Our Farming

Caring for our Animals

Dairy farmers are committed to the health and wellbeing of their animals. After all, their cows are their livelihood. Our vision is that every dairy cow is well cared for.

Dairy farmers follow strict food safety requirements that ensure the cows stay healthy and produce high-quality milk.

Each dairy cow is identified with a unique ear tag that helps the farmer to monitor her regularly. Farmers keep records for each cow, including feed information, health issues and medical treatments. Farmers are highly skilled at identifying sick cows, and cows are closely observed each day. Any change in their health and wellbeing is noted and they’re treated immediately. They also receive regular health checks and preventative treatments.

Sick cows are separated from the rest of the herd until they’re healthy again. These cows are still milked but the milk is kept separate and thrown away. Dairy farmers must keep their milking equipment and sheds clean so cows can be milked in a hygienic environment.

Routine care for cows includes:

  • inspections to check for complete recovery after giving birth
  • twice-daily observations during milking
  • comprehensive disease prevention treatments including vaccinations
  • participation in national disease-control programs.

Milking and handling cows in a calm, stress-free environment is important. Routine practices that reduce stress include:

  • allowing cows to remain in their natural social order when coming into the milking shed
  • providing an environment that respects normal cow behaviour and their responses to light, noise and smells
  • preventing injury to animals by keeping farm facilities such as laneways, fences, troughs and the milking shed in safe working order.

What Cows Eat

Cows need a balanced diet that gives them enough energy to keep their bodies working and to produce milk. What a cow eats affects how much milk she gives, so farmers need to ensure that their cows have a nutritious diet.

There are five main types of food in a dairy cow’s diet:

Pasture
: plants grown in grazing paddocks that can be a mix of grasses such as ryegrass or protein-rich legumes such as clover. Fresh pasture is the largest part of an Australian dairy cow’s diet.

Hay:
extra pasture that’s been dried, cut and made into bales to feed to cows later.

Silage: pasture that’s been cut and stored while it’s still green to retain the nutrients.

Grains: cereals such as wheat and barley provide more energy than pasture and help cows make more milk. Grains can be crushed and mixed with vitamins and minerals to form pellets. These are usually given to cows at milking time.

Forage crops: special crops are sometimes grown for the cows to graze on during summer, including lucerne, maize (corn), millet, turnips and oats.

After each milking session a cow is typically rotated to a new paddock so she can enjoy fresh pasture. This rotation system allows grass to regrow and ensures that cows are always eating the best grass.

Farmers often need to purchase additional feed to supplement what they can grow, especially during periods of climate variability and drought, which can affect water use and pasture growth. Purchased feed can represent over 30% of dairy farm costs – the largest single cost incurred by most farmers.

Who's Who in a Typical Dairy Herd

A dairy herd is typically made up of four groups of cattle:

Cows: the females, who give birth to calves and produce milk. Most of the cattle in a dairy herd are cows.

Bulls: the fathers of the dairy herd. Only a few are needed on a dairy farm, though these days most dairy farms use artificial insemination instead.

Heifers: young female cattle, they’re the ‘teenagers’ of the herd and haven’t had calves yet. They’re the second biggest group in the herd.

Calves: baby cattle. Female calves grow into heifers and then milking cows. Male calves may be sold for veal production or raised to become breeding bulls.

What Breed of Dairy Cow am I?

There are many breeds of dairy cows in Australia, with Holstein, Jersey and Aussie Red the most popular – and they all have distinctive characteristics.

Holstein

  • The most popular breed in the world and in Australia; nearly 1.4 million of Australia’s 1.65 million dairy cows are Holsteins. Originally from northern Europe, many breeding animals now come from North America.
  • Mainly black and white in appearance.
  • Among the largest dairy animals. Cows can stand over 1.5 metres tall and weigh over 600 kg while bulls stand over 1.8 metres tall and weigh over 1000 kg (about the same as a small car).
  • Some Holsteins produce 10,000 litres in a year. That’s equal to 5000 two-litre milk cartons (14 cartons every day!).

