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John Downes

27 September 1996

John Downes

John Downes owns 96ha (236 acres) and contract farms a further 139ha (344 acres) near Shrewsbury, Shropshire. The unit carries 112 Holstein Friesian cows, 80 home-bred beef cattle and 320 ewes – originally North Country Mules, now including Suffolk Mules and Cambridge crosses. He grows 73ha (180 acres) cereals, 10ha (24 acres) maize and 5ha (12 acres) fodder beet.

THE dairy herd continues to increase milk from forage with big bale silage just introduced. We also hold regular rain dances as the drought begins to bite. John has enjoyed milking clean cows, even with a few flies, but no water means no grass. Sooner or later we shall have an excess of both followed by less access. It is definitely time to plan for cow tracks.

With dairy cow prices in the doldrums we have calved everything in to the herd for the past two months, keeping milking cow numbers steady by taking out culls.

Sadly Shropshire is a black spot; lucky for these culls with no home to go to, unlucky for dairy farmers as grass burns away. We now have 16 looking for space at the local abattoir as their set a-side grazing will soon need preparation for winter wheat.

Rob has been busy ploughing after the slurry tanker following a grand crop of winter barley. We have reseeded two fields at home with four-year clover leys. Away from home we have drilled Italian ryegrass and rye as catch crops before fodder beet and maize. Now we need rain for germination. We plan to graze these with sheep, lambing a little earlier. At least this years lambs are finishing as the price improves.

Peter, and occasional helpers, have dagged and foot-trimmed the flock and teasers are out and rams in on Sep 18. We have three smart new ram lambs joining the team, two Texels and one Suffolk. I just hope grass will be sufficient to maintain our prolificacy.

We hope to improve cattle housing this winter and await planning applications before replacing a World War Two Nissen hut. We have had problems rearing calves due to poor ventilation. The winter housing for Angus and his bulling heifers leaves much to be desired as they are currently fed from a ring feeder in a low lying outside yard. We have applied to increase the roof area by 50% and feed under cover – a treat for man and beast.n

Lack of rain means drought is beginning to bite for John Downes, but milk yield is up and the cows have just gone onto bale silage.

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John Downes

2 August 1996

John Downes

THE last 10 days have been hot and humid and the dairy herd has needed to be strip grazed on part of the second-cut silage to maintain milk.

We were very fortunate to welcome Mark Blackwell, the New Zealand Dairy Board grass consultant, to the farm and pleased he was impressed with our clover. We certainly took note of his advice on resting our night grazing block which had been continuously stocked. It is now greening up and in future we plan to create four paddocks requiring another water trough and improved cow track.

We have calved 24, including 18 first calvers in the first three weeks of July. Three tragedies were down to complications leading to lost calves but the worst was to lose a heifer 24 hours after calving to a rare clostridial disease called oedomatiens – equivalent to instant death. We have a surplus of heifers so son, Tim, tried his hand at selling at the local auction, on a difficult market while we enjoyed our British Grassland Society busmans holiday in Durham.

The Don and Julie Wilkinson show, with all their helpers, was grand. The weather, the company, the farm visits and the evening attractions were all excellent with many thought-provoking ideas and superb hospitality.

Our local Shropshire Grassland Society held an evening farm walk and bus tour on the chairmans farm followed by a barbecue and presentations. We were delighted to receive a cup for the milk production from forage and feel we may just crack the 4000 litres from forage this month.

Chris and I attended another farm walk locally. The farm had won the county Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group competition. Ivor Lewis has an excellent example of family farming with conservation as an integral part.

Our own lambs were weaned on July 5 and nine cull ewes sold the following week for almost £50 a head. We still have too many lambs and the earlier lambing next year may also ease Peters workload when spraying cereals also become a priority. &#42

Lambs at The Farm have now been weaned and nine ewes earmarked for culling sold for almost £50 a head.

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John Downes

12 April 1996

John Downes

THIS was our black Wednesday – with a vengeance – and the repercussions are affecting the whole of the European meat trade.

The NFU has worked unstintingly both nationally and locally to rebuild public confidence and deserves everyones backing. Sadly our MPs have merely traded insults – but I do thank our MEP for his support and understanding.

Our industry has pulled together to help each other, I just hope the many small businesses relying on our cash flow will be as fortunate. Certainly the slaughtering industry plans proposed by the MLC look dated. Any support or compensation must restart the beef market and reassure our export buyers.

With barren cows, beef and Friesian bull calves to sell, we can only wait for confidence to return.

We are now reasonably certain of our quota position this year. If leap year and butterfat allowances are correct we are 1.7% over quota. It would have been higher but for the 25 lambs and up to 20 calves reared on milk. The shepherds have refused to turn out triplets and have been grateful for the shepherdess feeding system. It has given these lambs an excellent start.

