Farm advice: Preparing for spring calving


Calving can be an exciting time of year, with lots of calves and milk starting to flow into the vat, but it’s a tiring time of year, too

It’s worth spending a bit of time now thinking about how you will prioritise animal care and looking after your staff through this critical period. Some aspects you could focus on are preparing your heifers for milking quietly and fostering stock skills in your employees.

Preparing heifers for quiet milking

Handling heifers before they calve and introducing them to the shed can reduce stress on animals and people, improve milk let down, and create a safer working environment.

  • Time and patience are needed, but it will pay off in the long run.
  • Three to seven visits to a new environment, such as the milking shed, are needed for heifers to feel safe.
  • Introduce them slowly over several days. Leave them in the yard, open gates, turn machines on, teat spray them.
  • Work calmly and gently — poor handling will increase heifers’ fear of people.

Use a feeding system, if you have it, to entice heifers and teach them there’s food in the shed.
Heifer training is also a good time to set expectations with the team about how to handle difficult animals, including avoiding handling tails because of the risk of tail injury.

Fostering stock skills in employees

In the thick of calving, it can be hard to remain aware of the needs of individual animals. Evidence from the field of psychology suggests that thinking about something as an individual, rather than
a group, taps into our emotions and increases empathy. Good stockmanship requires both skill and empathy.

Encourage employees to observe cows as individuals before calving, so they become familiar with how they express their needs and moods.

Penny Timmer-Arends, DairyNZ animal care lead advisor

Experienced farmers do this without thinking about it, and every farmer I’ve spoken to about this can immediately tell me who their favourites are, and they know their cows’ unique personalities. For example, my friend’s cow McCoy will happily row up once she’s had a head scratch.

I have found that getting new staff to identify two to three cows that they already like can help to build this affinity for cow behaviour. Chat about the cows, with a few prompts, such as:

  • Why did you pick the cow? E.g. their cool coat pattern or behaviour.
  • Do they prefer the grass or supplement when they get a new break of feed?
  • What are their personalities like? E.g. timid, confident, friendly.
  • Have you noticed the cow hanging around another particular cow? Cows can have best friends.

This may sound a little fluffy, but it’s a great activity to involve your team in, as it helps induct any new staff and incorporates something fun into an often tiring and busy season, as they learn how unique each cow is.

A lot of farmers tell me they get great value from short courses run by their local vet clinics, so keep an eye out for anything on calf care that might pop up locally for your team.

And, as always, keep an eye on the hours worked by yourself and your team. People who are well-rested have improved patience and attention to detail, which is crucial when working with calves and reduces injury risk as well.

Find more information about heifer training and stockmanship at dairynz.co.nz/heifer-training.

Images by Adobe Stock

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