‘It’s more Blind Date than The Apprentice’

You’re hired. And just like that we found ourselves the proud employers of a new bona fide herdsperson.

The arrival of new staff to any small business is inevitably stressful, but never more so than on a farm as the business is often run from home in more of a family situation. Any staff must not only take to the job – they must also take to you.

Myself and husband, Phil – the fourth generation of his family to farm – milk around 280 cows (subject to TB intervention) on a relatively high input system on 350 acres in the Staffordshire Moorlands.

For the past 10 years we have tried to push the business forward, increasing cow numbers and modernising as we went along. Throughout this time we have employed two full-time workmen for five days a week and Saturday mornings and a part-time man to help Phil milk at weekends. Then about 12 months ago, we found ourselves a man short – and, with the imminent arrival of a long-awaited family, we decided to advertise for a new cowman to join our little team.

We had been fortunate in the past to never had to advertise for staff as our small team had always been quite settled and any new staff had arrived by word-of-mouth or organically, like farm cats that turn up and make themselves at home, weaving themselves into the fabric of the farm.

So as recruitment novices, we scoured the farming press for inspiration for our advert. Most took a “singles’ column” approach but instead of stating physical attributes or intellectual hobbies it was apparent the trick was to tempt with attractive snippets of information about the farm – the size of the parlour, the modern set-up and the pièce de résistance: dangling a house and car to great effect.

We think of ourselves as a smallish, family farm and this “promotion” didn’t come naturally – how could we sound appealing? There is no house with the job, but maybe we could mention breakfast?

Surprisingly, there was no shortage of interest and we proceeded in a process that was more Blind Date than The Apprentice.

Phil was happy to consider anyone who applied, spending hours chatting to people with little regard to experience or qualification; he enjoyed finding out minute, irrelevant details about them to regurgitate at any opportunity.

There was, I suspect, more soul-searching than when he proposed marriage, but after a couple of weeks we found someone we were keen to get on board.

On Gareth’s arrival (initially) we were all on best behaviour as we introduced our new employee to the other workmen and family members, general hangers-on and any relevant pets. We tried to explain who’s who and where we all slot in.

We hadn’t had a herdsperson before so we had time to think of what we wanted out of the role before the new man started work. I saw this as an opportunity for the right person to be increasingly involved in moving our business forward; Phil saw an opportunity to offload numerous mundane tasks (milk recording and foot scoring, for starters).

We had an initial honeymoon phase of getting to know each other. There were a few stumbling blocks over the technical details he was keen to get to grips with – calving intervals, cows at first service etc. And, of course, anything that uses letters to abbreviate it (Phil, being a intuitive farmer, doesn’t hold with writing much down – he has a deep distrust of such things and tries to pretend they don’t exist.)

Like a cabinet reshuffle, the breakfast table seating plan altered – where would the new man sit? If it was at the end of the table would he be able to fend the dog off? And would he park in the optimum parking space in the yard?

As with any changes, we tried to reassure our other workman, but it turned out he had only one concern – silaging. He announced that (after 10 years) he was now at the top of the list for a) the mower and b) the best tractor.

We held back on a lot of the bizarre farming detail, things like cow nicknames and practical jokes that involve having a dead mouse in your wellie, as a new member of staff had enough to think about remembering where trip switches and stop taps are.

I sympathised with him over learning field names as there is a certain type of local knowledge to them; many are named after previous owners or neighbours who have long since moved on (I don’t mean moved house either).

Reflecting on the last year or so, our business has seen some dramatic changes. We have lost nearly 250 cows to bovine TB and our new employee has undoubtedly influenced our decision to restock and carry on milking, in spite of such out-of-control circumstances. I think I can now increasingly appreciate what traits a good herdsperson needs, especially to work with us: enthusiasm, knowledge and ideas to move the business forward, resilience and good organisational skills and although a bit obvious, a love of cows and to treat them like their own.

On a more lighthearted note, a fondness for early mornings and extreme cold weather – especially to milk in a parlour put in three years ago to promote cool air circulation and to then ironically suffer one of the coldest winters in our memory.

A split-personality is needed to keep both myself and Phil happy as I handle all the paperwork in a tightly controlled manner where the devil is certainly in the detail, as opposed to Philip who enjoys “outside farming” unfettered by the modern paper trail, answerable to no one, especially if you are trying his mobile at what he perceives to be anything remotely resembling milking time, as he refuses to answer.

As with all change it takes time to evaluate. But with the advent of weekend-on-weekend off – a concept previously alien to our farm – I can’t help but feel positive.

And, after spending hours on the intricacies of the PAYE CD-Rom, adding a new employee I can only pray it is some time before the exercise needs repeating.

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