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What's all the fuss? TB? Us?

Those of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook probably gathered my cattle had a bovine tuberculosis (bTB) test about ten days ago. Those of you familiar with farming and the countryside will have a pretty good understanding of the problems surrounding bTB and the distressing effect it has on farmers, farms and cattle industry. And those of you who aren’t that interested in farming, will, I’m sure, be aware of the debate that rages around badger culling, vaccination and the like.

Personally I feel every test brings us one step closer to the inevitable…bTB breakdown. Illogical? Probably.  Or maybe not.

We’ve been ‘upgraded’ to six monthly testing, as the farm’s contiguous. I don’t know what’s changed; we’ve been contiguous to farms suffering breakdowns for a good many years. Anyhow this new status certainly makes me more jumpy.

I guess that it’s here that I should mention that in the twenty years I’ve been farming at Locks (and actually for the whole thirty-five years of my farming career) my cattle, first dairy, now beef, haven’t had a case of bTB. I say this with great trepidation; I really dislike mentioning it.  I’m terrified of tempting fate.

Briefly, the bTB skin test takes place over a period of a few days. On day one tuberculin is administered at two sites – the first (or the top spot) is the control – avian tuberculin is used; and the bottom, the second site, is inoculated with bovine tuberculin.  Three days later the test is read and a conclusion reached on the size of the reaction.

As we were getting ready on the first day I said to Polly, our vet, “Well, don’t suppose we’ll go clear. Bloody miracle if we do.” And somewhat to my surprise she said “Yes, it will be.” None of that nice reassuring talk… my fault for bringing it up, not hers for being honest!

I firmly resisted any temptation to check for reactions. On the Friday as we were sorting through the cattle before the vet came I mumbled to Olly “She doesn’t think we’ll get through you know.”

“Don’t be such a doom merchant” he snapped back at me. But I noticed he didn’t follow it up with “You’re daft. You always say that. Of course we will. We always do!” (I now know that he’d been checking the animals and had found some substantial lumps!)

Reading the test was heart in tongue stuff; Polly had the callipers (used for measuring the size of the lumps) out for practically every cow. Almost all the animals had sizable reactions to the avian tuberculin (indicating a high incidence of avian TB) but, thank god, no reactions to the bTB.  We were clear! A surprise to all of us.

So why? Why did we go clear…?

Because I run a closed herd? Or that we’re organic? Maybe we practice exceptional welfare? Have a healthy badger set? Keep a native breed? Farm extensively? Don’t have tonnes of hard feed knocking around? Or that we are just too darn wet? But others are doing these things and more still suffer breakdowns.  It is just luck?

Perhaps not…An intriguing paper arrived last week

Please log on tomorrow –  I’ll be writing a post on this paper and would hugely value your reactions and comments

...intriguing, she says.

calves on Saturday's frosty morning

calves on Saturday's frosty morning

Glorious October certainly! We continue to be busy outside with the hundred and one jobs this dry weather has allowed us to get on top of…dung spreading, ditching, fencing, hedge trimming, cutting and carrying wood from our wood stacks to our winter store and, of course, never ending topping (yes, we are still able to get onto the land with a tractor!).

ewe lambs enjoying the autumn sunshine and grass

ewe lambs enjoying the autumn sunshine and grass

The ewes have been tupped and are now grazing peacefully, happy in the autumn sunshine and revelling in the unexpected bonus of being dry underfoot.

Cows and calves are contentedly munching away in the River Meadows, whilst the bull and his cohort are doing a first-rate job around our smaller meadows at the home farm.  Our autumn flush of grass has been excellent – more sustaining and nutritious than the rank crop our waterlogged fields produced during the wet summer months.

the bull happily grazing Flop Meadow

the bull happily grazing Flop Meadow

Polytunnel beds are gradually being mulched down with our organic dung and covered over for winter – though a handsome supply of chilli, aubergine, tomato, squash and carrot are still providing us with tasty suppers. Outside in the kitchen garden leeks, kale, red cabbage, spinach, broccoli spears and roots are giving us delicious seasonal variety.

Though apples haven’t produced that well this year the quince tree is heavy with golden, fragrant fruit which I’ll pickled, make into jelly and quince cheese. The pear tree in the orchard is also bowed over with small, bullet hard fruit for which I’ll have to invent some different preserves.

