Myth busting- cow lifespan.

Time for some myth busting, or as I like to call it ‘British Dairy Isn’t Scary ‘. This has been prompted by the run up to world plant based juice or nut juice or ‘fake milk’ week. Don’t get me wrong, if you like drinking Soy or Oat or Almond then that’s fine, its up to you what you choose to consume. But when there are blatant lies and mistruths being used to slander the Dairy Farmers of Britain, then I find it really tricky to sit by and ignore them.
Myth 1: Dairy Cows only live until they are 4. Living on a farm prevents them from fulfilling their natural lifespan of 15 years.


Truth: Bubble bursting as it may be, alot of dairy cows in UK herds are older than 4 years old.

Bit of background cow biology- A cow is ready to reproduce from around 15 months of age, although their is plenty of variation.( Note: I’ll deal with reproduction in another post, this blog is just about lifespan but I need to ‘set the scene’.) Normally a cow will have her first calf at around 2 years of age. As she matures and has more calves, her ability to produce milk will increase. On average 5th or 6th lactation will be a dairy cow’s best- i.e when they are 7 or 8 years old.  Dairy farmers put a lot of time, effort and money into making sure that their cows stay in the herd to reach this point.


As farmers, we want our cows to live long and healthy lives. We employ veterinarians, cow nutritionists and specialist foot trimmers (essentially they give cows expensive mani/pedis) to make sure that they are in the best of health. We pay agronomists to check the crops we grow will provide the cows with excellent quality food. We make sure that we check the quality of the water they drink. We buy expensive equipment such as robotic milking parlours, foot baths, air matresses for the cows to sleep on (this really is true) just to make sure they are happy and healthy.  This costs alot- for example a single vet visit could be around £50 before they do any treatment or give any medication.  We spend hours reading and researching, keeping on top of the latest advancements in Dairy science to make sure our cows get the best we can give them.


The arbitrary ‘cow lifespan’ of 15 years bandied about by the anti dairy brigade on the internet  doesn’t come from Zoologists, it doesn’t come from Agriculturalists or even Biologist. It has apparently been plucked from thin air to try and paint UK Dairy Farmers in a bad light. Silly thing is it doesn’t really pan out in favour of the anti dairy propaganda.


Dairy cow specialists spend a lot of time and money figuring out the genetics behind longevity. Long lived cows, and the potential for their offspring to be long lived, are coveted by farmers. The Dairy industry itself keeps transparent and official records of what are called Key Performance Indicators associated with Dairy Cows. One such KPI is the age at which a cow dies. In 2016 the median age of leaving the herd on 500 dairy farms was 6.1 years. As this is a median age, it means there were 250 farms that had older cows leaving the herd.  The reason why a cow dies isn’t documented, and could be anything from chronic illness, to accidental injury or occasionally even being struck by lightening.

Anti dairyists suggest cows would live longer if left to their own devices. Again there is little to suggest this would happen. It is more likely that lack of food sources, medication and prompt veterinary treament, unregulated interbreeding, death during calving, , uncontrolled infectious diseases, parasites (to name a few; gastrointestinal worms, liver fluke, lungworm and maggots- a ‘lovely’ way to die) would all mean life spans would realistically be much shorter than those of cows on modern UK Dairy farms.


Hopefully this short blog has shown how the dairy industry does make sure cows have long happy lives. It is in the farmers (& obviously the cows) interests to keep his or her cows as healthy as possible, so they can stay in the milking herd, alongside their daughters and granddaughters for many years. There is definitely an element of pride associated too- At the end of the day, good farmers will keep healthy cows. Healthy cows will live longer.

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Lady Hermione the 4th, 15/04/02-20/08/17, photo courtesy of @JRStrickley

 

Starting from scratch…

Its  been almost a month since the chickens (Now named Sybil, Martha, Agnes and Delores, thanks to Twitter poll) arrived on the farm. I thought it’d be a good idea to  share some of the reasons why we got them, and (as a complete ‘chicken keeping novice’)  share some of my tips if you are thinking of getting any. Sure, I’ve learned about chicken husbandry, and know how to care for more complicated bird injuries, but I’ve never kept them before.


Before getting your birds, its a good idea to ask yourself why you want to keep hens ? Do you want a regular supply of eggs? Or will they just be companions?

Personally, my reasons for wanting some hens were as follows;

  • 1. We live on a farm, we should have chickens, right? In fact, we should have a few of each farm species, a sort of Noah’s ark for farm animals. Except pigs. I’m not so keen on piggies! P.S Do Not Tell Mr Farm Upon The Hill that this was my reason. This is just between us, right?

2. With my somewhat rose tinted ‘ This- will -make – childhood great ‘ spectacles on I had a hazy vision of the mini farmers helping to take care of the chickens, learning all sorts of life lessons and skills in the process

3.We didn’t need ‘fancy chickens’. Plain hybrids would do fine. No need for a trip to a poultry breeder for us. I wanted to do some good.  Rehoming ex commercial chickens would definitely fulfil this. We were warned that they may not give a reliable egg supply, but so far they have been fairly consistent!

4. I needed assistance in my valiant organic, pesticide free war on the blasted slugs – they ate my Lupins, now it’s serious.

I felt I had time and resources to give these birds a chance to lead lives in a free range environment. If you are wondering if you have enough time too, you’ll be pleased to hear they don’t take up much, especially if you plan on letting them free range. You still need to be prepared to collect eggs, check your birds daily , clean out the nest boxes and feed and water them. In theory you also have to get up early  let them out first thing , and make sure the pop hole is shut at night. But technology is a wonderful thing and an automatic doorkeeper can do that bit for you.  All in all it takes about 20 minutes for me to do the routine tasks daily. Much more worthwhile than watching reruns of Teen Mom OG.

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The other great thing about chicken keeping is you don’t necessarily need acres of garden. Just remember that chickens will potentially turn a manicured lawn into a series of dustbaths and scratch bowls . They’ll also snack on bedding plants, so if your garden is very sacred, using a moveable run or large enclosure may be wise.


