light fading fast. Still no moon.

We walked all the way back to Otters in the dark. Still no moon.

We drove home (only a few minutes). Still no moon.

We were right monkeys! Of course, we could have looked up the moon rise time but we figured that it would just be a little later than the night before. I still haven't looked it up but by 19h30 the moon was still nowhere to be seen.

Nonetheless, the hunting the moon is what got us out for an enjoyable walk. The air was warm, the air was fresh and it was a joy to be out with friends and dogs in the dark and to see the lights of the town and farmhouses all around. Spring is on its way out (already!) and summer is on its way in.

I'm definitely game for more moon walks. Even if we don't see the moon.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Hike-and-picnic children's birthday parties

Ruben and Kyla's birthdays were at the beginning of August when they turned 9 and 12 respectively. Already earlier this year the children had said that they would be keen for outdoor parties. Ruben was keen on a bike-and-picnic with his friends; Kyla was keen for a hike-and-picnic with her friends.

Ruben was sick all of last week and spent four days off school and in bed with bronchitis. The poor thing had the most awful cough. Fortunately, he began taking a turn for the better about a day and a half before his party but as biking would have been too strenuous for him we opted for a walk-and-picnic instead.

Kyla had three friends for her hike-and-picnic at Rietpoort. We took them up on to the ridge to enjoy the view. Both the hike and the picnic were winners. Two of the girls slept over too and seem to have enjoyed their time with us.

Ruben had two friends with him. The boys loved clambouring over rocks and playing with the crazy, rock-chewing Jack Russell that lives on the farm (we've learned that the dog's name is Spookie). The boys also skipped rocks at the little dam.

These birthday outings suited me, Celliers and Rusty perfectly as we got to be outside too and it is a nice way to get to know the children's friends.

Outdoor scenes

Mari, Alex, Chamotè and Kyla
Scenes from the day

Rusty enjoying the picnic with the boys

A bit of photo editing fun with Ruben, Frederik, Pauli and Spookie the dog.

Celliers enjoying some stone skipping too. He showed the boys how it was done with a stone that made 8 skips!

My first YOLO video

I felt really silly standing in my garden talking to a video camera on a tripod... but that's how I managed to tick "Make a video for YOLO Compost Tumbler" off my to do list today.

Back in the day (from late 2002 into 2004 or so), I worked on Drifter Adventure Zone - a adventure racing / activity series on Supersport. I was a 'camerachick' and I also wrote scripts for the show and I sat in voice over and sound editing working with the voice-over artists and sound editors. I absolutely loved it. I learned so much about tv and content and editing and production. Since then, I haven't had a need to do any video work, despite the passion I had for my work there at the time.

Yesterday, I shot a bunch of clips in my garden for YOLO and last night I put them together in a 1:50 video that briefly explains how to use a YOLO Compost Tumbler.

I'm using the online video editing program WeVideo. My current (and previous) laptop doesn't have the capacity to run video editing software (I've got Adobe Premiere but I've never been able to load it!). I found WeVideo online and I worked through their tutorial a few weeks ago. I found it to be simple, efficient and user-friendly.Ba-boom! Video done.

I have a list of short and snappy videos that I'd like to make for YOLO over the next few weeks. Both my editing and presenting is sure to get better with practice! This first video is the start.

Even with my background experience in video, I've never felt the need to video blog or shoot footage of all and sundry. Writing is my chosen medium but now it is time to adapt. Woof-woof (old dog learning new tricks).

Here is my video...

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Rietpoort scouting outing

We were out at Rietpoort today to scout trails for Ruben and Kyla's biking and hiking birthday outings next weekend. Ruben and his guy friends will be doing a mountain biking ride-and-picnic; Kyla and her girl friends will be doing a hike-and-picnic. I'm really delighted that the children chose - of their own accord - to do active 'parties' for their birthdays this year.

Rusty was delighted to come out here again - her 3rd time. She'll come with us for the birthday outings too next weekend - running along as we bike and hike.

Although the area is still so end-of-winter dry and brown, the aloe flowers are still out and the place is lovely in the way that winter highveld scenery can be.

Celliers with Ruben and Kyla. The children turned 9 and 12 respectively at the beginning of August. I first met the children around about now three years ago. Looking recently at old photos I saw how little they were and how much they have grown.

