I suppose we surprised ourselves as much as anyone else when we took up farming, but the biggest surprise of all was our progression to dairy farming.
We weren’t city-ites, but in the eyes of a farmer we were townies and therefore fit to wear the ‘new chum’ label. I, at least, had been brought up in the bush on remote cattle stations, so one would have thought I might have had some sort of experience at the way of the land. Not so, I’m afraid. I was as green as John whose only experience at farming was a short stint in the Burnside Homes Orphanage, when he was fourteen years old.
As a kid I was always crook and my mother, scared potty that one of us might die and be the occupant of yet another tiny grave in the lonely outback, had tagged me as being the one most likely to kick the bucket if given half a chance. Consequently, I was kept in cotton wool and missed out on all the fun of the near-misses my other siblings enjoyed.
For all that, I did retain bits and pieces of information that were to hold me in good stead during the farm learning process. It must have been my destiny to end up on the land and really, the only regret I have is that I didn’t get to do it until I was over the crest and on the downhill run plummeting towards middle age. There was so little time left when fitness and strength, the great necessities of a farmer’s physical requirements, were mine.
“We are doing what we want to do, rather than what we have to do” said John, to justify the purchase of our first two hundred picturesque acres to relatives and friends who were convinced we had both lost our marbles. They had a point because John had been a successful Insurance Agent until he decided there had to be more to life than the office. Our two boys were in the final years of their schooling, and though we had no illusions that we would do much more than scratch a living from our land, we had not counted on the lack of employment opportunities available locally for our sons.
The farm we bought on the Comboyne Plateau, where it was mostly dairy farming and potato growing country, had once been a dairy farm. Our homestead was an old farmhouse constructed of hand hewn timber slabs standing on red mahogany stubs, nestled in the lee of towering blackbutt and tallowood trees, just below the crest of a ridge where our ‘undulating’ acres began. Mack’s Creek babbled and gurgled down mini-waterfalls into rock pools filled with yabbies, to meander gently on creating grassy islands shaded by tree ferns and brush, wattles and seedling peach trees, all overgrown with passionfruit vines. Down at the bottom of the gully it joined forces with big brother Upsall’s Creek, and together they roared and crashed some eighty metres over Glenmore Falls.
Dotted on kikuyu and paspalum pastures rolling down from the forest fringe to Mack’s Creek, our one hundred head of hereford cattle grazed peacefully, oblivious to the fact that their welfare was now in the hands of newcomers to both the area and the land. Rising majestically from the gully floor an old man brushbox, its topmost trunk crowded thickly with bush orchid, paid grim reminder to what once was before man chopped, hacked and clawed away the rainforest.
During the settling in period we explored every inch of our two hundred acre holding, revelling in its beauty. The boys and I went off each morning at first light. We discovered the woes of the stinging trees and picked and ate the delicious passionfruit from the vines that grew in abundance.
We had brought with us our family pets – two cats and the recent addition, a young kelpie pup, each of which reacted to their new surroundings with as much joy as ourselves. Sasha, our handicapped half-siamese cat viewed her new home with her usual suspicion, parading around the homestead emitting loud wails with saucer-sized yellow eyes. Precious, a placid white cat gazed around her with obvious pleasure in her one-blue, one-amber eyes, and proceeded to check out her new home. Deputy Dog found the creek almost immediately and the gleam in his eyes told us he approved our choice of a new home.
Very soon it was time to begin farming, and we decided we ought to bring our herd in to the yards where we could count heads and drench them for worms. We decided on an injectable drench, hoping it would be easier to administer than an oral one. Our set of cattle yards were sturdy and adequate for the number of cattle, but there was no crush or head lock at the end of the race. A Saturday morning was chosen so that the boys were on deck to lend a hand. We set off on foot in the early morning accompanied by Deputy and Precious, neither being of any more use than ornaments.
The cows were reasonably co-operative when we tentatively asked them if they would care to move on down to the yards, except for eleven of them that we later dubbed ‘the wild ones’. These eleven animals rarely joined the rest of the herd, keeping to themselves on the eastern side of the property. Among them were three tank-sized poll hereford cows which, at the first scent of a human, took off for the cover of the gully undergrowth with enough bluster to alert the rest of the group.
On that first round-up, the wild ones did a bunk into the gully with me, No.1 son and Precious Cat in hot pursuit. We were no match for the speed of the wild ones of course, and after we had followed various paths without seeing or hearing them, it was sheer coincidence that we came across them lying doggo in the undergrowth and startled them out onto the ridge.
By the time Phillip and I made our way out of the gully the wild ones were happily heading towards the yards looking for all the world as if it wasn’t an unusual occurrence. Deputy was racing across the paddock towards John and the rest of the herd, but there was no sign of Precious.
The cows yarded themselves before their slow human charges reached the yards so all we had to do was shut the gate. Gosh, it was so easy it was ridiculous. We had no problem packing them into the race which held fifteen animals at a time, injecting them and then packing in the next lot until, in no time at all, it was done.
There was one cow left in the yards however. I was appalled to see she had a massive tumour the size of a dinner plate on the left side of her face. It obviously began as an eye cancer and had been left to spread so horribly and painfully for a long time. We did not own a gun and John went off to seek the help of our nearest neighbour who came over and put the poor animal out of her misery.
“People do terrible things to animals,” Keith said when the deed was done. “I’ve been watching that cow for months and even came up and asked Colin to shoot her. He told me he would as soon as she calved. Bloody crook when he went and left it for youse lot”.
We agreed whole-heartedly. The use of the plural for ‘you’ grated on my ears, but I was to discover the whole of Comboyne residents said youse rather than you. In time we also came to understand that the Plateau people had not yet joined the modern world entirely, and most of them had never been further than Wauchope on one side of the Plateau or Taree on the other.
“Well, that wasn’t so bad,” John declared when we were having a cuppa afterwards, “I reckon I might have a go at slashing that east paddock. The bracken fern is really bad there.”
“It’s a bit steep there,” I answered, ‘are you sure you shouldn’t get in a bit more practice driving the tractor before you tackle that?”
I got a withering look from him who never admits something might be beyond his skills. “All the farmers around here slash steeper slopes than that,” he snapped, “no reason why I can’t.”
I bit my lip. I could have pointed out that just about every farmer on Comboyne was practically born on a tractor and took the machines where angels fear to go, but that wouldn’t have done any good at all. “Have you seen Precious?” I asked, effectively changing the subject, “I haven’t seen her since she followed us into the gully after the wild ones.”
“She’ll come home when she’s good and ready,” John answered in a tone that told me I was nothing but a worry wart. “I’ve been thinking that we should buy a crush. Keith, over the road there, told me we’ll have to dehorn those steers so they’re easier to handle. He said that they don’t bruise each other when they’re in the trucks if they’re dehorned, so are worth more.”
“Sounds right to me.” I replied. “I think there used to be crush there but I reckon Colin must have taken it with him. After seeing that poor cow Keith shot for us, I’d like to get a good look at all the eyes to see if there are any more cancers starting. Keith said they can be treated if you get them early enough.”
“Right. I’ll go to town on Monday and see what is available. In the morning I’m going to have a go at slashing that paddock.”
So much for changing the subject, I thought with a sigh.
There was no sign of Precious at dusk so I walked along the ridge in the direction of the gully where I last saw her. I kept calling as I went. About thirty yards from the fringe of the gully trees I could see a white blob beside the trunk of a tree. As I got closer I could see her eyes fixed on me but she refused to move. Fearing she was injured I increased my pace. The look she gave me when I reached her told me she thought it was about time someone remembered to come for her. I picked her up and she draped herself across my shoulders for the ride home.
The boys and I spent as much of the weekends as possible exploring the property, especially the narrow strip of forest on the northern side. Unfortunately, it saddened us that this portion of the property, some 50 acres or so, was under a contract to harvest timber. We were pleased that in the first year of our ownership there was abnormally high rainfall which curtailed the contractors’ access to the site.
We viewed the rape of this piece of rainforest with disgust. Under the terms of the contract, trees had to be a certain diameter, and the stump left was required to be a metre high. This was all very well, but the act of felling the tree meant the destruction of saplings, and the use of bulldozers to haul the logs to the loading ramp ensured the destruction of every living piece of flora in the immediate area.
True to his word, John began slashing the paddock while I tried not to become hysterical. When an hour went by and he hadn’t come to grief, I began to relax and only checked on his progress every ten minutes. On one occasion I look out the window and could see no sign of the tractor. My heart pretty well left my body as I searched the line of the paddock and strained my ears for the sound of the motor. Never one to dissolve into a blind panic, I decided to to walk up onto the ridge where I’d have a better view. It was with great relief that I heard the tractor some ten minutes later.
There was an advertisement in the ‘for sale’ column of the local paper for a ten year old jersey cow and calf. I was keen to acquire a house cow and so we asked the dairy farmer next door for his opinion. Is she too old, we asked, and is the price reasonable? Frank said we couldn’t go wrong and so Dolly and her calf joined our farm family. Unfortunately, the calf soon sickened and due to my inexperience, it died. Dolly prospered, and was one of those lovable animal characters that come along once in a million pets.
The old dairy was now used as a workshop and storage facility, but there was a sizeable hay shed a hundred yards away behind the cattle yards. The north bay had been closed in by the previous owner and used as a stable. The southern end housed the chooks, so the middle bay was sheltered and warm, and the ideal place where I could milk Dolly each day.
At first light I went to the ‘the dairy’ and called Dolly. “Dolleeee”.
“Moo” came the answer seconds later.
A couple of minutes went by and I called again, “Dolleee”.
Her answer was closer and in a couple more minutes she’d appear and stand in front of her grain bin. I put the loop of thin twine over her head and she put her nose into the bin and began to eat. One jerk of her head would break the twine but it told Dolly she needed to stay put until it was taken off.
While I milked, Dolly ate. When the grain was finished she rested her nose on the edge of the bin and went to sleep. I rested my head against her warm side as I sat there pulling her teats and listening to the slurping of the milk going into the bucket. When her udder was empty, I applied udder cream to her teats, massaging it in to keep her teats soft.
Keith came over one morning and asked if I’d like to rear a young calf. “He could survive on his own, mind you, but he’d do it tough now his mother is dead. You can have him if you want to spend the time with him.”
I had no idea how to feed a calf and I was still feeling very inadequate at losing Dolly’s little boy. Never look a gift horse in the mouth I heard my mother’s voice somewhere in my head. I accepted Keith’s gift graciously, with gratitude and a lot of trepidation which was increased when Scooby arrived a couple of hours later. He was nearly three months old and scared witless. Keith tied him to a post in the yards with a heavy dog chain and left me to it.
Poor Scooby. Poor me. I filled a beer bottle with milk, straddled Scooby and backed him up against the rails. I prised open his mouth and shoved the neck of the bottle in against his tongue in the hope that his tongue would regulate the flow of milk and stop him choking. At first the milk ran out the sides of his mouth and we were getting nowhere. I removed the bottle and he swallowed. His brain registered and kicked his instincts into gear. I got the bottle back in his mouth and we were in business.
It is amazing how tame an animal becomes when it realises who is the feed box. I kept Scooby in the yards for a few days and then let him go with Dolly. After that first day, it was easy to teach him to drink his milk from a bucket. When Dolly came up for milking, Scoobie came with her and waited patiently for me to give him his share. One morning he was standing on the other side of her, put his head down low and caught a teat with his tongue and began sucking. I thought Dolly would object but when she didn’t bat an eyelid, I kept on milking my side while Scoobie milked out the other.
