7 May 1999

Swings and roundabouts

NATURE always manages to balance things out, writes Tim Green. The benefits of last years bumper maize crop will be largely swallowed up following the wet spring.

After nearly 16 years in France, this has to be our most difficult spring yet. Certainly its the first time weve done serious damage to our grazing land. Because of what looked like a handsome carry-over of silage, we were tempted to reduce our maize acreage and drill some alternative spring crop. Fortunately, we decided to keep the system simple. Thats assuming this years maize will be drilled eventually. Our optimum date for the completion of drilling is May 1 and that has already been missed.

Doubtless we will catch up eventually, but it will mean long days for ourselves and the contractors.

Meanwhile, the cows are going out to graze but are allowed back in to protect the soil structure. Sadly there are no economies because we are still bedding down as we do in the winter and the cows are scoffing almost as much silage.

We are not feeding to appetite to encourage them to eat the grass. Another problem is that because the loose housing cannot be emptied due to the ground conditions, the incidence of mastitis is rising. In fact, muddy cows and extra mastitis is making milking a real chore.

Despite atrocious weather the sheep are managing surprisingly well outside. The lambing sheds are almost empty with only the tail enders to go.

This year we are trying something different and leaving our ram lambs entire; planning to finish them inside during the late summer. Most years we are left with a carry over of lambs to finish inside, which although not necessarily unprofitable, is a nuisance because they take up valuable housing and create extra work in a busy routine. Moreover, they are not always easy to sell as hoggets. The price may be reasonable but theres not always a market.

The sale of the final batch of last seasons lambs has been postponed two weeks running and, if delays continue, they will be sold overfat. We certainly miss the flexibility of auction markets which give the ability to sell store lambs and even buy stores of regular type and quality.

This year has underlined the superiority of our imported mules over the native breeds such as the Rouge, Bleu du Maine and their crosses. For ease of management they are far better and produce excellent lambs when crossed with the Dutch and Belgian texels.

Disappointment comes when we keep the F1 Mule x Texel. Although they look useful sheep, the lambs are not as good and their milking ability is suspect. Fortunately, we have swapped most of our cross gimmers for Scottish Blackface ewes because the latter proved impossible to keep at home.

Limited housing

Thats a good job given our limited housing. The Blackies lamb well outside where they laugh at our Normandy showers and defend themselves against our vicious crows.

On a recent excursion with a friend who sells dairy equipment, we discussed the latest fashion which is robot milking machines. Since about 40 have been sold in France they are considered a serious option for herds of up to 65 cows. Although the initial outlay of about £100,000 looks intimidating compared with conventional systems, they are becoming more popular. Once the cost of building work has been taken into consideration, they look more reasonable because they require little space and can adapt well to existing buildings.

But robotic milkers are not an easy option because constant vigilance is required. Although the routine of milking is removed there is an ever-present alarm system which can be activated any time. A recent survey of users revealed near unanimous satisfaction. Then again, after spending £100,000 they would say that wouldnt they? As the equipment becomes more refined, and perhaps cheaper, they may become even more popular.

Certainly there seems to money available for dairy equipment investment. The regulation on pollution control has also encouraged people to invest and modernise. As farms become bigger more money becomes available through the subsidies loan system which could lead to re-investment. So, for the moment, there is still relative confidence in dairying even if the omens are not too encouraging.