We have sited our coop on concrete, which ironically is the shell of the old chicken house. This is a great spot as it means the house is out of direct sunlight and sheltered against rain and wind. The concrete will make it easier to clean up after the birds too. Initially I kept them in the coop and small run for 2 days, before letting them into a bigger pen made of fencing pallets. Now they have the whole shed base to explore, including the log pile which acts as great enrichment for them.


Once you’ve done your research and have decided on breed and how many  you can house, its time to get shopping! I definitely recommend getting your chicken supplies before you get your birds . Being a lover of lists, I found it useful to make a checklist of things that we needed for the first few days. This included

  • Coop – When it comes to choosing a house, the amount of info online can be quite overwhelming. There are even instructions on how to build one from scratch , but unless you are very keen on DIY, I’d stick to ready made! Factors I considered when deciding on what to buy included – ease of access for cleaning, run space and security.
  • Food containers and drinkers – something that is easy to clean, durable and safe.
  • Container for grit – this can be shop bought or homemade.
  • Bedding for nest box
  • Feed bin- save your pennies and get a dustbin with a lockable lid!
  • Diatomaceous earth – handy stuff – for red mite control, also useful for lice.
  • Basic health kit – this includes wormer (I use Flubenvet) , nail clippers, corn starch for stemming bleeds, dressings and tape and lubricant (in case of vent prolapse).

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Feeding chickens is easy. Once upon a time, chickens got tit bits left from the family table. Nowadays, kitchen scraps are a definite no-no. DEFRA, aka ‘they who must be obeyed’, make the rules relating to keeping poultry. They have placed a “complete ban on using kitchen waste from non-vegan households and from catering waste containing products of animal origin”. This goes for all farm animal species, even those kept as ‘pets’ . To be honest, there is absolutely no need to feed anything other than a commercial chicken food. These diets contain the correct levels of protein, minerals and calcium to keep your birds  in good condition. At the minute, our girls are getting a choice of both layers pellets and mash .This is because Sybil and Agnes have wonky beaks, possibly due to being de-beaked. Sybil especially seemed to be struggling to eat pellets and was quite thin when she arrived. She much prefers mash! I let the birds choose when and how much they want to eat, allowing them free access to it. Clean, cool drinking water is also essential. An average sized chicken in lay will need to drink approximately 200ml per day, which will increase in hot weather.

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One of my biggest concerns before getting the girls was whether they were going to attract vermin. ”Where there’s chickens, there’s rats’ is a common saying. Hopefully, taking  simple precautions like keeping the food store rodent proof and cleaning up after the chickens regularly will  help to prevent major rodent issues, along with George who is a remarkably good hunter.

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So far the chickens  have been a lot of fun to look after, and have settled in really well. So well, in fact, that i’m planning a coop expansion…just don’t tell Mr Farm Upon The Hill, ok?!

If you keep chickens, what would your top tips be for newbies?

 

 

 

Coming home to roost

“I believe that all children should be surrounded by books and animals.”
― Gerald Durrell

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Once upon a time, when a different generation lived here in the farmhouse, the farm upon the hill would have been one that ‘old MacDonald’ would have been proud to live on. Pigs, ducks, turkeys, sheep, cart horses and chickens were kept alongside the cows. Not only did the animals feed the family, they filled the larder, worked the land and paid the bills.  Nowadays, raising cows for dairy or beef production is the mainstay of the farm.

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My hope is to restore some of the diversity of the old farming system, whilst still managing to leave plenty of room for the ‘real farming’ to carry on.  The goats are still here, although due to my wonky turns milking them has taken a back seat. Recently we have added a chicken coop to the farm. It stands on the remains of the old chicken shed, alongside my greenhouse and the log pile. The birds came from a commercial flock, via Fresh Start For Hens.   It seemed like an awfully long time between being approved as rehomers and the chickens arriving.

The night before the chickens arrived we watched a short video which showed the flock being checked to make sure they were fit and healthy for the journey to their new homes. The clip explained that  due to the avian flu restrictions, the chickens had spent more time indoors than the farmer would have liked. The flock did look a little bedraggled, but nevertheless were bright and alert, with one even laying an egg on camera!

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The flock then journeyed across the country to various collection points. All we had to do was make sure their coop was ready and turn up to fetch them on time. Ironically our ‘collection point’ was a terraced house in a nearby village, and it was a bit surreal to see 20 or so chickens calmly milling about in the concrete back yard. We chose the four that would be coming to stay with us, gently transferred them to the chicken crate ( an ‘ancient relic’. No farmer chucks out anything that might come in handy one day. Just as well!) which was appreciated by the volunteer re-homer for not being a cardboard box or ‘new fangled crate’ . Five minutes later and the chickens were home, fed, watered and left to settle in in peace. In fact they were so remarkably settled that we had 3 eggs within the first 24 hours of them arriving on the farm!

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Since then they have grown stronger and brighter. The different ‘personalities’ are becoming more obvious – the bossy one, the quiet one, the inquisitive one, the troublemaker. New feathers are emerging and we have had a consistent supply of fresh and tasty eggs.  The supply of eggs was never the most important factor for me in rehoming these chickens. In fact, Fresh start for hens makes it quite clear that eggs from ex commercial chickens are a bonus. Commercial chickens are generally sent to slaughter at 72 weeks of age. I knew we could offer them a chance for a longer happier life. On top of us being able to offer them a home, they are able to give us something in return.

