Driving the Milk Truck and Other Adventures as a Calf Rearer

My journey as a calf rearer in New Zealand has come to a close. I’ve been wanting to write about my job for a while now, but the hectic pace of calving season lent to only a small window of time for writing and illustrating a descriptive post. So here is a bit of a taste of what I did for the last two-and-a-half months.

As part of my job, I drove a truck around the dairy farm.

Here it is:

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Known as the milk truck, it’s a stick shift with the gear shaft on the driver’s left side. The first time I hopped in, I felt extremely lucky to have been taught at a young age how to drive a manual transmission. Soon, I learned that a manual transmission is standard in Europe because of their mountains and hills, so my fellow calf rearers were already pros at driving a manual transmission. In the U.S., automatic transmissions and cruise control reign, so I had some work to do to become proficient at driving the milk truck.

This was the vehicle for delivering nutrition to the calves under our care. They received milk that stayed on the farm rather than being transported for sale. Our happy customers gladly consumed it for us.

The view from the milk truck was pretty fantastic:

view-from-the-milk-truck

We washed the deck of the milk truck as often as possible. (If there is ever a question of milk being clean, I can say that I washed a lot of stuff a lot. Hot water and soap and a scrub brush. I was often wet and had to watch out for scalding water. Luckily, I had waterproof bibs and a jacket provided by the farm, a major perk of the job.) Protein build-up is slippery, and a fall off the milk truck was the last thing I wanted to happen (thankfully, I can say it never did). On the farm, various hazards were identified, and all employees stayed aware of them.

When the calves came in from the pasture as newborns, we gave them two liters of colostrum (the milk that a mother gives after birth, necessary for an animal’s proper development and a healthy antibody count for immunity) and sprayed their navels with iodine to dry up the umbilical cord as soon as possible. Once they’d received those two pieces of care, they were off to a good start. At the beginning of the calving season, we’d receive three or four newborns a day. At the peak, we were caring for 30-40 newborns a day. There were 1,500 cows and heifers set to calve in the season, a scale which is not unheard of here in New Zealand.

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Calves eating at the feeder.

As the calves grew, we trained them to suck on rubber teats attached to a plastic drum into which we would pump milk. We also ensured heifers had access to grain and hay so that they could start nibbling on the feed and become accustomed to it. Some calves would attack the meal as soon as we placed it in the grain feeder.

Another part of our job was working with bobby calves. These calves are those young animals not being kept as replacement heifers or sale calves. They could be male or female. We care for them until they are four days old and then, as long as they are healthy, their navels are dry and they have been eating, we send them on the bobby truck. The end products are veal, leather and more.

We also worked with customers who purchased Fresians or Herefords (while Herefords are beef animals, Hereford bulls are sometimes bred here with dairy cows to provide nice crossbred calves). We would select the calves from the bobby pens, making sure the calves were of good size and the Fresians had four white feet and hooves and a white point on their foreheads. We then tagged the calves chosen for purchase with electronic identification tags and sent them to the farmer who bought them.

Other calf rearing duties included administering medications, cleaning feeders and water troughs, setting up pens, keeping records, and working with veterinarians. Some unexpected tenants arrived a month in to the job: five pigs, whom we fed milk and grain at the end of the day. These pigs would later become bacon for the farm staff members. (In the meantime, we enjoyed bacon [which, to me, tasted and looked more like ham] from previous pigs.)

Technology on the Farm

The farm had an 80-bale rotary milking platform, and every morning, I would go into the parlor and observe the milking process as I collected the calves’ meals for the day. The cow would step onto the platform and milking staff would attach a claw with rubber cups to the cow’s udder. The cows would stand eating as they were milked. When milking was finished, the claw would automatically detach. Once the cow had completed one full rotation of the platform, she would step off and walk back to her paddock.

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The rotary parlor.

Computers kept records of cow production, and staff monitored farm and milk production records through an app on their smart phones. Goals were set for how much milk solids (the part of the milk that’s not water) each cow should produce and nutrition closely monitored to help meet those goals. Formulas were used to calculate how much grass grew in a paddock. Farm staff entered our shifts worked into an online time sheet. Those with iPhones (not me) could enter their hours into the time sheet app.

Even with all this technology, there were some days where I just turned a couple of 20-liter buckets (about the same size as 10-gallon buckets) upside down to make a temporary desk and chair for writing records with paper and pen outside the calf pens.

