Cows in line for ‘smart’ collars

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The days are lengthening rapidly now, and I see many dairy cows out in the area; which is early for Sussex, but if the grass is there, a nice early start to the grazing season.

Our grass has changed colour and looks promising, but there is little growth and no feed as yet. Spare a thought for the Australians! After a ten year drought (in some areas), they have had a terribly wet summer. Frank Tyndall tells me that they had 5 inches in a week south of Melbourne, which has affected performance a bit, and made life, quite difficult.

Many cows wear collars (our calves do to activate the robotic feeder), and it is envisaged that with a new ‘smart collar’ under development, alerts to mobile phones could be set-up, the cow sending the farmer a text message when she is in distress, entering labour, or coming into heat. There are ankle e.bracelets in use now for heat detection, measuring activity, which of course increases as the cow comes on heat. This collar would take things a bit further, and if reliable might put an end to the unpopular ‘night-check’, when someone checks the cows late at night just to make sure they are OK. Mind you, cows do have a sense of humour, and they sleep less at night than we do; I can just imagine the phone bleeping constantly at night being even worse than the late night check.

Oxfam director of policy Phil Bloomer speaking at the Soil Association’s annual conference in London, suggested that they should be more open to GM technology. He stated that there were many techniques which are going to be necessary in our quest to feed the world. He asked ‘Why is it a problem for the organic movement to use marker genes to move high resource efficiency, or high soil nutrient use efficiency from one wheat variety to another in one year, rather than the 15 years it currently takes? It’s only about moving those genes in the way we have always done, but doing it in a faster way’.

The problem is that the Soil Association has demonized GM technology to such an extent, that even though they are not against techniques such as marker-assisted breeding, they can’t now back down. This is a crazy position for them to find themselves in, as their embattled Chief Executive Helen Browning admits that the organic sector need to build bridges with conventional farming and scientists; you do not help your cause by referring in the media to ‘industrial farming’ when it suits. Helen Browning is now struggling with critics who portray the Soil Association as ‘Luddites’.

This is most unfortunate and silly, when the organic sector, a valuable niche market, is already under enough pressure as sales fall in this difficult economic climate. Those who can afford organic food will continue to buy it, but denigrating conventional farming is not the way to increase your market. It might work when people feel wealthy, and will try new things, but not now; not in this climate. When Oxfam gives them such a strong message, the Soil Association should sit up and listen – they might learn something.

I see that dentists are warning that the government advice to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day is causing damage to the nation’s teeth. The health conscious, snacking on fruit between meals and giving smoothies and juices to their children, may be undoing some of the nutritional benefit of such a regime, by subjecting teeth to a high level of acid. There has always been the age old argument between a doctor who suggests an apple a day, where as the dentist, focusing on teeth to the exclusion of everything else, advocates a bag of crisps as being better for teeth!

Well, I have the answer, and I am backed by non other than Kathy Harley, the dean of dental faculty at the Royal College of Surgeons, who is calling for a ban on fruit juice in schools, and wants milk or water offered instead. Well there is no nutritional benefit in water, so milk it has to be. Funny that, we used to have milk in schools, until those who see themselves as part of some crusade to change the world (usually for the worse) get involved and frighten politicians (not difficult) to change things.

Talking of politicians, things are beginning to get tough out there in the real world now. Whilst MPs amuse themselves wrecking furniture and brawling in the Commons bar, I see that cash-strapped motorists are not maintaining cars properly, which is borne out by government statistics. 40% of cars failed their MOT test last year, and in many cases it was as a result of a small problem not being corrected cheaply earlier on in the year. It’s not difficult to understand why maintenance is being overlooked, when fuel and insurance, and tyres are so expensive, and the squeeze on many family budgets.

The government of course does its best to confuse motorists too, when it comes to the economics of driving. In Europe almost all cars are diesel powered because although they cost more to buy and service, they do more miles to the gallon and diesel costs less.

In the UK, this green government have also been encouraging people to use less fuel, but the switch to diesel powered cars has not been as popular as in Europe, as our diesel costs more, and is increasingly costing more as time and taxes go on.

Just at the time where a die-hard petrol head like me starts seriously thinking about a diesel, due to staggering advances by the car industry, and ‘Top-Gear’ magazine programme advocates a diesel 5 series BMW rather than the new BMW M5, it’s getting serious, but not as serious as the confusion caused by government. It now takes as long as ten years to repay the extra cost of buying a diesel car, and if you drive less than the annual average 12,000 miles, you may never recoup the difference.

The cost of producing a diesel engine has always been higher, and recent emission regulation has driven the cost difference even higher. Nevertheless the number of diesel cars sold in the UK exceeded petrol cars for the first time in 2010, and that increase together with the demand for diesel in Europe has now highlighted another problem.

Refinery capacity has now reached its capacity, and the demand for diesel is driving the price higher, as re-aligning refinery capacity can only be done by re-building some refinery infrastructure as the ratio of diesel/petrol is currently fixed.

Farm Diary - Gwyn Jones