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Both mini farmers have taken an active interest in caring for the new arrivals. C enjoys checking for eggs and shepherding the birds back into the coop after a day of free ranging. JoJo likes feeding them, painstakingly distributing feed evenly between all four chickens! The chickens seem to respond to the children too running towards rather than away from them – I think it is a height thing…well that and the treat foods they sneak them!img_8044Animals have been my passion for as long as I can remember, although I haven’t always been surrounded by them. As a child I grew up in a world far removed from green fields, hedgerows and cow herds. For almost 10 years we lived in a red brick terraced house in West London, with giant ‘winged birds’ flying overhead, on their flight path to Heathrow. We played out on the streets, in parks or in our tiny garden that would fit into this farm a thousand times over. Summer holidays were different – we visited Ireland and its 40 shades of green. We stayed in a whitewashed cottage on a dairy farm, with views down over the Slieve Mish mountains. We were allowed to help milk the cows, got up at the crack of dawn to watch calves being born, built dens behind the tractor shed and climbed amongst the straw bales. These hazy memories of childhood have shaped the way I want my children to grow up, with a love and understanding of both city and country life.

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My children are luckier than I was in so far as they are surrounded by animals, and we have the space, time and knowledge to enable this. I am an enabler! I don’t want to force my passion for life other than human onto anyone, least of all my children. Feeling forced or pushed to do something is a definite reason for turning your back on it. Instead I want to provide them with opportunities and experiences that will help them grow. If they share my passion fantastic, if not they will hopefully still learn valuable lessons by looking after the animals here on the farm. They will learn kindness, compassion, responsibility, pride, respect, how to be gentle and to do no harm. They will learn where their food comes from, about animal husbandry and behaviour, evolution , ecosystems and their place in the landscape that surrounds them. These four chickens are not just the sum total of the eggs they produce, they are so much more.

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The ‘obligate carnivore’ in your kitchen- why cats need meat in their diet.

Recently I have found myself ‘engaging’ in debates surrounding veganism. Some of these discussions have centred around pet nutrition, specifically the choice made by some pet owners to feed their cats a vegan diet. Whilst I can fully accept and appreciate another human beings choice to abstain from consuming meat, whether on ethical or health grounds, I cannot accept the practice of forcing a domesticated cat to become vegan. This blog post came about from these brief encounters with people who are feeding or want to feed their cats a meat free diet.

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Cats as obligate carnivores- what does this even mean.

”An obligate carnivore (or true carnivore) is an animal that must eat meat in order to thrive ” (Syufy 2008).

If you studied biology at school you may remember that animals are grouped according to shared characteristics (taxonomy). Cats fall into the ‘Carnivora’ , an order of animals that also includes dogs, bears and seals. Some of the animals in this order are ‘omnivores’, meaning they are able to meet their dietary needs by eating plant matter. Others, like the domestic cat, are obligate carnivores, meaning they must eat meat to survive and, more importantly, to thrive.

From the shape of their teeth  to the length of their intestines, feline bodies are not designed  for consuming a plant based diet. Millennia of evolution along the line of eating a meat rich diet has meant that cat’s bodies have become ‘streamlined’, shedding ‘unnecessary components’ and creating essential ones along the way.

Dentition

Teeth are an obvious clue as to what cats are designed to eat.

Blatantly obvious clue number 1: Cats  have 4 canine teeth ( the long fang like teeth at the front of their mouths).These are specifically designed for catching, killing and holding prey. Not vegetables.

Blatantly obvious tooth based clue number 2: If you have a cat that doesn’t mind being watched , check out how they eat. Cats tend to use their ‘carnassial teeth’ to chew, pre molar teeth that are specifically designed for meat consumption . They act like scissors , making the meat easier for a cat to swallow. Unlike dogs, cats tend to have fewer molars, meaning they lack surfaces that would enable them to efficiently break down plant matter. The occlusal surfaces of their remaining teeth aren’t efficient for chowing down on vegetables.

Digestive enzymes

Moving past teeth and on to other parts of the digestive process lends further evidence to  why cats shouldn’t be forced into a life of veganism. From the very beginning of the digestive tract, cats have lost out on the ability to digest plant matter. Salivary amylase, a digestive enzyme used to start the process of starch digestion, is missing from cats mouths. Further down the digestive route (in the intestine) amylase is present, but at a mere 5% of the amount found in a dog. Other digestive enzymes found in a cats intestine point to their need for a meat based diet, as does their lack of the enzymes needed for starch digestion.

Picky eaters

Cats, even those on ‘traditional’ diets, can be very fussy when it comes to food. This is one thing for healthy cats, but can be a real problem in cats that are poorly. It can become a vicious circle of a cat that is feeling sickly not eating which makes the cat feel worse so it doesn’t eat. In addition cats that are carrying too much weight can develop hepatic lipidosis, a potentially life threatening liver disorder, due to becoming inappetant. Cats may not find plant based diets very appetising and start refusing to eat. This can  result in them developing further problems.img_6517

Anatomy

Comparing a cat to an omnivorous or herbivorous species will also show anatomical differences that preclude feline veganism. The length of a cats small intestine is considerably shorter, they only have a ‘vestigial’ caecum, and their colon is  much shorter than herbivorous or omnivorous mammals. All of these again point to a meat based diet and an inadequacy in terms of digesting plant based starch and fibre.

So ,  dentition plus intestinal anatomy minus key digestive enzymes equals…well,  doesn’t take a genius to see why they aren’t meant to live on veggies alone.

Essential nutrients

If that wasn’t evidence enough, lets take a look at some of the health problems that cats presented with meat free meals could develop. These problems can arise due to vitamin and protein deficiencies. The domestic cat’s evolutionary journey  has  thrown up a few quirks in terms of vitamin and amino acid requirements .

Vitamin A is necessary for maintain healthy vision, bone and muscles. Most herbivorous or omnivorous mammals can meet their need for  it by converting beta carotene, a plant pigment, during the digestive process. Cats can’t. They lack the enzyme needed for this, meaning they really on ‘ready made’ , ‘pre packaged’ vitamin a. This is easily obtained through eating animal products.

Methionine is another essential amino acid for cats, and deficiency is also possible when they are fed a vegetable based diet. Skin problems, especially around the nose are seen in cats that are lacking this protein.

Taurine is another amino acid (protein) that is essential for a cats sight, nerve function, immune system and heart. Carnivorous diets supply plenty of taurine, whilst cereal or vegetable diets have inadequate or minimal amounts. Deficiency of taurine can result in a cat developing life threatening and (potentially) deadly conditions such as Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) and Feline Central Retinal Degeneration. In pregnant cats it can also cause the unborn kittens to be damaged.

