Opinion: Lessons from the 2017 calving season

Summer is finally in sight and we are staggering, exhausted but triumphant, towards the finishing line for calving 2017.

As always, some things went really well, and others less so. I thought I’d share my lessons from this spring with you.

1. Party marquees are for parties, not calf rearing

Having the roof blow off our home for 70 replacement heifer calves during Storm Doris was less than ideal. This occurring on the day we were due to have an important meeting with our farm owner and consultants was a disaster.

See also: Concentrating on calving amid the bad news 

Thankfully we managed to get the calves into a safe, dry shed within half a day, although it did involve a lot of re-jigging and rendered all our hard work modifying the marquee wasted.

Liz-HainesLiz Haines and her husband Nick milk 320 spring-calving cows

The calves are now safely out grazing and the marquee is probably somewhere in Northern France, along with my dreams of setting up a wedding business this summer.

Instead, I’ll be using my time to research alternative, sturdier means of calf housing. The cheapest option clearly isn’t the best.

2. Plan ahead for TB

Although we knew failing our annual TB test was a strong possibility, a combination of being busy and blind optimism meant we hadn’t prepared for having to rear more than 100 beef calves in the event that we were unable to sell them at market. We now have pens of calves in every available space, including unused feed passages.

Ad-lib milk feeding was the only way to manage from a labour point of view, and the calves are looking very well on it.

Next year we will be sure to have a buyer with the appropriate movement licenses lined up well in advance.

If we do go clear this year and manage to sell the calves for more than peanuts it will be a welcome bonus.

3. Vet students are your friends

This is the second year we have had vet students on placement on the farm, and again they have all been brilliant.

When I tell other farmers, they often roll their eyes, expecting me to say they were useless and had no practical skills.

I’ve found the opposite to be true – of the five girls who have stayed with us, none have come from farming backgrounds, but all have thrown themselves in with enthusiasm and helped with all kinds of jobs from milking to TB testing, metri-checking, calf feeding and disbudding.

Hopefully, we were able to teach them something too, and we find it’s a nice way to meet new people and break up the monotony of the calving season with some new faces.

4. Don’t let the vegans grind you down

The non-story of the Dorset calves in hutches was a depressing reminder of the battle we face when it comes to some people’s perceptions of dairy farming.

All this negativity is the last thing we need at a busy time of when we are trying our best to do a good job.

However, in the week after the Guardian‘s ‘Dairy is Scary’ article, the paper also featured a farmer’s son urging readers to stop demonising farmers, an opinion piece highlighting the nutritional benefits of cow’s milk over dairy alternatives, and a letter from a Scottish dairy farmer who successfully rears calves in hutches.

The power of these ripostes can’t be underestimated, and, hopefully, means the net effect of what seemed like some very bad PR will be positive.

Learning curves aside, it’s been a good spring. The grass is flying, and the cows are milking better than ever before.

I’m sure we will face new and different challenges next year. But for now I’m ready to enjoy the summer.

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