Monthly Archives: December 2020

Bullocks and Barbadore

Bullocks and Barbadore

I know a lot of farmers’ sons have played rugby in their time. Certainly working with livestock gives you a lot of transferable skills as well as a higher than usual pain threshold and the ability to soak up damage. But then I was shown a video of Indonesian Cow Racing which does seem to take this to a whole new level

We once had a Belgian Blue heifer break out of the pen when we were TB testing them. She’s had her first measurements and jabs and then broke down a gate and made a run for it. She went through five hedges and at one point was only one hedge from the sea before she landed up with a bunch of dry cows belonging to a (distant) neighbour. I left her there and next day the neighbour brought his dry cows in and she came with them. She travelled home in a cattle trailer and was unloaded into the empty bull pen. (The bull was out working). She had the second half of her TB test when the vet read the lumps and decided she didn’t have TB. She stayed in the bull pen until we sold her fat.

Had I known that there was a market for cattle with her abilities I could have sold her into a new profession, but frankly I think they’d have struggled to find another to make the pair.

On the other hand I started out along the road to being able to cope with handling cattle young. One very popular game at our junior school was ‘Barbadore.’ There were two playgrounds, the one used by infants and junior girls, whilst the other was the junior boys’ playground. This was probably health and safety, it meant that a five year old didn’t find themselves in the middle of an impromptu no holds barred football game.

But in the boys’ playground the game was Barbadore. It was the game we just defaulted to. It’s a version of ‘British Bulldog’ and the name may come from the phrase. ‘Bar the door.’ Or it may not, who knows?

British Bulldog is played pretty much everywhere the British settled, although America may play a German version.

The rules are simple. You have one child who is the catcher. The rest of the children line up against one wall of the playground. On a signal (the catcher might shout ‘Barbadore’ for example) all the children run across the playground to the opposite wall. Touch the wall and you’re ‘safe’. In between, the catcher has to catch another child and in our version of the game, hold them off the ground long enough to shout ‘Barbadore.’ The child becomes a catcher and you now have two catchers. Each time the children run backwards and forwards across the playground more and more of them become catchers and finally the last child to be caught becomes the first catcher for the next game.

It’s pretty much an entirely egalitarian game. There are no teams as such but every child can take part and feel useful. Even the little one can still jump onto the back of the great lumbering lout and be part of pulling him down and then throwing him into the air shouting Barbadore. It teaches useful life skills and played on tarmac, it’s character building. Indeed my daughter commented that when she was at junior school, it was mixed with girls playing it as well as boys, to the same rules.

Because she’s involved in schools she has watched as over the years schools have banned the game, only to see it come drifting quietly back in again. Some schools have given up and produced a ‘tag’ version of it.

When I was at junior school our headmaster did manage to stop us playing it without banning it. He just kicked a football out into the yard and did nothing else. Immediately we formed two ‘teams’ which composed all those boys present. The usual rules of football were followed, without bothering about details such as the off side rule, number of player per side etc. It wasn’t quite as rough as Barbadore, but there were more accidental collisions. One issue was that occasionally the ball would go over the wall into the garden of the house next door. Given the wall was six feet high and the fence on top of it a further six or more feet, climbing over to get the ball back demanded agility.

The owner of the house got fed up, not so much over the ball, but over the boy who would inevitably follow it. (I don’t think it occurred to anybody to knock on the door and ask for permission.)
So they confiscated the ball and gave it back to the head master who was very stern and told us we couldn’t have the ball.

So next playtime we just went back to Barbadore again. After a week he relented and the ball reappeared, until next time.

Once I got to ‘Big School’, Barbadore was out of the question. Given the disparity in sizes I think pupils decided that for themselves. There wasn’t the same ‘communal game’ except occasionally somebody would kick a ball vertically into the air. Immediately everybody (or at least two or three hundred of the lads present) would pile in and we had a game which involved aspects of football and rugby. There weren’t any rules as such, there was no goal, no team, no formal aim. For younger boys merely touching the ball and surviving was enough, for older boys the better rugby players would take the ball and run with it. At least they did for a while until they disappeared under a heap of their peers.   

There were ‘issues’ in that the girls’ school playground was next to ours, separated by a narrow turf strip, which had four or five trees growing in it. Somebody kicked the ball high, the wind took it and it was coming down over the girls’ playground. Two or three of us ran for it and I managed to be the one who caught it on the first bounce. Then we suddenly twigged where we were and scattered. I tucked the ball under one arm, put my head down and ran parallel to the grass strip, avoiding the School Mistress who was shouting at me. (I’ve not got a clue what she was shouting because I didn’t stop to listen), swerved to avoid one tackle, sold the dummy to another of the girls’ prefects who was trying to stop me, accelerated through a gap in the line, through the trees, in to school by one door, along the corridor, out by another door, kicked the ball into the air and faded into the crowd, just another nondescript fourteen year old, anonymous in school uniform.

So let’s be honest here, when bullocks start getting fractious, I’ve been dealing with this sort of stuff since I was seven.