It’s a good autumn; land, man, beast and wildlife flourish. Next weekend, on the 25th, we have two farm walks, so though the weather is due to break tomorrow I hope  we won’t  return to horrendous torrential drenching!

Devonian Whitebeam (indigenous to Devon) berries, which I'll harvest to grow sapplings from.

Devonian Whitebeam (rare and indigenous to Devon) berries, which I'll harvest to grow saplings from.

‘Harrumph! Oh yes!’ With an expansive stretch and a shove of his chair, he grins over at me.

I look up from my book, stop munching on my toast and marmalade and stare questioningly across the table ‘What?’

‘Oh nothing. Just the editorial in the New Scientist…you should read it.’ He gets up, a maddening little smile playing over his face.

‘Hey what? You can’t just walk out. It’s obviously something good otherwise you wouldn’t be goading me!’

‘Sorry! Loads of work to do. History to make, hoverflies to catch, hedges to write about and moths to think about….Gotta go. Read it.’

‘No! What is it?’

‘Read it…must dash…’

‘Robert!’

‘Okay, okay. So what do you think about engineering animals, farm livestock, so they don’t feel pain?’

‘What! So that people can be guilt free whilst keeping them in horrific conditions?’ I exclaim. I thrust my chair away from the table. I’m shocked.  ‘That’s atrocious. Despicable. Oh yes, just let’s keep factory farming and inhumane systems, after all we make billions from it, so we’ll just fiddle about with nature a bit; engineer livestock not to feel pain and that should make it all alright. Of course it does. Doesn’t  it? Does it? Hell no!’ I storm around the kitchen ‘What’s with man? Why do we think we have the god given right to to to to’ I stutter I’m so angry I can get my words out ‘to ….’

‘So you think that animals should continue to suffer in intensive factory systems? You don’t think it’d be better to stop the pain? You’d rather tens of millions of animals…?

I interrupt ‘No I certainly don’t. But why fix the animals and not the system. End factory farming and you end the problem.’ I dust off my hands ‘End of story!’

‘You’ll never get rid of factory farming.’

‘So that means you compound the problem? You don’t even try? You sit back on your laurels full of smug complacency that the steak, chicken, pork chop you’re tucking into is just fine because it didn’t suffer pain whilst being farmed in the most abominable conditions? No! That’s just so wrong. Immoral.’

‘So what’s your solution then?’

What is my solution?  I read the editorial. It’s well written. Very well written. The editor draws on the similarity to Douglas Adam’s novel The Restaurant At the End Of The World where Arthur Dent, the main character, is horrified when a cow-like creature is wheeled to the restaurant table, introduces itself as the dish of the day and proceeds to describe the cuts of meat available from its body. The animal has been bred to want to be eaten and to be capable of saying so.

The truth is not far behind fiction, the editorial continues, as proposals are underway to genetically engineer livestock to be untroubled by pain – all too common in intensively reared farm animals. The concept treats cattle, pigs and chicken as if they were inanimate objects whose suffering is like a computer program in need of debugging.

Apparently my violent reaction is quite common too, even has a name – it’s known as the ‘yuck factor’, and it’s not an unusual response to those many advances in biotechnology and biomedicine involving cloning, genetic modification and human-animal chimeras. This distaste is often irrational and can be a potential barrier to progress. Progressive thoughts often comes from ignoring such reactions and thinking things through logically instead.

I can see the logic behind Robert’s comments yes – pain-free animals do make sense – but only in a world that has devalued animal life to a point where anything’s acceptable to aid the production of billions of tonnes of cheap meat.  A world that no longer cares about the plight of animals but only of how it’s going to feed itself cheaply.

If the choice is between animals bio-engineered not to feel pain or eating less meat, I know what I think is right.  But equally well, I know that most people can’t care much about the pain  factory-farmed animals endure – otherwise they would not eat their meat.  For many in poor nations, they have no choice.   But still, surely the human race can’t sink that low?

factory-farmed pigs

factory-farmed pigs

my Devons grazing Path Field

my Devons grazing Path Field

Did any of you catch Countryfile this week? In particular John Craven’s investigation into methane producing cattle and sheep, climate change and Meat Free Monday?

Research, reported in the New Scientist not long ago, suggests that producing a kilo of beef has the equivalent effect on the climate as driving 250 km and leaving all the lights on at home to boot.  Meanwhile ministers have been on record as saying that if you really want to save the world (and your health), you should stop eating meat.  There’s also a maxim that climate change is driven by the three Cs:  combustion, chainsaws and cattle.