The swing is going to be a winner for the parties... Celliers shows us how it is done

Ruben and Kyla walking along together.

Ah... Kyla and Ruben

Kyla getting some air.

Ruben with a couple of feathers in his cap

"Higher papa, higher!"
I'm looking forward to having the children's friends with us next weekend. We know most of them and look forward to meeting the others and getting to know them.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Rusty's parkrun PBs

My doggy girl ran a new PB at parkrun this morning of 26:51. It was rather chilly, which is always good for running faster times. This is Rusty's 6th parkrun and her time has come down by five minutes since early May.

I was a bit surprised by today's result as I really thought that we were closer to our usual 29 minutes. There are a few spots where she loves to sniff so we lose time and neither of us were pushing nor tired. Her previous PB - from two weeks ago - was 27:52, a minute faster than her time before that.

When I first got Rusty - almost five months ago - she was quite unfit as she hadn't been running for at least 18 months. We've been building up steadily. Initially we would run-walk on our evening outings. Now we run all the way. I generally don't run her much further than 4 to 6km, which she handles very well.

I don't run her every day. I usually alternate with one day being a run and the next being a long, fast walk. Once a week we head out to my friend's place at Otters Haunt, where she runs off lead with her friend Rocksy (Otters is a great place to stay for the weekend - and they're dog friendly).

Karen recently received a surprise gift from her husband Graeme - a new border collie puppy, Skallywag (her name inspired by the SKA project about which Graeme is writing a book). Karen has two border collies, Shadow and Rocksy. Shadow is very aged, Rocksy is mature but still full of beans. Rusty and Rocksy are friends and young Skally has taken a shine to Rusty.

Playing with Skally while Rusty looks on. Photo by Graeme
This week Karen, my mom and I headed out with Rusty, Rocksy, Skally and Tansy - Graeme went riding his bike. He snapped this photo of us with the dogs (Skally only just visible behind Rocksy).

Photo by Graeme
This morning at parkrun there were FOUR border collies. A young boy runs with his black & white, Willem and Lelani (Lelani is Rusty's vet) have two rescues (brown & white and black & white) and Rusty was with me. Skally will start parkrunning when she is a little bit older.

Tomorrow Rusty will join us at Rietpoort. We're scouting the trails for next weekend. Kyla and Ruben celebrated their birthdays (12 and 9 respectively) earlier this month. We're having their birthday parties next week. Ruben wants to do a mountain bike ride for his birthday and has invited three friends. Kyla chose to do a hike and she has invited five friends. We'll do Kyla's party on the Saturday and Ruben's party on the Sunday. It will be a hike-picnic and bike-picnic affair with the children carrying the munchies for the picnic to the designated point. Should be good fun. Best of all, Rusty gets to come along too.

Rusty has been in my life for almost five months. She is a joy every day.

An experience at Decorex

The past two weeks have been full and energising. I spent last week in Jo'burg for the Decorex show, a home and design expo held at Gallagher Convention Centre. My mom came along to help on the stand. I'm so glad that she did because we were non-stop busy with visitors. She has her own YOLO Compost Tumbler so she knows how it works and by the end of the week she was a composting demonstration pro.

Me and Liz in our expo outfits - complete with gardening wellies.
We were located in Hall 4 - Outdoor Lifestyle, which suited us perfectly.

Over the five days of the expo we spoke to hundreds of people and demonstrated how to use our compost tumblers. We had all three of our sizes on the stand - small (left), medium (top right) and large (bottom right). We pulled the large out of the oven on the Monday night, just in time to take it to the show for setup the next morning! We're still busy with R&D on this unit to finalise the amount of plastic needed, the frame and other bits. It will be ready in a few weeks.

A photo wall with photos of our YOLO Compost Tumblers sent to us from customers.
Expo days are long and tiring but the experience was totally worth it. We had some on-the-day sales and have had other post-expo. I think these will trickle in steadily over the next few months. Many people that we met were about to move or in the process of building new homes.

For us the big benefit of the expo was in meeting and talking to people. We were astounded by how many people are separating their trash, recycling and trying to reduce the waste that comes into and out of their homes. In dealing with organic waste, our YOLO Compost Tumbler is an excellent solution, especially where you just don't have space for a heap or if you're just looking for a way to compost kitchen waste - like in an apartment (no garden) or townhouse (tiny to no garden).

