We’ve tried many ‘snake-oils’

Weatherwise and in football terms last week was a week of two halves; hard frost and sunny days until Thursday, and then a deluge of rain which flooded roads, land, and just about everywhere one looked. It is difficult to believe that an incredibly wet summer can be followed by a wet autumn and now a wet winter; where is all this rain coming from? The rainfall levels by the end of the year will tell the story, and I should imagine that 2012will have been the wettest year for a very long time indeed.

There is still maize standing in fields up and down the country which is likely to remain there for the time being following this rain much to the disappointment of those farmers who saw the frost last week as a chance of harvesting.

I drove through France and Belgium last week and there are many fields of maize not harvested, and where harvest has taken place, the water between the rows of stubble makes them look like paddy fields from a distance. There is no doubt that this weather has badly affected all farmers across most of Europe, and indeed many other parts of the world; this is reflected in shortages and high prices. The worry is that next year is badly compromised in the UK (and elsewhere) due to lack of planting, poor crop establishment, slugs, terrible ground and soil conditions.

At Tillington we are still grazing heifers which are running with the Aberdeen Angus bull, and quite frankly up to now they are looking almost too well, as the grass continues to grow and they have little to do other than maintain condition. They much preferred the first half of last week, not minding the frost as they waited to graze and relax in the bright sunshine; whereas the green soup and wet backs did not go down so well at the weekend.

Even lambs which are winter grazing at Crouchlands are really struggling; ground conditions on Friday and Saturday were truly awful, and again given the choice, they would also vote for the frosty first half of last week.

l We had a bit of a crisis on Wednesday night, when the ‘Keenan’ machine which we use to feed the cows broke down. Luckily it was at the end of the very last load of the day, and during the week which is unusual (problems have a habit of developing at the weekend). It was a very serious problem which could not be fixed without a new part, as the flange at the end of the feed auger had snapped in half; a chunky piece of metal weighing around 25kg. It took until 10pm to establish where another part could be found, and a dealer in Nottingham set off at 4am on Thursday morning calling at Stoneleigh to pick up other parts which may have also been damaged. Our own agent who looks after the machine arrived at 9am and started to strip the machine down so that when the parts arrived at 9.30am, between them they had it all done and repaired by 1pm. Cows were fed and all was back to normal, whilst I mulled over the wisdom of buying a machine which has outstanding backup, the most important thing to me.

l It has been a trying year for mastitis and cell count (the method used to assess quality of milk and arguably a link to mastitis level in the herd) and our herd has not been immune. Indeed we have had a seriously challenging run for over a year as far as cell count is concerned, and it got worse during the summer which is not what one would expect. Weather has a bearing of course, so has quality of bedding straw, cleanliness of the cows, preparation at milking time both before attaching the cluster and post milking. We have in fact been tearing our hair out about it and worried that it was a consequence of keeping our milking cows on straw yards. There is no shortage of ‘products’ on the market which will assist in solving one’s cell count problem and mastitis. Over the years we have tried many of the various ‘snake-oils’ on offer, with little success.

This year we increased the preparation in the parlour before attachment, which lowered the already satisfactory total bacterial count (used to assess cleanliness of operation), but did nothing for cell count.

We changed the teat-dip used to disinfect the teats after milking, and we changed the washing and wiping routine before attachment to no avail. I then rang the UK’s leading expert in this field and an appointment was made for a farm visit. Unfortunately he had to cancel the visit, and re-arrange 6 weeks later, by which time the problem was solved! We don’t know why, and he tells me that this is quite normal, as there is often no reason to be found.

It could have been the poor quality straw and very wet summer; we even bedded on hay a few times which is no good at all, but was the only bedding available at the time.

The grazing conditions were poor with muddy tracks and gateways, and yarding the cows did coincide with the improvement, but then so did the new season straw for bedding, and Gwenan spotting that the ‘ACR’s’ (automatic cluster removers) were slow in coming off. We have since carried out further improvements in the parlour as spotted by the expert, but the cell count was down by then. I can only hope that they now stay at this historical low level.

l Defra figures show that bovine tuberculosis cases have risen for the third successive year across the country. From January to August this year, 23,477 cattle were slaughtered, there were 3,353 new herd incidents and a total of 7,286 herds were placed under movement restriction.

Since January 2010, we have killed 91,288 cattle and the total cost of this disease to the taxpayer was £91 million last year, with the prediction that this will rise to over £1 billion in the next decade.

As austerity bites hard, and the Chancellor offers no comfort whatsoever; indeed he is admitting that this will last for many years, and experts predict that it will then get worse; how can such costs be tolerated?

The costs to farmers are immense, and they are pinning their hopes on some action to begin the long process of addressing this problem in England next year. Meanwhile the Welsh Government are tackling this problem by vaccinating badgers at a cost, which I am reliably informed of £600 per badger; so far it has cost £1m and they have not scratched the surface.

Gwyn Jones