March 2019 was a period not to be repeated since it contained our sixth TB test within the last year with all reactors and inconclusives proving negative; even when APHA decided to take samples through to culture testing. A failure on a skin test in the new year, decided by as little as 1ml, finally brought us to the conclusion that it simply was no longer worth ‘kicking against the pricks’ and was time to get rid of the milking herd.
Then came the actual operation of getting out, (just as long winded as getting free of the EU and their unelected/unelectable bureaucrats) because of the ever changing inconsistent rules from APHA who appeared determined to make our exit from over a century of dairy farming just as hard as leaving the European Federation.
So after three months of trying we arrived at this sixth test on 12 April with the future of our old, but now reduced herd of 100 British Friesians dependent on little better than a ‘lottery’.
Over the past eight weeks we had investigated all the options available. With the aid of Roger Waters at South East Marts, Hailsham, we first covered for Plan A. Finding a buyer for our chosen route of moving the herd together. In quite short time Roger found a young man who was in the process of installing a modern set up around a new Fullwood robot who wanted to purchase a complete closed herd of British Friesian cows. This seemed ideal because over 50% of our animals, those over two lactations, had already spent their earlier lives being milked through similar robots and we were sure it would be a pretty quick re education for them to readjust.
Terms were agreed and a deal was done, subject of course to the herd passing this lottery of another test. In the meantime we were running the herd with an expensive agency-supplied relief herdsman while slowly whittling down the older cows; some barreners, some not suitable for the buyer, the odd ¾ cow or with udder too low for robots. This task was completed the week before the test date, in an effort to reduce our chance of yet another ‘phantom failure’.
Our sale agreement with the buyer even included, instead of ‘Luck Money’ (something with which I have never become involved) agreeing to Emma travelling along to settle the girls in and help them through the new robotic setup. It wasn’t so much allowing her to go, such was her concern, after her experiences with our own first days with robots nine years ago, as stopping her going!
This settled, we then had to prepare Plan B. To cater for yet another potential ‘phantom’ failure. The only way we could achieve this being to find farmers in the south, in the same, Deathra imposed situation as we have been ‘hobbled’ with this past year, the herd, still being classed as TB2. Meaning they could only be sold under APHA licence to a similarly classified herd or herds. This could only be to farmers closed down but desperate to maintain herd numbers until they went clear. The very same situation we have recently given up on.
All this was made even more difficult because after a test, a herd only has 30 days to be moved on, without again having to be skin tested, while all this time they need milking. It is at this stage that we had to consider the almost unthinkable, of sending these lovely traditional bloodlines, and highly sought after British Friesian cows, off to the abattoir. Unimaginable, but the only realistic option left to us by apha in the event of failing to meet the conditions of Plan A or Plan B. So this was the dilemma we faced as we waited on 12 April.
All ready then to go, the vet arrives at 8am, youngstock on the Home Farm first, quite laborious due to the number of calves we have accumulated in the past 14 months.
The older steers came though first, some with quite pronounced lumps but all actually sailed through. Then a bunch of 24 strong Friesian bulling heifers, also clear.
Then another 60 younger calves, Angus cross and pure Friesian, which also went clear. Then Emma, Wally and Sarah, the Vet, moved on to the dairy unit, while I found alternative work! Silence then, for another three hours until, with huge trepidation I answered a call from Emma: “Nick…They have all passed, no real scares,” I cannot tell you the relief. We had all been dreading the thought of sending these fit and healthy cows to slaughter, but in reality there was no quick or viable alternative to bring the whole saga to an end. And it was ultimately my decision. So suddenly a cloud had lifted, we were again able to see a future which, some six hours before had seemed a distant dream.
The previous day we had been asked to appear on BBC South news to explain our situation. As anyone who has done this before will know, you actually get the chance to tell the interviewer your story, then film; to then see only about ten words broadcast! That’s pretty much what happened.
Then the following morning I was asked to speak on BBC local news, again very briefly but was able to express my strong feelings concerning Deathra and apha over their almost useless, antiquated skin test, and general inconsistency. If they are trying to get on top of TB it’s a damn funny way to be doing it.