First day on the dairy farm: Lots to learn

I left the house 7.45ish after some omelette for breakfast. The weather was I guess average for a Russian summer – grey, a little rain, not too cold though. The farm isn’t too far from the cottage we share and hence we were at the office quickly in Richard’s car. Two admin ladies also arriving and some first meet and greets. New intern no1 had arrived.

First up was a roundtrip on the farm. 7 barns (of the old farm) and a maternity barn are right by the office with some 1,100 cows including the sick & youngest. Overall, 1650 cows in the herd with the aim of 2,000 by year end. Happy reproduction ladies (or heifer as the farmers say)! The farm or Kolchose, while the most modern one within terranova group, is still much work in progress with more milking stations, a milk factory (for pasteurisation, milk/kefir/etc production) and more sophisticated equipment soon to come. Still, 37t of high quality milk a day. Not bad.

The new farm buildings (fitted with cosy underfloor heating for the russian winters and aim to use dry, solid manure as bedding – meant to be good for some reason) are almost finished and already house 500-600 cows. The manager has many ideas, but having spent 5y in russia is also well aware that change takes time. Old structures cannot be broken overnight i guess. Sounds very similar to the political landscape in russia. The farm in Issad is probably the St. Petersburg of farming (i don’t refer to the architecture here) figuratively speaking. Eventually the aim is 24/7 production.

5 seasons of a cow year: Starting right after giving birth and the following 3w is the fresh cow period, followed by 3mth of high output, 3mth mid and 3mth low output before the cows are ‘dried’ (=no milk) 60d prior to giving birth again (dry cows). Some new vocab. Production per cow is usually calculated as the ‘in milk’ periods and as such exclude dry periods.

White nights are coming! While the white nights in St Pete are gone, the белые ночи for the cows in Leningrad oblast happen on Wednesday this week – the annual show cow contest. The Issad farm has a long history of winning and people take a lot of pride in the event. Last year a nearby competitor took gold – all the more effort this year. Two cows have gained temporary celebrity status and given extra care every day by the farm team. Good luck! So what makes a cow attractive? Well, nice udder, straight legs, not too big shoulders, backside wider than shoulders, clean and shaved fur. Sounds familiar?

Find of the day – a cow brush: some sort of cow cleaning device akin to a massage it appears. Cows frequent it a lot and I have requested one for the dachia ;o)

They breed Ayrshire type of cows on this farm (see here for some key comps to other breeds). Similar to the ones in neighbouring Finland, which serves as the template or realistic benchmark for productivity targets. Their they get to 10,000l/year of milk output per cow (its 9000 in holland on average and 5000 in NZ for outdoor farms). A liter more than the average cow in milk currently delivers here. The best in class cows (though also not consistently) can get to 15,000l. But that needs a really superbly functioning farm with cutting edge technology, the right silage and processes and more milking rounds (say 3x/ day vs. 2x here).

What is milk made up of? Never really thought about that when i ordered my coffee latte at Starbucks to be honest. Its basically 3-5% each of fat, protein and lactose (sugar) and 85%+ water. That makes it just a little less water content than for beer (90-95%). Non-water content depends very much on the breed, silage etc. So i basically have spent loads of money ordering coffee with a lot of extra water. Great business Mr. StarBucks (although Mr Nestle makes even more by just selling water!).

By 10.30am i had my first little task – counting cows. I counted 1,026 in the barns nearby (sorry if i missed out the odd one) though that wasn’t the purpose of the exercise. Rather it was to see if the cows are distributed well across the spaces provided. That impacts cow wellbeing and stress levels. Stress can adversely impact milk output and growth rates of the animals (up to 1kg / day usually). London office constructors should take note when planning large US style workspaces ;o)

Before i could finish up in barn 7 it was lunchtime. Part of my intern package are food vouchers (lunch & dinner) in a nearby bistro. Salat olivier, shashlik and some small talk with the manager.

After lunch i finished off counting cows. They were largely kept in appropriate spaces with one exception with a few too many. Maybe relatives. Who knows. Loads of them actually have plenty of space (within the limits of indoor cow farming).

While counting, i met an older lady and we talked a little in russian. To be able to speak russian even a bit is widely applauded here i have to say (pat on my back). She is biologist by profession, but given lack of well paid work elsewhere is now taking care of cattle feeding. Admittedly, she’d prefer to work in her original job (who wouldn’t i guess), but there are few options out here.

Then it was time to visit the surrounding land where the cow feed (grass, corn) is grown. Grass is fully in house while some corn supplements are still externally sourced. There were quite a few fields to visit. Richard said that weather hasn’t been kind this summer with plenty of rain etc making harvesting tricky. But then he doesn’t seem deterred by that. Right timing is of the essence and richard showed me what to look for to time the harvest well.

Later in the afternoon a second intern arrived and we went on a second farm tour. His name is Jan and he is from holland and studies agriculture specialising in diary farming (a business his family pursues on a smaller scale back home). The technical level of conversation between him and Richard took a step up right away. Good to know he understands for we will be partners in crime when we tackle tasks such as spotting sick cows or wrong diet (eg fat to protein ratios – 1.2-1.3x is apparently good), taking blood samples, shaker box testing (god knows what that is), watching the diet etc. I even got my car papers signed off and will be driving a lada niva (or hadley’s bike). So all set for some intense diary farm training. Bring it on!

We finished off about 7.20pm and headed to Volkhov for dinner (thanks go to Richard). Long, but highly interesting day. Yes, clothes smell (in case you wondered). Tomorrow is another day and its starts at 8am again. Gladly accepted!

Lastly, weather forecast for tomorrow: No comment!

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