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Backbone of Britain: The highs and lows of working 50 years in the dairy industry

Judy Cattermoule has been milking cows her whole life.

 

As she prepares to celebrate 50 years in the dairy industry – and an estimated 3.6 million visits by cows to the milking parlour – she talks to Simon Henley about some of the highs and lows.

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Backbone of Britain: The highs and lows of working 50 years in the dairy industry #TeamDairy

We all know farming is a 365-day profession, yet very few sectors of the agricultural industry demand the level of dedication required to be a dairy producer.

 

Managing cows for a living is both physically demanding and mentally challenging, not least because the commodity being produced is harvested by the relentless process of milking, executed two or three times a day, seven days a week.

 

A lot of people who have lived or worked on a farm during the past 40 years will at some point in their life have had an encounter with a milking parlour. Yet if we take the agricultural industry as a whole, there are comparatively few people in farming today who have spent their entire life at eye level with a cow’s udder.

 

Breeder

 

Judy Cattermoule, from Hampshire, grew up in the tranquil parish of Ashmansworth working alongside her late father, Geoff Cooper – a prolific Ayrshire breeder for more than 40 years – and the Ashmansworth herd was once the largest registered pedigree Ayrshire herd in Britain.


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Judy started milking cows full-time when she left school. However, she was only 12 when she started helping her father with the weekly milk recording and helping with the milking at weekends.

 

“My mother said I would follow my father everywhere as a child,” says Judy. “From about four years old, I would wander through the cows behind him, which frightened my mother to death.

 

“It always seemed completely natural to me. I always knew I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps.”

 

According to Judy, her father was the youngest of three brothers on the Cooper family farm. When the two older brothers went to farm on their own, her father was left behind to do the milking. Back then, the herd was predominantly Dairy Shorthorn cattle.

 

However, Geoff decided if he was going to manage the family herd, he was going to do it his way.

 

“From the mid-1950s, Dad started to buy and breed Ayrshire cattle,” says Judy. “His goal was to produce cows which yielded well, produced a high butterfat milk, stood on strong feet and had a hardy disposition.

 

“We typically calved 80 heifers a year, selling 40 of them and keeping the cream of the crop on the farm. Dad had a natural eye for selecting and breeding cattle and he was well-known for producing top line animals.

 

“When I left school, we were milking in a 12-abreast parlour,” she says.

 

“There would be two of us, milking six cows each. Then, in 1976, Dad decided to replace the old parlour with a 16:16 herringbone unit.

 

“I remember it well, because while the new parlour was being built, we were milking outside in the collecting yard using a portable milking bale.

 

“Ironically, although the summer of 1976 was famous for being very hot and dry, the day we started milking outside, the weather broke and it rained every day for weeks.”

In 1979, at the tender age of 21, Judy took on the task of registering the Ashmansworth herd with the Ayrshire Cattle Society.

 

It was a process which took her months, as she trawled through the records of more than 600 animals spanning generations of progeny, from an endless list of dams and sires that spanned more than 20 years.

 

The size of the Ashmansworth herd by this time was 220 cows, with an average of 160 in-milk throughout the year. It was hard work, but the family’s efforts were increasingly rewarded.

 

She says: “Dad loved to show his cattle every year at the Newbury Show in September and he won a lot of trophies in those days. I personally think his greatest achievement was winning the King George VI Challenge Cup for the South of England Agricultural Society in 1979.

 

“It was presented for the best dairy herd and was awarded by Princess Alexandra on behalf of The Queen.”

 

In 1998, Geoff sadly passed away following a short illness.

 

With her father gone, Judy and her mother, Mary, took over the task of running the farm but, within 12 months, it became apparent the herd would need to be sold.

 

“Our family had been tenant farmers at Ashmansworth for 80 years,” says Judy.

 

“When we were told the farm was being sold, I was in complete disbelief. The realisation that we would have to sell the herd was absolutely gut-wrenching.

 

“I knew every cow by sight, every ear number and the ancestry of every animal in the herd. This created serious arguments with the auctioneers, who treated the cows as inanimate objects, arranged in numbered lots.

 

“On the day of the sale, I can still recall the noise of our cattle mooing and bawling as they were loaded on to trucks and driven away. I was completely heartbroken. It was the worst year of my life, I stayed away from any livestock for six months after that.”

 

Following the dispersal of the Ashmansworth herd in April 1999, Judy eventually returned to the parlour that October, milking nights for a nearby farm which ran a commercial Holstein herd. This eventually progressed into milking twice a day as Judy’s passion was rekindled and her confidence with the cows gradually returned.

 

Over the course of the next eight years, she continued to work for the same farm until the family sold up and moved away. Following a brief stint relief-milking, Judy started working for the Fisher family in Ashmansworth, where she still milks today.

 

“I didn’t enjoy relief milking; you never get to know your cows,” says Judy. “The best part of milking, for me, is the process of bringing a freshcalved cow into the parlour, taking her on to full milk production then preparing her ready for her next calving.

 

“I build a relationship with the cows I milk. I know if they’re not feeling well, or if there’s a sudden change in their behaviour, because I get to know each animal individually. Cows are my passion and caring for them is always something I’ve loved doing.”

 

Asked what has changed in the dairy industry, Judy points out that one of the most significant elements has been a reduction in the use of antibiotics. Another factor is the ongoing battle with TB, which she looks at with trepidation, citing the testing procedure as being stressful for both the farmer and the cows.

 

“I wouldn’t want to work for a 1,500-cow dairy unit with a rotary parlour, nor would I want to work on a farm with robotic milking,” says Judy.

 

“I think I’d lose my interaction with the cows. When things get to that stage, I will know it’s time to retire.”

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