Twitching ears prove to be a fox rather than a calf!

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More wonderful sunny weather last week gave everyone an extra helping of summer before returning to work and finding ourselves in autumn.

Leaves are dropping off the trees due to the dry spell, but there are real signs of autumn around; Canadian geese helping themselves to any spilt grain in crop stubbles and flying in formation as they start leaving for the winter.

Farmers cultivating in some parts of the country as combining gets to an end, getting ready to plant next year’s crop. Chilly mornings and heavy dews with misty fog as the days shorten, cabbages and broccoli on the compost heap, devoured by caterpillars!

Grass growth is slow and Tillington is burning up as the dry spell continues, which we are otherwise very happy with given all our building activities.

Perfect weather for the crop farmers and I have never seen so much good quality straw baled; the M4 and the A303 are full of lorries taking golden straw down to the west country and Wales. We have a huge stock of straw stored ready to bed our animals this winter and next year, quite a relief after the worries of another year like 2012. As the Anaerobic Digester plant is digesting 15 tonnes of muck every day and that is set to rise next year, we are able to bed our cows in a luxurious manner, and we now muck out the yards every two weeks as the AD’s needs are catered for.

My niece who is here relief milking checked the calving pen one morning last week before milking, only to see a pair of ears twitching in the straw bed. A calf she thought, although none were expected that night, but as she approached the twitching ears rose to his feet and looking aghast at being caught napping, the fox crawled away on his belly thinking he could not be seen.

I visited two large dairy herds in the West Country last week, partly to follow up on a presentation made to the Farm Animal Welfare Council of late, but also to see for myself what the latest dairy units look like and how they operate.

The presentation was made to FAWC by a small number of dairy farmers who run large fully housed herds of dairy cows in modern housing facilities, aiming for incredibly high standards which would put them in the top 5% of dairy farms in this country. They all feel under pressure after the debacle of Nocton Dairies, where planning permission for a new very large fully housed dairy unit was refused. They are keen to repair the damage made to the image of large herds, and in particular fully housed herds.

The objective is to demonstrate how fully housed cows can have better welfare than cows that go out to graze in the summer, and what difference properly designed facilities and high standards of management can achieve.

Given that our dairy unit at Crouchlands is now 30 years old, and that the two farms I was visiting had replaced ‘old’ units of 10 years and 15 years old, I was looking forward to my tour. I set off having polished and disinfected my wellingtons as I knew that bio-security would be very high, and the embarrassment of arriving with less than sparkling wellingtons was to be avoided at all costs. On both units, on arrival the first thing to hand was a tub of disinfectant, just as I expected.

The new buildings are the first things to show a distinct difference over units built as recently as ten years ago. Single span, the height to eaves and the pitch of the roof are both higher and steeper, more akin to a huge hay barn or grain store. Ventilation is so important and particularly when cows are in during the summer when the weather is hot.

On one farm there was a ten year old building, which was very good, multi-span and more traditional in height and roof pitch with a number of very large fans hanging down from the roof blasting air around, which felt really quite good and cool; yet when we walked over to the new buildings which are all single span and set a certain distance apart so that air flow is not interfered with, they were better and smelt fresh, with not a fan in sight.

Having erected the right building the next thing is to construct a housing system which is to the cow’s requirements. All the buildings had cow cubicles, and they were all of the deep bed variety; that is a kerb at the back only, with the whole length filled with a certain type of sand, and then divided by the cubicle sections.

This gives the cows a deep comfortable bed, which is both clean and inert. The beds are topped up with a machine, filling the sand back up as required. The passages between the rows of cubicles and in front of the feed areas were huge, giving the cows plenty of space, and making sure that due to the floor area there was no build-up of muck between milking times and scraping out. Water troughs were mounted, small and hinged so that they were easily emptied and brushed out, which was done every single day.

The cows had grooming brushes, ad lib total mixed ration which had maize, grass and Lucerne silages mixed with the usual goodies, fed twice a day and pushed up six or seven times each day.

The high yielders were allowed to leave 5-10% of their food which was scooped up and weighed, and was the basis of the next mix for the low yielders. This resulted in amazing dry matter intakes of 27kg per cow or more, eaten quite voluntarily and produced in excess of 11,000 litres of milk per cow.

Fanatical attention is paid to feet and all cows are mobility scored every fortnight, trimmed at drying off and at 100 days after calving, and one herd had the best feet and the soundest cows I have ever seen in any herd; anywhere. Both herds were milked three times a day for cow comfort, and were run by highly qualified and dedicated staff, which is not easy when you need so many to look after herds of over a thousand cows to this high standard.

I was on my mountain bike around the farm last Monday, parked and on the phone at the bottom of our drive when I heard a whooshing sound. Moments later a cyclist appeared with an aerodynamic helmet, faired in wheels and in aerodynamic unstable position; pedalling hard. A few moments later another one appeared, then another and another, all with numbers on their backsides. I have often wondered how fast the guys are travelling, it certainly looks impressive, and I thought I would give them a run for their money!

My heavy, fat tyred, cow-muck spattered mountain bike would be no match for their machines, but they were going for miles where as I was going to go for it for about 300 yards. I set off in top gear and as one passed I gave it absolutely everything and managed to keep very close behind, but could do no more (my aim was to pass and shout good morning); as I came back slowly having discovered that I had done something to my left knee my neighbour shouted out ‘I could see he was holding you up’. My knee still aches.