t doesn’t seem that long ago I took this very same pen to this very same A4 pad to write for Dairy Farmer. It’s actually about two months. I know that because, although I’ve written in between then and now, like then I was waiting the results of a TB test. Our next test is next week.
At the last test 14 cattle went. At the forefront of all our minds is how will the next test go? Will we lose another 14? Will it be 28? Will it be more? Until it happens to you, you have no idea how unsettling it all can be. The financial implications are endless. Just when milk prices are starting to improve you find yourself short of cows.
You get money for the reactors but it doesn’t come to much. It’s more like compulsory purchase than compensation. Besides, we are so short of income the money for the reactors paid the rent, well nearly. We’ve only bought one animal, a bull, onto the farm in the last eight years so we were very near to being a closed herd. If we have to buy cows, that status will go.
What people told us, before milk quotas finished, was that we should expect volatility with on-farm milk prices. Volatility is a cycle of highs and lows. Well most of us now know what the lows feel like, and they have cost us dearly. If I had a wish list for what I would like to change on this farm, it would be to put up better cow housing for the winter.
The extra money I have had to borrow to see us through these ‘lows’ would have done that. What have I got to show for that extra money? Just a bigger overdraft. Water mussels We are in a catchment area where they are trying to improve water quality to save fresh water mussels.
I fully support what they are trying to do and they will give grants to try to help. They have presented an action plan for this farm. But as I told them, I just don’t have the money to put alongside theirs. So the effect of the lows on our finances have sent us reeling.
Where are the highs that are going to put us back on our feet? I’ve got a very nasty feeling that, like Lord Lucan, they are not going to turn up. They have already turned up beyond the farm gate – just look at the price of cream – but for most of us, we are only seeing a modest price increase.
If some processors manage to drag out our price improvements for as long as they can (which is what they are doing), it will be spring and there will be more milk about and they will be in a more comfortable position. They won’t say so but they will wait to see what autumn brings.
The people who warned us about volatility are now telling us how to cope with it. Cut costs, they say. Anybody heard that before? What about stopping producing milk altogether, is that the best option? Six months ago no one wanted extra milk. We’ve just had a recruitment letter from a processor.
There’s volatility for you! Crumbs of comfort In these difficult times it is inevitable you look for crumbs of comfort wherever you can find them. We keep our slurry in a lagoon, we take some out all the year round but we try to empty most of it in the autumn. We usually bring in contractors to help out but that has its problems.
They tend to be busy at that time of year ploughing and sowing, and if they are not doing that, they tend to put their tractors into a big potato harvesting gang. So we decided to do it ourselves and to do that we bought a new, bigger vacuum tanker. We didn’t buy it really, it belongs to an HP company, but they let us use it.
It was a big decision for us, as it seems to be, and probably is, years since we bought anything. But that had its issues, we did the deal just as the pound was diving south. The tanker was Irish, so that was an issue and it eventually took two months for the new tanker to arrive.
In the meantime we took advantage of the dry weather and continued to use our old one. One day, last load of the day, just getting dark, and we go one-and-a-half miles on roads, pull 10 yards into a field and a wheel comes off.
The studs have sheared. It’s quite easy to think that this is a nuisance, but is it? If the wheel had come off 30 seconds sooner, what would we have? We would have a tanker on a busy B road in the dark with no lights on it.
The local agents would have all gone home so we couldn’t mend it. It would be full of slurry and the valve at the back is not of the best. It would have been a police job and it would have been an environment agency job.
And it would have been expensive job. Considering all those possibilities and, relatively speaking, it was a very good outcome. But what sort of dire life do we lead when a wheel coming off in a field rather than on the road is seen as some sort of lucky bonus?