So, am I an arch climate villain?  Is my carbon foot print so big that I leave tracks across the world like yeti? By my calculations, every time I sell a bullock, it’s like driving all the way from Devon to Timbuctoo.  I’m told cattle produce huge quantities of methane, a gas 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in its greenhouse effects, from both ends.  Even worse, on conventional farms, the grass and grain they eat requires tonnes of fertiliser which takes barrels and barrels of oil to make as well as releasing yet more greenhouse gases when it’s spread on the fields.

But there’s some hope for me.  I may not have to sell up quite yet.  Some Swedish research shows that organic beef raised on grass has a much lower carbon footprint, emitting forty percent less greenhouse gas and consuming eighty-five percent less energy.   This figures since we don’t use artificial fertilisers, recycling nutrients (good, old-fashioned muck) from the farm, and keep far fewer cattle per hectare.  What’s even better, there’s good reason to suspect that organic soil management actually results in carbon being taken out of the atmosphere (carbon sequestration) rather than being released into it offsetting the methane produced by the animals.  (It’s a little known fact that there’s far, far more carbon stored in England’s soils than in all its woodlands.)

But, I could be in danger of being complacent here.  Unfortunately it’s still a fact that my Devons are belching and farting large quantities of a powerful greenhouse gas into the beleaguered stratosphere. So what I should try to aim for is to be carbon neutral, right the way from grass to plate. I wonder, by the way, what the term is for a negative footprint is? Someone who takes more carbon out of the air than they release into it?

I shall have to have one of these carbon audits done and see what I can do to reduce my footprint.  Perhaps I can manage my soils differently, let my hedges get even bigger; reduce transport costs, put up solar panels on the barns and be energy self-sufficient, look into other means of collecting and storing water…fixing plastic bags onto the rear end of the cattle is an interesting prospect, perhaps my inventor friend can work out a way and we’ll get rich on the patent!

The other side of the coin is that Devon badly needs its cattle and sheep.  Imagine Dartmoor without them.  Our priceless historical landscape would be lost beneath a sea of bracken, gorse and trees. Think also of all our wonderful unique indigenous grasslands. They and their supporting habitat wouldn’t survive without grazing. I guess our challenge as farmers is to produce beef and lamb in a way that helps the climate. Far better for us to face the challenge now and take the matter into our own hands than to wait for the inevitable regulations down the road.  I don’t know the answers, but suspect they may involve all of us who enjoy meat eating less of it, valuing it more, and being prepared to pay much more for it, so farmers can afford to farm in a way that is in tune with Mother Earth.

For now, I’ll keep my cows. Try to sleep soundly at night too…after all, there are things I can do.

'...verrry interesting!' *Belch* 'Ooops! Excuse me.'

'...verrry interesting!' *Belch* 'Ooops! Excuse me.'

winning smiles - Salar cow and calf

winning smiles - Salar cow and calf

For the last two years the Okehampton Show, our local one day show, has been cancelled due to impossibly wet weather. If it was rained off again this year it wouldn’t survive.

As you can imagine the weather’s been minutely monitored. Certainly it appeared the forecast was better than July, but definitely not settled.

Tentatively, a week or so before the actual day, skeletons for the large marquees began to appear; cautiously, almost furtively, the show ground began to take shape…cattle lines, sheep and cattle pens, goat and pig tents, show rings, walk ways, beer tents, an army of porta-loos – every day a little more  emerged. We scarcely dared look as we passed by – it was as if even looking was enough to tip the balance between rain or shine. Instead we sucked in our breath, crossed fingers and bit  nails.

Nine days earlier the North Devon show made it…just, though conditions were far from easy. Talking to friends who’d been there showing we heard how stock trailers were unhitched, towed onto the show ground and left, dotted about  randomly, in a sinking quagmire of churned mud…’Lucky’ Sally said ‘the only white bit in danger was the end of the cattle’s tail. Otherwise we’d have been in an even sorrier state!’

The night before Okehampton show it rained. I woke in the night to hear its patter-pittering  on the leaves of the trees outside our bedroom window and the soft sighing hiss of waterlogged ground. The morning dawned in a grey shroud of misty drizzle. Though not, mercifully, torrential rain

Armed with wellies, hats, waterproofs and warmish clothes we set off. We’d planned to get there first thing as a cousin of Robert’s was paying us a visit in the afternoon.  Even at that early hour the car parks were swelling; folk seemed determined to make the show a success come rain or shine.