During my recent conversations I have been told ‘ well, my cat is doing great on a vegan diet so far’, having only been on it for a few days, weeks or months. And the owners are probably right. The cats probably are coping. For now.  Switching  to a plant based diet isn’t likely to cause these diseases to develop immediately. In fact,  signs that something bad is happening to your cats health will only appear after a long period of your pet being taurine deficient (anywhere from 5 months to 2 years).

Synthetic forms of both vitamin A and Taurine are available, but relying on these to feed an obligate carnivore raises a separate set of ethical questions. In addition, the nutritional adequacy of ready made vegan feline diets has been questioned, with studies finding them to be lacking in essential elements.

Urination

Another health risk for cats, especially male cats, fed on a vegan diet is FLUTD (feline lower urinary tract disease). These cats can develop abnormally alkaline urine due to the plant based proteins in their diet. Meat based diets result in acidic urine, which is normal for cats. Alkaline wee provides the right environment for bladder crystals or stones to form in . These can cause irritation to the lining of the bladder , leading to  inflammation (cystitis) and infections,  pain and, more seiously , blockage of the urinary tract. Urinary blockage means a cat cannot pass urine, and without veterinary attention a cat will die .

Time to get off the soap box….

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At the end of the day,  I would advocate that any responsible cat owner…or human that  cares for a cat…or cat ‘guardian’ …  should seek to do the best for the cat. Informed choices regarding their care should be made, including what they are  fed . This should be done with the individual animals best interests at heart. If a pet owner still decides that this means feeding a vegan diet to their cat , the cat should have regular check ups scheduled with their vet, to ensure that the cat never suffers due to food source.

 

Heatstroke in pets- tips on how to keep your pet safe.

The sun has been out for 2 days straight now which obviously means it is the beginning of summer in the UK. Rising temperatures might be nice for us but our four legged friends don’t always enjoy the heat, and in some cases it can have devastating effects. I’ve put my ‘day job’ veterinarian hat on to come up with some tips on how to keep your furry friends safe in hot weather.

What is Heatstroke?

Heatstroke is basically hyperthermia- a high body temperature- that has not been caused by a fever. It is a true emergency; if left untreated it can soon lead to the death of a pet. ‘Exertional heatstroke’ occurs during or after exercise on hot sunny days. Non exertional occurs when animals are exposed to high temperatures without ventilation or a water source.


Why are dogs and cats at risk?

Our pets have a hard time regulating their body temperature when it is warm outside. Unlike humans, they only have sweat glands on their paws and around their nose, so once overheated they really struggle to cool themselves down.  Fit and healthy dogs and cats can suffer from heatstroke, but some individuals are at a higher risk of developing symptoms. These include

  • Very old or young dogs or cats.
  • Pregnant or nursing animals
  • Overweight animals
  • Short nosed/flat faced breeds (aka ‘Brachycephalics) such as Pugs, Pekinese or boxer dogs, as well as Himalayan or Persian cats.
  • Thick coated breeds
  • animals with pre existing breathing or heart conditions.

What are the signs to look out for?

Common things to watch out for include

  • Drooling
  • Panting
  • Dark coloured (red or purple) tongue
  • Lethargy or acting sleepy
  • Wobbliness/ being uncoordinated
  • Collapse
  • Vomiting

These signs can be associated with other health problems, so if in doubt please call your veterinary surgery for advice. In some cases you may not see warning signs that your pet is in difficulty

How to help your pet – emergency first aid and prevention


If you think your pet has become overheated there are several ways that you can help:

  1. Don’t panic! Move your pet to a cool or shady area and ring  your local vet for advice.
  2. cool your pet- this needs to be done slowly to prevent doing more harm than good. In some cases you can start doing this whilst making your way to the veterinary surgery.

NEVER immerse your pet fully/ completely douse them in cold water as this could cause them to go into shock.

Ways to safely bring your dog’s temperature down include

  • Using small amounts of room temperature water to pour on their body, little and often.
  • Wrapping your pet in wet towels.
  • Standing your pet near a fan.
  • Allowing them to drink SMALL amounts of cool water.

Whilst it is important to cool your pet, make sure you don’t over do it. Cooling your pet for too long or too quickly will potentially cause them to go into shock.

Once your pets breathing rate becomes more normal and they start to seem less agitated then you can stop cooling your pet. In all instances it is a good idea to take your pet in to the vets for a check- up ASAP, even if they seem better.

Prevention

… is always better than cure, so here are some tips to stop your pet becoming too warm in the first place

Never ever be tempted to leave your pet in a car or caravan. Even with open windows and in the shade the temperature inside a parked vehicle can soar within minutes.

Avoid exercising your pet in the heat of the day ( 11-3pm in the UK ). Early morning or evening is better. Not only will this prevent heatstroke but it will also prevent burnt or damaged pads due to hot pavements/tarmac.


Provide plenty of fresh water for your pet to drink. Sometimes cats can be really fussy about what they drink from- they may prefer running water (ie water fountain or tap) or particular bowls.

Ice- a few cubes in a bowl of water can go down well on hot days. Filling a plastic bottle 3/4 full with water and freeze it overnight. Once frozen, wrap in a tea towel or other fabric cover and place under your pets bedding. Just be sure they can’t come into direct contact with the ice, and I would not leave them unattended with it!

What to do if you see a dog in a parked car?

For good advice, check out the RSPCAs suggestions. Calling the police (if you are in the UK ) can be a first port of call, as RSPCA

The RSPCA has good advice on what to do if you find a dog in a hot car. If you are worried about an animal left unattended , or it appears distressed the best thing to do is call the police.


How does your pet like to keep cool in the heat? How do you help them out? I’d love to hear! 

 

 

 

 

 

Lets hear about the boys- what really happens to male calves on a dairy farm?


