Sunday, 20 August 2017

Rietpoort scouting outing

We were out at Rietpoort today to scout trails for Ruben and Kyla's biking and hiking birthday outings next weekend. Ruben and his guy friends will be doing a mountain biking ride-and-picnic; Kyla and her girl friends will be doing a hike-and-picnic. I'm really delighted that the children chose - of their own accord - to do active 'parties' for their birthdays this year.

Rusty was delighted to come out here again - her 3rd time. She'll come with us for the birthday outings too next weekend - running along as we bike and hike.

Although the area is still so end-of-winter dry and brown, the aloe flowers are still out and the place is lovely in the way that winter highveld scenery can be.

Celliers with Ruben and Kyla. The children turned 9 and 12 respectively at the beginning of August. I first met the children around about now three years ago. Looking recently at old photos I saw how little they were and how much they have grown.

The swing is going to be a winner for the parties... Celliers shows us how it is done

Ruben and Kyla walking along together.

Ah... Kyla and Ruben

Kyla getting some air.

Ruben with a couple of feathers in his cap

"Higher papa, higher!"
I'm looking forward to having the children's friends with us next weekend. We know most of them and look forward to meeting the others and getting to know them.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Rusty's parkrun PBs

My doggy girl ran a new PB at parkrun this morning of 26:51. It was rather chilly, which is always good for running faster times. This is Rusty's 6th parkrun and her time has come down by five minutes since early May.

I was a bit surprised by today's result as I really thought that we were closer to our usual 29 minutes. There are a few spots where she loves to sniff so we lose time and neither of us were pushing nor tired. Her previous PB - from two weeks ago - was 27:52, a minute faster than her time before that.

When I first got Rusty - almost five months ago - she was quite unfit as she hadn't been running for at least 18 months. We've been building up steadily. Initially we would run-walk on our evening outings. Now we run all the way. I generally don't run her much further than 4 to 6km, which she handles very well.

I don't run her every day. I usually alternate with one day being a run and the next being a long, fast walk. Once a week we head out to my friend's place at Otters Haunt, where she runs off lead with her friend Rocksy (Otters is a great place to stay for the weekend - and they're dog friendly).

Karen recently received a surprise gift from her husband Graeme - a new border collie puppy, Skallywag (her name inspired by the SKA project about which Graeme is writing a book). Karen has two border collies, Shadow and Rocksy. Shadow is very aged, Rocksy is mature but still full of beans. Rusty and Rocksy are friends and young Skally has taken a shine to Rusty.

Playing with Skally while Rusty looks on. Photo by Graeme
This week Karen, my mom and I headed out with Rusty, Rocksy, Skally and Tansy - Graeme went riding his bike. He snapped this photo of us with the dogs (Skally only just visible behind Rocksy).

Photo by Graeme
This morning at parkrun there were FOUR border collies. A young boy runs with his black & white, Willem and Lelani (Lelani is Rusty's vet) have two rescues (brown & white and black & white) and Rusty was with me. Skally will start parkrunning when she is a little bit older.

Tomorrow Rusty will join us at Rietpoort. We're scouting the trails for next weekend. Kyla and Ruben celebrated their birthdays (12 and 9 respectively) earlier this month. We're having their birthday parties next week. Ruben wants to do a mountain bike ride for his birthday and has invited three friends. Kyla chose to do a hike and she has invited five friends. We'll do Kyla's party on the Saturday and Ruben's party on the Sunday. It will be a hike-picnic and bike-picnic affair with the children carrying the munchies for the picnic to the designated point. Should be good fun. Best of all, Rusty gets to come along too.

Rusty has been in my life for almost five months. She is a joy every day.

An experience at Decorex

The past two weeks have been full and energising. I spent last week in Jo'burg for the Decorex show, a home and design expo held at Gallagher Convention Centre. My mom came along to help on the stand. I'm so glad that she did because we were non-stop busy with visitors. She has her own YOLO Compost Tumbler so she knows how it works and by the end of the week she was a composting demonstration pro.

Me and Liz in our expo outfits - complete with gardening wellies.
We were located in Hall 4 - Outdoor Lifestyle, which suited us perfectly.

Over the five days of the expo we spoke to hundreds of people and demonstrated how to use our compost tumblers. We had all three of our sizes on the stand - small (left), medium (top right) and large (bottom right). We pulled the large out of the oven on the Monday night, just in time to take it to the show for setup the next morning! We're still busy with R&D on this unit to finalise the amount of plastic needed, the frame and other bits. It will be ready in a few weeks.

A photo wall with photos of our YOLO Compost Tumblers sent to us from customers.
Expo days are long and tiring but the experience was totally worth it. We had some on-the-day sales and have had other post-expo. I think these will trickle in steadily over the next few months. Many people that we met were about to move or in the process of building new homes.