My success with Scoobie gave me the courage to venture into raising more calves. I began buying heifer friesian calves from Borhams dairy. Dairy farmers don’t usually sell any heifer calves but these were the offspring of grade cows sired by the herd bull. All their herd replacements came from their registered cows which were artificially inseminated. Katie was the first to arrive. She was all black with four white legs, incredibly stubborn and angry to be taken from her mother. Then came the start of the Greek Alphabet – Gamma, Beta, Delta and Epsilon.
While I was up to my ears in my little herd, John was busy growing potatoes. He formed a partnership with Philip Borham, the son of the dairyfarmer neighbour. Philip knew the ropes and was skilled at tractor work and spud growing. They planted ten acres of spuds and it wouldn’t be long before we found out the real meaning of work.
The Comboyne Plateau is described by Real Estate Agents as ‘undulating and picturesque’. Picturesque it is, but undulating is a little tame a word to use to describe most of the acreages on the Plateau.
At potato harvest time the spuds are brought to the surface by a machine and left in neat rows. That is the easy part. The pickers are given a couple of four gallon drums which they fill and hump to empty into the nearest hessian bag. Once the bags reach the half way mark they need to be periodically picked up and down so that the spuds pack down well. When they are filled to capacity the bags are closed with bailing twine. It is backbreaking work made harder by the fact that it is all uphill. The days were long from sun up to sun down, and I soon learned to hate the sight of a potato. This hate of the humble spud lingers to this very day.
Dolly became a lady-in-waiting and during her ‘dry’ period she put herself in charge of the now weaned calves. She brought them up each morning for their grain ration which they got in a communal bin, while Dolly ate hers in peace. As her time to calve drew near I made a point of checking on her frequently if only to call and hear her answer that all was well. One morning she didn’t answer when I called so I went down the hill to look for her. After calling several times I finally heard a soft lowing, and there on a grassy island in the middle of the creek was Dolly with her new calf.
I waded across and was stunned at the wee size of this little creature that looked like a deer. The sire was our hereford bull so the coat was a soft terracotta colour. Dolly wanted to go home and she went to the edge of the water and called softly. I picked up the little one and followed Dolly across to the other side, but instead of stopping there she continued on up the hill, leaving me to carry her calf.
Marjie’s midget proportions were accentuated when she got in close proximity to the other calves. The friesian heifers were big calves, weighing in at 60 to 80 kgs at birth whereas Marjie would have been lucky to make 20kgs. She could walk underneath the belly of a friesian calf and not touch a hair on their coat.
Some months after our arrival on Comboyne, I got to know our nearest neighbours Keith, Marcie and their daughter Helen quite well. Helen was a school teacher but could only get part-time work in the district. In return for the help Keith gave us, I supplied them with Dolly’s milk. Helen was keen on handcrafts and turned out amazing articles of crochet, knitting and macrame. She had a small flock of sheep which she sheared by hand, spinning it into yarn and dyeing it for knitting or weaving.
On occasions I helped her with the shearing. I surprised myself that I was able to use the hand clippers. I put it down to the fact that my mother used to clip the edges of the lawns with sheep shears, and I happened to be her offsider. I had spent many hours as a youngster in the shearing shed watching the shearing so I had a fair idea of the way to go about it.
It wasn’t long before I added five pregnant ewes and a black ram to my farm animals. Helen taught me to spin and I acquired a second hand Ashford Spinning Wheel. I found it incredibly gratifying to shear my sheep, spin the wool and make a garment. Shearing the sheep was hard on my back but I overcame that quite well by using a kindy chair to sit on while I sat the sheep between my knees.
When the new crush arrived it was placed in front of the race. We needed to check the eyes of the herd and note any that would require treatment. John thought this would be a good opportunity to get the dehorning done, and he went off and bought a pair of dehorners. He decided to dehorn the steers first and the first steer in the headlock had eight inch long, needle sharp weapons. I held my breath as I watched him lop off the first horn and we were both horrified when we were covered in bright red blood. Quickly he lopped off the other, and we sent the poor boy out into the adjoining paddock with blood spurting in two six foot sprays on either side of his head.
A white-faced John stared at the sight. “Do you think it is supposed to bleed like that?” He asked worriedly.
“Well, I guess you can expect it to bleed,” I answered, “and I guess it will stop in a few minutes when the blood clots.”
“Well, I’m not going to do anymore until it does,” remarked by brave husband, “we can’t afford to kill ten steers.”
The other nine were put back in the holding yards and the cows were put into the race for eye inspections. The first three cows were marked down for a vet’s visit and two more had suspicious spots on the eyeball. Schubert, the bull was the last animal through the race and when he entered the crush and the gate shut behind him, he shoved his head through the headlock and kept walking, taking the crush with him.
“Hey Dad,” Phillip called when he’d stopped laughing, “that’s what those bolt holes are for. We were supposed to bolt the crush to the cement block.”
“Do you think I’m bloody stupid?” John yelled angrily at his son, “I just forgot to tell you not to put that big lump of a bull through before I got it done.”
We buttoned our lips and helped extricate Schubert. The crush was now in the middle of the yard, and John had to use the tractor to snig it back in place. While John attended to the crush, Phillip and I put the nine steers in the race ready for their ordeal.
John forgot he was worried about the first one bleeding to death in his fury with Phillip, and he lost no time in lopping off the horns as the animals came through. By the time the last one was turned out in the paddock John was covered in blood from head to toe. He stomped off home to shower, leaving us to get the rest of herd back into their paddock. Schubert hung back until the others were out of the yards before he slowly plodded after them. He was an amiable animal and we reckoned he looked embarrassed.
John decided to extend the house. A bloke he knew moved houses. He got him to come up and jack up the house so he could excavate underneath to add a two room brick extension. That was when we discovered the house was sitting on mahogany stubs. As with everything John did, he had no qualms about the fact that he knew nothing whatever about the task he planned to undertake. He used the tractor to drag out the red volcanic soil and pull the stubs out of the ground. In due course only one stub remained and resisted all his efforts to remove it.
Finally, a builder friend threw some light on the matter when he had a look. This was no stub. The original builder of the house had used a dead tree as his corner post. He used his axe and made a perfect square corner from the floor up – chopped off the top at roof level and Bob’s your uncle. Needless to say, John worked around the last stub and let it be.
All his spare time was devoted to his extension. It rained incessantly, but he was able to teach himself brick laying and do the re-inforced wall at the back according to the engineer’s instructions, during the few dry days that happened every so often. He battled the sticky red clay that caked on his boots, adding a few inches to his height as well as making him feel he had weights attached to his legs.
In between John’s house extension project and my animal duties, we found time for an occasional day out. Earlier John had traded in our Statesman Sedan for a Mazda 3-ton truck which meant we both had to change our drivers licences to a Class 3B. We fronted up to the local police station, and I was somewhat peeved that John was issued with his Class 3B licence with a simple stamp of the form. I, however, was required to take the policeman for a drive around the Plateau. When I pulled up and parked in front of the police station, the young cop said, “well lady, I’ll be damned. You can drive a truck.”
Nice words, but I still thought it was discrimination.
In due course we arranged for the vet visit. The crush was now firmly secured to its concrete block. At 11am the vet arrived, and apart from the five girls with eye problems, there was another that hadn’t cleaned after calving.
I found it an interesting exercise. Three of the girls had small tumours on the third eyelid which were removed quickly. The other two took longer as the spots were on the eyeball. The vet popped the eye out of the socket and scraped the spots off with his scalpel. I promised myself I would be vigilant in checking for eye cancers so that no animal in my care would suffer like the one Keith put down for us. It was the beginning of my interest in learning as much as I possibly could about animal husbandry.
One morning when I was feeding my little herd, I noticed a heifer up on the ridge. The rest of the herd were across the gully. I made my way up to her and saw immediately she was in big trouble. She had been unable to push her calf out past its hip bones after an obviously long struggle that left her exhausted and the calf dead. I took hold of its forelegs and pulled, but I didn’t have enough strength. I ran back to the house and got John. Together we managed to pull the calf out. The heifer, however, was unable to get her back legs off the ground so I ran back to the house and phoned the vet.
“It is calving paralysis,” the vet told me. “When she tries to get up, take hold of her tail at the butt and push it upwards; not so hard that you break it, but firm enough to give her a hand. She will try to take off and won’t be able to control her rear end, so don’t let go of the tail. With a bit of luck she will stand for long enough to get the circulation going. You will have to help her up a few times in the next few days. Oh, and keep away from her head or she’ll get agitated and won’t co-operate.”
Well, if it hadn’t been so serious, it would have been hilarious. We got her up. John was doing the tail bit and she ran him round and round in circles, her rear end swaying on back legs she couldn’t feel. Finally, John ran out of puff and as soon as he let go of the tail, her back legs folded and she was grounded again. The good thing was that when we went back in the evening to get her up again, she got up herself when she saw us approaching. She stood there facing us for a minute then put her head down and charged. Luckily her rear end was still very wobbly because she fell down before she’d covered more than a few yards. “Bloody ungrateful animal,” John muttered as we turned for home.
Having lost her calf and still wobbly on her pins, the heifer came down off the ridge and forced her way in with Dolly and the calves. When she began bossing Dolly’s group there was hell to pay, and in the end I had to keep her in the yards until she was ready to go back to the herd.
A few weeks later I came across a new born calf bawling pitifully beside its mother. She was an old cow and one look at her udder told me she had not a drop of milk. It was not a large calf, but at around forty kilos I found I had to put it down every ten yards or so to rest. It took me the best part of two hours to reach home. I know now that I could have gone up to Frank’s dairy and got a bucketful of colostrom and so saved myself a lot of bother and worry. I didn’t know then that dairy farmers have a steady stream of cows calving. Remembering my mother raised a calf with powdered milk laced with brandy and pentavite, I also mixed up a concoction. I added an egg yolk and a few drops of a multi-vitamin syrup to each litre of Dolly’s milk.
The old cow made her way up to the gate and I let her in to be with her calf. I fed it three times a day. After two weeks the old girl must have decided her calf was in good hands and she returned to the herd. Aphrodite thrived.
Phillip had passed his final year exams. John purchased a motor bike, and a whole year had passed before we noticed. We had learned a great deal and achieved much. We worked hard from sun-up to sun-down and revelled in every moment.
By now we had added a black labrador puppy to the fold. She was in a basket at the Taree Sale Yards under a sign that said ‘Please Take One”. Beside the basket of three pups was a tearful young boy who told us he had to find homes for them before the day was over, otherwise his dad would put them down. We took one little black bundle, took her home and called her Candy.
Soon after we took in a flea infested, orange splotched kitten. I treated her conjunctivitis, wormed her and got rid of the fleas. We called her Topsy.
We’d long decided Deputy was not the pure bred kelpie we’d paid for. He looked like an overgrown kelpie but had no interest whatever in being a cattle or sheep dog. He’d loved to run, and in full flight looked for all the world like a greyhound. He’d made himself a race track and twice a day he’d take off and run a couple of laps. He absolutely loved to take off after the motor bike and race it home.
We dipped out so far as a cattle dog went, but we had a cattle cat. Precious was always there supervising the yarding of the cattle. She’d sit on the post by the race and we swore she could count by the way she nodded her head as each animal passed her. She was so enthusiastic that we ended up having to tie her up like a dog to stop her winding her way through the legs in the race. If I was tending a sick cow or calf, Precious would stay with the animal for the duration.
