Friday, 12 December 2008
The Farming Week.
Our loose-housing now has its full complement of cows and heifers- thirty of them - all pedigree Holstein stock and many of them Prize Winners. They belong to our neighbour, who has a Holstein Dairy herd. As we no longer have cattle of our own we over-winter some of his stock for him.
About three weeks before their calving date he will take them back home and feed them extra "ration" to give them a pre-calving boost and also to get them used to eating the ration again so that when they go into the parlour they will eat it readily.
Taking the calves away from their mothers is always a tricky point of discussion amongst non-farming people. For anyone reading this who doesn't understand the process (probably the same readers as those who were not sure of the significance of ewes' red bottoms), after birth the young calves are separated from their mothers. The mothers are individually milked and that milk is then given to the calf (by bottle) so that the calf gets that all-important colostrum from its mother. Quite often the calf has instinctively sucked from the mother before they are separated anyway. Some farmers leave the calf with its mother for a day or two but eventually all the calves become bottle/bucket fed.
It seems hard. When I first came into a farming family fifteen years ago I hated to hear the mother calling for her calf. But, of course, a cow gives the most milk when she is newly calved. And the cows forget quickly and the calves always seem happy playing and eating together in deep straw.
In Summer, when the herd is out to grass, calving usually happens in the field. Then the calf and its mother are often together all day. In the days when we had a Dairy Herd (before having Foot and Mouth Disease in 2002), we had a wonderful old cow - Number 55 freeze-brand - who used to steal the new-born calves from their mums out in the field. When we went to call them in for milking she would be at the gate watching for us, proudly saying, "Look what I've got!" She made our work easy because often the mother would be happily chewing the cud oblivious to it all.
One of the saddest things about Foot-and-Mouth was that all our stock, sheep and cows and calves, had to be killed and burnt on our premises. The animals were lined up in the field waiting to be craned on to the top of the huge bonfire - and to see number 55 like that was so upsetting because she was such a character.
But farmers are resilient - they have to be by the very nature of their job. Most farmers love their animals and wouldn't be in the job otherwise. There are exceptions but thankfully not round here, where all the stock look happy and healthy
The sheep are at last beginning to eat the hay and the sugar-beet nuts we are feeding them every day. These hefted sheep from "the tops" hold out against it as long as they can. If there is snow, rather than eat the hay they will clamber up the hawthorn hedge to see if there is any greenery left there. But, at last, they have got the message that the hay in the hay rack is there to eat and that the line of rooks standing along the sides of the trough are eating the sugar beet nuts put there for sheep not crows. In fact they run calling to meet the farmer when the tractor comes into the field. Not for nothing has the expression "follow like sheep" entered the English Language. One-come-all-come is their motto!