Today was my first day of work experience at Street Farm Dairy in High Halden, Kent. Although I was very nervous this morning because I had no clue what to anticipate, my day turned out to be enjoyable but exhausting. When I arrived at the farm at about 7.30, I was allowed to put my bags into the retail room and was shown the milk processing room which was just next door. This room contained a pasteuriser and a machine in which to make cream. However, I was not allowed in because separate foot wear is necessary for going into this clean environment.
The first job of the day was feeding the cows and calves. We collected some milk for the youngest calves from the milking parlour where a farm worker was milking the cows. The teats were cleaned first with a disinfectant then wiped dry with paper towels before the teat cups were attached. Then, the machines were set in place and the pumps began to work, chugging the milk from the cows and into a tank from which it passed through tubes into a larger storage tank. We then carried our milk into the calf room where there were seven calves in metal pens so that they were all separated from each other. On the bars of every pen was a calf teat feeder and a white and blue bucket. Into the calf feeder, we poured the milk and immediately they began to suckle. However, the youngest calf who was only 4 days old could not find the teat, therefore the farmer had to climb into the pen and guide its mouth to the teat where it settled and drank thirstily. Next, we gave all the calves small pellets and water except the two youngest who had not yet been weaned. On this dairy farm, calves are taken from their mothers after one day and then the females must be weaned off milk and on to a diet solely made up of pellets, hay and water between 4 and 8 weeks whilst the male calves are sent to a local beef farm before this weaning process begins. We also threw more straw into the pens to make it dry and comfortable and filled the hay mangers with hay. The calves were very excited when they saw us, but also very skittish and nervous as they were still getting used to humans.
After this, we fed the older calves. When the calves are weaned at 8 weeks old, they are moved into a larger joint pen with a total of about 8 calves. These we fed the same small pellets we gave the calves being weaned. At about 12 weeks old, the calves are then moved into an adjacent pen with even older calves where they are fed slightly larger pellets. By 6 months old, they are moved out of the calf pens and in with the young cows in the barn. To feed these two pens of calves, we had to climb over the fence, into the pen and move slowly but confidently through the small herd of excited calves to divide the pellets into three troughs. The calves were older and used to humans and became very excited as soon as they saw us. They gathered round and we had to be very careful that we weren’t trampled.
When all the cows had been fed, I went with Steve, the farmer, to move fences. The cows in the Friesian herd are strip farmed. This means that they have one piece of land during the day and a different piece at night. The place in which graze at night is close to the barn and they can come in at any time to eat their cattle cake. All the cows where collars which monitor how much cake they eat at once and how much they eat in 24 hours. For every day and every night, fences are moved to allow a different strip of grass to be grazed. We went out into the field and after turning off the electric supply we moved the stakes and then reattached the wire to trees on either side of the field and turned back on the electricity so the fence buzzed with life once again, threatening any cows which would dare cross its paths with a mild electric shock.
As we were walking in the field, Steve indicated many interesting aspects. He showed me the how the soil had been poached, meaning that because of the wet winter they had had, the cattle hooves had damaged the land, compacting the soil and leaving depressions. This means that the grass, or sward, does not grow so well the next year, causing the milk yield to reap the consequences. Because of this, last winter, Street Farm Dairy fell into a state of distress when the cows began producing 5-10l of milk each rather than the 35l they should have been producing. However, they knew that there was more than just the wet whether to blame and found that it was because the food they were using was very old. Steve explained to me that D-value meant digestibility and that when the food became too old, it lost D-value. This could be seen in the cows because their cow pats were dry and tough, showing that lots of silage had not been digested. Cow pats should be wet, showing a high protein diet, gained if the food has a high D-value. As soon as the cows moved back onto the grass, an improvement was seen immediately. The grass was fresh and new meaning that it had a higher of D-value of about 73 which was needed to have a good milk yield. As soon as the grass has a flower and goes to seed, the D-value decreases to about 63. I found this very interesting, and saw the impact that so many factors from the outside world can have on farming and the fact that it all comes down to milk yield.