Many people that we met are composting - to some degree. They're trying wormeries, bokashi, hot bins and the like. This is great because it shows that more and more people are giving value to composting as a means to deal with organic waste and they give value to the compost itself.

I've felt so despondent recently around waste and recycling. If there is one thing that is a big problem in my home town of Parys, it is litter. It really is a serious problem. In the week before Decorex, I was at Pick 'n Pay, packing my groceries into my reusable shopping bags. I looked down the row of checkouts and saw that I was the only person there not using - and buying every time - PNP's plastic shopping bags! (no, they didn't pull old bags out of their handbags to reuse, these were crisp and new)

Coming back from Decorex I'm far more optimistic that there is change happening. 

Nice way to see the size difference between the medium (2 x 100 litre shells) and large (2 x 200 litre shells).
As a result of being at Decorex, we have added two new colours to our range - grey and earth. We met a number of people in complexes and estates where they are restricted from having brightly-coloured items that do not go with the colour scheme of the place. Our new colours go well with each other and they also pair beautifully with our existing green, orange and yellow colours. I fetched plastic from our supplier on Thursday and we'll be moulding the first of the new colour units on Monday.

We also learned a bunch of other things from the visitors to our stand:

  • Many are not composting but they want to. They're currently tossing all of their kitchen waste and garden waste out with the trash. They want to do better.
  • People think that compost smells. A healthy compost should smell earthy. Good health is achieved by adding a mix of wet and dry materials and regular tumbling.
  • Different areas of Jo'burg have rat problems. The rats go for compost heaps and so people have stopped composting as a way to prevent rats coming to their gardens. Our YOLO Compost Tumbler is a closed unit with a lockable latch. Rats, mice, monkeys and dogs can't get into it.
A jar of 8-week old, unfinished compost from my small YOLO Compost Tumbler at home. The jar started off almost full and by the end of the expo it has reduced in volume by half - natural composting process. These jars of compost were really useful to show people what unfinished compost looks like, why it needs to mature (for the last-added contents to compost and catch up to the first-added contents) and for them to smell the mix ("not bad", "earthy", "amazing" were some comments).

A jar of finished compost from my YOLO Compost Tumbler at home. This mix is just kitchen waste with egg shells, torn up egg trays and dry leaves to balance the wet materials from the kitchen. Again people were amazed that it doesn't smell. Friends, compost shouldn't smell bad. The only time it smells bad is if it is too wet and it doesn't have enough oxygen. It's the anaerobic decomposition that makes it smell nasty. This tumbler shell that I emptied (and put some into a jar) was my 5th shell emptied since mid January, when I was using a prototype tumbler. I weighted the contents of the shell when I emptied it - 7.5kg! And mostly just kitchen waste that had composted. Amazing!
We're quite certain that 10 years ago - and even five years ago - our YOLO Compost Tumbler would be a harder sell. Times have changed and people are becoming more conscious and aware of the state of the environment and that we have to do our bit in our homes. Our timing is just right.

When you hear reports that there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish by 2050, scientists are not being alarmist. Just looking around me at the litter in my town, this statement is hardly surprising.

Over the past 18 months, since I moved to Parys, I've been making small changes to our household to reduce the waste coming into our home and what we put out on garbage day.

The most significant changes include filling up glass bottles with milk instead of buying two-litre plastic containers, composting all of our kitchen and garden waste and, recently, taking my own fabric bags to the store to buy loose items like bananas, ginger, garlic and rolls. As a result, we've downsized our trash bin twice and are now down to a waste paper bin for our weekly household trash. I'm sure we can do better too.

The road with our new company is still long. This experience at Decorex was immensely valuable for speaking to people and making new contacts. There are a number of exciting opportunities to come.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

What I have learned thus far about dairy farming

Before I tell you what I've learned thus far about dairy farming, a bit of background.

As a child, I spent many a school holiday on a family friend's farm up in Zimbabwe. They were large scale farmers growing tobacco, cotton, corn, sorghum and coffee. They had cattle, which I remember going to round up on horseback for dipping. They weren't cattle farmers, they just had a herd of cattle. There was a dairy on the brother's farm nearby - I never saw it. But I do remember seeing a worker spinning cream off the milk and I had the pleasure of having fresh farm milk and cream with my mielie-meal porridge in the morning.

