One week done already (well, almost)

Busy day again here in Issad. Can’t believe its been 5 days already. Admittedly, its tiring even without a 5am milking round on my schedule. We had some more time to chat with the veterinary students Lisa & Evelina, learned how to administer intrauminal boluses to cows (hard work!) and were busy again with blood sampling and plasma analysis. Time went by quickly and I feel much more aware of the broader business, speak more often Russian (now that people know i can understand some) and recognise more issues using the experience gained so far. So not too bad a week after all though its not finished yet – work continues for us on Saturday chiefly because we have to driver the engineer around anyway.

I was up pretty early and had a relaxed start to the day. After bringing Nachshon (and his croissants) to the milking parlour, Jan and I were increasingly quick to get through our daily routine and had it done before midday. Pushouts had decreased (cows probably liked the silage more), dry matter samples were ok yet milk output was down on the day. Not sure if influenced by the ongoing ID-ing modifications in the milking parlour. Its possible. More importantly, the system still doesn’t run as expected as of the time of writing. Fingers crossed Nachson & team can fix it tomorrow.

Kexxtone: Today we administered intrauminally kexxstone boluses. These are given cows pre-calving to manage ketosis risk. First you need to manoeuvre the cows into special boxes that lock their head, than one holds the head and opens the cows mouth while the other injects the bolus. No need for a work out after that exercise! Chapeau to the two vet students to do this usually by themselves.

Blood tests: We also looked through the plasma results from the previous day of samples using a refractometer. The test basically checks the level of antibodies in the calves blood that mainly originate from the mothers colostrum (first milk). Fewer antibodies make the calves more susceptible to getting sick basically (as far as i understand it). Sadly, not good reads for either bullocks we tested.

Jan and the calf giving him his first successful blood sample

We went for lunch with the vet students having spent most of the morning together. They are both in their last year at uni. Evelina has been a regular intern at the farm and is here on her 3rd placement. Lisa on her second. Good russian practice over lunch though i didn’t like the cold soup today (Okroshka with Kvaz).

Harvesting remained slow. Vlad, the chief agronomist, said they managed 230tons, but its not great. Weather remains and issue and silage coming in has dry matter readings that remain on the low end (27%ish). But the cutting is fine at least.

It felt great to have a shower and fresh clothes before we picked up nachshon from the farm and headed for dinner. We ended up staying in Issad – pub britannia was calling. For a change, there was actually other people too. Eventually it turned into a 3h russian session. I had told vlad that we’d be there and he joined us. Probably a bit boring at first for jan (since i needed all concentration to focus on what vlad said), but eventually even they talked in a mix of english, russian and gestures. Good night after all.

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Adding blood tests to my routine …

We started a little earlier today to pick-up Nachshon from his hotel in Novaya Ladoga and get him his croissant & OJ breakfast. Given the morning milking hadn’t finished yet, we all had breakfast together. Turns out he hiked to Everest base camp 30 years ago.

On the way out from the office, we had a quick glance at the awards for our two show cows yesterday.

Otherwise, not too much new to report today. We got our routine tasks (ketosis, silage, push-out) done by lunchtime while the engineers around Nachshon cracked on with the modifications of the milking parlour (chiefly changing the positioning of sensors as a first step to fix ID-ing issues). A bit of action with yet more cows running free (we already had one yesterday). But this was resolved quickly.

Silage kept coming in after a slow progress yesterday and despite not exactly ideal weather. The forecast for all day rain proved again wrong.

New today was only blood testing of freshly born calves and bullocks together with students Lisa & Evelina. This is done two days after birth. Admittedly, it will take some time for me to get used to ramming a needle into the vein of these small little things. We will try tomorrow again. Trick is to hold them down, don’t get kicked and still have hands free to press veins and take the blood sample.

The evening started slow. I bought a bbq set (just to realise later there was one at the cottage already) and we started grilling the meat.

About 7pm we had to pick up the Israeli engineer from the farm. BBQ on hold. Dinner with him. Drop off. Done. Back home and finally we could relax. We decided to go back to the again empty pub britannia and watched zenit beating utrecht (how fitting with my dutch friend jan).

On the way home we first encountered a dog, then two drunk guys, then two local girls. We ended up having a little party on our doorstep before we called it a night. Good fun altogether. #issadrocks!

Jan in a very shiny jacket

Going mobile …

Another exciting day on the farm be it that it lasted almost 12hours. Even the weather turned out nice with rain postponed to (all day) tomorrow. By now the routines have really kicked in and communication in russian is at least sufficient to get the job done. Finally we got our vehicle assigned – a chevrolet niva.

We kicked off the morning by judging the level of pushout in the barns. Cows are picky and try to eat only the seedy & mineral parts of the silage. Like cherrypicking. The remainder is then pushed into the middle and is pretty much waste. The better the silage is mixed in the first place, the fewer will will rejected. Farm economics 1+1 i guess.

