Apparently – I have it on the authority of Radio 5 live – the third Monday in January, Monday past, is officially the most miserable day of the year. The last festive goodwill has evaporated, everyone is back at work – a strange enough concept for farmers and farm staff looking after livestock through Christmas and New Year – and for too many the return to reality is a wake-up call from their credit card company or bank.
Add the weather, even though that has recently been about average for January after the excesses of December, and the constant government warnings that things can only get tougher, and it is possible to see why someone decided that this particular Monday, more than any of the other 51 in the year, is likely to be most miserable.
To bring a little cheer into my drab life this week, I turned to Practical Farm Ideas, edited by the ever-cheerful Mike Donovan. A list of a few of the contents gives an idea of what lies within: A farmer in Ireland, paralysed from the waist down after an accident designed and built a hydraulic hoist attached to his tractor so that he could return to work; a trailer with individual pens to get ewes and lambs from lambing shed to field; a piglet revival box made from an old fridge; a baler air-blast cleaner for £150; and a wide range of home-made, innovative, equipment used by brothers Brian and Derek Punton in managing their 2,500 sow herd at Brow of the Hill, Berwickshire.
For those many farmers who modify, adapt, design and make equipment and love time spent in a workshop, much of Practical Farm Ideas will be familiar and I’d be surprised if some don’t say: “Been there. Made that. Mine is better. And that idea won’t work very well because …”
Mr Donovan points out that we can all learn something from his quarterly magazine and that at £14.75 annual subscription “one idea adopted will more than pay for that.” His can-do attitude to farming and publishing might be simplistic, but it is refreshing. His address is 11 St Mary’s Street, Whitland, Carmarthenshire, SA34 OPY.
I found something else cheering in notice of a speaker at this week’s Quality Meat Scotland conference in Perthshire. Fenwick Jackson, who farms with his father, also Fenwick, at Kersheugh, Jedburgh, was talking about using technology to benefit management, animal welfare and their business and the technology referred to involved electronic identification (EID) of sheep.
The compulsory introduction of EID this year under European Union rules has produced millions of words of anger and frustrations.
The result, as anyone who takes more than a passing interest in EU history could and did forecast, was to leave EU officials unmoved and legislation unchanged. Rather than putting so much time and effort into protesting, some of us suggested, why not try to turn the problem into a positive and use EID as a management tool?
Mr Jackson said this week of EID: “With this technology being imposed on us, we opted to make some proactive decisions and add readers and software” – to an already impressive sheep handling system – “to collect information about our flock.”
That, he said, would be used to keep track of an animal’s life data such as growth rate, breeding information and the performance of various crosses.
The last-named is obviously particularly useful at Kersheugh with more than 3,000 breeding sheep and several breeds including Wiltshire Horn, Katadhin – hair rather than wool – Lairg Cheviot, Scotch Mule and Easycare, producing crosses suited to farm and management. The reaction of more traditional sheep farmers to a mix of breeds like that, and of a positive approach to EID, should be interesting.
The Scottish Dairy Cattle Association’s annual survey, reveals that 51 more dairy farmers quit last year claiming poor returns and supermarket squeezing, although the number of cows being milked rose by more than 2,000.
As the number of dairy farmers in Scotland slides towards 1,000, the average size of herd increases and supermarkets continue to be supplied so that they can sell milk more cheaply per litre than bottled water.
Milk production continues to be mainly in the wetter, milder, parts of Scotland with, for example, 169 herds in Dumfries-shire, 240 in Ayrshire, 141 in Wigtownshire, average size of herd for Scotland 156. The relative few in the east tend to be bigger – only two dairy herds left in Peeblesshire, average size 381 cows; three in Berwickshire, average size 363; 10 in Roxburghshire, average 235; and two in East Lothian, average 246.
A final cheery thought – the chance for a forward-thinking farmer to win £4,000 from the Elizabeth Murray Trust, in association with NFU Scotland. What’s needed to do that? An innovative farming practice involving, for example, managing land to avoid flooding, reducing CO2 emissions or integrating native woodland with grazing livestock.
There – more reasons to be cheerful than seemed likely at the beginning of this week.