By the time our second winter came around, we began thinking seriously about the boys future. Phillip had a penchant for electronics and applied for a spot in the Army. He made it to the short list and dipped out. Afterwards he said he was having second thoughts about it anyway and thought he’d rather be a farmer.
There was no way our farm would generate enough income to support him. Looking at the rural industry, the only one that guaranteed a regular income was dairy farming. John shuddered at the thought. The best way to test Phillip was to get him to work in one. Frank Borham agreed to have him work for him for a couple of weeks. “If he stills wants to dairy after I’m finished with him John, you can bet he knows what he wants.” Frank chuckled.
The two weeks Phillip worked for Frank turned out to be the best test he could have. He left home at 4.30 am each morning in cold driving rain and returned home at 6pm. He sloshed through the mud to bring the cows in for milking. He helped set up electric fences, put out hay and acted as general dogs-body.
When his two weeks were over we were sure he’d have changed his mind about being a dairy farmer. Not so. He was more keen than ever. We began looking for a dairy and put our beautiful, picturesque farm on the market.
The ten acre ‘spud’ paddock was being rested and turned back into pasture. There had been no rain for a couple of months and with winter approaching we decided we needed to ration this bit of pasture. We took a leaf out of the dairy farmer’s book and used electric fences so we could feed the cows daily strips. Candy was in the process of turning herself into a cattle dog, and by now we realised her breed was labrador/blue heeler cross. The heeler in her was most effective, and we were amazed to see her race in and nip the heels of the cows, always keeping low enough to avoid being kicked.
It was unfortunate that she got a jolt from the electric fence one evening when Phillip was re-setting it for the next mornings strip. Candy was trotting back and forth and stepped on the wire. She screamed in pain and panic, and took off for home yelping as if the devil was after her. It took me hours to console her. From then on she refused to go with Phillip to help with the cows unless I was with her. I don’t think she ever understood about electric fences and blamed Phillip totally.
There were only two dairy farms on the market on Comboyne. We didn’t want to move off the Plateau yet both farms had serious shortcomings. One had a good solid brick home but the dairy was situated across the creek on the other side of the farm. If the creek became impassable it meant one had to go to the main road and access the dairy by the back entrance. The other farm was a smaller acreage and the land rolled down to deep gulleys. The dairy was meticulously clean and well maintained, but the house was a small weatherboard box. The other thing we didn’t like was the fact that the property was divided by a road to other farms along the ridge.
We decided to wait and see. There was a steady stream of potential buyers for our farm, but after awhile we began to suspect most of them were simply taking up our time to enjoy a day out in the country.
Albert, the owner of the farm with the weatherboard box, phoned one morning and asked John if he would go over and have a talk to him. He was now anxious to sell because he’d been diagnosed with bowel cancer. We went over on Sunday morning. Albert offered a deal we couldn’t refuse. Besides, we found him and Joyce to be the nicest people one could ever hope to meet. They became very dear friends and often came up from Taree to visit.
There had been little or no rain on the Plateau since early summer. This meant that there was insufficient feed stored for the winter. Dairy farmers struggled to keep their cows in production and meet their quota of milk supplied to the Dairy Board. There was also strict quality controls in force and farmers were required to meet the stipulated solids-non-fat and butter fat percentages. The failure to meet these requirements was punished by a lower payment.
Most dairy farmers had little or no irrigation facilities. The Plateau’s annual rainfall of some 80 inches meant it was unnessary for the most part, and in times of dought the water levels in the creeks became too low to allow it. Winter was a hard season for the Plateau’s dairy farmers, and now the drought was crippling them.
When we moved to our newly purchased dairy farm in May that year we couldn’t have chosen a worse time.
Albert and Joyce milked the cows in the morning, and moved out of the house as we were moving in. It was an exercise in organised chaos as we attempted to set up house and be ready for the afternoon milking. Albert kindly left his young daughter, Sally with us for a week to help us get to know the routine.
We inherited Ned, a red kelpie dog, a white cat with a black tail called Dipstick, and Moggy, a tabby dairy cat. Our three cats and two dogs were horrified at first but they all called a truce and settled in.
It would be a month or two before we would sell our old farm so we had the bother of commuting back and forth almost daily to check on the cows. Dolly and her little group were not brought over to the new farm for a few weeks as the feed was better where they were.
On one of our visits to the old farm we noticed one of the cows bellowing in a panic-stricken way in the old spud paddock. We went to investigate her distress and at first could not see what she was on about. We were sure she’d lost her calf but couldn’t find any sign of it. After a half hour went by we turned to leave. The cow, which had been standing about twenty or thirty yards away now came charging down on us, veered and skidded to a stop a few yards from the fence. She stood there looking at something.
When we approached she retreated again. There was a hole in the ground about a foot in diameter and when we looked down we were absolutely gobsmacked to see a small underground cavern. The calf was pacing back and forth down below. He was about three months old .
John made a noose out of a length of rope and managed to drop it over the calf’s head after several attempts. Once the calf was snared, he tied the other end to the tractor. With the tractor pulling it enabled the calf to ‘walk’ up the steep side of the hole. As soon as it was topside again though it took off like a rocket, the noose tightening and threatening to strangle it. It stood there at the end of the rope pulling back for a few seconds before we reacted.
The three of us grabbed the rope and gradually got to the calf. John grabbed the front leg, I grabbed the tail and we pulled and pushed to get some slack in the rope. Phillip quickly loosened the noose and got it over the head. Just at that second the cow let out a bellow and charged. She missed Phillip by a whisker, collected her calf and took off for the gate without so much as a thank you.
A few weeks later the farm was sold, Dolly joined the milking herd and the six heifers joined the dry cows and friesian heifers in the back paddocks.
In those first few weeks it became obvious to me that we had a problem with the cows. At the end of the month the Receival Factory sent out our first envelope containing a statement of the total amount of milk produced, the butter fat content, the solids-non-fat percentage and the somatic cell counts. The latter indicates the health of the cows udders and of the district’s 130 herds, ours ranked 129.
The only good thing to come from this news was the fact that I’d had no time to form a relationship with the cows so it wasn’t a heart wrenching exercise to cull those I knew had diseased udders. I sent off thirteen to the sale yards immediately, and this meant we needed to buy replacements in order to keep to our milk quota. I spent every minute of my spare time reading through back copies of the Dairy Magazine which contained much information on the treatment and prevention of mastitis.
John had also been advised to put in new milking machines with automatic cup take-offs to stop overmilking, and a new vacuum pump which supplied a greater reserve of air. This was done as a priority. He went to a clearance sale and purchased five recently calved cows.
About this time we also decided we needed to aim for the best genetics, and that I was the one who could be spared from the farm for a couple of weeks to do an artificial insemination course.
By September there was still no sign of rain and we were forced to feed more grain and buy in hay. We worried about the dry cows and heifers up in the back paddocks and ended up bringing the cows and in-calf heifers down to run with the milking herd. We hadn’t realised one of the heifers was in calf and one day I noticed a white animal on her own and went up to check. She was painfully thin and seemed she had no energy to get to her feet.
I rang the vet in Wauchope and he insisted we get her down to the barn. We talked it over and once again John tackled something no-one else in his right mind would think of. He hooked the hay trailer to the back of the tractor and the three of us went up the back. He unhooked the trailer, backed the tractor so that the trailer towing piece was against it to hold the other end on the ground. Then we proceeded to entice the heifer onto the trailer using a bribe of hay and pushing her from behind as she heaved and crawled to the hay. As soon as she was on the trailer, John moved the tractor slowly forward until the towing piece dropped back on the bar of the tractor where it was bolted in place.
Phillip and I rode in the trailer with the cow and we bumped our way home, up and down gullies, and finally up the last gully we had dubbed cardiac pass. Getting her off the trailer was the easy part. John simply unhooked the trailer and used the tractor to lift the end while Flossie slid gently onto the hayshed floor. A few hours later the vet arrived.
He was a young man who set out immediately to impress. It took him exactly two minutes to rub me up the wrong way, but I buttoned my lip and bowed to his superior knowledge. He quickly assessed the situation and announced he would have to perform a caesarean. Without further ado he shaved a strip down the cow’s side and began injecting a local anaesthetic.
I was taken aback a little as it occurred to me that he’d not done an internal examination. “Er, shouldn’t you do an internal examination? She could have the process underway given the bumpy ride she had to come home.”
He froze momentarily and there was a startled look in his eye. “Oh! She’s not showing any signs of labour, but I suppose I’d better check.” He donned a glove, and a minute later without looking at me said, “we’ll have a calf in a minute.”
I watched while he pulled out the forlegs, attached a silken rope to each. Then pulling on the ropes he very easily drew out the calf. He dragged it by the rear legs around to Flossie to clean. “A live heifer calf is a good outcome,” he announced. “The cow is in too poor a condition to feed the calf. I don’t think she’ll be capable of making any milk.”
With that he packed up his gear and lost no time in leaving. I hoped I wouldn’t be needing his services before I found another vet. Some time later a dairyman advised us to invest in a copy of Hungerfords Animal Diseases, a huge volume that was to become my bible. It contains information on diseases of sheep, cattle, pigs, dogs and cats. There is a section for differential diagnosis and symptoms, and it offers advice for treatment as well as the appropriate drugs.
It was with the help of Hungerfords that I diagnosed Flossie’s calf as having Sporadic Bovine Encephalitis when she was 8 months old. When I described her symptoms to the vet who’d assisted at her birth he said, “cut your losses and shoot her.” I was not happy. I really wanted confirmation of my own diagnosis and rang a vet at Wingham, which is down the other side of the Plateau.
This was a man about ready to retire. When I described the symptoms and told him I had been consulting Hungerfords, he laughed. “Good for you, young lady. It does sound like SBE but we don’t see a lot of it around here. If it is SBE, there is nothing you can do except try and keep her from injuring herself. The symptoms will pass in a couple of weeks.”
I thanked him. I was very surprised when he called in a few days later and introduced himself. He asked to see the calf and confirmed the diagnosis. Before he went on his way, he told me to phone any time there was a problem and he’d always be happy to give advice or visit in an emergency. “I’m retiring shortly but I’ve just got a super duper young bloke with plenty of energy and lots of experience with dairy cows.”
That was music to my ears and was the beginning of a long and happy association with the Wingham Veterinary Clinic.
The care of Bubba was often hair-raising. At eight months old she was a sizeable lump weighing around a hundred and forty kilos. The disease made her extremely unpredictable. She had a mad look her eyes, and would take off at a tangent for no reason oblivious of obstacles in her path. We tried restraining her at night in an effort to keep her safe. We lined the engine room of the old dairy building with hay bales to make a padded cell, and replaced the door with an iron mesh gate.
I was stunned when I went to feed Bubba in the morning and found her cell empty. I could see her down the paddock on her back with her legs in the air. I was sure she dead, but when I got to her she was very much alive but looking most confused. After a lot of pushing and shoving I got her to her feet, and we wove our way back to the calf paddock. Bubba wasn’t able to walk in a straight line.
To get to where she was when I found her, she had not only jumped the gate to her cell, but had also jumped three other fences. She made a good recovery and lived to join the dairy herd, but she never did lose the mad look in her eye.
I enrolled in the Artificial Insemination Course carried out by the Graham Park Breeders Association. It was held at a dairy at Landsdowne and the farm was situated at the bottom of the mountain. To save an hour or more of travelling, I had to use the road known as ‘The Cutting’ which was a single lane track down the mountain to Landsdowne.
