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.

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