BY JIM WEBSTER
When you work your way down the list of jobs you have to do on a busy dairy farm, you’ll notice that one that somehow has to get fitted in is ‘looking dairy heifers.’ As soon as there is grass and the heifers are old enough, I always tried to get them outside onto it. I could still give them some supplementary feed but I always felt they did so much better outside, and also were far less work. Checking to see how they are is a job that I have always enjoyed, if only because it gave you an excuse to go for a walk with the dog in the countryside.
Also, I always felt that it was an important job. The dairy heifers are going to grow up to be the ladies who make up your milking herd. So it’s important that they know you and are comfortable with you wandering about. In their eyes, you ought to be ‘the nice guy.’ So appearing every morning with some supplementary feed is probably a good start down this road.
Given that dairy heifers are almost inevitably bucket reared as calves, they start off thinking that people are potentially a ‘good thing.’ You bring them their meals, how can they not approve of you?
Obviously, from their point of view, you blot your copybook by being the one who gives them any vaccinations, worms them and suchlike. But ideally we can keep it constructive by being the one who also appears with feed.
The idea is that by the time they join the dairy herd, they regard you in a positive manner and are pretty relaxed about it all when they go through the milking parlour for the first time. So I never felt time spent with them was wasted. Yes there were times I was really needed elsewhere but still.
As they grow older heifers will go through stages. When very young they can sometimes just run for the sheer joy of running. We once turned some young heifers out onto grass for the first time and one of them just ran across the field, turned round and hurtled back at speed. At some point in her mad career she realised she has heading for a very tall hedge. This did not deter her. In fact she accelerated and then leapt.
Between ourselves I feel she was more than a little optimistic. The hedge at this point was a core of sycamore but heavily infested with brambles. So I want you to visualise her hurtling herself at a nine foot high mat of brambles. Now she’s wearing a good leather jacket, brambles aren’t too much of a problem per se. It’s just the height. Having watched them moving I have no doubt a deer could have taken it. But for a small heifer who doesn’t stand waist height I fear it was a step to far. Still she tried. She hit the hedge about six feet up.
Biology had done its part, physics now took over. We are in the world of conservation of momentum. Her momentum was transferred, as you would expect, to the hedge. Now the bottom of the hedge is pretty solidly grounded. It isn’t going to move. But the top stands proud and free and under her impact the hedge (or vertical mat of brambles) swayed. It went over so far that at one point I thought it was going to tip her off into the next field before it swayed back. It teetered, but didn’t quite. Then it swayed back and dumped the heifer somewhat unceremoniously on the ground, back in the field she started from. She stood up, shook herself a bit, looked round to see if anybody was laughing at her, and wandered off at a more sedate speed to see if this green stuff she was surrounded by was worth a nibble.
As they grow older they become a little more sedate. But just as you’ll find small children go through a stage where they love being ‘scared’ and run about screaming excitedly, dairy heifers can also pass through this stage.
When I feed one batch, they’ll often cluster around my dog Sal rather than following me with the bucket. To a certain extent, this is Sal’s fault. She is in the habit of wandering through the calf pens to see if there’s anything worth eating. So many a young calf’s first exposure to creatures other than Mum, is Sal wandering through to see if there’s any afterbirth lying about. As they get older she quite likes the flavour of the feed they get and she’ll often help herself to stuff they’ve dropped. So they’re used to seeing her and she’s used to being sniffed by them.
So I’ll walk into the field, the heifers will ignore me and cluster round Sal, and I’ll stand there with their feed wondering at what point they’ll notice me. So I whistle Sal who trots out from in the middle of the group. And at this point the heifers will all be excitedly scared, run away in different directions, sometimes bucking and kicking until they remember that I’ve got the bucket. Then, worried that one of the others will get there first and snaffle the lot, they all run towards me, sometimes close to treading Sal underfoot in their haste to be first.
There again, every so often Sal will intervene. This morning I was putting the feed out for them and one ignored it and walked across to sniff Sal. Sal turned and cut across it and made as if to snap her teeth at it. The heifer then jumped four feet sideways in mock alarm but before it could do anything even more exciting realised its nose was six inches from the feed I’d just put down. It immediately set lesser matters from mind and started eating.
I left them to it, but as I left I held the empty bucket in front of me. That was to ensure that they couldn’t see it. Because with heifers, if they cannot see it, it isn’t there. If you walk away holding the bucket so that they can see it, every so often one has the bright idea that there could be more feed left in the bucket. So that one will chase after you to get the extra feed it assumes you’re hiding. If you’re unlucky at this point the others, up until then happily eating, will set off after their colleague, assuming it knows something they don’t. So it’s easier just to make sure they cannot see the bucket.
I don’t know about you but I’ve met people like that as well.
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.