Snowy Days

Our shifts were six days on, two days off, so I often didn’t know what day it was, which was a problem because I needed to write down calf birth, sale and medical treatment dates (which were backwards to me, in the format day/month instead of month/day, which I learned I greatly preferred). It was a new type of schedule that took some adjustment.

But more than that, the toughest aspect to which to adjust was arriving in New Zealand during a Southern Hemisphere winter after leaving a Northern Hemisphere summer. It never became as cold as an American Midwestern winter, but I traveled from warm temperatures to a place where I needed to keep myself warm. It was a shock to my system.

The snow didn’t show up as much either. I could see it up on the mountains. We had mud and wind and cold and everything else, but not snow.

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Calves cozy under cow covers. The red rubber in between the calves is a hot water bottle.

That changed one day in August when the white flakes blanketed the ground in the morning, brightening my steps. I bundled up and prepared to do the same for the calves born that day. We had a supply of towels, water bottles and cow covers for the wettest ones.

“Merry Christmas!” one of the farm workers greeted us, throwing her arms open wide to welcome the snow. It was a beautiful day to be working inside the calf sheds with a picturesque view toward the mountains and yard full of snow that masked the dust.

Hanging in There

Because the calf rearers were with the calves from Day One and always fed them, they associated us with food. Any time I stepped into the pens, especially in the afternoons, they rammed my legs and nibbled at my kneecaps, leaving bruises everywhere.

One day toward the end of the season, I was climbing over a gate and was balanced on the top pipe for a split second before jumping in to feed. Fourteen young calves surged forward and knocked me backwards. I suddenly found myself hanging upside down by my knees, hands gripping the gate, back against the metal, head dangling a few inches above the ground, half enjoying this new view of the calf yard, half trying to figure out how to escape this situation without hurting myself.

This was the day after I almost sprayed myself in the face with window cleaner.

When we sprayed calves’ navels, we sometimes used bottles with nozzles that pointed up so that we could easily apply iodine to the animals’ bellies. It seemed to me that if a calf moved the wrong way, I could be hit in the eye with iodine…so I greatly preferred to use the spray bottle nozzles that shot straight ahead.

On this particular day, I was using a new spray bottle containing window cleaner to tidy the side windows and windshield of the milk truck. I had just moved from the driver’s side to the front of the truck and hadn’t paid attention to the orientation of the bottle. I held it up and pulled back on the lever.

Window cleaner dispersed over my head.

I closed my eyes and scrunched up my face, startled. I had pointed the nozzle toward my head instead of toward the windshield. It was the first time I felt thankful for the spray bottle nozzles that shot up instead of straight ahead.

And the farm manager had seen the whole thing.

A few hours later, I knocked myself in the head with the heavy plastic end of the hose we use to spray off the milk truck deck and the concrete tanker pad after filling the milk tank.

But despite these types of setbacks, we would carry on.

Sunny Days

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Heifers gallivanting about their new home. Photo Credit: Hannah Andrews

The best part of calf rearing was turning heifers out to the grass paddocks. They would leap off the calf trailer and gallop through the green forages, jumping up and down with their friends. The weather would be good and they would be ready for their new adventures in the paddocks. It was rewarding to see them enjoying their new homes.

Their moves outside also meant we could start feeding outside, as well, and that was a nice change of pace. Spring was coming!

We ended the season with more than 400 replacement heifers to turn out to pasture.

Every Day: “Wow.”

All of this happened in the middle of some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen.

Nearly every day, I would walk out of the milking parlor back to the milk truck, see the mountains and say, “Wow.” They were breathtaking, especially when the snow blanketed their peaks and the sky shone a brilliant blue. In the mornings, the cows would stream from the milking parlor to their assigned paddock, sun rising behind the mountains a serene backdrop, and all I could do was stand stock still and watch. No camera could adequately capture the scene’s beauty. One morning, the vast sky blushed deep pink. It was impossible to watch it long enough. Another morning, I was ear tagging bobby calves in shadowy pens, and then the next moment, the sun broke the horizon. Bright beams stole into my eyes and frightened away the shadows.

At the end of the day, there was great satisfaction in filling up the milk tank on the truck in preparation for the next day and watching the cows wander back to their paddocks to settle in for the night. Calf rearers like me in years past had given them a good start. We had provided for them, and they would provide for us: milk, butter, cheese and most important of all, ice cream.

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