I spent my days mostly at the stables, helping to groom and feed the horses.

I have always loved farms and I fine the process of farming interesting. But not enough to want to be a farmer. This is a tough profession and I can recall our family friend being up before the crack of dawn and to bed late at night. Fields, harvest, animals, rainfall, farm machinery, farm workers and their families... I learned early that you need a strong constitution to be a farmer.

Fast-forward many years and I was looking at getting out of my MSc studies in Medical Cell Biology (with a focus on cell biology, developmental biology and reproduction), which wasn't going anywhere. I was depressed and frustrated, and despite loving the part-time lecturer and lab demonstrator post that I held, I wanted out. For lack of any other driving force, I wanted to spent my days adventure racing (which was hardly practical either).

I started looking at job opportunities, first within the human in vitro and reproduction realm. It didn't sit right with me and so I began investigating opportunities in the cattle and wildlife industries. I visited a number of research places and was either told that I was overqualified (WTF?) or that I could work there but they couldn't pay me. At one place I had the opportunity of wearing shoulder length gloves and putting my arm bicep deep into a cow's nether region to feel her ovaries and watching this on an ultrasound. I loved it.

My favourite option was one at Onderstepoort where I met an awesome professor doing incredible work. He didn't have funding for his project but we clicked and I liked what he was doing and my skills suited his lab. As luck would have it, he called a few weeks later as I was driving away from my old life, car packed. I'd deregistered from university and had no idea what I was going to do, other than the adventure race two weeks later. He called to say he had funding and wanted me there. I was in such a bad space then so I kept driving.

I had toyed with the idea of large animal veterinary sciences. I'd already been at university for 6.5 years and I needed out. In the state that I was I couldn't face another bunch of years of study and neither could I fund it nor expect my mom to fund it.

With our YOLO Moo Igloo, I now find myself out on farms - and I love every visit. I love the smell of the farms and this has brought up a lot of childhood memories of being on the farm in Zim.

Having our YOLO Moo Igloo online (FB page specifically), I've experienced what I can only term vitriol from strangers. We're a plastic rotomoulding company, not dairy farmers. Yet they comment on how cruel it is to have a calf hutch for calves, how they should be frollicking in fields and how calves should be left with their moms.

Firstly, directing vitriol at a rotomoulding company completely misses the ball. Very, very few people abstain completely from dairy products (vegan do not consume dairy). That you and I drink milk and eat cheese and yoghurt means that we create a demand for dairy products. I bet that those criticising my calf hutch do not have a cow in their garden which they milk by hand and neither do they know anything about calf rearing and the dairy industry.

The calves that I've seen on a local farm are well cared for (they have dedicated carers). The calves spend their days in the 'garden' part of their hutch-fence, lying on grass in the sun. They have 'friends' nearby that they can see and chat to (but not too close that disease transfer is likely) and they have shelter from the elements from their hutches. When they are old enough and their immune systems are sufficiently developed the roam around in a field with their friends.

What I have experienced is not the intensive calf rearing of Europe and major large-scale producers (I've seen photos online so I certainly know it exists). I started to read up on calves and dairy farming and over the past few months I've been learning as I go.

On Thursday I attended a workshop presented by the Milk Producers Organisation (MPO) in the North-West province about 'Raising calves'. I was there officially to show my calf hutch but personally to learn about calves. There was an excellent speaker lineup and thank goodness my Afrikaans has improved to the point of being able to understand everything bar random unusual / long / difficult words - I still get the context. I most enjoyed the physiological neonatal and postnatal elements as well as content on disease and immunity - taking me back to my past life in developmental and cell biology.

