With March under way and the days lengthening I imagine many grass farmers are, like me, doubtless getting itchy feet regards starting spring work.
A couple of fine drying days and it’s very tempting to try. Just to hear the chain harrows rattling across the meadows brings a huge rush of anticipation, thoughts of spring grass and the cows out again on the meadows. Spreading fertiliser, too.
Yet these might be two of the tasks we will need to cut back on as the returns on milk sink inexorably lower and dairy related costs simply have to be slashed. Chain harrowing and the heavy roller have always been part of getting our grassland prepared, sprucing up the countryside so it at least looks smart for the start of the season.
Hedges trimmed and the striped runs of the harrows / roller neatly show the pride so many take in doing this therapeutic job before the start of the growing and grazing season make it all look a bit careworn again. Are all those hours wasted? Not really. Many might question whether it is worth the effort. But I’m certain, after all the years I have been involved, it usually is mainly because there is no doubt grass quality and productivity is improved. But can it be afforded?
This year, following two expensive harvests in 2014/15, mainly due to the drop of more than 100% in grain prices we have forsaken cereals and opted for a deal with a potato grower. Everything else is down to grass and maize. The potatoes are a bonus because their growing area is guaranteed not to lose money for the summer, whereas the maize is grown as a dual purpose crop, only losing money when it’s turned into milk! What is needed to fill the silage clamp goes there, while the remainder will probably go into one of the local anaerobic digester plants. While it discomforts me to be growing feed crops for non agricultural purposes it does at least bring the farm a positive return. Well, anything must be better than grain and milk at the present time, although one hopes both will eventually improve.
Although it’s no consolation, I believe we have not been alone with milk quality problems after a long, mild, wet winter. The difficult period in housing is from early November up until late January, with high humidity and too many mastitis related problems and raised cell counts. This has been exacerbated by inevitably falling milk yields as our many stale, early spring calving cows were dried off.
I have wondered in recent times if we should move over to all year round calving but have always believed it leads to lazy practices – although these days it fits in with today’s buyers’ demands for milk at no cost. When you have to calve in tight windows there is more urgency about it than if they go another 21 day cycle: so what! However a level production profile would ease this infuriating period when almost whatever you do, you are still afraid to look at the quality results from the milk laboratory. It’s similar to looking at the bank statement.
I suppose the present economic situation does encourage lateral thinking, which alone has to be good. Mind you we have been increasingly doing that since the old Milk Marketing Board went and apart from an 18 month spell in 2014/15, it hasn’t improved the bottom line much.
We have not seen them since last June but reports received say the growth of the young trees in Argyll has continued apace. This despite a couple of adjoining graziers believing the grass among the trees was left there just for their sheep and cattle. Finally their animals were rounded up, removed and fenced out, by jointly funded repairs to the March fences. It seems a bit iniquitous that while their stock damage the fences – and our trees don’t (often) – the damage they cause is, under Scottish law a joint financial responsibility. However the fence contractors up on those hills do a superb job, in often almost impossible conditions, so we should get a few years peace from intrusion.
Slowly the intentions of the Environment Agency/RSPB are becoming clearer as papers circulating spell out their vision for the future neglect of waterways.
Quite clearly some miles of the badly neglected River Arun, south of Pulborough, its banks, sluices and other assets, are going to be either handed to owners and tenants to repair at their own cost or, if they choose, left to deteriorate. There seems no recognition of the need to dredge the river. They are saying if landowners wish to attempt maintenance they may. Subject of course to consent from the various authorities. The alternative, which if one reads their plans correctly, means the EA/RSPB is very content for the whole area – from Littlehampton backing up through Arundel to the Rother above Pulborough – to flood, so gradually turning it into a tidal marsh, as it was some 700 years ago, for much of the year. If you doubt this just cast an eye across the RSPB site at Wigginholt to see the future. Neglect rules!
And this appears to be the sum of the government’s forward planning – land to be increasingly rolled out across the whole country. It is quite frightening that so called intelligent people can reach decisions like this. And be paid to do so: I could name you some locals far better qualified in the university of life who would guide and so rejuvenate the drainage system for nothing. But, as is the norm these days, those who pull the strings don’t recognise anyone without paper qualifications. There is so much experience being overlooked, or wasted, on so many local rural issues. Drainage is a classic example.