At the end of March I wrote a blog piece in response to an article published by the Guardian  regarding dairy farming. It has been read by over 23,000 people from all over the world. I hope that it helped to set the record straight regarding what British Dairy farmers do for a living .

The torrent of abuse I received from a handful of angry vegans has died down, so I figured, in an effort to further enlighten people, it is time to publish a follow up. This post is an expansion of one of the paragraphs from my other blog, detailing what actually happens to male calves born on a UK dairy farm.

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Shot at dawn?

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In his ‘opinion piece’ written for the Guardian, Mr Newkey Burden stated that male calves born on a dairy farm are shot immediately after birth. I assume the author meant this to be a shocking revelation, ‘baby animals’ being shot in the name of food production. It was shocking, because it simply isn’t true.

I will not say that male dairy calves never die at an early age; neonatal calf deaths do occur for several reasons. Calves of both sexes die due to diseases, defects,  injuries and difficult births. Calves may have to be euthanized (put to sleep) due to any one of these, or they may die suddenly.  Some farms may have to euthanize calves, irrespective of sex, if they are prevented from moving them to other farms or rearing units due to Tuberculosis movement restrictions.

Neither will I say that the shooting of young male calves has never happened . However, in the vast majority of cases a male calf born today on a dairy unit will be raised until he is at least 10 to 12 months old ( for rose veal production).

Gender balance

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So why all the fuss about male calves anyway? Historically, dairy farms did not ‘need’ male calves. They did (and still do) need female calves for several reasons:

Replacing ‘lost’ cows- Each year, a number of adult cows will leave a dairy herd for various reasons. These include old age, disease and accidental deaths. Some herds also sell adult cows to other farms. Female calves (heifers) are needed each year to replace these lost members of the herd.

Heifers enter the dairy herd at (approx.) 2 years old. As such, heifer calves need to be born each year to ensure that there are enough cows in the milking herd at any one point in time.

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The ratio of male to female calves born on a dairy farm, either due to natural service (bull mating) or Artificial insemination, is approx. 60:40. Some farms, in an effort to swing the ratio in favour of females, use ‘sexed semen’ during artificial insemination. This changes the female to male ratio to 90:10.  As you can see, it is impossible to prevent males from being born, so what becomes of them?

Traditionally, male dairy calves (bulls) would be perceived as taking space and food away from the heifers. Nowadays this is no longer the case.

What happens to male calves?

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If you are a (close minded militant) vegan I suggest you stop reading now, as the next part deals with meat production. If you are open minded and would like to find out more please read on.

There are a few different farming systems that rely on male dairy calves.

  • Rose veal – Ok, you might have heard about ‘veal’ and remember the images of crated calves overfed on milk to produce white veal. Those days are long gone (thankfully). Rose veal refers to meat from male calves that have been reared on a cereal and straw diet for 8-12 months (average 10-12). The calves are housed indoors on straw, and are able to move about and interact with their pen mates. ours mix
  • Bull beef – Male calves in this farming system are raised to between 12 to 16 months. They are fed on a similar diet (cereal/straw) and housed in a similar fashion.
  • Beef – Male calves that go into this system tend to be castrated. Entire male dairy bulls are potentially dangerous, and may injure themselves, other bulls or humans. Bullocks are kept until they are 2 to 3 years of age, before going to slaughter.

red and white bull

Some farms choose/have the facilities to raise their own male calves. Others will sell them on to farms that specifically raise bulls/bullocks.

bulls mixed

Recently I received an email from a vegan activist, asking me whether the dairy industry really does kill all male calves at birth. In the interests of transparency, I conducted a survey (via twitter) asking dairy farmers what they did with their calves. 87 votes were cast,  almost 60% sold their dairy bulls, almost 30% kept them and raised them, 5% bought in calves to rear, with the remainder ‘euthanizing’.  Bearing in mind this was essentially a ‘vox pop’, it does show that the vast majority of dairy bull calves will live much longer than Mr Newkey Burden alleged.

P.S All of the photos on this blog post come from farmers raising male dairy calves. They were sent to me by members of the Ladies and Livestock group on Facebook, in response to a request to show that dairy bull calves do live much longer than the morning they were born.

”We sell all ours through market at around 8weeks! But most definitely are not shot and binned!! 😡

May not be worth a great deal but they cover their costs and unless something was majorly wrong with them why would you kill them?….hate how we’re viewed as complete unemotional murderers 😡😡”

comment from a ‘Ladies and Livestock’ member and farmer in response to my request for information on dairy calves.

A long awaited arrival

It seems both a life time and no time at all since I wrote about the beginnings of ‘Project Goat milk’. The dream has finally become a reality this month with the arrival of the goat kids.

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For those of you who like numbers, the average gestation length of a goat is 150 days (might come in handy at a pub quiz, you never know). Counting forward from the date of mating gave us estimated due dates of the 17th and 18th of April for Amy and Bernadette respectively.

Thinking myself extra super organised and well prepared I booked some holiday off work covering these dates. Unfortunately, best laid plans never seem to work out. I should also know by now (2 human babies, assistance at many non human births) that due dates are merely a guide to be acknowledged and subsequently ignored.

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The first kids arrived on the evening of the 13th of April- I think it should have been a Friday. I had just spent several hours in A&E with Farmer F . For once it wasn’t him causing the problem, it was me. To cut a long story short I had had a couple of ‘funny turns’ and then taken her off to the land of A&E. After much poking, prodding and a series of tests that seemed to come straight from the ministry of silly walks handbook, I was discharged with a box of Aspirin and a diagnosis of ‘Query TIA’. Fortunately my ‘turns’ have since been demoted to the level of Migraine with Aura without headache (go figure) , or Temporal lobe epilepsy. I’m still a work in progress- the doctors haven’t quite worked out what to do with me yet.