Here are some fundamentals about dairy farming that I've learned from some farm visits and the recent MPO workshop.
  • Farmers care about their animals - calves and adults.
  • Dairy cows are bred for their milk production genetics, not maternal instincts. Dairy cows are not necessarily great mothers and they may neglect the calf, not cleaning nor feeding it. This is a very good post by a dairy farmer on why farmers separate calves and cows.
  • Beef cows are very good mothers. What has been successful is when dairy embryos are implanted in a beef cow and she gives birth to the dairy calf and raises it. 
  • Cows come on heat not according to their age but rather according to their weight.
  • Human babies are born with antibodies and disease fighting immune factors that they received from their mom while in the womb. Calves are not. They have a developed immune system by no passive immunity nor circulating antibodies from their mom. They get this from drinking colostrum (post-birth milk) after birth and in the first few days that follow. The colostrum from the first milking is the most potent.
  • Colostrum contains both immune factors as well as hormones and super-boosted nutritional elements (proteins, fats, sugars, vitamins and minerals). 
  • Within six hours of birth, a calf must get 10% of its body weight in colostrum. Its system is geared for maximum absorption of all this goodness. 24-36hrs of birth this ability to absorb the goodness from colostrum diminishes substantially. 
  • A newborn calf must drink with its head up, so that what it drinks slides down its throat and into its true stomach and not into the rumen (where food sits for roughage to be broken down by bacteria). If colostrum and milk sit in the rumen, the calf will get diarrhoea.
  • A healthy calf and good milk producing adult is directly linked to the quality and quantity of colostrum the calf receives as well as when (timing) it receives this nourishing milk.
  • Over the first few weeks of a calf's life, the passive immunity received from its mom diminishes and from about five weeks of age its own antibody production starts to kick in. During the first six to eight week period of a calf's life, it is most susceptible to infection.
  • Colostrum is everything! It is better to give more than less. What a calf receives directly after birth and for the first four days has a long-lasting effect on their growth and weight gain and future milk production. If it is born in winter, the calf needs even more milk as it expends a lot of energy on keeping warm. Growth slows if it isn't getting enough milk so what summer and winter calves receive is quite different.
  • Illnesses generally take three forms: enteric (diarrhoea - from two days after birth), respiratory (lung infections from three weeks to six months) and reproductive illnesses (from 18 months of age).
  • Various bacteria, viruses and protozoa are to blame - fortunately there are vaccinations for these and immunity from vaccinations given to mom can be passed on to the calf in the colostrum.
  • The key way to prevent infections is:
    • the calving area should be clean with good drainage
    • calf hutches should be moved to fresh ground regularly
    • Sun (UV) is important to naturally disinfect the ground
    • Calves should be kept apart for their first few months
Not all farms are the same. Some milk less than 150 cows (small) and others milk over 1000 every day (two to three times a day). Some house their calves in buildings ('permanent rearing facilities') and others use calf hutches and open fields. There is also an in between with small, individual metal 'pens' that are raised off the ground with slats and mats for faeces and urine to pass through.

Hygiene is critically important. Thorough cleaning of the floors of walled pens in buildings and the bedding and mats is essential for disease prevention. This means disinfectant solutions and high pressure hoses and regular changes of clean bedding. I think the small metal pens raised of the ground are almost worse and they too need to be thoroughly cleaned.

I'm obviously biased towards our calf hutches as I've seen them in use (read this post from a dairy farmer that explains why they have chosen to use hutches). The protocol is simple: move the hutch every few days on to fresh lawn. The calf gets to chill in the hutch or the attached garden pen and it can enjoy the sun and benefit from shelter from the hutch. To clean and disinfect the hutch, turn it over, spray it out and leave in the sun to dry. Let the sun's UV rays do the work (both on the hutch and the previously used ground).

It costs R12,000 to R14,000 to raise a calf - a sizeable investment. Multiply this by 20 or 40 or 80. That's a lot of money.

As far as intensive farming goes, I'm not a fan but I'm also realistic and I know that it happens. I also feel that even in this environment it is a better investment for even these big producers to go the route of calf hutches instead of buildings. I have no figures but my gut feel says disease incidence would be dramatically reduced and quality of life for the calves would be far better in individual hutches. Not having to spray down cement stalls translates to reduced labour demands, less water usage and also less chemical/disinfectant use. All of this saves rands. Lots of them.

The dairy industry has been hard hit. We've gone from 50,000 dairy farms 20 years ago to only 1,600 today. A guy I spoke to on Thursday is one of two dairy farmers in his area. There used to be 72 of them in the 90s. Cost of production, local milk prices, global prices, oversupply in Europe and importing of these into SA has taken its toll. 

Interestingly, we're not producing enough milk for our dairy needs (remember that dairy includes cheese, yoghurt, milk powder, long-life milk and not just liquid milk). We had a 100 million litre deficit last year. The drought in the Western and Eastern Cape provinces has severely affected production too.

