I’ve always believed that farmers like me are forward-thinking, optimistic types. And despite the short, dark days and cold weather, January is a time to consider the year ahead; to predict and prepare. So while others are making New Year’s resolutions about smoking, drinking or losing weight, I’m making crucial decisions that will determine the future welfare of my livestock and the health of my business.
Everyone pictures the farmer in wellies and waterproofs, but these days you’re just as likely to see him or her with a laptop and a calculator. January is the beginning of the financial year on my farm, when I sit down with my business partner, Duncan, to go through the books, crunch the numbers and discover how much we’ve made or lost. Frankly, I’m useless with money, so it’s just as well that I can rely on someone with such a good head for figures.
Of course, we’re still in the middle of the winter and, if it’s anything like last year, it will be hard work with all the snow on the ground. There were some horrible stories of sheds collapsing on top of sheep and dead deer lying in Scottish glens, and on the farm we had a pretty hard time last winter. This time I want some nice cold, dry weather to kill any animal viruses going around. But I’m hoping that the weather isn’t so harsh that the water freezes for months on end and the ground here on the Cotswolds becomes rock hard.
I’d like the winter to be kind to us because hay and silage are expensive this year and I certainly don’t want to be going out and buying fresh stocks. I’d prefer to have too much and sell the surplus. Like I said, I’m an optimist. I’ve heard stories about the first cut of silage back in May and June, when a lot of dairy farmers were already starting to feed winter rations because the drought meant there was no grass for the animals to eat. But the warm autumn saw some people cutting silage in September and early October. I think most caught up and eventually they had enough stocks in to get through the winter.
Some herdsmen tried to leave their cows out long after summer has ended, because we now have reasonably warm autumns with plenty of grass underfoot. That way they can make the winter rations last. Every day that the herds are out eating grass off the field, the less silage they’re using. The last thing you want to do is get to the middle of March when the weather is still bad and run out of fodder.
Most of my cows are still in the sheds; we’re bedding them down twice a week and feeding them every day at the moment. All the animals are checked for signs of illness on a daily basis, particularly symptoms of pneumonia. The condition is feared by all beef and dairy farmers and we’re on the lookout for the dreaded combination of coughing, watery eyes, stiff movements and a lack of appetite. Prevention is the best way to avoid losing valuable calves or paying for costly treatment.
Some farmers vaccinate against pneumonia but I put my trust in good ventilation and air circulation from my open sheds. The design of animal housing is crucial to stop any bugs or diseases building up, because whenever animals are in close proximity, there’s always the risk of disease. The early months of the year can also see an increase in bovine TB. We’re encouraged to keep wildlife out of our sheds and to fence off silage or maize pits so the badgers can’t get to them. With thousands of pounds at stake, we take biosecurity and animal care very seriously.
Looking to the future
Meanwhile, I’m keeping an eye on the ewes and thinking ahead to the spring because we start lambing in the middle of March. That means bringing the ewes in towards the end of January to ensure they’re fit and healthy for motherhood. In the same way that pregnant women are scanned, we use an ultrasound device on our ewes. The picture on the monitor might resemble a fuzzy blur, but a trained eye can spot anything untoward. We do this halfway through their pregnancy to see how many lambs they’re carrying.
Ewes with twins or triplets get more grub than the ewes carrying singles, so that the lambs are born the correct size and the ewes stay in good condition. A little bit of inconvenience at the start of the year means I know what sort of a lambing season I can expect a couple of months later. In this job it always pays to be ahead of the game.