Many of my local dairy shoppers will have noticed the supply dropping over the past month or two, I’m sure you’ve missed out more than once at market. Well unfortunately the milk drought of 2023 has set in and until July when litres increase there will often be weeks where I have no milk to sell at market beyond my standing CSA subscriptions. This week (14/3/23) will be one of those weeks I’m afraid.
So why the milk drought?
Well many unfortunate events led to it. Nine months ago when I was doing my milk schedule, to make sure all my planned breedings would lead to a steady flow of milk, I was anticipating that my milk supply for March 2023 would be just starting to drop from 85ltrs a day down to 75-80ltrs a day and holding there before it went up again slightly. I’m currently sitting at about 50ltrs a day and dropping.
First in the chain of events was Olive. The last time I mentioned Olive she had just calved with Cherry following years of dramas; still born calf, aborted calf, not getting pregnant, being too fat, getting pregnant, calving, milk fever, recovering.
All looked good. Then she went off her food again, very unlike Olive. We went through a period of her going down hill, we kept treating the diagnosis of what aligned with her symptoms; milk fever, then ketosis but no improvement. Then when it came time to getting the vet the great flood happened, 135ml in one event, do you think we could get a large animal vet out? I managed to get someone the following day to discover that I’d been treating the secondary issue. I was conscious of Metritis (uterus infection) but she was not showing any obvious signs of a retained placenta, smell, discharge or fever. I hadn’t picked this up as the primary infection. We gave her a big dose of antibiotics, accepting that I wouldn’t be able to sell her milk for six months because of our organic status and went to bed relieved that she could now start improving. Sadly I arrived the next morning and we were too late with treatment, she died from septicaemia within the hour. This was the first of my milkers that I’d lost and it was hard not to feel like I’d really let her down.
I have come out of it more knowledgeable and experienced with greater support networks, which can only benefit the rest of my herd for the future. This is the crap part about farming livestock though, often the lessons are learnt at the cost of an animal. Within minutes all of Cherry’s aunties took her in and we bottle raised her, giving her all the love in the world. In two years she will join our milking herd with her mum’s same wacky energy and head thrusts.
Next was Quartz. I also mentioned previously that when Quartzy calved she had had sore feet from all the rain and she had spent the last month of pregnancy lying down, had a very compromised immune system, getting badly sun burnt on one quarter from lying in the same position and then lost one quarter due to mastitis. Once she got through this and could stand on three legs again we could get to work trimming her feet back with the sanding disc on the angle grinder until we cut all the infected part of her feet out.
Within days she improved and a month later I got to see her run for the first time in months. It’s moments like this that keep you farming, having at least one win! I smiled more that afternoon than I had in a while. Her health has held up well since, however her milk dropped at an astounding rate this lactation, I’m putting this mainly down to the crappy start. So at this stage in her last lactation I was getting 9ltrs, I’m now getting 4.
Luna calved well in November having Taurus and all was looking good until 2 weeks in she stood on her teat while trying to stand up and ripped the end off. OWWWWWCH. It’s healed really well and we’ve managed to avoid mastitis, however her milk is a few ltrs less than I was hoping because of this.
So one milker down and one milking at half her predicted amount, we would have scraped through, if my breeding had gone to plan…
The bull I normally use was out of action for this period of time so we were relying on AI which never has as high a success rate. Ginger was first: didn’t hold the first time, next opportunity I wasn’t available to transport her so she ended up conceiving 6 weeks later than planned. But that’s ok, Swish is pregnant – wait!, she lost it at 3 months, it then took me a long time to get her to the bull by which point she’s fat and dry, didn’t conceive the first go, second time and we’re in business, was aiming for calving April 2023, now Sept.
Bee was 4 months later than planned getting to the bull, then she didn’t hold, didn’t get her back straight away, now calving Sept 2023.
This then created a back log of cows who needed breeding. My aim is to have a consistent flow of milk across the year, this means regular spaced calving. I had all these heifers who needed taking to the bull and milkers who were drying off while not being pregnant, but I didn’t want to take them until I’d taken the older heifers and dry cows. If I got them all pregnant at once we’d have chaos in nine months, a huge influx of milk followed by a drop again. When selling to a milk company it’s much easier to have bulk calving, many dairy’s calve once or twice a year. I’m trying to supply the same amount of customers the same amount of milk for the entire year.
So the outcome.
Firstly the current milk drought starts now. Most of my milkers are dropping in supply from now as they get closer to calving, other than Luna who should hold for a few more months. Ginger will be our ‘first cab off the rank’ to calve at the end of May and if we can manage her tendency to milk fever she will be a big producer.
I’ve also been able to borrow a milker from the Dairy Shorthorn farmer whose bull I use. Chloe is a bucket raised dream cow who should take very minimal training. As she wasn’t from a certified organic property I need to have her on our farm for six months before I can sell her milk. I’m not sure how I’m going to give her back, she fits in perfectly.
And I’ve made the decision to keep a bull. This is something I’ve previously not wanted to do on this property due to the size and fencing. Bulls can be a nightmare to manage. However this year the negative impact of not being able to get cows pregnant when they are on heat has outweighed the negatives of keeping a bull. So the first bull calf born to Ginger or Joyce gets to keep his bits. 12+ months later we can put him to work.
We are now back on track to hit our 80ltr mark by the end of 2023, next year hitting the final aim of 10 milkers averaging 100ltrs a day. If all goes to plan…. LOL. At that point we can finally bring some more people off the waiting list and onto the CSA subscriptions. Our herd will be increasing with heifers to calve this year; Bee, Doris Day, Willow and Selenite, then next year Dapper and Bette Davis.
Running such a small herd definitely leaves me vulnerable to milk peaks and troughs but this is exactly why my model is to supply only 70% to CSA customers, selling the rest at market which acts as my buffer.
While I’m very sorry some customers will miss out on dairy for the next few months I have to confess I’m not feeling too stressed. My current herd is happy and healthy, I’ve got eight pregnant cows with more to join shortly and less milk with no calves at foot leads to shorter work days which means Oli and I are about to go away together for the longest time off in five years. Three. Whole. Days! Twice!
Thanks for sticking with me, hopefully I only have to learn these lessons once!