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Anyway, back to the goats. After several hours in hospital on Thursday, we returned home tired and hungry. F went to check on the goats whilst I got something to eat. He quickly reappeared ‘Er, you might want to go and check the goats’. He might have well pointed at me, messiah-esque, and said ‘Lazurus, rise’ I was out of the kitchen like a rat up a drain pipe.

img_5178Amy had popped. Two gorgeous, gangly kids. One spotty, speckled coated nanny and one buckskin coated billy. These became Priya and Leonard . I was in love. Slightly disappointed at not being at the birth but relieved everything had gone well. Amy had two healthy kids who were up on their feet and feeding. Goat kids are a lot different to lambs- long, gangly legs remind me of foals, yet they are far more sure footed. Floppy oversized ears, the kind of ears you hope they grow into.

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Friday came and went, no more of my ‘episodes’ and no more kids. Saturday I went down to the goats first thing – Bernie didn’t get up to greet me. Here we go, I thought, she’s in labour. I left them be and came back an hour later. Still nothing. Bernadette was up but not acting like her usual self. Normally she is feisty, now she seemed subdued, although putting up a good show of being ‘normal’.  I got F to hold her whilst I checked her over. My suspicions were confirmed, she was almost fully dilated but her pelvic canal (the bit that the kid comes through) was empty. Time for me to retreat again. Another hour or so passed before i came to check on her. I peered through the window, hoping to see some little ones, but Bernie was lying quietly on her own. Time was ticking on- the risk of infection to both Bernie and her babies was increasing as the hours passed, and I was anxious in case the kids were in any difficulty. I gave her an injection of oxytocin to help her labour progress, and sat down in Amy’s pen to observe from a distance. Within minutes Bernie was up on her feet and contracting well. After 30 minutes of this, there was still no kid. Time to take a closer look. A gentle examination and i found the bag of fluid surrounding a kid, and ruptured the membranes. Inside were two big feet and a head and I relaxed a little. The kid was alive, moving and in the right position. Baby goats are born as if they are about to dive into a pool- front legs stretched out, nose and head next, slightly tucked in chin. Of course there are other ways to be born, but this is the easiest, textbook and straightforward.  A bit of gentle persuasion and soon Bernie had birthed her first kid, a very big buckskin boy (now known as Howard) .

img_5275The second kid was presenting awkwardly- his head was bent slightly back so he was almost looking over his shoulders. I helped to position him better and Bernie birthed him quickly. This was Rajesh, another beautifully marked boy. Bernadette started to clean and nuzzle him immediately. My work done, I stayed long enough to shake out a clean bed of straw before letting the little family get to know each other in peace.  img_5220

 

 

Lets get things straight….

calf black and white

Have you read the  ‘Dairy is scary’ opinion piece from the Guardian? I have, and it has left an exceptionally bitter taste in my mouth. I can’t believe that such a poor piece of writing has been published under the Guardians name- albeit as an opinion piece.  The article  has come about after the publication of a video by the animal advocacy group ‘Animal Equality’. I won’t waste space by leaving a link to it here, if you want to read it , its easy to find. Let me save you the bother- in this blog post I’ve summarised the key points from the article and addressed each one with fact and the views/opinions of a real life dairy farmer. However, if you do enjoy reading  work that contains very little truth and a lot of sensationalism then by all means, go check out ‘Dairy is Scary’.

Some truth about calf rearing…..

The article is based on perceived issues associated with the accommodation of calves on a particular calf rearing unit. For those who don’t understand how the dairy industry works  this is a farm where calves are looked after by calf rearers . These are people whose sole job in life is to make sure that the young animals  are fed, watered and kept healthy and happy.  The calves pictured at this particular unit are housed in individual hutches. These are specifically designed for calves and are actually high welfare accommodation. They provide good shelter and excellent ventilation. Young calves are susceptible to lung infections and this style of housing helps to significantly reduce the risk of illness. Also it helps to prevent outbreaks of disease if one calf does become ill.

The author is correct in saying that calves over 8 weeks are not permitted to be housed individually. If you read the ‘code of welfare for cattle’ produced by the UK government you can see this is a legal requirement. However there is no proof that the calves shown are over this age limit, and in fact the photo showing a measurement of a calf being taken would suggest they are younger than the 6 months that Animal Equality have claimed them to be. Trading standards have found no issues on the farm.

A bit about the ‘birds and the bees’……

According to Mr Newkey -Burden , dairy cow reproduction is a brutal event.  This is really not the case. Artificial insemination does play a role in the dairy cow life cycle. However it does NOT happen in the way this article purports.

For A.I to occur, semen is collected from a bull but this is not done mechanically as the article suggests. I’m not going into the ins and outs of artificial breeding, but lets say no bulls are hurt in the making of a straw of semen. In fact most stud bulls live the life of riley, cosseted and cared for as befits an animal of their calibre. The average monetary worth of a young bull going to stud is £20,000. When you have this much financially invested in an animal would anybody not want to make sure they have the best care available

Insemination is not a brutal procedure. No farmer will attempt to ‘impregnate’ a cow before they are physiologically ready- it just doesn’t work. It is simple biology- a cow can only become pregnant for a short number of hours during a 21 day ‘reproductive cycle’. During this  period she will show natural behaviours that are a cue to her fertility. Farmers and vets refer to this behaviour as ‘bulling’. Once an animal shows this behaviour, an AI specialist  will inseminate the animal. This can be done without putting the cow into a handling system (Chas refers to this as a cruel ‘crush’) as she will naturally stand to allow the procedure to occur. Again I’m not going into the finer details of insemination.

Sometimes we do use ‘cattle crushes’. This is a colloquial or lay mans term for a cattle handling system. It does not hurt or harm the animal, as this would not help at all. We use them to safely restrain cows that need veterinary treatment or other procedures that require them to stand still. You have to remember cows are very heavy animals (500kg to 700kg for a dairy cow, 1 tonne plus for a bull). They are capable of doing serious damage to a human unintentionally just by moving their head or foot. Over friendly cows can easily knock an adult over going for a head rub!! As an aside a cows foot can accelerate at 10 metres per second squared. That will seriously hurt on contact. In fact it will break things- human bone shaped things.

Lets go milk a cow….. beginners 101.