The day before the course began, I went with John in the truck carrying the two cows we had to provide. We had bought them earlier in the week from the saleyards and would resell them afterwards. It was a hair-raising trip even though the dry conditions had made the unsealed track more negotiable, in that there were few slippery patches. The track was narrow and hugged the mountain as it wound down steeply to the bottom. The bends were tight and in a couple of places one would see a log placed across to catch the wheels of trucks and large vehicles as they rounded inside of the S bend. I shuddered at the thought of dropping the eighty or more meters into the abyss below.
We were lucky that we didn’t meet a vehicle coming up the cutting. There were few places where a pass could be made so one had to back up for quite a distance before a niche would be found. Strangely enough, in the years we lived on the Plateau I never heard of an accident on the Landsdowne Cutting.
The first couple of days of the artificial insemination course were spent learning the anatomy of the cow. We were instructed on the care and upkeep of the equipment and learned about the various diseases that caused abortions and so on. We were tested at the end of each day and were sent home with reading matter to prepare for the next day’s lesson.
At the end of the first day when we were instructed to don a glove, smear it with a generous amount of lubricant and enter the cow’s anus, I almost gave up. We were supposed to be able to feel the cervix through the bowel wall. The instructor described it as a firm ‘sausage’. He said we could grasp the sausage and hold it in place so that the pipette could be inserted to deposit the semen.
I was damned if I could find anything remotely resembling a sausage. Once the cow relaxed her bowel, there seemed to be just a vast empty cavern but on one occasion I felt a couple of small wallnuts. “That,” said the Instructor, “is an ovary. Bring your hand back a bit below the uterus which will feel soft and you will feel the cervix which is a hard, firm lump.”
It took awhile but I eventually found it. After I’d found the cervix in seven cows I realised how different they were. Not one resembled a sausage to my way of thinking. The eighth cow was a old jersey. Her breeding organs were to be located down in the depths, hanging from stretched ligaments and tired muscles no longer capable of holding it all up. A couple of the blokes managed to haul it all up and locate what they described as a long thin piece of gristle. No one managed to thread this onto a pipette.
At the end of the course I drove back up the cutting armed with my Insemination Certificate. John sold the bull the next day. I questioned the wisdom of this move and spent many a sleepless night for months worrying whether the cows I’d inseminated were in calf.
The morning and evening ritual of calf feeding was one of my most difficult chores. We used the ‘spare’ milk from the dairy. This milk comes from recently calved cows whose milk is not put into the vat for seven days after they calve. Then, there is the milk from the cows being treated with antibiotics, either for mastitis or other ailments.
There were usually about eighteen calves in the nursery at any one time. It was a battle to ensure there was only one head in a bucket instead of four, even though the worst of the trouble makers were restrained in headlocks. The calves were fed by bottle for their first two feeds which allowed them to get over the trauma of being taken from their mothers. Then began the arduous job of teaching them to drink from the bucket.
We happened to see an advertisement in one of the dairy magazines about a machine they called a ‘calfateria’. It was a machine which dispensed milk at the correct temperature on demand. Wow! This sounded just the shiny shilling to make the burden of calf-raising easier. John made enquiries. It was very expensive, but we decided it would pay for itself just by giving me more time for other duties.
The calfateria looked a little like a top-loading washing machine. The hopper held two bags of calf milk replacer. In the front was a stainless steel mixing bowl from which four lines of plastic tubing connected to the rubber teats. The teats were set into the dividing bar on the calf side of the set-up. When a calf sucked on the teat, the machine would start up, fill the mixing bowl with warm water, add the milk powder and mix.
All I had to do was ensure the hopper was filled each day, and introduce the new calves to their new udder. It was magic. This machine served us well through the years of our dairy operation so we felt it was money well spent.
We were learning the art of dairy farming, and before six months had passed we discovered that the cows had distinct personalities. We began giving them names according to particular traits. The girls, we found, responded to kindness and rewarded us with exemplary behaviour in the milking shed as well as with improved milk yield. It was no longer necessary to use leg ropes unless there was an udder injury.
The holding yard at the dairy was concreted and divided into two sections. There was a metre high railing that separated the girls from free entry to the bails. They had a strict pecking order so that at the start of milking the same eight cows were first to occupy the bails at each milking, and each cow chose her preferred bail. There were a couple of the girls who refused to enter one bail or another so there was often one standing patiently waiting beside what she considered to be her personal bail.
When a freshly calved heifer came in for the first time she was jostled and pushed aside in the holding yards. To escape she’d make her way up into the top section of the yards looking for protection, so we would have to allow her to jump the queue amid loud bellows from the others. It always took time and patience to persuade a new heifer to accept the cups being put on her udder and sometimes it took two of us to do the job.
One heifer ended up with the name ‘Double-Up’ because for a couple of weeks she’d enter the bails and put her head in the feed bin, her body pretty well bent at a right angle from the shoulder. This way she could eat and keep a wary eye on what we were doing at her udder end.
When I saw the trouble other dairy farmers had breaking in new heifers, I was thankful that I spent the time to mollycoddle them when they were babes and through their growing up years. One farmer did not dehorn his heifers until after they’d calved. When asked why he said, “If they don’t ‘ave ‘orns, how do ya get ‘em in the bails first time round?” It turned out that his heifers were so wild and frightened, that he had to tie a rope around their horns and snig them into the bails with the tractor.
The drought conditions continued through our first spring, and we found ourselves being warned by the Dairy Board that the Solids-non-fat component of our milk had dipped below the required percentage. We would be given a lower price for our milk unless this was remedied.
This was a blow of mass proportions. We were already skating on thin ice financially. Albert and Joyce turned up for a visit about this time and shook his head while he listened to our woes. “John,” he said, “no-one meets the SNF requirement from the middle of winter until late spring. You have to add it.”
We looked at him dumbly. “Add it! How?” we chorused.
“Look,” Albert replied, “It is illegal, but if you don’t want to go broke you have do it. Go and buy yourself some skim milk powder, dissolve it in a bucket of milk and add it to the vat while it is still agitating. Every dairy farmer will swear on a stack of bibles that he has no problems with SNF, and he doesn’t because he adds it.”
We discussed the rights and wrongs of being forced to be dishonest, but in the interest of staying viable we went to the local store and purchased a supply skim milk powder. No-one batted an eyelid or seemed to notice the guilt written across our foreheads.
Some years later the rules were changed and the solids-non-fat component of milk no longer stood alone as a requirement to determine the price per litre paid to farmers.
Albert again to came to the rescue when the Dairy Inspector handed us a long list of dairy shed maintenance jobs he required to be carried out forthwith. John was in the process of replacing the ply in the window of the dairy engine room with glass, when Albert turned up.
“Do you realise that piece of plywood has been in that window for ten years? Had a heifer run amok and got in here and put her head through the glass.” He laughed.
“Dairy Inspector has ordered it replaced with glass.” John growled. “Get a load of that list over there.”
Albert perused the list. “Yep, same as always,” he said “that bugger never gives up.” He put the list back on the bench. “Ever wondered why every wall in the dairy is painted a different colour? Well, every year I painted one wall or maybe the bail doors, to make the dumb bastard think I was in the process of painting the whole show. Kept him happy so he gave up nit picking.”
John took a leaf out of Albert’s book and painted the outside front wall of the dairy just prior to the Inspector’s next visit. There were no more nit picks from then on.
Providence smiled kindly on us in those first six months. I had time to read and absorb the section in Hungerfords on parturition problems and birth abnormalities. We had set aside a paddock for the ladies-in-waiting near to both the house and the dairy, so I was able to check them frequently for signs of labour. With each trouble-free birth I breathed a sigh of relief and congratulated the mother on a job well done.
My first check of the labour ward was always at 5am before milking. On this particular morning, I noticed Curly had begun her labour. Two hours later I went back to check on her progress and was greeted by a loud bawl for help. There was only one little hoof showing and after a minute of panic, I recalled the Hungerfords chapter and set about following the instructions to correct the mal-presentation.
Again providence smiled on me. I was able to push the calf back enough to locate the forelimb which was bent at the knee, straighten it and bring it up over the pelvic rim. Almost at once, Curly gave an almighty push and the calf’s nose appeared. In a few more minutes the head was expelled and I took hold of the forelegs to pull as she pushed. The result of our labours was a beautiful heifer calf. I sank down on the grass and cried tears of both joy and relief as I watched Curly lovingly clean her baby.
Our domestic animals had worked out their pecking order and agreed to live in harmony. Candy became my shadow, Ned continued his duties as a diligent, if not terribly competent, dairy dog and Deputy spent his time racing across the paddocks in pursuit of rabbits.
Ned had a run-in with Precious. He made the mistake of chasing her soon after we arrived. A few days later I heard him yelping with such pain that I dropped what I was doing and ran over to the dairy yard to investigate. There was poor Ned, crouched down on his belly with Precious sitting close to his rear end, eyeing him with menace. Each time Ned tried to crawl away, Precious pounced on him, sinking in her claws while Ned screamed in agony.
Precious spent most of her time supervising the calves in the nursery or playing mid-wife in the maternity ward. She liked to ride in the tractor or would perch up on top of hay bails in the trailer when we put out the hay in the evenings. Ned and Deputy had to run along side as Precious would not allow them on the trailer, boxing them unmercifically if they dared jump up for a ride.
Sasha stayed close to home as always and her only vice was to take every opportunity to catch Dippy unawares. Her tactic was to hide on the fence and drop on him as he walked past. By the time he recovered from the surprise, she was away and out of sight.
Moggy produced three kittens which caused a lot of fun and games during milking times. Their pranks of running up the cows legs and/or entangling themselves in the cups hanging from the udders, became their undoing. They were a cute trio and I took them down to the vet in Taree who found homes for them before the day was out.
The rain came in November and soaked the parched paddocks. Our thoughts now turned to ways of insulating ourselves against the forces of nature. The necessity of having to feed huge amount of processed grain cost us dearly financially. We needed to be able to take advantage of the cheaper grain available at harvest time. To do this we had to have suitable storage facilities and John, always a man of bright ideas, came up with a ‘do it yourself’ silo.
I thought such a project beyond our capabilites but could think of no answer to John’s challenge of ‘you don’t know what you can’t do if you don’t give it a go’. Without further ado he ordered a kit for a forty-ton silo. The fun was about to begin.
The first stage of erecting the silo was simple. John and the boys put the base together in no time at all and then began the hard slog of laying the concrete floor with its sloping sides. John bought a concrete mixer which ran from the PTO (Power Take-Off) of the tractor and carted the loads of sand, gravel and cement in our truck to save the cost of delivery.
While the concrete was curing, he spent many hours poring over the plans, and figuring out ways of overcoming the problem of erecting the sides. The sheets of iron were three metres long and were bolted to the base one by one around the circle. How to keep these unsupported sheets upright as work progressed? He came up with the idea of using a rope slung over the top of the sheet and attached to ground pins on either side. The rope was moved progressively as more sheets were added and bolted to each other.
The rope trick worked well but mother nature decided on a windy month. Handling three metre sheets of iron in the wind is no joke, and John’s yells of frustration were blown across the Plateau. “Hold the bloody thing. No! Not like that for God’s sake; put your weight against it.”