We verified the mix through shaker box tests later on. As you would expect, the %-age share of larger silage components increase in a before and after comparison. New silage looked better than yesterday and dry matter readings were decent at 26%.

By 11am we had the keys for our vehicle. Not the fanciest car on earth, but fit for purpose. Really helps to cut down the endless farm walking tours and helped me to quickly pop home to pick up some chocolate that i would have dearly missed later in the day.

Afternoon was reserved for ketosis check-ups and the usual walk around the barns. Few injuries we noted, mainly business as usual. IT issues slowed us down a bit though (IT delivers FAt-Protein estimates per cow/milking session). Blood tests have to wait for tomorrow, as the vet was out on the cow show. Out two models hit the full house. No1 & no2 in the regional contest. Well done ladies. Expected no less!

Modifications of the cow carrousel: An Israeli engineer arrived in hadely’s car (a slightly upgraded and germanised Niva version) to fix the ID-ing of the cows during milking. So far the system gets 90%+ right. Should be 99%+ and hopefully we’ll get there by next week. The company (AFI) sent their best man. Interesting guy. We had dinner together and for the coming few days i’ll shuttle hin from/to the farm.

Good spin on the fields: harvesting today was subpar. The chief agri guy said the combine malfunctioned and so we missed a good weather day. On our last check in the evening re progress we enjoyed a really good spin around the field. Simole car the Niva, but fun.

Day 2: Settling into farm routine (… despacito)

Tuesday morning began slowly and as forecasted rainy. Rich, who celebrated his 40th today, had already left and i prepared breakfast for jan and myself. 8am we started. Richard went through the key tasks of the day with us.

  • Get info on where different cow groups (fresh, high, etc) are stationed in the new farm from the deputy manager irina
  • Assess ketosis issues (fat vs protein content of milk) and check up outliers. This happens mostly with fresh cows (up to 21d after calving) who as a group showed a ratio of 1.42 vs 1.2-1.3 desired level
  • Sample silage for dry matter/content

While milking cows springs first to most peoples minds when it comes to dairy farming, it is actually the easy bit. Getting there is key and requires a well managed/monitored process. It’s like thinking climbing is just about the summit. Its not.

We started off with the dry matter testing. You basically weigh the wet silage, dry it in a heater and compare to whats left once water has evaporated. The silage was pretty wet to start with and hence we ended up with 20%-26% readings. 20%+ is what you should look for though ideally closer to 28%.

From the farms’ IT system we got the milk mix readings once we sorted out the location of cows. Most were classified as high cows even well after the typical 120d in-milk period. Needs some fine tuning though is more a classification issue than anything. Then it got more hands on. We picked the readings for 64 fresh cows (that the system picked up out of 66 in reality – scanning isnt always spot on though engineers will look into that this week).

There were about 20 with high readings (1.5-2.0). We had their tag numbers, now we needed to find them and see if they are healthy (just a high/low reading isnt conclusive). Unhealthy ones tend to burn their own fat to produce milk (rather than from silage) – not a good idea long-term. Some we saw limped, some were thin, some had overly liquid manure, some we couldn’t locate. We’ll follow up with the vet tomorrow to get to the bottom of this (some issues are probably known to her already).

After lunch in yesterdays place, Rich hosted all the different department heads for coffee & cakes and explained a little about the milk factory & cheese production project starting next week. By September we should have the first samples. Planned are cheddar, Camembert, i think stilton and other not too long duration cheese to manage the capital cycle. We will also together prepare some sort of cheese for a wine show in September. Would be a first for me.

Afternoon much of the same. Bit more silage testing (the first batches were a little odd), check on newly harvested silage (cutting size of grass & making sure seeds are crushed open) and more ketosis check-up. Jan and I prepared a weekly schedule so we can operate independently since Rich will be off till Sunday. Given there wasnt much more to do we left 5.30. Cows seemed happy enough (some even very excited and ready to be inseminated).

Fact of the day: We walked some 15km during the day (net of 6km to/from lunch). Thats 3 hours of 8.5h just walking. The big red area is barn 2 of the new farm – specifically us chasing cows to check their health ;o) Need to consider taking the bike to work. Would enhance productivity by an hour at least.

Crematorium in action: there is a place on site to burn dead animal remains. One cow died today – from injuries i suppose and despite vet attention (she was already looking pretty down yesterday). Was a bit of a strange at first to smell it, but is important to do i guess. Good news is that this will also be the place where i can practice my own ‘butchering’ skills. Something i had on my list before i came and it hasnt been forgotten. Lets see how that pans out as and when it happens.

After work was a bit of time off. Not too much to do in the village. Jan and I managed to visit the otherwise empty cafe Britannia next to the supermarket (just in case i get homesick) and i had time to visit the riverbanks and gaze at some of the village architecture before we headed for dinner (in the usual place using our food vouchers ;o). Its a quiet life here even with school kids still enjoying their 3mth summer holiday. Really not much happening. Time to write, read and, well, clean the house etc. Weather will be stable tomorrow – more rain, lightning and some sun in the middle. Good night.

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!