The Dairy Diary…

As of today, I have so far had about 12 hours of work experience at a dairy farm. I have learnt a lot from this placement and had plenty of opportunities to do some rather interesting things. So I thought it would be a nice idea to share some of these experiences and the information I have picked up along the way.

So how exactly does a dairy farm work?
The farm that I have been working at is home to about 120 Holstein-Friesian  cows. This is a relatively normal sized herd compared to most in the UK – just below the average of about 131 cows per farm. Most dairy cows are worked to a 365 day cycle, beginning when they have a calf. A cow will usually calf for the first time when she is about 2 years old. After she has had her calf, the cow will produce a special type of milk called colostrum that is essential for her calf to drink as it contains antibodies to provide it with immunity. After about 4 days, colostrum stops being produced and the milk returns to a normal composition – this is when the calf can be separated from the mother so that her milk will be able to be sold. The calf will usually be placed into a rearing pen where it will most likely be fed a milk substitute by bucket. Unsurprisingly, my favourite part of the job is feeding the calves! They are also provided with small amounts of hay which help their stomachs to develop and at about 2 weeks of age, they are fed dried food along side the milk. The calves are completely weaned when they are around 8 weeks old and at this point, it is illegal for calves in the EU to be living in solitude. This means they are introduced to other calves if they are not living with them already.
Whilst her calf is being hand reared, the cow is milked twice daily in a milking parlour. I milk in a herring bone parlour (so called because from above, the bays are lined up like fish bones) which is the most popular type of parlour in the UK. First of all, I herd the cows from the holding pen into the bays – 12 at a time. Then I disinfect the udders with an iodine solution, this is so that any bacteria on the teats will not contaminate the milk. Next, the teats are wiped down with paper towels. I will then strip the cows – which involves massaging the teats to get the first bit of milk out because this milk will have been exposed to the most bacteria. It also produces hormones that help the cows lactate. The cows can now have the clusters put on their teats – the farmer made it look very easy but it was actually quite tricky until I got the hang of it. The machines are a lot heavier than they look and (because the farm I work at is open to the public) there were little kids watching me from a viewing gallery, adding to the pressure. However, I’m now pretty confident with this job. After milking, I disinfect the udders once again as the milk canals are still open, meaning bacteria can get in. The cows are then free to go to relax in the cubicle sheds (in winter) or the fields (in summer).
The milk that has been collected is cooled to keep it fresh. A sample of this milk is taken weekly to run four main tests: bactoscan tests, somatic cell counts, butterfat percent tests and protein percent tests.  Bactoscan tests count how many bacteria there are in a milk sample to tell us how hygienic it is for consumption. Somatic cell counts give us an idea of the amount of white blood cells (somatic cells) there are in the sample, therefore giving us an idea of the health of the herd. Butterfat percent and protein percent tests give us an idea of the compositional quality of the milk that is produced. A dairy farmer’s income is dependent upon the results of these tests as well as the volume of milk produced, so I also felt some pressure to make sure I didn’t do anything that would affect the results.

