Where Does Milk Come From In Winter?
A friend recently asked me “Where does our milk come from in winter if most of the cows in the country are dry?” so I thought I’d use it as a starting point to explain a few things about dairy farming. Cows supply milk for ten months of the year, with their supply being greatest in the months after calving. The majority of dairy farmers have a ‘dry’ period where they don’t milk for about six weeks. This is their time to catch up on other jobs, perhaps go on holiday and recharge the batteries. They calve down all their cows in the spring and “put them dry” in early December. Part of the reason for this is because the most cost effective way to produce milk with high solids is from good quality grass so it makes sense to milk cows when they can graze grass rather than eat it as silage (preserved grass) and nuts. Some Irish farmers would have a “liquid milk” contract which means they are contracted to supply a minimum amount per day during the winter so that there’s sufficient to supply the demand created by people buying milk in the shops. These farmers are paid a bonus to cover the increased costs of feeding (although I’m pretty sure they’d say it isn’t enough) lactating cows during the winter months. I’m not sure of the geography but I’d imagine most liquid milk farmers are on drier farms where they can get cows out to grass by early February. For comparison purposes, our cows went out this year on 15th March but they are back in now since last Saturday due to the heavy rain. Liquid milk farmers will have two calving periods in the year, one in the autumn and one in the spring.
Some Irish farmers have a “liquid milk” contract which means they are contracted to supply a minimum amount per day during the winter so that there’s sufficient to supply the demand created by people buying milk in the shops. These farmers are paid a bonus to cover the increased costs of feeding (although I’m pretty sure they’d say it isn’t enough) lactating cows during the winter months. I’m not sure of the geography but I’d imagine most liquid milk farmers are on drier farms (such as in parts of Cork) where they can get cows out to grass by early February. For comparison purposes, our cows went out this year on 15th March but they had to go back in for a few days with the heavy rain. We have them out today for a few hours though. Liquid milk farmers will have two calving periods in the year, one in the autumn and one in the spring and will milk every day of the year.
Most of Ireland’s milk goes into commodities – making butter, cheese and milk formula. Ireland’s milk makes 10% of the world’s infant formula which in one way sounds a very large percentage but then Ireland’s supply is but a drop in the milk ocean of the world given our small size. The UK, with their much larger population consuming milk, have many more farmers supplying milk all year round. According to our vet, Ireland and New Zealand are the only two countries that focus on ‘compact calving’ where farmers try to calve down most of their cows within a 6 week period. This is achieved through good fertility and management and means a very busy time on farms for about two months. There was always spring calving here but where it might have stretched out from February to late May, now most of it happens on our farm from 6th Feb – 25th March.
Why Don’t Calves Suckle Their Mothers
Suckler cows suckle their offspring for a number of months, these are beef breeds and the calf would have a much higher meat value at slaughter than a Friesian calf, mostly due to its build and size. A beef cow has to produce enough milk to rear one calf but she has to produce a calf that creates sufficient profit to cover its own costs and the costs of keeping its mother (and a few pounds for the farmer). Dairy cows provide much more milk than beef cows. For example, our cows are giving an average yield of 26 litres a day at the moment. Our calves are drinking 6 litres of milk a day so one dairy cow provides enough milk for over four calves. Dairy cows are kept to produce milk to sell, the focus is on the milk rather than the meat. Some farmers will use beef bulls on dairy cows so they produce a higher value calf and still produce milk for sale. They then buy in dairy replacements from other farmers for their own herd.
We use Friesian sires for our dairy herd. The calves born are small, most of ours would be 30-35kgs, but this means they are born easily without very little stress or difficulty to the cow, the cow “hits the ground running” in terms of producing milk and will go in calf easily again in a few months time. A tough calving takes a lot out of a cow and to be honest, on the human too as it’s distressing trying to help them. The bull calves can still produce a profit when fattened for slaughter (although it seems to be getting tighter every year) so it makes it worthwhile keeping them for two years.
Do We Care About Our Cows & Calves?
Compact calving brings its own challenges – more housing for calves is required but it also demands a tight control as well as prevention of disease. There are various diseases that can cause calves to “scour”, which is diarrhoea. Calves can become dehydrated very quickly and once that happens, it can be difficult to save them. We vaccinate for everything going, for example, rotavirus is one of the most deadly but the cows are vaccinated with Rotavec and the antibodies pass to the calves via the colostrum. Hence, getting 3 litres of colostrum into the calf within a couple of hours of birth is really important. We milk the cow and then bottle feed the calf. If we let the calf suckle, it’s impossible to know whether it drank just one litre or the three litres.
We lost some calves to cryptosporidium two years ago. Last year we lost a couple to it. Crypto is a severe scour that travels from calf pen to calf pen. There isn’t a vaccination for it. Losing calves to scour has to be one of the most soul-destroying things in farming. Sick calves are extremely time consuming – you could spend more time on feeding two sick calves as feeding one hundred healthy ones. Multiply that when you have ten or more sick calves and when you know that the next time you turn around, you’re going to see another calf scouring, it can become exhausting and upsetting. Sick calves won’t always drink so it’s a case of getting electrolytes into them every couple of hours.
