BY JIM WEBSTER
I have been musing recently on the impact of arbitrary government diktats. Admittedly they have been part of my life as a farmer for longer than I care to remember. Agriculture has always been a field where Westminster felt it unwise to rely upon the ignorant and unlettered peasantry and preferred to organise things themselves. From a safe distance. And during office hours.
But if we scroll back through the years, back on 2nd April 1984 the government (at EEC behest) introduced milk quotas. This is the equivalent of the government telling you that instead of working 35 hours a week, you could now only work 28 hours, but at the same hourly rate. The expedients that you have to resort to so that you can keep paying your mortgage are your problem, not theirs.
So we had to do something, and we tried various things. One was to expand the ‘suckler cow’ enterprise. That sounds grander than it has any right to. Basically if you have sixty milk cows, you need to calve at least a dozen heifers a year to replace those cows who come to the end of their working life (whether through age, health, mental instability or low yields). So in simple terms you need to serve thirty cows with a dairy bull (assuming 50% bull calves, 50% heifers) and the other thirty cows would be served by a beef bull (because you get a superior animal to go into the food chain at some point down the line.)
Now by definition, of the thirty beef calves you get, half will be female. So what I took to doing was to keep at home the nicest beef heifers. They’d be those out of the biggest, most thickset cows, because they had the highest beef potential which they would hopefully pass on to their daughters. They in turn would hopefully pass it on to their offspring.
As an aside I remember one old farmer telling be that you could tell the quality of a beef animal. “If it’s got a backside like your mother and shoulders like your father, it’s a good one.”
My thinking about keeping these five or six beef heifers was simple. I was rearing up to fifteen dairy heifers anyway, an extra half dozen was not going to add significantly to my workload or cash flow. Then when they calved (I was sort of supervising somewhere around seventy calvings a year so an extra half dozen didn’t make much odds), they’d keep the calf, suckle it, and I would then sell them with calf at foot. The cunning bit is to calve them in February/March, so that in April/May when the grass started growing, they were at the perfect stage for sale. The calf would look well, and mother would be fully recovered from calving and would be ready to join a suckler herd and be introduced to their bull.
Anyway, this we did for a lot of years. It worked well for us. Some people asked me why we didn’t keep bull calves and sell them fat. My response was that the heifer left me a better margin. Not only would they often sell at a higher price than the bullock, they cost less to rear, as they ate far more grass and far less concentrate. Indeed in the last nine months of their lives I had to be very careful with their nutrition. Their father’s beef-breed genetics had a tendency to take over and they could end up putting too much weight on. Given that I wanted them to calve without too much trouble, the last thing I wanted was them carry too much extra flesh. Calving a cow has been described as ‘trying to pass a jelly-baby through the hole in a polo mint without damaging either the jelly-baby, or the mint. So as you can imagine, anything that led to a deposition of fat on the inside of the polo mint was distinctly contra-indicated.
The other advantage of selling them through the mart in May was that not only was it the prime time for purchasers buying them, but from a dairy farmer’s point of view, it can be a bad month for cash flow. The milk price is often lower, and you’re still paying winter feed bills as well as paying for fertiliser, contractor costs for silaging and similar. I came to regard selling my batch of heifers as getting a thirteenth milk cheque.
From the point of view of the purchasers, what were the advantages for them? Well for one thing, our heifers were domesticated. As calves they had been bucket reared, so they started life regarding people in a positive light. Then being reared with dairy heifers means that they were used to daily human contact. We used to let our dairy heifers run with the milk cows in the month or so before they calved. This meant they were used to going through the parlour and getting and handful of feed. So when they calved and were perhaps feeling a bit fragile, the milking parlour was actually a familiar and friendly place where food happened. Our beef heifers got the same treatment. I remember one chap telling me his children used to play with the heifer he bought from me, she was so friendly.
We kept this up for quite a lot of years. Then in early March 1996, my father wasn’t well and I was swamped with work. So when somebody asked me about beef heifers because he was thinking of building a suckler herd, I just sold him all nine. None of them had calved at the time but because they were all in calf to an easy calving bull that didn’t bother him. (From memory I got £960 each for them).
A fortnight later we had Stephen Dorrell’s announcement about BSE, the price collapsed totally and if I’d tried to sell them that May with calf at foot, I might have averaged £300 a piece (if I’d even found a bidder.) Every so often you get the timing right by accident.
Then in 2001 we had the Foot and Mouth epidemic and another nightmare. (People wonder why I’m so blasé about coronavirus. Sorry but I’ve known more people who committed suicide during the BSE and FMD outbreaks than I’ve known die of Corvid 19.) In crude terms, on average, every five years the government tries to make me bankrupt and homeless. When I hear people talk about the government being responsible for looking after its citizens I am afraid my comment tends to be, ‘You must be new here.’
Still, in 2002 I met a chap at the mart and we were talking. He mentioned that he’d bought one of our heifers. She’d have been born sometime in 1985/86 and he’d been impressed when he’d seen her in the auction mart. Indeed he’d bid rather more than he’d intended, and I think his father had muttered a bit when he’d got her home. In 2002 she had just had her latest calf. All these years she’d run happily as one of his herd, had a calf every year and had matured into the matriarch who came to get her head scratched when he went to look at them every morning.
I thought about her the other day. It strikes me that she had the right idea. Keep your head down, get on with your job, and ignore the shrieking of the political pygmies and pundits. Because next time you bother to look round, they will have been swept away by the passage of time, only to be replaced by another lot, equally vocal, equally strident, and equally ephemeral.
Jim Webster farms at the bottom end of South Cumbria. Jim was encouraged to collect together into a book some blog posts he’d written because of their insight into Cumbrian farming and rural life (rain, sheep, quad-bikes and dogs) It’s available here.