And so it went on through the days until the silo walls were all in place. On most days, John had three unwilling, and often sullen, helpers. We dreaded the next stage of dealing with the cone shaped roof. Why, we asked, can’t we assemble it on the ground and hire a crane to lift ‘the lid’ on top? Because, John growled with his best withering look, “ We can’t afford to hire a crane. You lot have no idea how to save money!”
John put an extension ladder up through the middle of the silo. He put a plank through the top rung of the ladder which rested on either side of the silo walls. This plank effectively held the ladder in place. At this stage I made sure I was busy doing other chores so I wouldn’t be in the line of fire if things went wrong, therefore I haven’t much of an idea how my three heroes got the cone in place. However, my heart leapt into my mouth when I saw young Geoffrey hanging by his teeth and fingernails on the outside of the nearly-completed cone putting in screws.
With silo completed, John waited with bated breath for some good heavy rain. He was proud of himself but would not pat himself on the back until he was sure it didn’t leak. It passed the test with flying colours a week later and he ordered thirty tons of feed wheat grain from a supplier in Quirindi. At the same time he bought a roller mill which cracked the grain, and augered it into the five ton silo from where it was dispensed to the bail feeders in the dairy.
Geoffrey wanted to leave school. He’d not been a happy little vegemite at school for the past year. Always a stubborn, wilful child he could not be reasoned with, and so we thought there was no point in forcing him. We decided to take both boys on as Dairy Apprentices and enrolled them for the three year course at Tocal Agricultural College.
The Dairy Apprentice Course was a hands-on experience for them. They learned welding, farm machinery maintenance and basic mechanics, as well as animal husbandry which included artifical insemination and agriculture. Both of them enjoyed their three years, gained their certificates and a wealth of knowledge. Phillip stayed with farming and, after a few unsettled years, Geoffrey got himself apprenticed to a builder and surprised us by winning awards throughout his apprenticeship.
Sadly around about this time, Deputy dog became a road statistic. He had given up chasing bunnies when he discovered it was more fun racing the vehicles that passed by several times a day. He seemed to have a starting point marked out on the road and he’d do his very best to keep pace, running beside the driver’s door. The inevitable happened and we buried him under the peach tree close to where his designated race track began.
There was great excitement when Sleeky gave birth to my first AI calf in June. Sleeky was a heavy set cow with a beautiful shiny coat, but her calf was mostly white and, to our joy, was a heifer. Edelweiss was living proof of my prowess at artificial insemination and I felt very proud of myself. Our herd improvement programme was under way.
Everything revolved around the herd and the milking routine. There was never enough hours in the day to do all we wanted to do. Every day was the same whether it was a public holiday or even Christmas Day. The cows were milked twice a day, put out to pasture or into their night paddock after the evening milking. The dairy was cleaned and the concrete holding area hosed down after every milking. Whatever else needed to be done had to occur between the hours of 10am and 3.30pm, and occasionally we treated ourselves to a short day away from the farm.
Sometimes we would drive down the mountain to Taree and have a counter lunch at a pub which overlooked the Manning River. Other times we’d take the other road down the other side of the mountain to Wauchope and on to Port Macquarie. Here we would have lunch at the RSL Club and play the poker machines for the time it took to lose our two dollars. We got lucky on a few occasions and won five or ten dollars which paid for our lunch.
John’s sister, Margaret and her husband, Bill came to spend a few days of their annual holidays with us. We did essential chores only during their stay so that we had time to show them over the farm and the Plateau. Bill enjoyed bushwalking and was quite an authority on native plant species and birds. While John and I attended to the morning milking and the needs of the cows and the calves in the nursery, Bill would go off with Phillip and Geoffrey to explore the fauna and flora on the Plateau. They scrambled up and down precipitous gulleys, and followed the creeks for miles while Bill pointed out, and named, the various bush orchids as well as identifying every bird they saw or heard.
One morning we all walked up to the back paddocks. This was a precipitous route down ‘cardiac pass’ where a creek ran shallowly over a stony bed, its crystal clear water gurgling gently to a deeper, wider stream through grassy banks lined with rainforest trees. On the other side of the stream the slopes rose more gently to another creek that dried out into rock pools shaded by trees.
When we came out of the trees into the last paddock, we didn’t notice Margaret missing. We were by now, in the middle of the paddock and heard her screaming. Bill and the boys were a hundred yards to the left of John and me, but I saw them stop and turn towards the sounds of Margaret’s screams. There she was streaking across the paddock with my six heifers in pursuit, yelling blue murder.
Yelling, “Stop. Don’t run,” I took off down the hill to her rescue. Margaret was scared witless however, and she kept running. The heifers were pig-rooting and obviously enjoying this wonderful game. I tried another tack and yelled not at Margaret, but at Katie who was always on the lookout for a handout. I yelled her name and waved my arms until she saw me. She veered off and came galloping up to me with the other five hard on her heels.
The crisis over, I looked back up the hill to see John, Bill and the boys were engaged in hysterical laughter. Margaret didn’t see the funny side of it. She probably still doesn’t believe she would have come to no harm had she not turned and run.
We were stunned at Margaret’s parting words when they left to return to Sydney. “I do envy you this lifestyle. You have so much leisure time it is like one long holiday.”
At the time words failed us, but as the years passed we had many an occasion when Margaret’s assessment of the easy life we led caused us mirth amid total physical exhaustion.
It was time now to think of ways to store fodder for the long winter months. We realised it would be impossible to make enough hay now that Comboyne’s weather had returned to normal. John had dim memories of seeing silage fed to the dairy cows at the Burnside Orphan Homes where he grew up. You didn’t need fine weather to make silage.
In no time at all, he had Phillip and Geoffrey ploughing a paddock and planting corn. The paddock planted, they chose a spot between the house and machinery shed and began digging a pit.
Another paddock was planted with Sudax which would give the cows both the bulk and green feed necessary to keep up their milk production in late autumn when the kikuyu pasture grass was going into dormancy for winter. A paddock of turnips was planted for the dry cows and heifers.
A couple of months after Deputy’s demise, we acquired a fourteen month old, Bull Terrier-Border Collie cross. He came to us with the handle ‘Dave’ which seemed too tame a name for such a heavy-set dog. We called him Brutus.
Brutus was the most intelligent and loveable dog one could hope to meet. When I introduced him to the cows for the first time and he saw Ned running to and fro, yapping endlessly, he obviously thought there was a better way. In a flash he raced in to help, going for the cow’s nose and throat. One yell from me though and he was back sitting at my feet obediently. He whined and begged to be allowed into the fray, but never again attacked a cow.
Brutus soon accepted the fact that it was Ned’s job, and Ned’s job only, to bring in the cows. He decided to be the cows friend and protector. He was always in the holding yard when they were waiting to be milked, patrolling back and forth to ensure all was in order. After the first few cows had gone through the bails he’d lie down a yard or so from the gate to the bails and go to sleep. The cows simply stepped over him to go through the gate into the bails.
We laughed to see Brutus sound asleep in front of the gate to the paddock where the cows were waiting. He didn’t awaken when the gate was opened. The lead cow nudged him with her nose but he remained there, looking up at her with sleepy eyes. She nudged him again, and then used her nose to push him aside before going on her way with the rest of the herd following. Brutus lay there until the last cow passed through the gate before he got to his feet.
Candy and Ned often chased rabbits across the paddocks, and for a few days, Brutus went with them. He must have decided how pointless an exercise this was as neither Candy nor Ned ever caught a bunny. It amused us no end to see the three dogs go off on a chase. Then we’d see Brutus veer off into the bracken fern and periodically see him rise above the growth like a bouncing ball. In a few minutes he’d be back with his catch and a grin from ear to ear as he drooled over it on the back lawn.
He caught more rabbits than he could eat and in time there were bunny legs growing out of the earth like asparagus. Poor Ned found it a treacherous exercise to move about the farm because Brutus was very protective of his stored catches.
Just a week before the corn had reached its optimum time for harvest, John purchased a Forage Harvester and Silage Trailer. Brutus sat up in the tractor beside Phillip as the harvesting went on and when silaged rabbits were discovered a couple of months later when the silage was being fed out we were amused that Brutus had found a suitable storage facility.
I had set a dozen eggs under a clucky chook and was delighted when she hatched ten of them. When they were a week old I found her sitting out in the rain in a puddle of water. Four of the chicks had drowned. Over the next day or two I rescued the remaining six chicks on several occasions, and in desperation decided to try and raise the odds of survival. I chose three chicks that appeared to be developing more slowly and hoped these might be pullets and not roosters. I put Candy in charge of their care during the day and housed them at night in a box on top of the hot water tank at the back of the slow combustion stove.
Candy took her chick-sitting duties seriously and never let them out of her sight. We’d find her asleep in a sunny spot with the three chicks nestled into the thick ruff beneath her chin. As they grew older, where Candy went, they went. I called them Faith, Hope and Charity.
At about nine or ten weeks it was time to relieve Candy of her chook raising duties and I began putting the chicks in the chook run. At dusk I’d put them on a perch in the chookhouse and listen to their loud protesting cheeps as I walked back to the house. For a few nights, I’d hear a commotion in the chookhouse and find the whole place in an uproar. The other chooks, unable to stand the constant loud cheeping were doing their best to evict the culprits.
I thought Candy’s trio were learning to be chooks after a few days but I was mistaken. One evening I found the three of them perched on the sideboard in the kitchen. It took several efforts of returning them to the chookhouse before it got through their tiny little bird brains that this was not acceptable. Hope and Charity finally decided to be chooks but Faith refused absolutely. She ended up with special privileges. A perch and a nesting box in a quiet corner of the laundry.
So much of my time was spent walking the paddocks that the blokes persuaded me to learn to ride the motor bike. Having had the experience of John teaching me to drive a car, I wasn’t about to repeat it. Instead, I’d go with Phillip to a flat paddock where I’d spend an hour putting up and down while he attended to whatever chore he had set himself.
I had many a spill over the next couple of months, and since I managed to come out unscathed, I never had to let on that motor bike riding was not my forte. My skills with the bike limited me somewhat as I couldn’t bring myself to go down the steep slope of Cardiac Pass which was the only access to the back paddocks.
The return of normal rainfall on the Plateau brought different problems to life in the dairy shed. Seedling stinging trees popped up everywhere and now the cows were showing up with udders covered in inflamed, suppurating blisters. Milking was a nightmare and each affected cow had to be leg-roped. I came up with the solution of sponging the udder with methylated spirits and applying zylocaine cream to the teats before putting the cups on. The zylocaine eased the pain for the couple of minutes it took to empty the udder of milk. Before the cow left the bails I applied a liberal amount of Calamine Lotion.
Bush ticks and paralysis ticks caused problems both with the herd and the domestic animals. I spent an hour each day checking the coats of the dogs and cats and removing ticks of one sort or another. Ned would have two or three paralysis ticks just about every day but for some reason he had an immunity so suffered no ill effects. Brutus however, got tick fever and I rang the vet in a panic as he already had paralysis in his back legs.
After a lot of consideration about the pros and cons, we decided Brutus would ride it out with the appropriate care. He was to be kept quiet so that the poison would proceed slowly enough for his body to deal with it before it affected his heart and lungs. Keeping him quiet was easier said than done for this energetic, boisterous dog. He was too heavy to be carried so I took him with me in the wheelbarrow to the dairy where he watched the proceedings. I wheeled him over to calf paddock while I attended to their needs, and parked him at the front door where he could watch us as we had breakfast.
The paralysis was contained and Brutus was back on all fours in a couple of weeks.
