Annual agony over our cows

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THE wonderful weather has come to an end, temporarily, but frankly we would normally be content with this for the first week in April in an ordinary year. I noticed in the West Sussex Gazette last week that the readers were asked to write in when the first bluebell was seen. Well I must report that I had already seen quite a few by last Wednesday, and now we have a carpet of blue in the woods. This is incredible for the end of March, but of course the trees are leafing, which will soon form a canopy. It will be interesting to see if it’s the ash or the oak which will be in leaf first; a splash or a soak?

Even more unusual is the fact that fields of rape were also flowering in March, quite a lot of yellow about by last Saturday, and I don’t remember that happening before. All the usual early April flowers have been out in the woods and on the roadsides for a week or two, and this cooler weather might make the daffodils last a little longer as they do not enjoy sunny weather very much. Our grass fields are three weeks ahead of a normal year, and are really motoring now. I can see that we will be cutting silage early, and the first cut acreage will be maximized as our cows are still in, and we will certainly be cutting many of the grazing paddocks.

Practically all our heifers are out grazing, but no cows. It was so tempting to turn them out for the weekend and have a March turnout, but something told me that this was all too good to be true, and if things seem to be too good to be true – they usually are! Given that the cows are really doing well now, averaging 30 litres a day, I am loathed to spoil that by turning them out and finding that the weather changes dramatically, milk production dives and (although not likely this year?) worst of all, having to bring them back inside. Now the counter argument of course is that all that grass out there is far cheaper than winter rations, and it’s the margin that counts and not litres produced. Every spring we agonise over this and it is never quite the right decision when one looks back.

Very often the decision is made easier up and down the country due to shortage of silage stocks, and there is no choice but to turn out. I was well educated over my early years that you should never run short of silage in this part of the world and in particular on our heavy weald clay. It’s a lesson learnt, and I always carry many months of grass and maize silage stocks on the farm, but of course that does introduce a more cautionary approach to turnout. We supply Sainsbury’s with our milk, and they need milk every day of the year of course, and a sudden drop in production is not a good thing, and if it was too severe we would incur a penalty; another reason to plan ahead and not make mistakes.

Things took a turn for the worse for the government following the budget. There had been great anticipation and speculation in the media as to how well Chancellor George Osborne would do; how he would present a budget which needed to be neutral, how he would give and who would he take from. From a farming point of view it was disappointing, we had thought capital allowances on buildings and in particular other constructions such as reservoirs would be re-introduced (having only recently been taken away by the last administration). It was not to be, and there was little else of interest to be honest.

But George Osborne certainly pulled one rabbit out of the hat, taxing pensioners who have a reasonable income, and hitherto largely untouched by the austerity measures. This rabbit had little life in it when hoisted out of the top hat, and it was soon pretty limp as the press got stuck in, and the term ‘Granny tax’ entered our daily vocabulary. George made two fatal errors, he presented this measure as ‘stream-lining’ of taxation; tidying up! Worse, the leaks which the national media parade before any major political announcement these days, as their right, and as if it’s their job to present to the electorate, did not contain this important budget measure. ‘Why did you not leak this’? demanded television interviewers, which signals how things have changed; no pretence now that a government leak when it suits is the proper way to do things.

Then came the payback. Having supported the austerity measures, the public have been understandably losing their appetite as the cuts begin to bite, and especially as it affects all of us; not so pleasant all of a sudden. The media ratcheted the granny tax issue and suddenly the government was under attack. Conservative party funding was suddenly a hot topic, scandal, the necessary public sacking, but still it refused to go away. In fact, this was looking like a real problem, which would run and run.

Was it a diversionary tactic, or mere incompetence? The petrol tanker drivers’ threatened strike certainly presented an opportunity in some politicians’ eyes. Here were a group of greedy individuals, led by an irresponsible trade union, letting the nation down in times of great hardship. In the countryside, we are certainly more reliant on our cars than most, and the cost of motoring is very painful indeed, especially the wear and tear on our cars caused by the many pot-holes and generally dreadful conditions of our country road network, due to years of neglect.

The tanker drivers had of course only threatened to strike, and the details were not disclosed, such as a meeting on April 2, and that a week’s notice has to be given which took the strike beyond the Easter weekend; rather important details these.

The public were encouraged to ‘top up’ their cars by government. Given that on average cars have a third of a tank of fuel; ‘topping-up’ was not the appropriate description to what was likely to happen. When my own MP and Cabinet Minister Francis Maude decided to go one further (against Cabinet advice some of his Ministerial colleagues now claim – no friends in politics), and advocate a full ‘jerry can’ in the garage would be a suitable precaution – the world went mad!

Long queues, tankers followed for miles on their way to making deliveries, all sorts of vessels (including jam jars allegedly) filled with petrol by members of the public, garages out of fuel, aggression on the fourcourt, local garages serving regulars only and so on. And for what? No strike yet, and ironically a relaxation of working hours for tanker drivers who are now earning £250 a week extra to put things right; working hours which were put in place for health and safety reasons. It is a complete mess, and has inconvenienced all of us quite unnecessarily. In the meantime politicians of all parties compete with each other for ‘The man of the people’ award, by declaring when and where they last ate a Cornish Pasty! Did it matter? No, but it suddenly did matter once the Prime Minister claimed to have last bought a very large one and enjoyed it immensely, from an establishment shut since 2007. Give me strength.

Gwyn Jones