Day 1 on the farm: Sheep Shuttering and Milking

I started the day by helping to herd sheep through a foot bath. I’d thought sheep farmers basically left sheep alone in the fields, but I was very wrong!

The sheep get brought into the pens regularly, for worming, foot baths, vet checks, clipping and weighing. The process starts in September, ewes are brought in and their condition checked. Any old sheep with broken teeth, or those in poorer condition are put to the tupp (male sheep) early in the autumn. They will lamb in February and this will be their last. Younger healthier ewes are put to the tupp a few months later so they will lamb later in the spring. This system allows the shepherd to  give greater attention to sheep that might experience difficulties and ensures a supply of lamb to the market for a longer period.

Ewes are scanned during pregnancy to determine how many young they are carrying. Twins are optimal as lambs only have two teats and so the shepherd rearranges the young at birth, swapping triplets to ewes that have only had one lamb. After an overnight observation they are put back out into the field at a density of around 8 ewes and her lambs per hectare. Ensuring that lambs born at different times are getting all the veterinary care they need and maintaining an optimal grazing density requires a lot of organisation and the lambs are frequently moved around the paddocks.

Today, some of the lambs will be taken to market, at around 12 weeks old. They’ve been brought in and weighed and their condition checked for an optimal meat:fat ratio. Lambs of around 39 kg are been taken to market, others are left to fatten up. A later born group of lambs are been weaned, separated from their mothers, in a process called ‘shuttering’.

In the afternoon I joined Richard, the dairyman. He’d been up since 4.30 am for morning milking and was just about to start the afternoon round. Richard explained that rearing a female calf (heifer) to deliver her first calf, at about two and a half years old, costs £1,500. For this reason they cross black and white cows (Holstein) with Danish red. Holsteins have better milk production but tend not to be as strong so the cross ensures healthy, longer living cows that are overall more productive.

Richard is milking 200 cows with another 50 ‘dried off’ while they get ready to calve. Even though the parlour is modern and has automatic milking machines, milking 200 cows takes a long time! 14 cows can be milked at a time. They have electronic tags so that they are recognised as they enter the parlour. They are then given the correct amount of dry feed, which has been calculated for their age, condition and stage of lactation. The system can also recognise if the cow is on any medication, such as antibiotics for mastitis and therefore the milk shouldn’t go into the main system. Richard also has coloured tape on the tails of these cows as a failsafe.

Each cow gets its teats wiped down to ensure no dirt gets into the milk and to stimulate them. This gets hormones working and makes them give their milk more quickly, it takes a couple of minutes but overall is a time saver. After milking the teats remain open for about half an hour and are subject to bacteria and infection getting in. Therefore the teats are sprayed all round with an antibacterial spray to protect them.

Each cow is producing between 7,000 and 10,000 litres of milk per year. But to produce this they need to eat 52kg of food and drink 70-80L of water per day! This has made me appreciate how valuable access to free drinking water is to the farm; here a borehole supplies drinking troughs in each field. They get complete feed with  barley, oats and soya for protein pretty much the whole year round although they graze outside from mid-April to beginning of October. As with sheep, there is a tremendous amount of organisation to ensure that the grazing is optimal for the cattle and for the pasture. Richard has split the grass into 5 ha paddocks and leaves cows there for one or two millings (ie. 12 hours or 24 hours) depending on the condition of the grass sward.

With this much food intake you’d imagine there’d be a lot of waste but I was still astounded by the amount of manure left in the parlour after milking. Richard washes down with a high pressure hose and although he is very conscious of minimising the water use it still takes a lot to get the parlour clean. All of this will go straight into the slurry tank and can only be spread in dry conditions, at certain times of year to minimises water pollution, especially as the farm is within a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone. The need to make sure that there isn’t rainwater or unnecessary run-off filling up the slurry tank is really obvious when you see how much slurry it actually has to store.

We finish at around 6.30 pm, a very long day for Richard. He will be milking again at 5am. Although I’ve really enjoyed milking and learnt a lot, I’m very thankful that I won’t be!

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