We're 18 months in to our revolution, but it has been 10 years in the planning.
Spring calving has almost finished and this has been the second year that we have left the calves with their mothers when they are born. Not just for 1 to 2 days, which is the norm, but for 5 months.
2 years ago we were quite nervous about it because we had trialled it 4 years earlier and the calves really did become 'milkaholics' and drink almost all of the milk. So to counter that we decided that the best plan was to leave the cows and calves together through the day, but separate them at night. Then we'd milk them in the morning before being re-united with their calves. That way we'd get at least half the milk.
It didn't quite work that way. Cows are clever. They knew that if they just held on to their milk for a little longer then they could keep it for their calf. What amazed us most of all about this is that when we milked them they were able to hold on the the most nutritious part of their milk for their calf - the cream, and they gave us semi-skimmed milk!
We have had a couple of 'interesting' suggestions as to how to persuade the cow to let us have her milk. The first suggestion was to tickle her tummy button, and the second was even more dangerous - massage her birth canal! When a cow sees her calf her system releases oxytocin which causes her to release milk. Apparently tickling her tummy button or massaging her bith canal has the same effect. We've still to find a volunteer prepared to do either of these!
While we got more milk from the cows in the past year than we did in the trial 5 years ago, we're still not getting half the milk we used to. So why are we still doing it?
It may just be our stubborn natures, but we still think it can work! This past year we have been milking once a day all year. But when the cows and calves were separated at 5 months, there are some cows that are so milky you actually see the milk dripping from their udders in the evening. So this year, once they are separated we'll try milking them twice a day for a couple of months. Little tweaks like this can make the system both ethical and financially viable.
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Background as to why we wanted to do this in the first place
Over the past 10 years we’ve been dismayed by the disconnect between what is happening on the ground with our ‘food industry’ and the growing issues of environmental degradation, resource depletion, agri-chemical misuse, animal welfare, food affordability and food security.
So we’ve begun to put together a radical new farming model, based around grazing animals on marginal land unfit for food crops. Our model is based on the concept of Lean Production, which at its essence is about simplification, waste reduction and cost internalisation.
We have quietly begun speaking about our farming revolution and we’ve presented our ideas to farmers, scientists, politicians and members of the public. The response has been interesting. While most of the public think it’s a great idea, few in the industry believe (or want to believe?) we can pull this off, in fact many of them think we’re crazy to even try!
Our big idea? Leaving the cows and calves together until natural weaning, while still milking the cows.
We trialled the full system for the first time in 2012/2013. It taught us a lot, and it cost us an awful lot.
But the impact it made on cow contentment was staggering. All the animals were less aggressive and more confident with each other and with us, compared to normal dairy farming, where calves are removed from their mothers shortly after birth.
That experience has increased our determination to make this system work. We believe that the model will work because we produce most of our feed, fuel and fertilizer needs from the farm, turning waste into valuable inputs which makes us more resource efficient.
Most folks don’t know, but it’s a fact, that to produce milk a cow has to have a calf every year. That calf is taken from her at birth (up to now, we have done this after one day) so that the farm has all the milk – though, as organic farmers, we give a little (5 litres a day out of about 30) back to the calf.
The calf’s instinct tells it something isn’t right, but generally they quickly adapt to this un-natural arrangement (though, clearly, something pretty fundamental is missing from its life). Some cows, on the other hand, take this really hard and can bawl for days. Though some, it has to be said, barely seem to notice. This can be somewhat distressing even for a hardened farmer like myself and certainly for onlookers.
In order to put this nagging question to bed, once and for all, we trialled a way of allowing the calf to stay with its mother while also milking the cows, just to see what happened. That was 4 years ago and the scars (psychological and financial) have pretty well healed over. We’ve looked at how well the cows and calves did (and the calves did very well!!) and discovered that, with some important changes to how we do things, it could actually work.
There will have to be some compromises from both sides but, by and large, the calf will get to stay with its mum (for up to 6 months) and, if the trial showed anything, both mum and calf will thrive.
We’ve made changes to the layout of the cow barn so that we can better manage the arrangement. Last time we were on a steep learning curve, as were the calves who learned a lot faster than us and tended to run circles around us. This time we’ll be better prepared.
We’ve given ourselves 3 years to get things to the point where another farmer could visit us and say ‘I could do that’. We also need to get independent professional organisations to study the model and give it their ‘seal of approval’. Finally we need to finance the project. You see the calf will be drinking about half the milk for the first 6 months after calving. Our costs will remain about the same, so we will be making a big loss until the benefits of the new system start to feed through (hopefully by year 3). We are tenant farmers and banks get very nervous about risky experiments. However we have secured a commercial loan from a welfare charity to see us through, but they do want their money back.
If all goes to plan we hope to be able to demonstrate that food from our dairy industry can be produced with compassion for our animals, for our people and for our environment. We also hope to show that far from being expensive, food produced this way can actually cost less – certainly in the long term but possibly even in the short term.
So no pressure then!