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Cowmen Comment: Rosie Collingborn "The sudden loss of profitability does make one question one’s sanity"

Rosemary Collingborn and her husband Joe farm a closed herd of 100 pedigree Friesian type cows, 60 young stock and breed bulls for sale. She has served on the MDC Council, Veterinary Products Committee, the RSPCA Council and was WFU dairy chairman.

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May you live in interesting times, so the old Chinese saying goes. We at First Milk are certainly doing that, though I believe the man from Mars has the ability to stop First Milk becoming Last Milk.

However, it seems unfair that farmers who sacrificed the ‘penny more’ in the interest of sticking together are the ones who’ve had to take the most financial penalties over the years. The new CE at First Milk had stark choices, but it’s outrageous the farmers in the Midlands and M4 corridor are taking the biggest hit.

Our cows didn’t milk well over winter mainly because the silage didn’t live up to the analysis, but since they went out on March 7, milk has flown. It went up six litres a cow and butterfat remarkably shot up to 4.89%. Our vet suggested this was due to high fibre residual autumn grass.

We grazed some of our silage ground first as this helps tillering and is also a useful source of early grass. So far our new trackways have been a godsend. Our annual concentrate feeding rate is 0.19kg a cow and milk from forage was 3654 litres a cow up to March, and we’re hoping this will rise.

A downside of all this extra milk is the time it takes to get it out of the cows using a 1974 herringbone parlour. This has led us to looking at a new (second-hand) parlour and even my six-year-old grandson gave it the thumbs up. However, times are hard, and I have recently met a farmer with a milking parlour that is considerably older than ours – it was new in 1965, so we must have some breathing space!

The sudden loss of profitability does make one question one’s sanity in continuing with the life of hard physical and mental toil. On the BBC World News recently four farmers were interviewed from four different countries. The common theme was the income was uncertain and never great, but all the farmers were still content to remain on their farms even though they acknowledged it meant a lifetime of hard work. They could not escape the pull of the land and all valued their family life. I was very struck by one of the farmers who said he and his wife had a true partnership – “she does all the paperwork and I do the physical work”. I most definitely had to point this out to my husband. Luckily he agreed.

We’ve been selling some heifers recently and it’s very satisfying to get phone calls from farmers who’ve bought cattle from us in the past. One farmer brought me the pedigree of his one remaining cow of ours. Interestingly, its mother had done seven lactations, as had the second, and the third had done 10 lactations so the breeding was true! Another farmer had a second calver giving 54 litres which was more than any that had remained at home.

It concerns me so much of our dairy industry is now controlled from abroad, even our local feed firms BOCM-Pauls and Countrywide have been bought by the Dutch company ForFarmers. I was interested to hear from our ForFarmers nutritionist about Dutch dairy farming. In Holland, three cuts of silage are taken by mid-June, often small cuts into a small clamp and slurry injected by contractor immediately after each cut.

Green manure is widely used with the contractor pumping out the slurry pit every couple of months and taking the moisture out to leave green manure for bedding. Seemingly, this form of bedding works well in Holland and produces no more mastitis than conventional bedding. Robots are very popular there too. Now we know the result of the election there’s one piece of legislation I would very much like to see enacted, and it concerns supermarkets. It drives me mad having to buy ‘three for the price of two’ when I didn’t want two in the first place, but I know if I only buy the one I do want, it’ll cost me a lot more than usual. This practice is slavishly followed by all the supermarkets and it leads to food waste, surplus expenditure and even contributes to obesity as we all struggle to eat three things instead of one.

It also penalises the poorer shopper and the elderly, all of whom can only afford to buy one. The producer is also hit hard as they are asked to fund the promotion. Together with selling below the cost of production and using loss leaders, I think the ‘three for two’ is downright immoral and should be banned by law!

Farm Facts

  • Farm: Family run 185 acres dairy farm in North Wiltshire
  • Herd: Closed herd of 100 Friesian type pedigree cows
  • Yield: 7,874 litres
  • Soil type: Heavy on Oxford clay
  • Rainfall: 749mm
  • Milk buyer: First Milk
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