I've also learned that dairy farmers support each other through hard times and stronger farms work with struggling neighbours to help them through a tough time. Farms going for five generations have had to close their doors. And then there are the violent farm attacks that have taken out farmers and their families. More than 75 farm killings already this year. Isolated on farms, these poor people are sitting ducks for attackers.

Dairy farming is also a high-technology field where the health of a cow and her milk production is closely monitored by sophisticated systems. The farmer knows when a cow is under the weather before she has a clue that she isn't feeling great.

I still have a lot to learn - my minimal experiences have only given me a taste - and in a few weeks I hope to spend a full day at our local dairy for some experiential learning of calf care, the herds, milking process and herd monitoring.  

While I have absolutely no inclination to be a dairy farmer, I have developed a keen interest in the process, the technology and the logistics of dairy farming. 

Dairy farming definitely isn't all Heidi in the Swiss Alps. There are so many ways in which farms and animals are managed. What I have learned from the farmers that I have met is that they all want to do their best to provide quality care for their calves and cows and to learn how to do even better for them.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Kennel for large dog breeds

From the outset we have joked that our YOLO Moo Igloo, a calf hutch primarily for the dairy industry, is perfect for "calves, sheep, goats and very big dogs". Well, it turns out that our YOLO Moo Igloo is the perfect kennel for large breed dogs like Great Danes, bullmastiffs, St Bernards, Irish wolf hounds and the like.

A week or so ago I posted a photo online of our YOLO Moo Igloo in a variety of colours. It was a hit on Facebook.

I then invited a friend to bring her Great Dane to the factory so that I could take a photo of the dog in the kennel. Lagatha is a one-year old Great Dane and she is still growing. There was plenty of space for her (and her mom Linda) in our hutch (yes, Linda is in there with Lagatha).

A friend tagged me and reminded me of the Hound Sleeper dog beds, which she uses for her dogs. I have seen them before and I like them. I checked out their website and then phoned the lady, Dawn.

Our Moo Igloos do not have a base. Two reasons. Firstly, in the dairy industry the hutches are moved on to fresh grass every few days. Secondly, they can be transported stacked like yoghurt cups. They're big - transport would be prohibitively expensive if you can't stack them.

The Hound Sleeper dog bed keeps your dog off the ground and so it is the perfect match for our YOLO.

The problem that Hound Sleeper owners have is that kennels are not big enough for the larger sizes to fit inside. Our YOLO Moo Igloo can accommodate their biggest large and extra large sizes - with some room. So there is a problem solved on that side.

And it seems that owners of large dogs really struggle to find adequately sized kennels. A friend recently bought a wooden 'Wendy House' to accommodate his large dog (almost double the price of our YOLO).

As a dog kennel and a calf hutch our product has slight differences in the finishing and base frame although the size is identical at 1.7m long, 1.15m wide and 1.1m high.

We moulded an orange YOLO Moo Igloo for a friend today - I'll see it tomorrow.

This is a fabulous and colourful domestic extension of a product we created for the agricultural industry; and a perfect outdoor shelter solution for large dog breed owners.

I hope we get many more orders for our beautifully colourful large breed dog kennels.

Navigation training for the military skills guys

I had a blast last week Wednesday when I hosted a navigation training session for the five guys (four competitors plus coach) going over to the Military Skills competition abroad - they leave this week.

As I've been out of the local orienteering scene since I moved to Parys, I've kept myself busy with mapping the Forest Run area, the local primary school, a section of the Vaal River (for paddle-O) and assisting with the annual rogaining event, which was held out here last year and will be out here again this year. I've had a break for a while and so I was delighted to be recruited by the reservists to plan a training session for them.

I set them a 13km as-the-crow-flies course. Not too difficult, not too easy. The idea behind it was for them to get some practice reading contours and to get into the scale. The terrain can be challenging enough. During the event they compete in teams of three; the competitive trio covered 18 kilometres - they made one big error which cost them distance and time.

The other pair took it steady and had excellent navigation - bar a bad decision that saw them bashing through vegetation and totally missing the lovely path to their right.

I thoroughly enjoyed planning the event for them and also being out there looking for them. A really good day in the office is one where your desk isn't behind a computer.