A serious moment - judging a young Devon bull...

A serious moment - judging a young Devon bull...

As we hung over the rails of the show ring the misty drizzle gathered itself up into a leaden sky – a bruising layer of cloud enveloped the tops of the tors. Uncertain fingers of  sunlight hit the sides of the valley. For a few moments clouds and sun vied with one another when unexpectedly, so it seemed, the sun decided enough was enough and with determind force blistered its way through, burning back layer upon layer of cloud to sizzle and shine gloriously over the show for the rest of the day!

even dogs had to wear sunglasses in the glare!

even dogs had to wear sunglasses in the glare!

Overheating and dripping with sweat in our rainy weather clothing, we squinted, smiled and laughed our way around the show ground bumping into a plethora of friends and those acquaintances that we generally  see on occasions such as this. When it was time for us to leave we felt completely exhausted from the sheer exuberance of the event (and the heat!). As we drove away were amazed to see cars still pouring in. Hoorah! The Okehampton Show was a resounding success and lives to see another year…

young sheep handlers wait to be called...

young sheep handlers wait to be called...the 2nd in is a Dartmoor Whiteface two tooth and the end ram's a Whiteface too.

One of my young (sixteen month old) heifers had developed warts.

This in itself is not a particular problem. Warts are a fairly common occurrence in cattle, particularly in stock under two years old, and are caused by the skin’s reaction to an infection with papova virus (six different papova viruses have been identified, though the majority of cases are caused by one of two types). These warts can crop up anywhere on the animal’s body though most frequently around the head and neck area; less common but more worrying sites are the teats, scrotum and penis. Warts can grow fast and vary greatly in shape and size from almost flat pea-sized lumps to large orange-sized balls on stalks.

bovine warts around the head of an animal - google images

bovine warts around the head of an animal - google images

My heifer had a few small areas of infection around her muzzle though the worst was a cluster of large nebular sessile (squat) warts on the inside of her hind leg and, horror of horror, a huge, repulsive pedunculate (stalked) brain-like growth hanging off the side of one of her teats. It was the size of a nectarine (but not as juicy!).  Not only was it getting knocked and damaged when she walked, becoming a fly magnet, its sheer size and weight was elongating and deforming her teat.

warts on the udder of a cow - google images

warts on the udder of a cow - google images

Generally warts disappear within six months but in this case something had to be done to the one on her teat so she didn’t suffer permanent damage.

We discussed the options. Cutting it off? Not the best of times to do this; possible excessive bleeding, fly strike and difficult to treat post-operatively in the field. Restricting blood-flow with a ligature? Not ideal, again the problem of fly-strike, but probably the best alternative in the circumstances.

So having decided on the ligature we began to gather up equipment and manpower.

The young stock spend their summer at some rented land a few miles away and though we have a corral where we can gather and load them we don’t have a proper crush. We decided we’d rig up a gate crush and with strong rope, brave men and a little bit of luck we would be able to pin her behind the gate and hopefully immobilise her sufficiently to be able to tie the ligature on.

Robert, Joe, Olly, me and, of course, my right-hand man Theo all piled into the truck, complete with elastrator (castrating tool, just in case I was able to fit a castrating ring over the growth), suitable strong, non-slip string to form the ligature, iodine, salt solution, Spot On (fly deterrent), rope, baler cord and, most important, a bucket of nuts as an incentive and reward.

In no time an admirable gate crush had been constructed. We managed to lure the cattle into the corral in record time with the promise of nuts. Once the cattle were contained it wasn’t too much bother to isolate and crush the heifer concerned behind the gate. So far so good, now the difficult bit. The elastrator was unfortunately far too small. We would only get one attempt with the string ligature…she would kick, she would start forward and she would make it impossible for a second attempt. Robert decided I would become permanently damaged and broken so he would endeavour to tie the ligature. All was ready…Olly on the ropes, me with the nuts and Robert at the business end. In the flash of a moment the heifer lunged upwards and forward in an attempt to escape, landing on top of the gate – but in her violent forward movement against Robert’s pull on the ligature the string had severed the whole gruesome growth! Yes, it was bleeding but not too severely. Settling the heifer down behind the gate, I dressed the wound with iodine and cobwebs (cobwebs are an old remedy used to hasten blood coagulation), fed her a good measure of nuts, treated her with fly deterrent and sent her off into the field.