Milking a cow is not easy. Any dairy farmer who gets up at stupid o clock in the morning every day of the year to do so will tell you this.  At the same time, no one steals milk from a cow, which Chas suggests. If a cow does not want to be milked, you wont get any. We put the cluster on, the cow doesn’t want to let down her milk, empty milk jar. Its a fact. Milk let down requires oxytocin. Oxytocin is a ‘happy’ hormone. Sad cow, mistreated cow; no oxytocin, no milk. Happy cow-content cow-oxytocin- milk let down. Cows come to be milked- each day on our farm, we call the cows to milk, they get up from their bed or come in from the field. No cattle dog, no sticks, they come voluntarily. In some dairy herds milking isn’t done by a human. They use robotic milking machines. These allow a cow to decide when she is milked. On average, a cow will go to the machines 2.8 times a day. Voluntarily. No pressure from a human involved.

Chas states that the Uk dairy farmer needs to rely on antibiotics and hormones to boost milk production. Uh oh, chas failed to get his facts right! This is not allowed. It is illegal! And just to make sure, milk is tested in milk factories to make sure it is drug free.

The article also refers to lameness being caused by large udders. Yet another inaccuracy. Lameness is usually due to poor food, bad conformation (animals anatomy), infection, trapped stones  or bad surfaces that the cow stands on. Lame cows don’t produce milk. In fact, when a cow is ill for any reason her milk production will decline, sometimes to the point of no milk at all.

The author also states that cows which produce large volumes of milk will get mastitis. Mastitis occurs in any mammal that is lactating.. Mastitis, or inflammation and infection of the udder, is caused due to bacteria, yeast or other environmental or infectious pathogens. In other words, bugs. Not milk volume.  Any cow with mastitis on our farm receives immediate attention, with veterinary care if needed.

Separating a calf and cow…

Yes, this happens. Modern domesticated dairy cows are not wild creatures. They produce far too much milk for a calf to take. If a calf were to be left on, the cow’s udder would never be drained sufficiently leaving her at risk of developing mastitis. Mastitis can kill a cow very quickly- in less than 12 hours from first infection.

The calf gets one on one attention when raised by a human, who makes sure all their needs are met. They are fed colostrum from their mums and follow on with milk.

Chas says calves and cows ‘bellow for days’ when separated. This is completely incorrect. Our cows usually return to their herdmates within 24 hours of giving birth. They don’t notice that the calf is gone. They often don’t understand what a calf is. Modern cows are not always cut out to be good mums. Some cows will actively try and hurt their calves if left with them, and can turn violent towards a human that tries to help the calf.

A question of gender…

Chas says, and it seems to be a popular belief amongst vegans and animal rights activists, that male calves are shot at birth and ‘binned’. This is not strictly true. Some farms may have to euthanize calves full stop if they are prevented from moving them to other farms or rearing units due to Tuberculosis movement restrictions. Other farms keep their bull calves, or sell them on to units that rear them on for bull beef or rose veal. Bull calves that go for rose veal go to abattoirs at 10 to 12 months of age. In fact Rose veal farming is backed by the RSPCA.

The death of a cow…

One phrase in the article really annoyed me, and I’m sure others will find it offensive too. Chas referred to cows being ‘dragged off by a tractor’ when they are too ill or old to be milked, or simply ‘collapsing under agony’. Wrong, wrong, wrong again!!! Any cow that is going to an abattoir must be able to walk soundly onto the lorry that is transporting it. It is not legal to transport a cow that is so poorly it cannot walk. If a cow has become very sick or has had an accident on the farm, a vet will be required to perform an emergency euthanasia (which requires a lot of paperwork!).  Chas also makes reference to abattoir slaughter in his piece, incorrectly. Unless an animal is being slaughtered for halal meat (something which I do not agree with) it will be stunned using a captive bullet. This renders the animal completely unconscious.

In conclusion….

One thing I do agree on with the author is consumer choice. Everyone in the first world has an ability to choose which food they eat. Organic, free range, vegetarian, vegan – choose as you will. But make sure it is an informed choice. One that is based on fact and not fiction. Listen to as many arguments as you need to in order to make the right choices. The argument I have made in support of the dairy industry is based on fact and personal experience. The facts have been checked with a dairy farmer who has over 40 years of experience with cows. Hands on, day to day experience of caring for them, reading their behaviour and making sure they are happy.  Farming and caring for dairy cows is in his blood. Quite literally. He is a 7th generation farmer, with his family farming the same area for 243 years. Safe to say he understands a bit about cows and calf rearing.

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Farm walk- tips for staying safe.

I’ve recently joined a few blogger groups on social media, ones that are full of outdoorsy types rather than fashionistas and make up artists. One of the threads the other day caught my eye. It was about going walking in the countryside when you’ve got bovinophobia- a(n irrational) fear of cows. Initially I thought it was a bit daft. How can anyone be  that terrified of cows? Then the replies trickled in…one poster after another admitting that they too really don’t like walking through cows. Some people offered advice, most of it sound and sensible. The odd suggestion was a bit odd, and potentially dangerous. I’ve come up with some advice of my own on how to stay safe when walking on farm land.

Plan your route and stick to it-Lots of working farms have public rights of way through them. These routes may be through grazing fields , across land used for growing crops or even through a busy farmyard. Farmers have a responsibility to make sure the area directly around a right of way or public footpath is safe. Stick to the marked route. If you go off the beaten track you could end up putting yourself in harms way.

Here come the girls #milkingtime #teamdairy #farminglife #farmfamily #wales

A post shared by TheFarmOnTheHill (@farmuponthehill) on

Leave it alone- Farmers often leave machinery in fields where they are working, or on the farmyard. Don’t touch it! Even if they aren’t switched on, tractors and other bits of farm kit are dangerous. The same rule applies to animals. If you see an animal that you think is ill or in distress, its best to try and let the farmer or land owner know.