Jersey

  • The second most common breed in Australia.
  • Originally from the island of Jersey in the English Channel.
  • Brought to Australia in 1829.
  • Fawn in colour, with black tips on their muzzles, ears, feet and tails.
  • Jersey milk is especially creamy, making it ideal for making butter.
  • The smallest of all dairy cows, tipping the scales at 500 kg.

Aussie Red

  • Bred in Australia by combining Scandinavian Red genetic lines with other Australian Red breeds such as the Illawarra and Ayrshire.
  • Sized between a Holstein and Jersey and mainly red in colour, with white markings.
  • An extremely hardy breed that produces milk with a high protein content and medium milk-fat content.

Illawarra

  • Developed in the Illawarra region of New South Wales by crossbreeding a number of breeds and recognised as a new cow breed in 1910.
  • Rich red in colour with a little white on the flanks.
  • Produce large quantities of milk; many Illawarras produce more than 40 litres per day.

Brown Swiss

  • Originally from Switzerland.
  • One of the most common breeds in the world.
  • Solid brown in colour, varying from very light to dark.

Guernsey

  • Originally from the Isle of Guernsey, a tiny island in the English Channel.
  • Fawn in colouring with white markings.
  • Milk has a distinctive golden colour.
  • On average a Guernsey produces 22 litres of milk per day.
  • By age three a Guernsey cow weighs 600 kg.

Ayrshire

  • Originally from the County of Ayr in Scotland.
  • Colour varies from light to deep cherry red, mahogany, brown or a combination of these colours with white. Some are all white.
  • Imported to Australia in the 1850s.

Hand-Feeding Calves

About 12 to 24 hours after birth, calves are weaned off their mothers but are still given milk to drink. The first milk they’re given comes straight from their mother and is called colostrum. This is a special type of milk packed with nutrients and antibodies to help the calf develop and to build its immune system against diseases and unhealthy bacteria. Rearing young calves in a clean, warm environment away from the adult herd helps protect them from many diseases and parasites.

Colostrum is milked into a bucket and fed to the calf in a bottle with a large rubber teat. Some calves are fed milk from a special feeder called a calfateria that can feed several calves at the same time. Calves are given free access to fresh water and introduced gradually to solid foods specially designed for young calves are over the first few weeks of life. The calves soon learn to eat grass and often get to eat the best pasture on the farm to help them grow strong.

How Cows Make Milk

Cows belong to a group of animals called ruminants, which have four stomach compartments that play different roles in digesting food and making milk. Other ruminants include goats, sheep, giraffes and camels.

To produce milk, cows need to eat a variety of grasses, clover and bulky fodder, plus food that’s rich in protein and energy.

A cow starts to produce milk when her first calf is born, which typically happens when the cow is about two years old. Pregnancy lasts nine months and the cow is usually able to fall pregnant again about 100 days after her calf is born. This annual cycle ensures that calves are born at the best time of year.

She continues to produce milk for the first seven months of pregnancy. The farmer stops milking her two months prior to the birth so she can devote all her energy to producing her new calf.

The four stomach compartments are:

1. The rumen
The cow half-chews the grass before swallowing it into her first stomach – the rumen – which can hold about 100 litres of chewed grass. The grass mixes with water in the rumen and is broken down with stomach juices and microbes.

2. The reticulum
The grass then enters the reticulum, where it’s softened and made into small wads called cuds. Each cud then returns to the cow’s mouth and is chewed 40 to 60 times – for about one minute.

3. The omasum
The chewed cud is swallowed into the omasum, where it’s pressed to remove water and broken down further.

4. The abomasum
The cud then enters the fourth stomach – the abomasum – and finally digested. The digested grass passes through the small intestine, where all the essential nutrients the cow needs to stay healthy and strong are absorbed.

Nutrients from the grass are turned into milk by four mammary glands in the udder. The milk is released from the udder through the teat, but this won't occur if the cow is stressed or uncomfortable. Suction from a calf or milking machine helps draw out the milk. The teat has a muscle called a sphincter which stops the milk dribbling out when the cow isn’t being milked.

For every litre of milk the cow makes, more than 400 litres of blood must travel around her udder to deliver the nutrients and water for making milk. A cow has about 45 litres of blood in her body, so her blood is continually travelling around her udder to help with milk production.

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