Chris Webb

Spring dairy update

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Farming 2013-05-02

This post is one of a series featured in Farmers Guardian while I took part in the Fresh Start Dairy Academy, a farm business training and mentoring course for new entrants into dairy farming.

It’s been a busy year so far, and my farming blog is now well-overdue for an update. So what’s happened in the past few months?

The Dairy Academy sessions drew to a close at the end of January. I met some fantastic people, heard from lots of interesting speakers, and was really fired-up by the encouragement and guidance we were given. I’m trying to maintain that momentum for the rest of the year, training myself up and broadening my farming experience. We’re also hoping to keep the Dairy Academy group going as a discussion group going forward.

Milking robot

In February, after reading my story in the Farmers Guardian, some friends near Oswestry kindly invited me to help part-time with their robot-milked herd. It’s a great learning opportunity and an interesting contrast to work both on a parlour-milked farm and with robots: the farming routine and lifestyle are strikingly different.

Of course, apart from milking itself the work is essentially the same. There are still cattle and young stock to be fed and bedded, cows to be foot- bathed, calves to be delivered, bulling cows to AI, feet to trim, and so on. But eliminating the fixed morning-and-night milking timetable seems to allow jobs to spread more evenly through the day, and frees up more time to spend on the cows.

So although the machines lay claim to a job I enjoy doing myself, and despite the occasional entertaining repair job, I’m rather impressed by the robots. Now that spring has arrived, I’m looking forward to seeing how the system works when the cows are at grass.

On the subject of grass, I’ve just joined the Shropshire Stargrazers discussion group. I’ve only been to one meeting as yet, but they are clearly a very experienced and knowledgeable group of farmers and I’m sure I’ll learn a great deal from them. Despite working with cows for several years now, my knowledge about grazing and growing fodder is still thin and I’m keen to start putting that right. A large DairyCo training folder on grazing is sat on my desk so I can mug up before the next Stargrazers meet!

Earlier in the year, Emily from RABDF encouraged me join Twitter, partly to promote this blog. I’m instinctively sceptical of anything billed as ‘social media’, but in the case of Twitter I think I’m a convert. I’ve enjoyed chatting with lots of interesting people whom I couldn’t easily have met otherwise, and have made plenty of new farming friends and contacts.

Milking parlour

In April, a friend from Twitter invited me over to milk with him at the dairy unit he manages. I was delighted when he offered me a regular relief milking job. Spending a weekend milking the bigger herd is another very different experience. Having only milked a hundred cows through a 8/16 herringbone before, milking 270 cows on my own in a 16/32 was a daunting prospect, but I’m getting into the swing of it now and really enjoying myself.

I’ve continued to do the Farm Skills courses and attended training events like the LKL National Herdsman’s Conference, but I’m still very aware of how patchy my general farming knowledge is. So from September, I’ve decided to broaden my agricultural education with an FdSc course in Agriculture/Dairy Herd Management at Reaseheath.

Now having three part-time farm jobs, the Reaseheath course two days a week from September, and a 15-employee technology company to run, I think I’m going to have my work cut out, but hopefully it’ll pay off and mean that I hit the ground running when I’m able to realise enough capital from business assets to take the plunge into full-time dairying in my own right. The two year course ties in well with the likely time frame for this too.

Finally, on a lighter note, DairyCo have been encouraging me to try my hand at writing for a non-farming audience. My first entry has now appeared on a Huffington Post Blog. I’m trying to capture some of the feel of a typical day’s farming seen through the eyes of a newcomer. If nothing else, it’s a link I can send my friends to explain what I actually do with cows all day!