The calf paddocks took up approximately 5 acres. One paddock housed the Calfateria and was referred to as the ‘Nursery’. It was well sheltered by trees on two sides and also contained the remnants of an old orchard. Two fifty year old China Pear Trees, a couple of plum trees, an apricot and a Persimmon provided shade as well as an abundance of fruit for us as well as the calves.
The second paddock was used for the girls at weaning. This we called the Kindy Paddock where the girls were supplemented with high protein calf pellets until they’d ‘hardened’ and ready to be let loose up in the back paddocks.
The old farm dairy building was in the Kindy Paddock. This building we divided into two sections which were used to isolate sick animals, and/or to keep them warm and dry when the weather was particularly inclement.
To my absolute delight, Dolly produced a heifer calf who became Little Dolly. John groaned at the prospect of another jersey in the milking herd and extracted a promise from me that I would ensure all her future progeny be friesian or hereford crosses. Little Dolly inherited her mother’s temperament and good looks so that no matter how much the blokes tried, they could not help but be enchanted by her.
Sadly, Dolly succumbed to a respiratory infection a couple of years later. I hadn’t promised not to inseminate Little Dolly with jersey semen and John didn’t think about it until it was too late. I asked Phillip and Geoffrey to bring her home from the back paddocks so she could run with the herd. She was quite co-operative until they got to the bottom of Cardiac Pass when she simply planted her four legs on the ground and refused to move.
Geoffrey stayed with Little Dolly while Phillip came home to get the tractor and trailer. They used the back gate of the trailer as a ramp and led Little Dolly onto the trailer. Geoffrey stood with his arm around her neck and they proceeded slowly up Cardiac Pass.
The tooting of the tractor caused me to go out and see what was going on. I couldn’t help but laugh to see Little Dolly riding in the back of the trailer looking for all the world as though it was something she did every day.
A little more than 10 months later,she produced a heifer calf I called ‘Flea’. Once more John groaned at the prospect of another jersey in the milking herd.
As the weeks and months flew by, I thought I would get used to the downside of dairy farming but it just became harder and harder to bear. This was the necessity of sending bull calves and old or low production cows to market. I tried hard not to think about the calves but there were always tears in my eyes when it came to parting with my girls. I dreamed of a time when we could afford a retirement paddock for them.
Other dairy farmers we knew thought I was too soft in the head for the job. “If you’ve got live cows, you get dead ones,” they’d tell me over and over as I struggled to help my girls overcome the various illnesses that happened.
It was fortunate that I found an ally in the Wingham vets. They went out of their way to teach me to diagnose and treat all ailments and provided me with a first aid box of antibiotics. I would describe the symptoms over the phone and be advised of the necessary treatment. If it was necessary for the vet to call, he would give me a hands on lesson.
In later years, I was accused by my friendly vet of noticing a sick cow before she was sick! He said I had a healthy herd because their illnesses never got to a critical stage. This was not because I was any sort of clever Molly, but because the first sign of illness in a cow is a change in behaviour. I knew my girls so well that I picked up the warning signs early.
Bam Bam was such a case. She was in a group of five heifers about a month away from calving. When I checked on them she looked nervous and refused to allow me to approach her. I decided to bring them all closer to home where I could keep an eye on her. She balked at the dairy yard, jumped the gate and went into the next paddock.
I spent the next week trying to coax her with a bucket of grain to no avail. A few days later she settled down under a tree and allowed me to put the bucket of grain and water close enough for her to reach. Her eyes told me she was in pain and I fretted that she wouldn’t allow me to help her.
One day I went down with feed and water and noticed she was getting close to calving. She drank the water and got to her feet which surprised me. I picked up the bucket of grain and backed away while holding it out to her. She walked slowly towards me so I turned and walked towards the Kindy paddock. She followed.
Once in the Kindy paddock, Bam Bam went to the shelter of the old dairy building and settled down on a thick patch of grass. The next morning I helped her calve and watched as she cleaned and suckled it. I went home, rang the vet and asked him to come because I knew there was something very wrong and now she was going to accept help.
The vet arrived at the same time Bam Bam died. We were both stunned and I stood there and bawled. He did a post mortem to confirm his own suspicions that it was ‘wire disease’. I’d read about it in my Hungerford’s Bible. This illness occurs when a cow ingests a piece of wire which travels through the body causing pain and distress, ending in death when it pierces the heart. Poor Bam Bam.
I could not have saved Bam Bam but it comforted me a little that I was able to provide feed and water so that some of her pain was relieved.
Some years later we learned of a treatment for wire disease which involved depositing a magnet into the cow’s rumen. All but one of our girls had a magnet in her rumen to collect the pieces of metal they inadvertently ingest. To get the magnet into the rumen requires inserting a piece of poly pipe down the gullet; then the magnet is dropped into the pipe and down it goes. They’re not supposed to be able to disgorge them but Jemima did, not once but three times.
The Dairy Industry in New South Wales was changing rapidly. A policy was introduced designed to force those farmers out of the industry whose operation was not viable. These were mostly small family farms where the children had moved to the city or large towns in search of employment, leaving the aging parents to cope alone. To make it more difficult for these farmers to stay in the Industry, stringent quality controls came into force. Dairy and Health Inspectors set out criteria to be met in order to obtain or retain a licence to produce milk.
Many small farms closed down. Those of us left continued our battle with Governments for an increase in the price of milk at the farm gate. Every so often we won a one cent per litre increase which had to be shared across the Industry so that the farmer was lucky to gain an increase of 0.02% of the one cent per litre price rise. There was this deeply ingrained idea in the minds of the powers that be, that milk was a staple food and as such should remain a cheap commodity to the public.
The Dairy Farmer’s Association asked for a breakdown on how the Dairy Industry Department arrived at their assessment of what was a reasonable price rise. Every dairy farmer in the State was stunned when they saw that the Department had allowed in the list of a dairy farmer’s expenses, the princely sum of one dollar per week as a wage for the farmer’s wife.
It soon became apparent to all farmers that to survive in the Dairy Industry meant milking more cows, breeding higher producing cows and growing enough crops to feed the increased numbers of cows. Increased herd sizes meant the need to keep more heifer calves to grow up as replacements and this meant more land was required.
Whichever way we looked at it, our farm could not sustain a bigger herd. If we were to survive as a viable unit in the Dairy Industry we would have to move to a bigger farm where there was ample scope for irrigation. This meant we would have to look further afield and leave the picturesque Plateau we loved so much.
By the time we found a farm that met our needs and was within our financial means, we had been dairy farming for four years on the Comboyne Plateau. The farm we purchased was 300 acres in the Upper Hunter Valley.
John inspected the property in the first instance and came home full of enthusiasm. There was an excellent irrigation system, 100 acres of river flats sown to lucerne and there were two houses as well as a couple of outbuildings. The dairy was not good but could be fixed. “You will like the house, Jan. It’s got a verandah.”
Phillip and I took a day off to drive down and see this Mecca John was so enthusiastic about. The Hunter Valley had been in drought for a couple of years so that the only green to be seen was the irrigated paddocks. The rest of the country was bare, dry and dusty. My heart sank but I reserved judgment as I gazed out of the car window at the depressing sight.
We arrived at about noon on a day that was too hot for comfort. The owners, Rob and his son Ken were bringing in hay bales and stacking them on a truck, seemingly oblivious of the heat. They welcomed our arrival though, as it gave them the perfect excuse to retire to the house for lunch prior to giving us a tour of the farm.
The farm was up for sale, we learned, because Rob and Betty wished to retire to enjoy an easier life in surburbia. Ken and his wife were buying another farm on the Hunter River with their share of the proceeds from the sale so that Ken could involve himself in the breeding of stud friesian cows. They were successful exhibitors in The Sydney Royal Show, and they had reason to be proud of their high producing herd.
Phillip and I agreed with John that this was an ideal farm for us. While we weren’t impressed with the run-down condition of the milking shed, we felt there was nothing we couldn’t rectify.
Three months later, in May we began preparations for the move. So many arrangements had to be made to ensure as smooth a transition from one property to the other as was possible. The cows had to be milked early on the morning of our departure, loaded onto the double-decker cattle transport trucks, and we had to be waiting for them when they arrived at our new farm to supervise their unloading and settle them into a paddock.
Two days before ‘D’ day, most of the heavy farm equipment was loaded onto trucks to be transported to the new farm. The next day, we loaded our truck with most of our domestic belongings, the three dogs in a large mesh cage and a large packing case covered with a mesh lid which contained our two geese. I loaded our car with linen and kitchen items and the four tranquilised cats.
We set off on the four-hour drive with me following John in the truck. Precious, Topsy and Dippy were in carry cases on the back seat of the car and Sasha’s case was secured by the seat belt on the front seat. We began the journey with Sash yowling loudly as she fought against the drug and instead of going to sleep, her yowls got progressively louder.
In the truck ahead of me, I could see the dogs barking at passing traffic. Every now and then I could see one or both the geese poke their heads up through the mesh trying to fathom what was going on. Later, John told me they honked their way to their new home.
We unloaded the vehicles and John returned to Comboyne, leaving me to sort out the household stuff and attend to the domestic animals. Phillip would bring down the next load, leaving after milking the cows that same evening and returning immediately after unloading. In the morning they would load our herd onto the cattle trucks after milking. They would then load our truck and be at the new farm before the cattle trucks arrived at 4pm.
My job since my arrival was to set up house. The first night I spent on a mattress in a bedroom piled high with boxes and bags. On the mattress with me were the four confused and scared cats so it wasn’t a restful night. I had managed to unpack and fill the kitchen cupboards before nightfall, but the only other cupboard in the house was a small, built-in linen closet. We had come from a house where there were built-ins in all rooms so didn’t possess such a thing as a wardrobe.
At 6am Ken was milking his cows prior to transporting them over to his new farm. There was a huge commotion going on a bit later and I went out to see what was going on. Our geese had left the house yard and were waddling around the paddock when Ken’s cows spotted them. When I went out the poor birds were surrounded by about twenty cows, unable to escape through the forest of black and white legs. I had to brandish a piece of poly pipe to disperse the mob and shepherd my two birds back behind the safety of the house fence.
John and Phillip arrived about 3pm. They were both hot, dirty and very weary. As soon as they had put hay in the paddock where the cows would spend the night, they headed for the house to shower and get as much rest as they could get before the cattle trucks arrived.
As it turned out, the trucks didn’t turn up until after 6pm. By the time they were unloaded it was quite dark so we decided the cows had enough and their udders would hold out until morning. The girls were happy to be off the trucks but they were hungry and thirsty and, we knew, would be feeling battered and bruised. We shut the gate behind the last girl into the paddock and wearily made our way back to the organised chaos in the house.
Milking the girls the next morning was a never-to-be-forgotten experience. They found the new yards and bails scary and each cow had to be persuaded to go through the gate to the bails. The only thing familiar to them was the sound of the milking machines.
We resorted to bribery. Holding out a bucket of grain in front of Marlene’s nose we persuaded her to lead the way. Phil pushed seven others in behind her. After a lot of urging all eight were bailed up and milking began. The process was repeated over and over through the 85 cows to notch up our longest milking time.
The problems that morning included dealing with milking machines that fell apart, and discovering that the holding yard was concrete covered with ten inches of dirt and manure and contained huge, cavernous ‘pot holes’ filled with stinking black sludge. We were horrified.