For us the big benefit of the expo was in meeting and talking to people. We were astounded by how many people are separating their trash, recycling and trying to reduce the waste that comes into and out of their homes. In dealing with organic waste, our YOLO Compost Tumbler is an excellent solution, especially where you just don't have space for a heap or if you're just looking for a way to compost kitchen waste - like in an apartment (no garden) or townhouse (tiny to no garden).

Many people that we met are composting - to some degree. They're trying wormeries, bokashi, hot bins and the like. This is great because it shows that more and more people are giving value to composting as a means to deal with organic waste and they give value to the compost itself.

I've felt so despondent recently around waste and recycling. If there is one thing that is a big problem in my home town of Parys, it is litter. It really is a serious problem. In the week before Decorex, I was at Pick 'n Pay, packing my groceries into my reusable shopping bags. I looked down the row of checkouts and saw that I was the only person there not using - and buying every time - PNP's plastic shopping bags! (no, they didn't pull old bags out of their handbags to reuse, these were crisp and new)

Coming back from Decorex I'm far more optimistic that there is change happening. 

Nice way to see the size difference between the medium (2 x 100 litre shells) and large (2 x 200 litre shells).
As a result of being at Decorex, we have added two new colours to our range - grey and earth. We met a number of people in complexes and estates where they are restricted from having brightly-coloured items that do not go with the colour scheme of the place. Our new colours go well with each other and they also pair beautifully with our existing green, orange and yellow colours. I fetched plastic from our supplier on Thursday and we'll be moulding the first of the new colour units on Monday.

We also learned a bunch of other things from the visitors to our stand:

  • Many are not composting but they want to. They're currently tossing all of their kitchen waste and garden waste out with the trash. They want to do better.
  • People think that compost smells. A healthy compost should smell earthy. Good health is achieved by adding a mix of wet and dry materials and regular tumbling.
  • Different areas of Jo'burg have rat problems. The rats go for compost heaps and so people have stopped composting as a way to prevent rats coming to their gardens. Our YOLO Compost Tumbler is a closed unit with a lockable latch. Rats, mice, monkeys and dogs can't get into it.
A jar of 8-week old, unfinished compost from my small YOLO Compost Tumbler at home. The jar started off almost full and by the end of the expo it has reduced in volume by half - natural composting process. These jars of compost were really useful to show people what unfinished compost looks like, why it needs to mature (for the last-added contents to compost and catch up to the first-added contents) and for them to smell the mix ("not bad", "earthy", "amazing" were some comments).

A jar of finished compost from my YOLO Compost Tumbler at home. This mix is just kitchen waste with egg shells, torn up egg trays and dry leaves to balance the wet materials from the kitchen. Again people were amazed that it doesn't smell. Friends, compost shouldn't smell bad. The only time it smells bad is if it is too wet and it doesn't have enough oxygen. It's the anaerobic decomposition that makes it smell nasty. This tumbler shell that I emptied (and put some into a jar) was my 5th shell emptied since mid January, when I was using a prototype tumbler. I weighted the contents of the shell when I emptied it - 7.5kg! And mostly just kitchen waste that had composted. Amazing!
We're quite certain that 10 years ago - and even five years ago - our YOLO Compost Tumbler would be a harder sell. Times have changed and people are becoming more conscious and aware of the state of the environment and that we have to do our bit in our homes. Our timing is just right.

When you hear reports that there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish by 2050, scientists are not being alarmist. Just looking around me at the litter in my town, this statement is hardly surprising.

Over the past 18 months, since I moved to Parys, I've been making small changes to our household to reduce the waste coming into our home and what we put out on garbage day.

The most significant changes include filling up glass bottles with milk instead of buying two-litre plastic containers, composting all of our kitchen and garden waste and, recently, taking my own fabric bags to the store to buy loose items like bananas, ginger, garlic and rolls. As a result, we've downsized our trash bin twice and are now down to a waste paper bin for our weekly household trash. I'm sure we can do better too.

The road with our new company is still long. This experience at Decorex was immensely valuable for speaking to people and making new contacts. There are a number of exciting opportunities to come.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

What I have learned thus far about dairy farming

Before I tell you what I've learned thus far about dairy farming, a bit of background.

As a child, I spent many a school holiday on a family friend's farm up in Zimbabwe. They were large scale farmers growing tobacco, cotton, corn, sorghum and coffee. They had cattle, which I remember going to round up on horseback for dipping. They weren't cattle farmers, they just had a herd of cattle. There was a dairy on the brother's farm nearby - I never saw it. But I do remember seeing a worker spinning cream off the milk and I had the pleasure of having fresh farm milk and cream with my mielie-meal porridge in the morning.

I spent my days mostly at the stables, helping to groom and feed the horses.

