A dog is a man’s best friend, but a dairy herd is a man’s livelihood


Ian Bell, FOLK2FOLK’s Head of Farming & Rural Engagement, considers the coming winter

“Otto is missing!”  We arrived home after less than twenty-hours away to find our dog-sitter had ‘mislaid’ my wife’s springer spaniel.  Three hours of panic ensued until a red-faced lady appeared at the front door with said canine on a lead, explaining she had not realised Otto had joined her walk!  An hour later I am in trouble, again, for not charging the battery on the electric fencer that keeps our five chickens safe from Mr Renard, who sits in the field every morning licking his chops.  Living in a household with horses, dogs and chickens I am in no doubt whatsoever where I come in the hierarchy.

Man’s strong relationship with domesticated animals reaches back to biblical times and, like me, you will no doubt know people who look after their animals better than themselves.  As we see the close of our glorious summer I ask you to give a thought for our livestock farmers.  The intense heat has parched the ground, regrowth for further cuts of silage is insignificant and we are already eating next winter’s feed stocks.  I was always told that you should still have half of your winter supplies of hay, silage and straw left at the end of February – not October!

For people of my age comparisons with 1976 will resonate.

For people of my age comparisons with 1976 will resonate.  In June of that year I moved to a farm in Lincolnshire to gain experience of growing peas, sugar beet, potatoes and swedes, arriving mid-month to get a grasp of the setup before we started pea vining.  Within four hours I was running the night-shift of four Mather and Platt pea viners, we had finished the cereal harvest by the end of July and ran out of water to irrigate potatoes.  Not dissimilar to 2018.

There is however one fundamental difference over forty-two years.  In 1976 we had ‘mixed’ farming where any single farm would have a mixture of arable and livestock enterprises.  They complimented each other; the cereals would provide feed and straw for livestock, manure from the livestock fertilized the potato ground, feeding the cattle in the winter used the surplus labour from the tractor driver, and so on.

Forty-two years of constant pressure on farm-gate prices by supermarkets and processors has forced specialization and intensification.  At the turn of the last century two dairy farmers ceased milk production daily, but the cows did not disappear.  They migrated to larger units and we started to see the 500, 800 or even 1000 plus herd, constantly attempting to gain the benefits of scale.  With straw at £200 per acre and standing maize crops up to £1,000 an acre the pressures are real; and getting through the winter of 2018-2019 is going to be an extreme challenge.

Ian Bell OBE
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