Read the signs- Signs are put up for a reason. Quite commonly they will be used to alert you to the presence of a bull in a field, something which I personally prefer to know about before getting any where near him (I don’t like bulls. Not one bit) . Sometimes they will also let you know if there are lambing ewes present or if the field has recently been sprayed. In these cases, you might want to take a detour.

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Animal encounters- Try and be aware of what livestock are in a field before you enter it. Although they may look cute and fluffy, cows, sheep and even horses can be dangerous and can  kill people. As a general rule, leave them alone and they’ll leave you alone. Most farm animals will be used to seeing people, especially if the route you are on is popular with walkers. Give them a wide berth- go round, rather than through a herd or flock.

If you spot calves in a field , be aware that any cows with calves at foot will be more wary and protective of their offspring.  The mothers may stop and turn to watch you, but generally they will leave you be unless they feel you are threatening them (ie coming too close) Never put yourself between a cow and calf. If you have a dog with you, they may be even more interested and alert.

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Sometimes groups of cows (usually bullocks or heifers) may run towards you. Although it might look like it, it isn’t a stampede as such- they are most likely  just being playful and nosy. Try and stay calm, and walk quickly and quietly through the field. This is easier said than done. I recently got caught out taking the mini farmers on a walk to a local castle, located in a farmers field. We made it to the castle uneventfully, it was only when I turned round to go back I realised we weren’t alone- at least 10 young bullocks were ambling towards us.I managed to carry /drag the kids and buggy across the field, all the while being followed by these hooligans. They gambolled along, snorting and skipping, really looking like they were enjoying themselves.  That situation could have been a lot worse. Playful calves don’t sound too scary until you realise that each of them weigh half a tonne.

 

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Group of bullocks grazing.

I would also recommend carrying a stick when walking amongst cows. If you do find yourself surrounded by inquisitive animals it can be used to gently nudge them out of the way. Its also good for making yourself look bigger (and feel braver) if you do get charged by cows.

One woman and her dog–  You can never be 100% sure how dogs will behave around farm animals, so adopt a ‘safe rather than sorry’ approach and put them on a lead. Sheep chased by dogs can miscarry their lambs, suffer from shock and die. Worst case scenario, a dog may attack and savage a sheep. Keep them on a lead to make sure you keep control. Even if you think they are the best, most well behaved canine that ever walked the planet. A farmer can and will shoot any dog that they feel poses a risk to their stock.

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Keeping your pet on a leash will also help protect lapwings and other ground nesting birds. Their nests and eggs lie amongst the grass, which can be disturbed and destroyed by dogs.

The only time you should let go of the lead is if you are challenged by cows. In this instance, your pet will be better able to protect themselves if they are off the lead, and you are  at risk of  sustaining life threatening injuries if you try to hold onto them.

These are just a few pointers, for more in depth advice check out the Countryside code.

 

 

 

 

 

 Please don’t feed my dog

This week Lemmy, the littlest four legged member of the family, turned 3 months old. The week before marked another important milestone in his doggy life- he had his second vaccination. Fully protected against some of the nastier doggy diseases, it was time to venture out into the big wide world.

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He loved it! He is such a confident little puppy, and incredibly active. For his first official walk I decided on a short lap of Broadhaven boardwalk, which takes about 20 minutes.

As we set off from the car park, Lemmy caught the eye of a bunch of walkers, heading in the opposite direction to us. One of the group was particularly enamoured with Lem, and stopped to say hello. Not a problem. Lem is very friendly, and I am keen to safely socialise him as much as possible. However, this gentleman took a step too far. He bent down to Lemmy and asked’Want one of these, little fella?’, offering some sort of food item that he had produced from his pocket. Lemmy is a ganet, and the proffered treat was snaffled up immediately.

‘No, sorry, he doesn’t want that, thanks very much’. I managed to hook the treat out – a rather large adult dog treat- before he had the chance to chomp it down

Now why did I do that? Surely the man was only being kind? Prehaps he was. But there are several reasons why you shouldn’t feed other peoples animals.

  • Diet matters- Lemmy has never had treats. He has been on the same dry food diet since he was weaned from his mother. How boring?! Not at all. Dogs don’t see food in the same way we do- they don’t become bored of eating the same thing everyday. In fact, it is important not to chop and change food. Sudden changes in diet can lead to an upset tummy, with diarrhoea and even vomiting. But this wasn’t a change in his diet, it was a single treat- why does that matter? A single treat can be all it takes to trigger a runny tummy. And that is something I really would rather avoid!
  • Size matters- Lemmy is a puppy, and still only small. He still has all his baby teeth. He can’t cope with large biscuits or treats, and there is the potential that these could become lodged in his mouth or throat. Not good!
  • Calorie counting- Lemmy is given the exact amount of food he requires everyday. His dry food is measured, to the weight advised by the manufacturers for his age and size, and split into three meals. He doesn’t need extra food. Extra food (and yes, a single treat counts as extra) can lead to weight gain. Carrying extra weight is no fun for people or animals. It can lead to arthritis and joint problems, as well as putting strain on the heart and lungs. Again, something I’d rather avoid.

There are other reasons why you shouldn’t offer food to other peoples pets, without the permission of the owner first.

  • Some animals have specific dietary requirements. A dog or cat may be diabetic, suffering from kidney disease or Inflammatory Bowel Disease. They may even have food allergies or intolerances. These pets need to be on special diets, with their owners often having to be extremely careful when it comes to what their animals eat. A small piece of the wrong food could lead to a lot of problems for an animal with one of these conditions.
  • Pancreatitis is another illness that can be triggered by food. The pancreas is an organ that helps with digestion of food. In cases of pancreatitis, the pancreas becomes irritated and inflamed, resulting in over production of digestive enzymes. This can be incredibly painful for cats and dogs, and can lead to them requiring a trip to the vets. In some cases it may need surgery, and can even be fatal. All this from eating or being fed something they shouldn’t have.

So, although the gentleman we met on our walk probably thought he was being kind to Lemmy, he wasn’t doing him any favours. Next time I hope he thinks twice , or at the very least asks, before feeding someone else’s pet.