As soon as the girls went out to pasture and the dairy was cleaned after milking, we went home to a very late breakfast. John got on the phone and called Mick who had installed our new milking machines on Comboyne, and arranged for him to come down the next week to replace the whole set-up, an expense we didn’t need but considered absolutely necessary..
Before the afternoon milking, Phillip put the grader blade on the tractor and cleared off the covering of dirt and manure, and we hosed it clean. We used the boom gate to close off the concreted yard, making a lane between the bails and the wood-railed cattle yards that contained the race and loading ramp. Over the next few days we would empty the sludge filled caverns in the concrete and buy a couple of metres of ready-mix concrete to fill them.
The girls were more settled for the afternoon milking and we were more wary of the tendency of the machines to fall apart. At the end of milking, however, I happened to glance over at a small, grassy area behind the dairy. It took a moment to register that I was seeing a pair of cow’s ears above the grass. I called to Phil and together we watched in sheer amazement as the pair of ears moved towards the dairy, slowly rising until first the head and then the body appeared.
Cuddles had discovered something we hadn’t in our short time at Glenesk. There was a deep drain at the back of the dairy which took away the waste from the dairy. It was covered by a matt of kikuyu grass and quite invisible until Cuddles fell into it. We put her in the yards and washed her down. The next morning she was running a temperature and ended up on antibiotics for the infections she picked up. The drain had to go as soon as possible. In the meantime, we fenced it off from the cows.
We set up the Calfateria in the orchard below the house. It happened to be the only area securely fenced and with electricity and water close at hand. It would be a few weeks before time permitted the building of a shed, so the machine was simply covered with a tarpaulin to protect its workings from the weather. The nights were becoming very cold but the days, though still warm, were unpleasantly windy and dusty.
Each evening, Phillip had to set up the electric fence in the lucerne paddock ready for the girls after the morning milking. Before letting them in to devour their strip, he had to spray it with anti-bloat oil. Then one of us would have to check the 80 odd rumens for signs of bloat every half hour. We would eventually overcome our fear of bloat cases but in the early months we were continually on tenterhooks. I often wished for a break from the strain of feeding lucerne and looked forward to the day when our girls might have a safe paddock of sorgham to eat.
There were many occasions when the herd was brought home early from their morning feed. We learned fairly quickly which cows needed drenching with oil and which ones would ‘go down’ without interference. We had a very stressful day when twenty cows needed urgent treatment. Three of these we had to stab in the bulging rumen with a knife, leaving a four inch incision for the vet to repair. The trocar and cannula saved several others from the knife and the rest got away with oil drenching.
We never went anywhere on the farm without a good sharp knife in a pocket or strapped to our bikes.
By the end of our first month on Glenesk we had settled into a comfortable routine. The new milking machines had been installed, the holding yards repaired and we had found a wonderful vet. Then we found out what it was like to be a dairy farmer when winter temperatures plunge below zero.
By mid June we were feeling the cold. The winds were relentless, blowing easterly gales for days followed by days of westerly gales whipping up palls of choking dust.
July came in much calmer but the frosts were crisp and crackly underfoot in the mornings as I went to fetch the cows for milking. Phil complained of frozen hands, despite his leather gloves, when shifting the irrigation pipes and often had to wait until the sun thawed the frozen water inside them before he could move them. We complained in the dairy that our feet turned numb from the cold despite wearing two pairs of thick wool socks.
The cold temperatures peaked at minus eleven degrees centigrade that winter. For a couple of weeks we suffered having to thaw out the dairy machines by running hot water through them and occasionally having to wait until the sun’s heat melted the frozen pipes carrying cold water to the dairy. We would immerse our rubber boots in buckets of warm water to restore some feeling to our frozen feet. By the end of winter I had discovered the pain associated with chillblains.
After the morning milking, with my feet crying out for relief, I would have to thaw out the water pipe leading to the calfateria so that the nursery kids would stop bellowing because the teats yielded no milk.
The stinking drain at the back of the dairy was now at the top of the priority list. We’d done some investigations on ways to get rid of the effluent and decided on a sump fitted with a submersible pump which would turn on and off automatically, pumping the contents of the sump into a long poly pipe reaching into what would become the calf paddocks. At the end of the pipe was a spray attachment which Phillip fashioned from some scrap metal. We simply moved the pipe after each milking and so watered and fertilised the paddock in one operation.
The sump was a concrete, bottomless tank about four feet in diameter. We all pitched in to dig the hole for it and John and Phillip mixed the concrete to seal the bottom. They constructed a spoon drain to carry the waste from the dairy to the sump.
After each milking, whoever hosed out the bails and concrete holding yards, had the added duty of ensuring the sump was also hosed out and kept clean, and to move the spray in the paddock ready for the next milking.
The part of the paddock where the old drain had been remained unusable for two years due to the build up of bacteria in the soil. We used it as a walk way for the cows going to and from an adjacent paddock until we deemed it safe to use as an extension of the calf paddock.
August brought the winds that blew relentlessly from the east or west. The westerlies were hot and dry, and the eastlerlies cooler but just as dry. Our soil was sandy loam on the river flats and the sand particles flying in the wind stung our exposed skin, while the dust clung to our clothing, lodged in eyes and clogged noses. When, we asked ourselves, is it ever going to rain?
It rained in late October. Enough to settle the dust and spoil Phillip’s paddock of ready-to-bail hay. It rained in November and ruined another paddock of ready-to-bail hay but we didn’t mind at all. Rain was rain was rain.
In December and January summer hit with a vengeance and our cows, used to a milder climate were suffering heat stress. Their production dropped and they ceased grazing in the heat of the day. We began letting them down on the river bank where they had the shade of the willows and river oaks. After milking in the afternoons they were given their green strip of lucerne before they went into the night paddock where we had put out hay.
The river hadn’t flowed in months so we were over the moon when we heard from those upstream that it was on the way. The Goulburn is a wide sandy bed and the water only reached half way across this time, but we were as happy as a dog with two tails to see it slowly creeping along the sand. For the rest of summer, the girls came home from their morning feed in the lucerne paddock and galloped like excited kids, down to the river. They spent the hottest part of the day wading in water or contentedly chewing their cuds under the willows.
It was around about this time that I noticed a bigger percentage of inseminated cows, were back on heat after three or four months. This usually means they have aborted their foetus so I began to worry. Then Tranny, a heifer I had high hopes for, turned up with a bloody discharge. An examination produced the aborted foetus which I took in to the vet for testing. Tests ruled out the dreaded diseases that cause abortions which was a relief, but I was none the wiser as to what was going on in the herd.
It wasn’t until September that all became clear. For the next three months one in every three calves born had deformities ranging from mild to severe. I had read about ‘curly calves’ in my Hungerfords bible but, until now, had not seen a case. Our problems differed from the ‘curly calf’ syndrome in that the deformities of the twisted limbs were not fixed and/or inflexible; just the opposite, in fact. It was more a case of soft muscles and tendons.
The cause was a virus called Akabane. Our herd had not been in contact with this virus so that when it struck, they had no immunity to it. Those cows that had contracted the virus in the first couple of months or so of pregnancy either aborted or went on to give birth to deformed calves. Once the pregnancy had progressed beyond the first trimester the deformities were minimal, if present at all.
We had calves born blind or with no brains at all. There were those horrific ones that were born inside out – that is, with their stomachs on the outside, or with the rib cages exposed. The milder cases had deformed legs, mostly the front legs which were twisted or there were no muscle reflexes for weight bearing.
I spent many hours with the milder cases. I couldn’t bring myself to put down beautiful calves without a fight. I massaged the limbs twice daily, and made splints out of pieces of poly pipe I cut in half lengthwise and bandaged in place with crepe bandages. With the calf able to stand, I could then help it suckle from its mother. My determination paid off as I saved all of these calves.
We now had a vastly improved herd of high producing cows. We joined our Vet’s Herd Health programme which involved a monthly veterinary check of all freshly calved cows and any in the herd showing signs of ill health. We kept extensive records on the health or otherwise of each of our girls and wrote down any problems at calving or illnesses not requiring veterinary treatment.
We took part in the Herd Recording Programme. Each month an official Herd Recorder attended an evening and morning milking to take samples of the milk from each cow; this told us the litres per day the cow produced and the butterfat percentage, as well us giving us her total litres for the duration of the lactation.
One morning when the Dairy Inspector arrived with his clipboard to note down his nitpicks, he was accompanied by a man who was in the area to classify the cows of registered herds for the Holstein/Friesian Association. Ours was still a grade herd. He asked me if I had considered registering our herd. I told him I had not because, although we were using artificial insemination to improve our herd, I didn’t think we had yet reached the stage where our girls were good enough.
“Oh, lady!” he exclaimed with a tone of exasperation, “I can see a dozen GPs (classification Good Plus) right there. Tell you what, I’ll be in the area for a week..” he took out his diary to check his appointments and continued, “Next Tuesday I can come and we’ll classify your herd before the afternoon milking. Deal?”
It was a deal. The cows were yarded in the wooden yards a half hour earlier than usual and as they were classified they were put through to the concrete holding yards. Of course we started off on the bottom of the scale so that it was four more years before we had any fully registered cows. It all meant I had to find time to do the heaps of paperwork and to photograph each cow initially and each heifer calf when it was a few days old.
The cows are classified on conformation, strength of legs and feet, udder and barrel capacity (rumen). It took me awhile to realise that my girls were losing points because they had ‘rounded’ heads. This occurred because I couldn’t stomach the practice of dehorning heifers when they were nearing 12 months of age. Instead I preferred the softer option of shaving the hair off the horn bud and dabbing it with a caustic paste as soon as possible after birth. The result of my method was a rounded head between the ears rather than the squared shape left by the residue of the horn bed in cattle that had been dehorned after the horns had grown and hardened.
There was a small cow in the herd we called Wombles. She had a short wheelbase and was more udder than anything else. She was also one of our highest producers. I could see the Classifier didn’t like what he saw. “Don’t you dare mark this girl down,” I said. “She can run rings around the others when it comes to producing milk.”
“But, she is not in proportion,” he replied.
“Okay,” says I. “She has four good legs and feet with good heal depth, a barrel with huge capacity and a square udder held up by iron ligaments. What more do you want?”
He looked at me for a minute and grinned. “You are right. The pretty ones aren’t always the best.” He gave her a GP80.
Wombles went on to produce four heifers, all proportionally correct, which inherited her high producing qualities. I named the heifers after milk brands: Hi-Lo, Moove, Choccy Moove and FM.
Heifers were presented for re-classification each year and up-graded (or down-graded) as they developed into mature cows. Duchess, who was my first successful mal-presentation calving case, produced four high producing heifers. Three of these, Aphrodite, Cassiopea and Venus went on to be classified ‘Excellent’. It amazed me that these three heifers were by different sires, yet they were like peas in a pod.
As time went on, I learned which cows were the best to breed from and how to choose sires which would turn their negatives into positives. I began with temperament and no matter how good, or popular a particular sire, he was scrapped unless he had at least a plus 10 for temperament.
I used beef sires over those cows which remained unregistered or which didn’t match up to my breeding criteria. The use of beef sires meant that I wouldn’t be tempted to raise beef-cross heifer calves. The semen from beef sires was also a lot cheaper.
Our dairy operation evolved into the three of us having particular responsibilities. I had the job of herd health, artificial insemination and calf raising. Phillip’s job was the irrigation, paddock work and Mr. Fix-it for the plant and equipment. John juggled the finances and lent a hand anywhere it was required.