I have always loved farms and I fine the process of farming interesting. But not enough to want to be a farmer. This is a tough profession and I can recall our family friend being up before the crack of dawn and to bed late at night. Fields, harvest, animals, rainfall, farm machinery, farm workers and their families... I learned early that you need a strong constitution to be a farmer.

Fast-forward many years and I was looking at getting out of my MSc studies in Medical Cell Biology (with a focus on cell biology, developmental biology and reproduction), which wasn't going anywhere. I was depressed and frustrated, and despite loving the part-time lecturer and lab demonstrator post that I held, I wanted out. For lack of any other driving force, I wanted to spent my days adventure racing (which was hardly practical either).

I started looking at job opportunities, first within the human in vitro and reproduction realm. It didn't sit right with me and so I began investigating opportunities in the cattle and wildlife industries. I visited a number of research places and was either told that I was overqualified (WTF?) or that I could work there but they couldn't pay me. At one place I had the opportunity of wearing shoulder length gloves and putting my arm bicep deep into a cow's nether region to feel her ovaries and watching this on an ultrasound. I loved it.

My favourite option was one at Onderstepoort where I met an awesome professor doing incredible work. He didn't have funding for his project but we clicked and I liked what he was doing and my skills suited his lab. As luck would have it, he called a few weeks later as I was driving away from my old life, car packed. I'd deregistered from university and had no idea what I was going to do, other than the adventure race two weeks later. He called to say he had funding and wanted me there. I was in such a bad space then so I kept driving.

I had toyed with the idea of large animal veterinary sciences. I'd already been at university for 6.5 years and I needed out. In the state that I was I couldn't face another bunch of years of study and neither could I fund it nor expect my mom to fund it.

With our YOLO Moo Igloo, I now find myself out on farms - and I love every visit. I love the smell of the farms and this has brought up a lot of childhood memories of being on the farm in Zim.

Having our YOLO Moo Igloo online (FB page specifically), I've experienced what I can only term vitriol from strangers. We're a plastic rotomoulding company, not dairy farmers. Yet they comment on how cruel it is to have a calf hutch for calves, how they should be frollicking in fields and how calves should be left with their moms.

Firstly, directing vitriol at a rotomoulding company completely misses the ball. Very, very few people abstain completely from dairy products (vegan do not consume dairy). That you and I drink milk and eat cheese and yoghurt means that we create a demand for dairy products. I bet that those criticising my calf hutch do not have a cow in their garden which they milk by hand and neither do they know anything about calf rearing and the dairy industry.

The calves that I've seen on a local farm are well cared for (they have dedicated carers). The calves spend their days in the 'garden' part of their hutch-fence, lying on grass in the sun. They have 'friends' nearby that they can see and chat to (but not too close that disease transfer is likely) and they have shelter from the elements from their hutches. When they are old enough and their immune systems are sufficiently developed the roam around in a field with their friends.

What I have experienced is not the intensive calf rearing of Europe and major large-scale producers (I've seen photos online so I certainly know it exists). I started to read up on calves and dairy farming and over the past few months I've been learning as I go.

On Thursday I attended a workshop presented by the Milk Producers Organisation (MPO) in the North-West province about 'Raising calves'. I was there officially to show my calf hutch but personally to learn about calves. There was an excellent speaker lineup and thank goodness my Afrikaans has improved to the point of being able to understand everything bar random unusual / long / difficult words - I still get the context. I most enjoyed the physiological neonatal and postnatal elements as well as content on disease and immunity - taking me back to my past life in developmental and cell biology.