This is our second year of using halocur as a preventative measure. Every calf receives 8ml per day for seven days and it is supposed to protect them against crypto for up to six weeks. By this stage, they should be strong enough to survive the onslaught of crypto if they get it. That’s exactly what happened last year. It swept through calf pen by calf pen in two sheds but the calves got the scour, missed a feed and then recovered fine. The problems came when younger calves got it. Even though we set up disinfection points outside the sheds with young calves, even though younger calves were all fed first and the buckets carrying the milk were disinfected, it still travelled. We had a set of twins that were saved by putting them on a drip for 36 hours.
This year fewer calves got it. Rather than sweeping through an entire pen and travelling pen by pen (and boy, the stench is bad), one or two calves per pen got it or an entire pen of 6 calves would get it and then it skipped a couple of pens. Again, even though we set up disinfection points outside the sheds for the youngest calves (one of the advantages of having a spread out yard is that not all calves are housed close together), we had specific buckets to carry the milk to specific sheds, etc, the 17 youngest calves all got it in the last week.
As one tweet to me said this week “why pretend you care when you’re going to sell them for meat anyway”. My reply to that was “if that was true, I wouldn’t be spending more on a vet and a drip than the calf is worth”. As a farmer I see it as my responsibility to ensure that our animals are healthy and well, content, in comfortable housing, with comfortable spaces to lie, with plenty of feeding space to prevent stress at feeding time, have access to plenty of food and yes, that if they are sick, that we do our utmost to make them better. Yes, some of these calves will be sold for meat at two years of age. That’s what happens with the male cattle but we do our best to ensure they have a good life until that point. It may seem strange to nonfarmers but there is a sense of acceptance about death when it’s the right time to go. When attending wakes of elderly farmers, I’ve noticed that one statement that is said again and again is “His/her work is done”. It expresses how he/she has worked hard all their life, the body has given up and it’s time to move on but there is a definite sense of acceptance about it, as well as acknowledging our debt to the deceased for all they have done. Our dairy heifers will either go into our milking herd where many of them will live until they are 12ish or will be sold to other dairy farmers. We sold 8 cows to a farmer two weeks ago and he keeps most of his cows until they are 15 which is a really good age for a cow.
We had 6 calves in particular that were really sick this week. Two ended up being put on drips. We were giving them electrolytes or milk every two to three hours. The vet recommended 2 litres every 4 hours but I discovered this was too long. I had to bring the kids to Kilkenny for a medical appt and to do some grocery shopping. A cow was calving so Brian couldn’t go to the sick calves until she had calved (in case he brought infection back to the newborn). Not getting the fluids for four hours meant that one calf went downhill and even though she got fluids every 2 hours when I got back, we had to get the vet to put her on a drip the next morning.
It’s been a tiring week. Brian was up at 4:30 one morning to a cow calving and stayed up as there was another one calving plus we had nowhere to put the newborns as we couldn’t put them in with the sick youngest calves so he built a makeshift pen in the middle of the haybarn putting bales all around it to keep out the cold. We weren’t in until 11:30 that night (looking after calves), he went to bed and I slept on the sofa, getting up at 2am and 4am to treat the calves. I went to bed at 4:30 and Brian got up at 6 as normal and treated them again. I couldn’t face stomach tubing calves for just one litre of fluid so with a 60ml syringe, I syringed a litre of fluid into each calf’s mouth and they swallowed it fine. Time consuming but effective. That went on for four nights and boy, did I enjoy my full night’s sleep last night! I can assure you that looking to view the consistency of a calf’s poo every time one lifts its tail loses any novelty value pretty quickly too.
The important thing is we haven’t lost any calves (touching wood here as the calving season isn’t over yet) and that’s not being thankful just for financial reasons. There is nothing as disspiriting as losing an animal you’ve worked hard to save. We comfort ourselves by saying things like “as long as it’s in the yard” or “they lose babies in maternity hospitals too” which sounds harsh but it is the reality. Hospitals, with all their care and their high tech, unfortunately lose babies too. We can’t beat ourselves up about it as we do the best we can but it always hurts for a few days. Lottie, Red Clover, Elsie, 94, 83 and all the others look a little bit thin and worse for wear but were all mooing loudly for their milk this morning and although I’ll keep the last two in the “sick bay” for a couple more days to keep an eye on how much they are consuming, they are fine now.
It’s been a busy week and with 7 newborns in isolation in the haybarn, I hope that’s the end to the crypto outbreak. It’s been a hectic week in other ways too but I’ll fill you in on those happenings another time. If you have any questions on dairy farming in Ireland, by the way, do ask.