This arrangement worked well. The twice-daily milkings were shared with Phillip and I doing the early morning milking and John and I the afternoon. John was not a happy vegemite getting up at the crack of dawn so he was easily persuaded to rise later and have breakfast ready for us when we’d finished.
John had what I called the ‘public service mentality’. He’d spent his working life doing a nine to five, 5-day a week job and he never got used to our 24 hours a day, 7 days a week existence. He insisted on one day off a week. We had many an argument as well over the fact that he refused to have his sleep interrupted if I needed help with a calving. He’d get so angry and grumpy that I’d leave him slumber on and either do it myself or enlist Phillip’s aid.
This problem was solved somewhat when John wrenched his back loading hay. Having the spent the previous six years with a bad back myself, I felt his pain but he screamed blue murder that no-one ever had to endure such agony. Scans revealed a bulging disc and he was scheduled for surgery a couple of months down the track. After his surgery, it was another three months recovering during which time he made the decision to find a job away from the farm.
John loved working as an accountant during the week and helping with the milkings on weekends. He had never been quite at home with farming, and he had missed the hustle and bustle of life in the business world.
On the farm, Phillip and I found ourselves continually short-handed as a succession of employees came and went. Good dairy-hands were as scarce as hen’s teeth and there was a dearth of job seekers willing to put in a fair days work, no matter how much we were willing to pay.
One fellow we employed had the reputation of being light-fingered but we found him to be competent and reliable enough to turn up to work on time. He’d been with us for a month or so when he asked me for a couple of days off to undergo a medical procedure. This turned out to be a vasectomy which his wife had forced on him with due threats.
It was most unfortunate that this man suffered deep emotional trauma after his vasectomy. He lost his cheerfulness and developed a severe, dermatitis-like rash on his body. He suffered depression and was unable to work. I couldn’t help but feel saddened that these procedures are carried out without prior counselling to ensure the patient does not suffer after effects due to ignorance.
Our life on the farm became a more settled routine as we lost our new-chum status. The daily grind was peppered with emergencies of one sort or another as well as some unusual happenings that caused us much mirth.
One morning we noticed the whole milking herd milling about in the middle of the paddock. Phil went to investigate and discovered a very frightened, half grown wombat in the middle of the mob. He yelled and pushed his way through, grabbed the wombat and took off for the gate, hotly pursued by a hundred killer cows. As he ran, he was nudged and bunted by some of the braver girls.
I watched in amusement , but became anxious when it seemed he wasn’t going to make the gate. He was also running out of puff, so instead of going for the gate, he took the shorter route and hurdled the fence without missing a stride. He sank to his knees in the grass.
The wombat weighed around forty kilos so she was quite a weight to carry over a fifty metre sprint. Being nocturnal animals, we decided it would be best to release the wombat in the evening. We put her in a 44 gallon drum half filled with loose hay, but not before she had a go at removing one of Phil’s fingers.
Another morning we were eating a late breakfast when we heard a drumming noise that sounded like stampeding hooves. Seconds later our herd came into view as they thundered down the lane and into their night paddock.
Phillip made for his bike which he’d parked by the front gate and went off to see what was spooking the herd. Twenty minutes later, the herd were tearing back down the night paddock and into the home paddock where they huddled together, each one trying desperately not to be on the outside of the mob.
By the time Phillip returned, I realised that our milking herd had grown to include all our dry cows and heifers from the back paddocks. Phillip was sporting a grin from ear to ear as he told me that the spooker was a regal-looking red deer with a set of magnificent antlers.
The deer had arrived suddenly in the paddock where the herd were peacefully eating their morning lucerne strip. The sight and smell of this strange creature caused the girls to turn and make a hasty exit with the deer trotting curiously behind. When the cows disappeared into the night paddock, the deer took a short-cut across the paddocks and ended up in the waist-high long grass in the back paddocks.
Phillip was sitting on his bike watching as the deer made its way in the direction of the dam where the dry cows and heifers were gathered. Suddenly, fifty cows of all sizes sprang to attention like animated spring coils, bodies tensed and ears pricked. Coming at them through the long grass was an unidentified odour and a moving branch of a dead tree.
En masse, they turned and took off. Just twenty metres away was the dividing fence to the night paddock but it was as if it wasn’t there. In seconds they had flattened the fence and joined the milking herd which was now heading for home.
A few phone calls established the fact that the deer was an escapee from a deer farm some twenty kilometers away. A few hours later the owner and a vet arrived with tranquiliser guns and the like but the deer had moved on. Phillip had the task of mending the fence, and before milking that afternoon, we had to separate the dry cows and heifers and put them back in their own paddock.
The Goulburn River is a wide, dry, sandy river bed that only flows after substantial rain. All of the farms along its banks draw water from its underground reservoir. There is a warning system in place which alerts farmers to remove their pumps from the river bank in the event of heavy rain and a large volume of water coming down the river. It is truly a magnificent sight in full flood.
We let our cows down on the river in summer to escape the heat of the day, and on occasions, used the river to run our heifers. To keep them from wandering, we would run an electric fence across the river at both ends of our property. I kept a close eye on these girls and checked them daily to ensure none went a-wandering or got themselves into any strife. When they had eaten the grass down, we brought them home and put them in a paddock.
On one of these occasions I was one heifer short when I brought them home. I searched the river banks for hours that day and the next but there was no sign of her. On the third day, I went off again after the morning chores were done, stopping every now and then to scan the trees on the far bank of the river. Twice I saw what I thought was a chink of light in a clump of Oak Trees. It was strange enough for me to descend into the sandy bed and head towards the Oaks.
I was two thirds of the way across when the chink of light turned into the white triangular marking on the forehead of a black cow’s head. It was my lost heifer, imprisoned with her head stuck in the fork of an oak tree. She mooed softly at my approach but didn’t struggle. I could see there was no way of getting her head out without removing one of the eight inch diameter limbs. I turned and hurried home to find Phillip.
Phillip came back with me, armed with his chain saw. We tried raising her front legs up on a platform of rocks but we couldn’t get her high enough. There was nothing for it but to saw off the limb of the tree. We made a halter out of a length of rope and I used all my strength to pull down on it to keep her head out of the way of the saw. Strangely enough, she didn’t try to go against me despite the noise of the saw and the sawdust falling on her face.
With the limb of the tree sawn off, it took a minute or two to persuade the heifer to lift her head. Phillip had his arm around her neck while I pushed her head up until she was free. The poor girl was quite dehydrated, and very wonky on her pins as we helped her down the bank to the river bed where there was water flowing in a narrow stream. After she quenched her thirst, she followed me home.
We were milking eighty to ninety cows in a four double-up milking shed. A four double-up has eight bails. It took us two to two and half hours to milk the cows and another half hour to clean up afterwards. We needed to milk more cows for more income but to do so would mean the cows would have less time in the paddocks. It was time to look at upgrading to a herringbone dairy.
There was a huge battle going on in the Dairy Industry. The Dairy Farmers Association were resisting attempts to deregulate the Industry with some success. In New South Wales, dairyfarmers were looking to a better future after many years of struggling against low farm gate prices. Victorian dairyfarmers, on the other hand, were feeling the pinch when their export markets collapsed. Their Industry had long been controlled by Processing Companies and they now found themselves having to accept lower incomes.
Victorian farmers looked across the border at a flourishing New South Wales Industry and wanted a share in our markets. They were seasonal milk producers. That is, they shut down their dairies for three months of the year in winter whereas in New South Wales and other States, farmers milked their cows 365 days a year, meeting their milk quota despite drought, floods and other disagreeable happenings.
When Victorian milk began to flow in across the border, New South Wales farmers picketed the offending supermarkets and took action through the Courts. In New South Wales, the quota system was working well and deregulation would destroy it and leave the farmers unprotected and at the mercy of Processing Companies and Supermarket chains.
In New South Wales, we dairy farmers purchased our quotas. We were paid a higher price for quota milk and anything produced over and above our quotas, was known as ‘surplus’ and brought a much lower price. Our quotas were looked on by farmers as superannuation for retirement as they could be sold separately from the farm.
At the time we decided to up-grade to a herringbone dairy shed, all this turmoil was going on in the industry. Not being able to see into the future we decided to take the plunge. Deregulation seemed at least five years away and in the meantime, we needed to increase our income to counter the rising costs of production.
We went ahead and built a 14 aside herringbone shed. This meant there were fourteen cows on each side of the pit from where we worked to wash udders and put on the cups without having to bend down. While one side of fourteen cows were milking, we washed and prepared the fourteen on the other side. We were now milking a minimum of 120 cows, yet we were all finished and cleaned up in less than an hour and a half.
By now my back problems were causing me distress. I had surgery to remove a disc in my lower back. It was a magic cure. I was back home in a few days and back in the milking shed in ten days, absolutely pain free. Of course, I obeyed the restrictions of no lifting etc put on me by my Neurosurgeon and did the exercises recommended by the Physiotherapist faithfully, so that in three months my back was supported by good strong muscles.
Other set backs occurred with my health though, and I began to weary of the daily grind. I was put out of action for six weeks after a fall which resulted in a broken wrist which never mended. I didn’t know it then, but some years later I discovered I’d got a raw deal from the attending doctor who, for some reason known only to himself, decided not to send me to Newcastle where the bones could be pinned. Instead, I now have an oddly crooked joint between the arm and hand.
The weather was the straw that broke the camel’s back. We went back into drought and now had the worry of adequately feeding 150 heifers as well as the 130 milkers. The Victorians won their challenge to the Constitution in the Courts and deregulation was now a foregone conclusion. Dairies were closing down all over New South Wales and I, for one, had no strength left to put in any more hard yards to survive. I was tired of pinching pennies, of having to look at every cent twice before spending it, and the thought of tightening our belts even further was too much to contemplate. We made the decision to close down the dairy.
Selling my girls at the dispersal sale was the most emotionally traumatic day I have ever been through. As each cow was paraded in the ring and the auctioneer’s hammer fell, the lump in my throat grew larger until I felt I was choking. As they were sold, they went through to the shed to be milked out before being loaded on trucks to be taken to their new homes. I hoped they would be treated well. That night I cried oceans of tears.
It was easier to sell the heifers as I sold them as they calved or when close to calving. This way, I was able to pick and choose their new owners and know they would be treated well.
It turned out that our exit from the dairy industry was a decision made in the nick of time. We were able to sell our quota and pay off all our bank loans, whereas within l2 months the quota system was disbanded and deregulation in full swing. Dairy farmers were left confused and looking at a bleak future. After a struggle, farmers were offered compensation packages to help them leave the industry or to upgrade their operation in order to survive.
At this point in time, there is no such thing as a family farm. In order to remain viable, dairy farmers now need to milk a minimum of 250 cows each day. Their incomes are ‘regulated’ by the Processing Companies who contract to buy their milk at the lowest possible price without any regard to the cost of production.
Sadly, farmers can no longer enjoy the interaction with the cows that I enjoyed. They know their cows by the numbers on the ear tags that match up with the numbers on the computer sheets. There are no Marlene’s, Trombones or Wombles in dairy herds anymore, and absolutely nothing to give the farmer a sense of pleasure and enjoyment amid the drudgery of the day in, day out milkings.
I enjoyed the fourteen years I spent dairyfarming. I am thankful to have the memories to look back on and so enjoy the experience all over again. Phillip also looks on his dairy days as the best days of his life. Dairyfarming taught him so many useful skills and above all, he learned the pleasure of being at peace with animals and nature as well as how to make a little bit of money go a long, long way.