Keeping our herd of 100 milking goats cool, calm and collected – not to mention our two-legged milkers – is our focus as we head into this week’s heatwave. Central Victorian summers are always harsh, but consecutive days of 40 degrees plus can take their toll on a dairy farm.
Goats don’t sweat. They pant and flare their nostrils to try to keep their body temperature down. We minimise herd stress and help keep them cool by providing lots of water, salt and minerals, shade and ventilation, and keep up a supply of highly nutritious feed.
Goats must constantly eat to maintain body condition, health and milk production. When it’s very hot they may not even leave their lounging sheds to paddock graze, so we compensate by providing them with hay and fresh green feed, improving the nutrition of their ration and milking earlier (we try to have the milking cups on by 5.30am) so they can have an hour or more to feed before the real heat kicks in.
On a 40 degree day our goats will still produce milk, but the volume will be less and the protein and fat levels will change. The resulting curd can be fragile, altering the final product. It’s the balance between fat and protein that’s important in cheesemaking. The preferred fat to protein ratio is 1.35. During summer it can be as high as 1.7 This is why providing high protein, green feed is very important over summer.
We don’t standardise our milk, so the taste of the cheese will always reflect seasonal conditions on the farm. And the farm itself. We are constantly learning about the effect of season and nutrition, and evolving our farming practices, and cheesemaking, alongside.
As our dam levels drop, the cumbungi growing around their edges become an important source of green feed. By now there is little green feed about, unless summer thunderstorms stimulate native grass growth – wallaby, kangaroo, spear – or our mown firebreaks. The cumbungi provides about a month’s green feed. We also cut back our lucerne trees (a week’s green feed) and branches from our acacia feed/shelter belt plantings – wirilda and black wattle. The wattles grow back lushly through autumn and spring. We do have to watch out for nesting birds in the vegetation at this time of year though.
The feed mix changes over summer. We increase the green feed (protein) component by upping the amount of lucerne and reducing the oaten chaff. Wheat bran, linseed meal, apple cider vinegar are added to the mix. With the scarcity of green feed we will also supplement with cod liver oil and vitamins A and E.
At this time of year goats have very high salt and mineral needs. Goats do have higher mineral needs than sheep or cattle anyway. Perhaps because by nature they are browsers of (non irrigated) perennial plants, which bring a diverse array of nutrients from deep within the soil profile, rather than the shallow rooted annuals. So we supplement their ration with very small amounts of sulphur, dolomite (calcium and magnesium), magnesium, copper, boron, zinc and seaweed (kelp). We also provide self serve mineral ‘buffets’ where the goats can pick and choose which mineral salt they need – perhaps zinc, magnesium, copper, cobalt, boron, calcium, or just salt alone. Another large salt lick block contains a mix of micronutrients. It’s always interesting to see which minerals they prefer at certain times of the season and at different times in growth and lactation. Right now, the goats are ingesting lots of sea salt as well as boron and copper.
During the heat at milking time we provide a dilute solution of harvested seaweed (Marrawah kelp from Tasmania, soaked overnight and added to 40 litres of water). It’s very popular! The seaweed provides an important mix of micronutrients and minerals, including iodine, and acts as a bit of a pep-up or tonic for heat stressed animals, as well as rehydrating them. If very badly heat stressed, we will give a goat electrolytes.
Breeding also helps. Saanen goats can get sunburnt, but because our Sannen x British Alpine crosses have tanned udders, noses and ears, they’re much less prone to cancers and sunburn.
Goats drink huge amounts of water during summer, more than 20 litres on a hot day. In the lounging shed we provide fresh rainwater, collected from the dairy and shed roofs into tanks. In the paddocks, dam water is pumped up to a header tank and then gravity fed to troughs around the farm. Monitoring water supplies is a vital job over summer as a few goats can very quickly empty a 200 litre trough.
Goats will hunt out shade. Plenty of large paddock trees, shedding and a range of shady sites is important. Our sheds are large, airy, vented and well positioned so they do get cross breezes. We also use vents and fans in the dairy. We let the herd move around the farm freely. They particularly love to hang about under the shearers quarters. This can be disconcerting for the residents above – the goats have been known to pull out power cords whilst having a scratch, stopping the water supply mid-shower and cutting electricity!
Black goats are more affected by the heat, so when they come in for milking we will drape them with cold wet towels. On really hot days we will turn the sprinklers on in the dairy before the goats come in, to cool it down ahead of milking. But we also try to be frugal with our water in case of fires.
Grass seeds (goats have three eyelids so removing seeds from eyes can be a delicate operation) and snakes are our other summer concerns, as well as the ever present awareness of bushfire. We have a well prepared fire-plan, a sprinkler system surrounds the dairy and cheeseroom, and we keep our goats close to the dairy on high fire danger days.
Will you survive the summer ahead as well as our goats?