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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
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.
I was clearing up in the kitchen yesterday morning when Robert walked in. I turned to ask him something about weighing a load of young stock that were being collected around lunch time but stopped when I saw his face
“Wow, that’s a big grin! What’s that for?”
“Oh, nothing, nothing.” His grin was growing bigger by the minute “Nothing.”
“But something’s made you light up like a beacon…what’s it, hey? The wonderful, wonderful sun? Oh I know I know…it’s because I’m selling a load of animals today! That’s made you smile!”
Our land, as you’ve gathered, has been badly affected by the last two unprecedented wet years. The farm has all but stopped growing grass and we don’t expect much improvement this year even if the weather is better. Worried at how we will manage to produce enough grazing and forage I made a decision to sell twelve of my young stock. These were being bought by an organic farmer from South Devon who is already ankle deep in grass. My animals will thrive on it!
Robert went all smiley-secretive “No, actually. Though, of course, that does make me relieved and happy.”
“What then. Look at you. Like a cat that’s got the cream.”
He laughed “Weeell, I was just sitting on the bench outside when I heard a chiffchaff…and then, just to make sure it came and sat on the gate. Sat there, right in front of me. A confirmed sighting!”
“Really? Fantastic. That’s earlier than last year isn’t it?”
“A little, most years they arrive on, or very close to, 21 March.” He went on to say that his records over the last 18 years showed no trend towards earlier arrival, as might be expected from all the talk about climate change. In fact, although not denying that springs are getting earlier (some years), he believes that many of the trends for earlier and earlier sightings can be explained simply be people looking harder, and making better records. The result, I should think, of all those high profile Nature Watch/Birding programmes on telly!
It doesn’t matter though, whether it’s early or late, to me it’s a sure sign that Spring it really on it’s way. Hooray!
Yesterday we brought the cattle in…again. For good this time. By that I mean until May, when hopefully it’ll be dry enough, and grass-growing enough, for them to go out again. Poor old beasts, it really hasn’t been much of a year for them.
It’s a busy day. First the cow palace has to be made ready; fresh bedding put out, haylage bales fetched, gates and yard arranged. Then the young stock are collected up and boxed home in several journeys. Once back they’re sorted into steers and heifers, and run through the crush to be weighed and drenched (given a dose of medicine orally) for fluke; a parasite prevalent on our wet land. The Soil Association has given us a derogation to do this. However, the withdrawal period for all drugs has to be doubled in organic systems. In the case of a flukicide, this means I can’t treat any animals I intend to sell for meat within as much as 108 days. This concerns me as fluke is very damaging and can cause an animal to become ill and die. It’s one of those rules that are made with good intentions but really ought to be applied flexibly. Still, I keep an eagle eye on untreated stock and if I suspect an infestation the animal is treated right away.
Once the youngsters are settled it’s time to fetch the main herd. Having been in and out so much this year the cows, and us, are beginning to get used to the routine. The cows and calves are again sorted into batches and run through the crush for weighing and drenching. There’s always a cacophony of noise and excitement as the different groups come into contact with one another after a summer of separation. Princess, a young cow due to calve soon, and who I’d kept back with the new bull as a companion, became hysterical in her excitement at the returning herd. She, Princess, is the daughter of Severn, one of the herd matriarchs, and has recently become a strong dominant cow in the herd pecking order, taking the place of her mother who’s beginning to show her age: she was desperate to get back with them and reinstate herself!
Soon peace descends on the cow palace as everyone settles to contentedly feed on the evening meal of aromatic haylage. I must say there’s something extraordinarily satisfying looking at fifty odd deep chestnut red bodies along the barriers as they mumble and munch. I walk along them listening to their strangely comforting rhythmic chomp, punctuated by burps, gurgles and rumbles with an occasional soft low of greeting as I pass on my way to the farmhouse at the end of a long day.
p.s. I thought you might be interested in the weight gain of the calves and young stock over a 52 day period (they were last weighed at TB testing). The calves have gained 35-45kg and the yearlings 25-35kg. Not bad on a pure organic grass diet and our unimproved pastures at that!