£10,000 kit to trim cow hoofs

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Wet weather has warmed things up again, and the frost last week has not done much to damage growth. I am really keen for February to be mild. As I have so much grass that if we had a late winter now, it will all be quite a mess. I will actively consider applying some fertilizer on the fields at Tillington next week, as the grass is still growing there, and it would benefit from a light dressing. It is dry underfoot for the time of year, and although the clay at Plaistow is wet, it is not as saturated as it usually is in January. Once we get some growth, it will soon dry out.

We have just taken delivery of our new foot-trimming crush. This is a hydraulic ‘tilt’ crush, where the cow is held in position whilst the crush slowly turns her on her side, allowing the foot-trimmer to then very quickly trim all four feet before tilting her back and letting her go. This sounds traumatic I know, but believe me when the cow has to otherwise stand on three legs whilst the trimmer tackles one foot at a time, it takes far longer, and there is much greater risk of injury to the operator and stress for the cow.

Add to this the simple fact that if a job can be done much more quickly, safely and in comfort, then there is much more appetite to actually trim feet routinely.

This crush cost £10,000 so the decision was not made lightly; the lads had to convince me of all the merits, and of their absolute desire to trim cow’s hoofs! As a member of the Farm Animal Welfare Council advising the Minister on welfare matters, I had read an American research paper ‘Cardiopulmonary effects of position in conscious cattle’ (I know), where scientific studies were made on the cardiopulmonary effects of all four positions (standing, right lateral, left lateral and dorsal recumbency) on conscious cattle; where no sedatives or anesthetic drugs were given.

This paper made it very clear that whilst dorsal recumbency is extremely stressful for a dairy cow, lateral position resulted in little or no change to the animal (measured through blood changes etc). Given that the dairy cows in this trial were held in various positions for a very long time, a few minutes whilst having their hoofs trimmed will be no problem at all. Farmers know this already, one of the things we are always anxious to avoid is turning a cow on her back, unless we are ‘rolling’ her with the vet to untwist the gut, or an exceptionally bad calving (both very rare). However, scientific papers like these cover horses and ponies too, and are especially looking at operations and surgical procedures, where the cow or horse may be held in different positions; the nature and effect of which must be known.

I have found myself surrounded by people who are ‘resting’ their livers for the month of January! I don’t bother to bore them with the evidence of how pointless (nevermind miserable) this exercise really is. Those who know, tell us that a couple of nights without alcohol each week is what the liver needs, not one month rest following eleven months of abuse. It does not escape me that it’s the heavier consumer that feels the need to have an alcohol free January, and most of them say its near enough the end of the month now to a have a few!

I have just spent most of last week on the election trail! NFU hustings took us around the country, starting with the South East, on to the South West, Wales, West Midlands, North West, North East, East Anglia, finishing in the East Midlands. A gruelling few days, where our NFU farmer members have the opportunity to grill us on all manner of things, from internal NFU issues, our own personal issues and weaknesses, policies, strategy, and so on. It does show the outside world how we as Officeholders of the NFU are accountable; kicked out if you don’t get it right.

The subjects and concerns ranged from bovine TB and Common Agriculture Policy reform (the two main issues), to markets, supply chain issues, government cuts, high speed 2 proposed rail project, climate change, world commodity prices and so on. A huge challenge to those who had not been on this circuit before and especially if they had not been at least a Commodity Chairman or Regional Board Chairman. There was good camaraderie between the nominees (amazing how you gel together under pressure!), with some notes being compared on ‘how one got on’. The election will be a sudden death affair held after the NFU Conference in Birmingham on the 21/22 of February.

Tesco has been the loser in grocery trading over the last quarter, and reading into the statement from Chief Executive Philip Clark, the cause goes back quite a while. They have been concentrating on expansion to the detriment of their stores. The share price took a hit, and Warren Buffet (the well known investor) picked up half a billion pound’s worth, increasing his stake from 3% to 5%. Not surprisingly, the share price has recovered some of the fall in price since he made his move, but this could end the race to build ever more stores in the UK; what the experts call the ‘space race’.

Just to give you a flavour of the scale of business and competition in the high street, Sainsbury’s who had the best Christmas ever, 297 stores took over £1 million in the Christmas week, with 70 stores taking more than £2 million and 6 stores achieving over £3 million. Professor Tim Lang, a long time critic of out of town retail stores commented last week that these ‘faceless tin cathedrals’ offer ‘a dehumanised experience’, and he urged an end to ‘this crazy, unsustainable version of food shopping; premised on oil’. Strong words indeed.

In a move that mirrors ‘selling coal to Newcastle’; the research station at Aberystwyth which has led the way in grass plant breeding, is now heavily involved in New Zealand. The seed company ‘Germinal Seeds’ based in Hawks bay, are advertising high sugar grasses on TV, with the highly regarded (recently retired) Dr Pete Wilkins, who has spent much of his 30 year career at Aberystwyth successfully developing the high sugar grass varieties. New Zealand is arguably the benchmark for grazing efficiency (although some of my Australian and Irish mates would give them a run for their money), and it is a real success to see British bred high sugar grasses making such an impact.

Whilst I am on the subject of high sugar grass, this column has mentioned ‘grassohol’ before, and I see exciting developments of turning grass juice into ethanol. Clover mixed swards which need little or no chemical Nitrogen, offer sustainable fuels, which have the prospect of being relatively competitive. The potential is for 10 tonnes per hectare of fermentable sugar, which gives a theoretical 4500 litres of ethanol per Hectare per year. The presence of clover in the sward has shown not to inhibit the fermentation process adding to the viability of the process.

Farm Diary