It was now about 9.00 so I was given an hour for a breakfast break. I sat in the retail room, at a muesli bar, read my book and chatted to one of the farm workers who was also called Steve.
After this, I was given the task of cleaning the milking parlour to occupy me for the rest of the day. I dressed in a ‘glamorous’ moon suit which was so big for me, I became clumsy and struggled to walk, then, armed with a pressure washer, I jet sprayed the walls of the milking parlour. I had a 2 hour break for lunch at about 12.30 and by 3.30, the walls had transformed from brown to white and were ready to be painted. Whilst I was doing this, other people on the farm were collected hay and gathering it into bales ready for the winter and mowing grass. I realised that once the animals are fed, milked and watered and outside enjoying the grass there is very little animal work left to be done and so day are spent doing maintenance. As an aspiring vet student, keen to be working hands-on with the animals, I could have found this disappointing, but instead I accepted that everything is necessary to add to the working on the farm, ensuring that the welfare of the animals is maintained whilst the customers are kept happy and the all important profit continues to flourish. Therefore, whatever work I did on the farm, I did happily, knowing that I was helping.
The last job of the day was to get the cows in from the field to have their evening milk. I went with Steve the farm worker out to the field. He took a length of plastic piping with him and the positioned himself behind the cows. As soon as the saw him they began to move homewards, knowing exactly where to go and what was to come. Steve and I walked at the back driving them onwards with shouts of ‘come on’ and whistles. The cows were interested in everything they saw and often stopped to have a nibble of a patch of grass or just to gaze at something in the distance. However, none were too troublesome and with a gentle tap from the piping on their shins they moved forwards willingly. As we neared the milking parlour, the cows obediently moved in, obliging to the fact that they were to be milked. I saw that the cows were not unhappy and seemed to enjoy their lives on the farm. They were treated well and respected and although this was so different to keeping domestic animals as pets to be loved and caressed, I saw nothing wrong but rather a lot right with the use of animals in industry.
I left the farm at about 4.00 and as Steve was driving that way, he gave me a lift home. As I found when I did work experience previously, sitting in a car provides the perfect opportunity for questions and discussions. I began by asking how often the cows are seen by vets. Vets will often make contracts with farmers in order to do routine checks such as these. It is £100 a month so after the poor winter, Steve chose not to commit to this but will reconsider in the future. Steve told me that someone will come to do a pregnancy scan and diagnose whether the cows have become successfully pregnant. There are often some cows which are not pregnant, therefore the week after this scan, a vet will visit to see why cows aren’t pregnant. A vet must visit so early on because after a failed pregnancy it is important for cows to become pregnant within 60 days to maintain milk yield. Cows may not have become pregnant for a number of reasons. It could be because there is debris from a previous birth still in the uterus, there could be a cyst on the ovary preventing it from functioning properly or there could be a problem with the reproductive cycle.
On this dairy farm, they have chosen to do all year round calving. Cows calve every 305 days which has been calculated to optimise milk yield. Every month, cows will come into calf and the cycle can continue, always with the milk yield maintained. It struck me how important milk yield was, and sadly, money is the root of every decision.
I also asked about antibiotic use and Steve told me that their farm is not organic. However, they only give antibiotics when needed which I thought was brilliant because some farmers still give routine antibiotics as part of the diet, stemming the risk of resistant bacteria developing. On the other hand, Steve does give routine vaccinations. In my opinion, these are good and necessary to maintain the health of the cows and the milk going into the food chain. Routinely, vaccinations are given against BVD – bovine viral diarrhoea. BVD causes minor problems with big consequences. For example, it can cause embryo resorption. Also, regularly Steve’s cows are treated for worms. This is important because food digested needs to be used to feed the cows and not worms. If the energy is going to worms, it is not going to milk production.
I have really enjoyed my day at the farm, and I feel that I have learnt a lot. I can see the importance of money and yield when using animals for farming but also the efforts gone to maintain their welfare and keep the farm business running smoothly. I feel that although the cows don’t see vets very often, as a vet, it is very important to be able to balance the welfare and health of the livestock with the needs of the working farmer.