Dairy farming in Dorset
When Christina got hold of Dorset dairy farmer, Andy Baggs, to see if he would consider letting us come and help out for the day to find out what dairy farming was all about, he was convinced that it was some kind of radio show wind up.
In fact, even when we pulled up in the van in his farmyard, he was still slightly suspicious, mainly, as we soon discovered, because he is the king of practical jokes himself and thought it was about time that somebody got their own back!
There we were though, wellies on, ready to get mucky and to find out what dairy farmers really get up to. Luckily we had already managed to avoid early morning milking – crikey – with the requisite 4am start we’d probably still be feeling jet lagged! But when Andy told us that our first job for the morning would be worming the cattle we began to think that we hadn’t got off so lightly and would soon be thrown in the – err – deep end.
First of all we needed to get the cattle, around a hundred Friesian heifers (female cows that are yet to give birth to a calf), out of the fields and into the yard, which involved a lot of opening and shutting gates, waving sticks about and looking like you had no intention of moving even though a huge cow was running towards you.
Confidence, we decided, was the name of that game. Worming, fortunately, has nothing to do with the back end of the cow and involves channelling them, three or four at a time, through a small gated area and squirting the worming mixture on their backs with a spray gun. Clever.
Next job was to size the heifers, and choose the thirteen biggest to be put to the bull. More channelling and gate opening and shutting needed, but this time the confidence came naturally. Once we had selected our lucky ladies, they were piled into the back of a cattle trailer and deposited in a field to ‘run with’ the bull.
Obviously, the production of milk requires that the cow be in lactation, which is a result of the cow having given birth to a calf. Also, please spare a thought for one London teacher at the Farming to Food Show who thought that you had to kill a cow to get its milk!
Milking. With our limited knowledge of dairy farming, we had no idea how long this took! We got there at about 2pm, got aproned up, and by the time we had finished washing down the parlour it was about 6pm.
Ideally each milking session should be twelve hours apart and, with the milk truck coming every other day at about 6pm, this explains the early starts. Farmers use many different styles of milking parlours, but this one felt a bit like a submarine engine room, with us standing below the cows with a row on either side of us so their udders were at arm level.
We moved the cows from the holding pen to the parlour, one row at a time, and while they got some nosh, we got milking using the automatic vacuum system. Each cow took about five minutes, but some took a lot longer which holds the whole process up a bit as you need to wait until each one has finished before you let a new row of cows in and start the process all over again.
But, we thoroughly enjoyed our day and learnt a lot. We love milk anyway but will probably appreciate it a lot more now we know how much work goes into producing it!