Then we searched around for the wart, and found it.  What a trophy!  I showed it to all our friends, many of them aren’t speaking to us now. First I kept it in the fridge for easy access until the family rebelled.  Now it’s in the freezer.  I just hope that in a year or two someone doesn’t open the bag, think that looks tasty, and have a good fry up!

Gwen with her new calf observing Ginny's behaviour. It's such a commical photo!

Gwen with her new calf observing Ginny's behaviour. It's such a commical photo!

As my son’s family turned up, jet-lagged and travel-worn from New Zealand with brand new baby Isla and electric three year old Theo, so did the broken-washing-machine-fix-it-man and, on cue, my last very expectant calving cow started bawling in the field. Though desperately wanting to drink in and savour every minute of their arrival the intensity of the moment was shoved to one side as we manhandled broken washing machine into the van (it wasn’t an easy mend) followed by a hasty kiss and hug and a sprint down the lane to bawling cow.

Bawling cow, Ginny, assured us she’d had her calf and it was now lost.

“That cow hasn’t calved” I said

“LOST,” she bellowed “lost.”

It’s in the brambles, over there! NO, no, no, in the ditch, drowning in the DITCH. GET IT OUT NOW! Silly, silly, it ‘s stuck in that rush clump. No not there, it had squiggled through the fencing and was bouncing about two fields away. GET MY CALF.

We searched, we waded, we crawled, we prodded, we poked. Just in case…

“That cow hasn’t calved” I said

“Yes I jolly well have” she shouted “AND I’ve lost it”

We eventually left her. We dashed back up the lane to fling arms around the travellers and to settle them into home. We answered a million and one questions about tractors, bobcats, diggers and chainsaws (Theo), welcomed gorgeous tiny baby Isla into the world and shared a garbled eighteen months of news and scandal with Joe and Jess. The cow continued irrepressibly in the background.

“I’ll go check on her quickly.” And off I trotted down the lane. She hadn’t progressed much and a small piece of deflated membrain hung limply from her vulva. I couldn’t feel what was going on so decided to move her up to the cow palace. Moving a cow out of a field and up a lane away from her group and her ‘new-born-calf’ (she was convinced) is not easy. But patience and coercion works in the end, if very slowly…

Little by little I cajoled her out of the field and up the lane to the shed where Robert helped me get her into a pen.

Now I had her in a small enough space to do an internal examination. I was expecting a malpresentation, a dead calf or something that was grossly deformed. Holding my breath I found a fore leg…and then another, groped around and felt the nose and mouth – all fine and dandy. It must be dead…I pinched the pastern…it moved!

I looked up at Robert “It’s alive!” I beamed “It’s alive, though quite a size.” Fiddling about inside I said “I’m going to put the ropes on. She’s not pushing very vigorously either. Let’s go for it. Get it out. It’s getting late too.”

I didn’t have too much trouble attaching the ropes as she wasn’t bearing down hard…and then we began pulling.

The stimulation started much better contraction too. She lay down and with every contraction we eased the calf forward. Luckily she’s an older cow with a roomy pelvic opening, this was one big fellow. We eased the head out and then with a final tremendous heave from Ginny the shoulders and body followed.

He was fine lad. Ginormous and perfect. I cleaned the mucus away from his airways and after a couple of laboured gulps he began a steady rhythmic breathing. Ginny was up within a couple of seconds licking him enthusiastically and lowing softly. After an hour or so I went to help him onto the teat so I would know he’d had a good belly full of colostrum before I went to bed.

Tomorrow I hoped for an uneventful, enjoyable, long awaited catch up day with my family. But….

..and Willow! Watching from a safe distance.

..and Willow! Watching from a safe distance.

Locks Park Farm

Thanks for visiting my blog. All entries are presented in chronological order.

I have a small organic farm on the Culm grasslands near Hatherleigh in Devon, with sheep and beef cattle. I've been farming in the county for more than 30 years. I've set up this blog to share views on farming and the countryside - please do give your thoughts.

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The Campaign to Protect Rural England has helped set up this blog. We want farming to thrive in England, and believe that it is essential that people understand farming and farmers better in order for that to happen. Paula's views expressed here are her own and we won't necessarily share all of them, but we're happy to have helped give her a voice.

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