Lambing was concentrated, as expected, with only 20 left after four weeks. Out vet student Sarah and family spent long nights in the lambing shed. Why do they all prefer to lamb between 10.30pm and 2am? Chris suggests that next years records aid culling those which lamb outside daylight hours.

Now frosts at night mean the grass refuses to grow, so we are hoping, as the fodder store is empty, that April can perform her usual magic.

Whatever we do on the farm is affected by politics and the weather. It was interesting to explain this to a group of accountants from our local practice. They wished to understand the farming calendar and our strange terms, we hope gobsmacked is not one of them now.n

With barren cows and bull calves to sell, John Downes can only wait for confidence to return. However, the NFU has worked hard to rebuild this.

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John Downes

19 January 1996

John Downes

THIS season of goodwill had us defrosting the parlour and water troughs but we were very fortunate compared with those further north. The cows were unaffected by the cold and continue to milk well; we may yet see 6000 litres from a tonne of cake.

Our Christmas Day calf was a Friesian heifer born with its front fetlocks at 90í. We are trying to lengthen the tendons by applying splints but it is proving a slow job. The frosty weather allowed the straw yards to be cleaned out and dirty water spread from the pool. We are now looking at a Farm Waste Management Plan to satisfy the NRA, as, unfortunately, our farm ditch has always received liquid from six septic tanks. We hope to divert more into the dirty water pool but then may well need a pumping system to cope with increased flow. No wonder a recent publication has highlighted farmers anxiety levels.

After the results of our annual costings with Genus we sat down with Will Phillips, our consultant, to carry out a SWOT exercise – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. This highlighted our low direct/variable costs where clover has had a significant impact. A higher than average labour bill has produced better margins due to the quality of the staff. Much lower power and machinery costs are due to careful staff nursing our range of modern and not-so-new equipment.

The ewes have grazed the fodder beet tops and stubble turnips and returned home to the grass seeds after Christmas. Scanning suggests slightly more triplets and a few quads this year, so fostering will be a priority at lambing.

There were too many barren ewe lambs and we also wonder if vaccinating against abortion may have had some effect. Next year we will try to be earlier but pressure of work at harvest sees Pete the shepherd busy at that time.

We finally sold three loads of feed wheat in early January, for much more than anticipated, through Wrekin Grain. I understand the concerns of grain users when the vagaries of a world market see such surges in price. &#42

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John Downes

12 May 1995

John Downes

APRIL has been a very dry month with cool winds and night frosts. Despite the weather, the cows have exceeded expectations by averaging over 2000 litres during the past 10 days.

They went out to graze on Apr 10 in two groups for one hour each and were out at night on Apr 25. By this time interest in maize and grass silage had waned but the last fodder beet was eaten with gusto on the 28th.

After recording at the end of the month we have adjusted concentrates above 22 litres from grass and look forward to warmer April showers – in May!

The forage factor has been well aired at the Genus and British Grassland Society conferences recently. Both emphasised the relative costs of grazed grass versus silage, which is three times as expensive and concentrates seven times as expensive. Though high yields may suit some, the need to produce milk at least cost may soon be more significant.

The BGS explained both technically and practically the benefits of extending the grazing season. Farmers from four different corners of the UK have made the system work by investing in hard roads and gateways – perhaps more economic sense than machinery and silos?

Milk quota has begun the season at a premium, one local agent referring to the "fear factor". I wonder how much of this 11-12p/litre is used to produce milk from cows receiving 1kg of concentrates for the "ultimate" litre.

Our concentrate replacer was drilled on Apr 12 and is just appearing. The difference this year is the narrower 18in rows to suit the harvester and perhaps produce a smaller, more manageable fodder beet.

The maize went in two weeks later with 50kg/acre of mono ammonium phosphate drilled near the seed.

We are trying to use up the last of our maize silage, as it is less stable at the rear of the pit, probably due to less compaction. The remaining 13 beef cattle will have to be fed ad lib to clear the balance.

The ewes and lambs have moved off the new seeds but have not grazed out the creeping thistles. We hope for kind weather to allow MCPA to remove them without scorching the clover.

Drawings of the first lambs coincided with a buyers market. We were grateful we had not chosen to creep-feed the February-born lambs, as the clover appears to be bringing them on quickly.

Do we want to become an educational establishment? The NFU, quite rightly, has decided to educate our consumers on farms. We are proud of our welfare standards and spend far more hours than the public realises tending our stock. The snag is that an open day or a school visit take time out of an already busy schedule. But I suppose we must put ourselves out to tell our side of the story. &#42

John Downes – drilled his concentrate replacer fodder beet in narrower rows for a more manageable crop.

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