Milking is also the time when the farmer gives the cows any veterinary attention they require. I have had the privilege (OK, it’s not that big of deal for some… But it is for me) of being taught how to give cows intra-muscular injections so I’m now a pro at this job too. Some of the cows had a foot infection, despite the daily foot baths they have after morning milking, so I was taught how to administer antibiotics to fight the infection. The farmer told me to climb right up onto the bars of the parlour, syringe in hand, so I was stood directly behind the cow (dairy cows can be injected in the rump, however beef cows can’t because that is the most expensive part of meat – instead they are injected in the neck). Then he just said, ‘alright, now inject it.’ I was thinking, ‘how the hell do I do that?’ I just went with my gut instinct and gently tried to get the needle just under the skin. It wasn’t working. I still had my thumb on the top of the syringe as this is how I had seen vets inject patients at a small animal practice. ‘It’s got very tough skin,’ I called out to the farmer – which was a discreet plea for help. He must have sensed this so he climbed up to give me a hand. I showed him what I was doing before and he quickly told me that it was all wrong. He told me that I was supposed to grab the syringe firmly with my whole hand around the middle, tap on the skin twice, stab the needle into the muscle quickly and forcefully, then push the plunger to get the antibiotics into the muscle. Once I knew how to do it and had practised it a few times, I perfected the skill. Another time I felt like a vet, was when I was presented with a ketotic cow. Also known as acetonaemia, ketosis is ‘a metabolic disturbance in cattle and sheep’ (credit to my handy student veterinary dictionary for that definition). It usually occurs in the winter, as it did in this case, the time of the year when dairy cows are kept indoors and eat concentrates instead of grass. It is caused by the cow not receiving enough carbohydrate from the feed that it is supplied with. The drop in the glucose level in the plasma of the blood causes an increase in the concentration of ketone bodies (which cows use as a back up source of energy). This allows ketosis to be diagnosed from a milk sample and this was my first task. I used a ‘dipstick’, a plastic strip with a patch to test for ketosis on the end and milked the cow onto the patch. After feeding the calves, I came back to find the patch had turned a deep purple colour – meaning there were too many ketone bodies present and the cow was ketotic. We then separated her from the herd and I got the exciting job of moving her along the race, into the crush so that we could treat her. Once she was secured in the crush, I helped the farmer to feed a long plastic tube down her throat. It took a few attempts for us to get it into her oesophagus instead of her trachea – we kept feeling her breath on our faces when we held the other end of the tube up to listen for gastric sounds. Eventually, we got it down her oesophagus and heard the gurgling sounds of her stomachs. This tube enabled us to feed glycerine directly into her stomach, which will have provided her with an enormous amount of energy. Whilst the farmer did that job, I went round the rear to take the cow’s temperature. I was very excited at the prospect of being able to (nearly) have my hand up a cow’s bottom! She had a normal temperature of 38.5 degrees C.  When a cow is ketotic, it is always good to check for a twisted stomach as well – ketosis can slow down the activity of the digestive system, leading to the build up of excess gas that causes a cow’s stomach to become twisted. I had seen the tests carried out to diagnose a twisted stomach countless times on TV so I didn’t have the same difficulty as I had had with the injections. The farmer handed me a stethoscope and I set about flicking the poor cow and listening for a sound that is very similar to the noise a tin bucket makes when flicked. Whilst, for the cow and the farmer’s sake, I was hoping her stomach wouldn’t be twisted – there was still a part of me that was hoping to hear the sound. A twisted stomach is corrected by the most amazing surgery – the vet just injects some local anaesthetic, makes an incision in the cow’s side whilst it is still conscious and standing, then dives in to sort out the problem. It would have been extremely interesting to watch! But, luckily for the cow, I have to wait until another day to see that surgery – all was as it should be (verified by the farmer – just incase you were worried that a relatively inexperienced 15 year old had just given this cow an all clear haha).

A cow’s peak yield (when she produces the most amount of milk) is usually around 42 days after she has her calf – day 42 in the 365 day cycle. And at day 83, she should be in calf again as the gestation period of a cow is around 282 days. When a cow is in season she will mount other cows and stand to be mounted herself. Also, the farm that I milk at has the some pretty cool cow technology: each of them are fitted with collars that tell the farmer many things, including how far she has been walking. If a cow has been walking far, this usually means that she is in heat as she will have been searching for a mate. On some farms, the cows are artificially inseminated and on others, like the one I milk at, a bull is introduced into the herd. The bull usually ends up coming into the milking parlour with the girls which was a bit of a surprise for me the first time I saw him. I was unaware that a bull was with the herd and, as I went along stripping the cows,  I got a bit of a shock when I got to him! When the cow reaches day 305 of the cycle, she is given A 60 day dry period that allows her udder to regenerate before her next lactation. At day 365, she gives birth in a straw yard and the cycle starts again.
So there you go, you are now well informed of where the milk that you drink comes from. I hope you enjoyed reading this post and that it was somewhat educational for you. I look forward to writing another!
– Lorna

About Me

Hello and welcome to the vet in progress blog! My name is Lorna, I am from the UK and I am 15 years old. For about 12 of those years now, I have wanted to be a vet. I can’t imagine myself doing any other job so, in order to give myself the best chance of getting a place at vet school, I am currently getting a lot of work experience. I started this blog to record my work experience and to provide others interested in veterinary science with something to enjoy. I also hope to provide advice to other aspiring vets around my age or younger than myself. I am looking forward to sharing my passion for veterinary science with others via this blog and just having a bit of fun along the way. My posts will include anecdotes and pictures (I also love photography) from my work experience, updates on my progress, helpful information for other aspiring vets, articles discussing animal rights issues and recommendations for books to read or TV programmes to watch etc (and many more things that I am yet to think of haha). I would very much like to share my journey to becoming a vet with you ❤️