Here are some fundamentals about dairy farming that I've learned from some farm visits and the recent MPO workshop.
  • Farmers care about their animals - calves and adults.
  • Dairy cows are bred for their milk production genetics, not maternal instincts. Dairy cows are not necessarily great mothers and they may neglect the calf, not cleaning nor feeding it. This is a very good post by a dairy farmer on why farmers separate calves and cows.
  • Beef cows are very good mothers. What has been successful is when dairy embryos are implanted in a beef cow and she gives birth to the dairy calf and raises it. 
  • Cows come on heat not according to their age but rather according to their weight.
  • Human babies are born with antibodies and disease fighting immune factors that they received from their mom while in the womb. Calves are not. They have a developed immune system by no passive immunity nor circulating antibodies from their mom. They get this from drinking colostrum (post-birth milk) after birth and in the first few days that follow. The colostrum from the first milking is the most potent.
  • Colostrum contains both immune factors as well as hormones and super-boosted nutritional elements (proteins, fats, sugars, vitamins and minerals). 
  • Within six hours of birth, a calf must get 10% of its body weight in colostrum. Its system is geared for maximum absorption of all this goodness. 24-36hrs of birth this ability to absorb the goodness from colostrum diminishes substantially. 
  • A newborn calf must drink with its head up, so that what it drinks slides down its throat and into its true stomach and not into the rumen (where food sits for roughage to be broken down by bacteria). If colostrum and milk sit in the rumen, the calf will get diarrhoea.
  • A healthy calf and good milk producing adult is directly linked to the quality and quantity of colostrum the calf receives as well as when (timing) it receives this nourishing milk.
  • Over the first few weeks of a calf's life, the passive immunity received from its mom diminishes and from about five weeks of age its own antibody production starts to kick in. During the first six to eight week period of a calf's life, it is most susceptible to infection.
  • Colostrum is everything! It is better to give more than less. What a calf receives directly after birth and for the first four days has a long-lasting effect on their growth and weight gain and future milk production. If it is born in winter, the calf needs even more milk as it expends a lot of energy on keeping warm. Growth slows if it isn't getting enough milk so what summer and winter calves receive is quite different.
  • Illnesses generally take three forms: enteric (diarrhoea - from two days after birth), respiratory (lung infections from three weeks to six months) and reproductive illnesses (from 18 months of age).
  • Various bacteria, viruses and protozoa are to blame - fortunately there are vaccinations for these and immunity from vaccinations given to mom can be passed on to the calf in the colostrum.
  • The key way to prevent infections is:
    • the calving area should be clean with good drainage
    • calf hutches should be moved to fresh ground regularly
    • Sun (UV) is important to naturally disinfect the ground
    • Calves should be kept apart for their first few months
Not all farms are the same. Some milk less than 150 cows (small) and others milk over 1000 every day (two to three times a day). Some house their calves in buildings ('permanent rearing facilities') and others use calf hutches and open fields. There is also an in between with small, individual metal 'pens' that are raised off the ground with slats and mats for faeces and urine to pass through.

Hygiene is critically important. Thorough cleaning of the floors of walled pens in buildings and the bedding and mats is essential for disease prevention. This means disinfectant solutions and high pressure hoses and regular changes of clean bedding. I think the small metal pens raised of the ground are almost worse and they too need to be thoroughly cleaned.

I'm obviously biased towards our calf hutches as I've seen them in use (read this post from a dairy farmer that explains why they have chosen to use hutches). The protocol is simple: move the hutch every few days on to fresh lawn. The calf gets to chill in the hutch or the attached garden pen and it can enjoy the sun and benefit from shelter from the hutch. To clean and disinfect the hutch, turn it over, spray it out and leave in the sun to dry. Let the sun's UV rays do the work (both on the hutch and the previously used ground).

It costs R12,000 to R14,000 to raise a calf - a sizeable investment. Multiply this by 20 or 40 or 80. That's a lot of money.

As far as intensive farming goes, I'm not a fan but I'm also realistic and I know that it happens. I also feel that even in this environment it is a better investment for even these big producers to go the route of calf hutches instead of buildings. I have no figures but my gut feel says disease incidence would be dramatically reduced and quality of life for the calves would be far better in individual hutches. Not having to spray down cement stalls translates to reduced labour demands, less water usage and also less chemical/disinfectant use. All of this saves rands. Lots of them.

The dairy industry has been hard hit. We've gone from 50,000 dairy farms 20 years ago to only 1,600 today. A guy I spoke to on Thursday is one of two dairy farmers in his area. There used to be 72 of them in the 90s. Cost of production, local milk prices, global prices, oversupply in Europe and importing of these into SA has taken its toll. 

Interestingly, we're not producing enough milk for our dairy needs (remember that dairy includes cheese, yoghurt, milk powder, long-life milk and not just liquid milk). We had a 100 million litre deficit last year. The drought in the Western and Eastern Cape provinces has severely affected production too.

I've also learned that dairy farmers support each other through hard times and stronger farms work with struggling neighbours to help them through a tough time. Farms going for five generations have had to close their doors. And then there are the violent farm attacks that have taken out farmers and their families. More than 75 farm killings already this year. Isolated on farms, these poor people are sitting ducks for attackers.

Dairy farming is also a high-technology field where the health of a cow and her milk production is closely monitored by sophisticated systems. The farmer knows when a cow is under the weather before she has a clue that she isn't feeling great.

I still have a lot to learn - my minimal experiences have only given me a taste - and in a few weeks I hope to spend a full day at our local dairy for some experiential learning of calf care, the herds, milking process and herd monitoring.  

While I have absolutely no inclination to be a dairy farmer, I have developed a keen interest in the process, the technology and the logistics of dairy farming. 

Dairy farming definitely isn't all Heidi in the Swiss Alps. There are so many ways in which farms and animals are managed. What I have learned from the farmers that I have met is that they all want to do their best to provide quality care for their calves and cows and to learn how to do even better for them.