After an early start and comforting myself by the fact the farmers were already milking, I set off for a dairy farm on the Ards peninsula, picking up Ruth on the way. I think it’s fair to say I didn’t really have much of an idea what we would be doing, and I was a little apprehensive. We arrived and were welcomed into the heart of any farm – the kitchen, where we met Roger and his parents John and Oriel. After a cup of tea (lots of milk!) and a chat, it was time to don our waterproofs and wellie boots and head out onto the farm. Plenty of laughs, silly (or perhaps ill informed!) questions and good aul chat filled the day.
The farm has about 250 cows of which 115 are being milked currently. Throughout the day we followed Roger about and tried to help rather than hinder (not sure if we were entirely successful there!). Each day all the cows have to be checked on in all their various fields, as well as fed a little meal to supplement the grass. The cows needed to be cow-nted, easier said than done with 30+ moving black and white hungry cows. Ruth and I might need to do some weights training since it took both of us to carry a sack and attempt to pour it into the troughs while surrounded by hungry heifers. I was amazed by how responsive the animals were to the unique cow language spoken fluently by Roger – we have some way to go in developing skills in this area too (apparently more conviction on my part was required)!
Our grand tour was cut short by the phone call we were hoping would happen, saying one of the cows was about to calf! AHHH!! Smiles spread across our faces and we headed back to the yard in time to see it born, which was truly amazing! Roger cleared the mucus from its nose and its head came up, ears pricked as its mother started to lick it clean. Unfortunately for Roger, it was a bull, which means in about a month it’ll be sold on. Although from the business perspective it is useless, it was certainly rather cute. Roger showed us a chart that would rival the Krebs cycle in its complexity, telling him which cows are in calf, when they are due, when they need to stop being milked etc. Excitement over, for the farmers at least, we headed back to finish what we had started, checking on the rest of the cows.
It was back to the yard to prepare the indoor barn for the cattle, although we left sweeping the slurry to Roger and stuck to putting saw dust into each cubicle for the cows! A low point to the day was slipping and sliding our way across slotted slurry tank, although thankfully we managed to stay on our feet.
It wasn’t long before we had the chance to watch a second life come into the world, another bull, a moment that can’t help but bring a smile to your face! We were fortunate in that the two calves we saw being born were straightforward births, but I’m well aware calves don’t always arrive without complications or at such a civilised time of the day. With the calving season lasting from September to April, the farmers already short night can be interrupted by impatient calves, undoubtedly adding to the strain and stresses they face.
After dinner was eaten and the farming paparazzi satisfied, we returned to work – this time bringing down 20 18 month (ish) calves to get ‘dosed’ against worms in the yard and then back up to pasture. One of them had got sun burnt over the summer (who knew a) that cows get sun burn and b) there was enough sun this summer to get sun burnt). We checked in on the calves, to see one had started suckling from its mother while Roger fed the other colostrum milked from a cow that had given birth the previous day. In the varied life of a farmer, who is obstetrician one moment, then driver, then milkmaid, next Roger took on the guise of a mechanic, fixing the mud flap of a tractor while I considered the fact I am too vertically challenged to farm – one of the wheels of the tractor was the same size as me, and earlier I was too small to reach over the top of a gate and open it! A childhood dream was fulfilled as I rode in a big forklift (it was more impressive than it sounds) and Roger sorted silage into the feeding troughs for later.
It is fair to say nothing in our medical studies so far prepared us for milking (but then I guess it doesn’t really fall under the core curriculum), with Ruth and I slightly worried by the fact we were given caps and milking coats to keep us clean.
The cows have a specific order/hierarchy in which they go for milking, and some milk faster than others. It wasn’t long before Roger had us roped in, up to our elbows covered in things not found in a sterile hospital clinic, and having a go. If we got splashed with something rather unpleasant, we turned the udder cheek and moooved on. While exciting and interesting for us to see how it all works, I imagine doing it twice a day every day must get monotonous. There was a chance to discuss a pressing issue for dairy farmers – the milk price. It is clear these farmers are being pulled in every direction, with some schemes suggesting they be rewarded for producing less milk (http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/business/news/eu-scheme-could-pay-northern-ireland-farmers-to-rein-in-their-milk-production-35033740.html) while other companies are calling for increased milk production (http://www.farminglife.com/news/farming-news/dale-farm-calls-for-more-milk-1-7570514). One thing was clear, and that is that something needs to be done about the milk price urgently to stop more farms going out of business – I for one would not object to paying a few pence more for my milk, now knowing what a difference it would make to these farming families.
Just before we left there was time to see the various calves fed with milk, fresh from the parlour, and some of the younger ones taught to suck.
All too soon our waterproofs were hosed down and it was time to leave. We headed to a hotel nearby, met up with the others on the module and had a lovely dinner which we felt we thoroughly deserved, swapping stories about our experiences.
Before today, I had never worked on a farm and didn’t really have much of an idea about what all went on. Spending the day there gave us the chance to chat to Roger and his parents about what life is like and issues that affect them. Topics like the price of milk, often in the news (just this week the EU announced a scheme to try and reduce milk production, read more here: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/business/news/eu-scheme-could-pay-northern-ireland-farmers-to-rein-in-their-milk-production-35033740.html) take on a lot more meaning when you have seen how hard the farmers have to work and how little they get compared to what we pay, although it was good to hear that things seem to be looking up. Hearing Roger talking about having to plan when he isn’t at the farm and juggle this with his father made me really appreciate the fact that I am not tied down in the same way, rather than having cows that will need to be milked every day, be that Christmas Day or your birthday. The chat came round to health, first of the cows, all of whom are checked daily for signs of mastitis and other common ailments or conditions such as hernias, with the farmers admitting that should they themselves have an ache or pain they are more likely to wait and see if it’ll settle than rush immediately to the doctor. Thankfully, succession is in place for this farm but for many of their neighbours the situation is not as straightforward. To do work like this, day in, day out for a lifetime clearly takes a lot of physical strength, and I don’t think that’s something you can truly appreciate until you spend time on a farm – I certainly didn’t, and know what I saw today is only the tip of the iceberg of what farming incorporates. I really appreciated the time they took out of a busy schedule to have us on the farm, where the work is never done, and when you live in your workplace you cannot even leave it behind.