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A Farm Thronging With Birds Of Prey

It's Calving Time

It’s suddenly autumn. There’s still some beans to harvest, and a third cut of silage to make as soon as we get a few decent days, but the farm is absorbed in calving right now.

Teo’s excellent fertility detection last winter means that around 90 cows will calve in the next few weeks, and every time I go past the calving paddock, there are at least two more babies. We try to calve outside when the weather is good enough. The cows seem to have fewer problems; they can find a quiet spot away from the herd, and there is less risk of disease too. However much straw you put in a barn, it’s never as clean as a field…as long as we keep the maternity unit moving onto fresh ground, and it’s always fascinating to see what the cows are eating from the hedgerows. Here they seem to be tucking into nettles, which I believe are supposed to be good for milk production.

Dairy farming has come under the spotlight recently, with heated debate about the fact that calves born to dairy cows are not reared by their mums. This, to me, has always been one of the toughest issues in dairy, and one of the main reasons at my organic farm we rear our calves on older dairy cows. At least the calves get a foster mum, and the cows who have served us well in the milking parlour over the years have a chance to rear their calves and a few others, for the last phase of their life on the farm.

Weaning however, gets no easier when the calf is older…or even if is just a foster relationship. In fact, weaning at 6 or 8 months seems far more traumatic than at 2 days, judging by the noise, and the effort cows and calves will make to get back to each other. Gradual separation can help; stopping them suckling but maintaining contact across a fence for a bit … but this can be quite hard to achieve, especially outside. There are no easy answers here, though cows seem to readjust fairly quickly to the early removal of their calves. There are one or two interesting experiments with allowing cows to rear their calves while also producing milk for us, but no one seems to have cracked it yet on any scale. I have a hunch that it must be possible, especially with the once a day milking approach we tried earlier this year … but it needs a lot of investment and testing.

We have two brown Friesian heifers just coming into the herd, and by some coincidence, both calved last evening when I was in the field. Given how they stand out from the black and white crowd, they will be an iconic pair for the Eastbrook herd for years to come. 

My slandering of the Red Kites last month has led to lots of feedback, including quite a few people who have seen them tackle fairly large live dinners. Anyway, the rate of loss has slowed dramatically. It seems that those chickens who cower submissively when approached are the ones that have been eaten, and the ones that run have survived! What is remarkable is how good a job the chucks do in keeping the trees weeded, once there’s bare earth or woodchip around the base to scratch and peck in.