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Roger Evans: Our herd should be knocking out a tune

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I am not sure when this reaches you as it was written a bit early.


All to do with printer’s Christmas schedules and the like. Just so you know where we are, it is the last days of November. Winter feed bills have started to arrive and their impact on cash flow is a clear indicator of just how precarious milk production is at the moment.


There’s a percentage of dairy farmers, about 10-20%, which are on retaileraligned contracts and are ok. But for the rest of us, the majority, the situation is one of various degrees of dire. There is a clear comparison here – what is happening to the dairy industry bears a real similarity to what has happened to the steel industry.


External, global prices have put both industries in serious jeopardy. People will lose their livelihoods. Dairy farmers and steel workers are at a loss to understand how two such basic industries, those of milk production and steel manufacture, are put in such a bad place.


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I know phrases such as ‘you can’t buck the market’ are relevant, but for two such basic, important, industries, it is a short term outlook and there is a real chance these industries will suffer long term damage. Semen sales people tell me they have never sold so much beef semen, so there is some damage immediately. So, ok, you can buy some heifers from the continent or Ireland if they become short, but there are very good biosecurity reasons for most herds being self-contained. The irony is that if we were another industry and we had a situation like the one we find ourselves in, we could do more about it.


If we made nuts and bolts, for example, we would close the factory for two weeks over Christmas and perhaps go on a three-day week when we came back. After a while there wouldn’t be so many nuts and bolts about and the job would start to pick up. Even steel works can be mothballed. But milk production continues, remorselessly, seven days a week.


No one has yet devised a way whereby you can put your cows on coat-hangers and hang them on trees in your orchard for the weekend. Yes, we could dry cows off early, but that would only work if everyone around the world did it. Fat chance of that! There was a time I used to meet the head of a very large liquid milk company on a regular basis. He quite often told me he wasn’t bothered how high the on-farm price of milk was. What bothered him was if he was paying more than his competitors.


If he thought like that, there’s a fair chance his competitors thought exactly the same. At the same time, we know from bitter experience that major retailers seek to have milk as cheap as they can possibly get it, so they can have the cheapest milk anywhere in order to get customers through their doors. When you combine the effect of these two downward pressures, it is little wonder we find ourselves in the mess we are in now.


Not big on rats my son. I’ve seen him stand on a five-gallon drum to avoid one when it appeared while he was tidying the workshop. So he’s milking one morning and just putting the cluster on the cow at the end of the line and he sees something move at the other end of the pit. It’s a big dilemma for him. Does he let the cows all out until someone can deal with what he assumes is a rat? Plucking up courage, and I cannot overemphasise how much courage, he investigates a bit closer, until he finds a hedgehog!


One day, our musical cow, she with the Alpine bell around her neck, comes in to the parlour without her music, because she is without her bell. The cows were still out by day at that stage so we assumed, quite reasonably, that we would be lucky to see the bell again. About two weeks later and the feeding troughs were being cleaned out by hand. In the midst of it a forkful of crap silage is picked up and it turns out to be musical, containing the bell. How lucky was that? Completely by coincidence, I have some friends going to Austria for Christmas and I had already asked them to look out for another bell for me. I’d asked them to try to get one which played a different note so that when we had two bells on two cows, they might play a tune.


I don’t know how much these bells cost, but this could be the start of something big. We could end up with a whole herd of cows with bells on. Indeed, we could end up with a herd of cows which sound like an ice cream van. People are quite taken with the noise of a bell on a cow. It intrigues them. The sound carries a long way and if they can hear it day and night some people get quite pissed off with it.


That’s always good value for money!

Dairy Farmer
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