These skills never leave you. I was feeding some suckler cows in a field that slopes pretty steeply in places. Not only that due to the nature of the soil, the turf has a habit of just shearing from the soil below it. It means you’ve got to be careful coming down with a tractor. Don’t brake too sharply or you won’t stop, you’ll just start sliding.

The same is true for cattle who come running down to meet you when you’ve got a bag of feed. The obvious thing to do when ten or eleven hundredweight of suckler cow comes sliding down towards you, totally out of control is just to sidestep her. Then if, as she goes past, you slam into her, you push her sideways a bit and her feet will start to grip. This sounds a bit technical but you can end up doing it instinctively whilst doing something else, like counting who’s there, and seeing if that lame calf looks any better for the injection it got yesterday. I was doing this and a red shape was sliding towards me. So still trying to see the calf I sidestepped and then slammed back into the out of control bovine.

I realised at this point that I’d just body-checked the bull. To be fair he looked sheepish and a little grateful. After all I’d put him first in the queue for the feed which has to be worth a little humiliation.

♥♥♥♥

Anyway have a good Christmas

The fourth of these collections of anecdotes, rants, pious maunderings and general observations on life. Yes we have dogs, quads, sheep and cattle, but in this one we follow the ‘lambing year.’ It starts with ewes being put to the tup in late autumn and finishes in summer with the last of the laggards lambing.
But as well as this we have endless rain, as well as sleeping in a manger. Be brave and you’ll meet young ladies in high heeled cowboy boots, Sir John Moore of Corunna, brassieres for cows, and, incidentally, David Essex.

As a reviewer commented, “Should be mandatory reading for anyone moving to the countryside for the first time. Charmingly accurate and educational. Utterly first class.”

Welding muck in the rain.

According to somebody who knows, farmers and Royal Marines have at least one thing in common, an utter disregard for doing things by the book. (A blithe disregard of health and safety may be one of the other things they have in common.)  So over the years, my occasional ventures into agricultural engineering are such as to give proper engineers palpitations. Were any to stop to watch what I’m doing, they’d probably have to go and have a lie down.

Over the years I’ve had to do a lot of percussive maintenance with tractor mounted slurry scrapers. The problem is that these take a lot of hammer. They’re used at least twice a day whilst cows are housed, they’re marinated in muck (which does nobody any good) and they’re often used in the dark or semi-dark. So yes they get well used.

Now scrapers don’t have all that many wearing parts. There’s the rubber that makes contact with the concrete that does wear out. There are also the pins the scraper pivots on. Because for those who’ve never used one, a scraper is meant to be able to pull muck as well as to push it. Indeed when you stop and think about it, you want to be able to pull muck out of the building (so the scraper can get close to the back wall, the last thing you want is to have to shovel a tractor length of muck by hand.) and similarly you want to be able push the muck into the slurry pit. After all, pulling it into the slurry pit means that the tractor has to go first. This is generally something you try to avoid.

Actually in the picture at the top of the page, the pit cannot be all that deep, you can still see the tractor.

But back to the pins the scraper pivots on. In the picture, the red arrow points to one of them. The pin connects A to B. Obviously they’re pretty hard steel. The last thing you want is them bending and buckling so the scraper no longer pivots.

But when you have a piece of steel (like B) swinging on a hard steel pin, if B isn’t as hard as the pin then B is going to wear. So B should be pretty hard steel as well, but in fact you’re running to expense. At what point do we call a halt.

I’d love to discuss the design of these scrapers with somebody who actually understands it all, but as far as I can see, you want everything to fail simultaneously. After all, they aren’t going to last forever. In theory the rubbers can be replaced but by the time the rubber has worn out, the bolts holding it on are so rotted they have to be cut off and the ‘wings’ have taken so many knocks they are only half connected to the rest of the scraper. So using high quality expensive steel just makes the tackle even more expensive and won’t increase life all that much.
In theory if you wash the scraper off after each use it would extend its life. But frankly if you’ve got time to do that, you’re either employing too many staff or you’re not milking enough cows.

Anyway back to the scraper. B wears. In fact what happens is that, in slow motion, the pin cuts its way through the metal of B until the hole in B is actually a slot.

Now doing the job properly and thinking about it, when buying another second hand scraper, I’d weld a couple of hard steel washers to B, one each side of the hole. This I would do when things were dry and clean, in the workshop where I could lift and twist things so that I could get to weld it properly. That way it would take the pin so much longer to cut its way through. Yes, because life is so slow and relaxed round here I have always had time to do sensible stuff like that. Oh look, a unicorn.

Instead, this is agriculture and everything is done in a rush. One morning you discover that the pins have escaped, B has a slot rather than a hole, so you hammer the steel back into place (because once the pin has broken through, it stops wearing as much and starts bending the softer metal out of its way) and then weld a bit of steel across the top of the slot to hold the bits into place.

But remember that you’re welding steel that has been marinated in muck for some years. So things spark and splutter a bit. Also there’s the frantic looking round for a piece of steel to weld across. Obviously in the fabulously appointed workshop there’ll be all sorts of handy bits. I’ve patched scrapers up with all sorts of odds and sods over the years. On one occasion I ended up with what I suspect was an old clog iron from the sole of somebody’s clog. For reasons I never understood it had been tacked to a beam, perhaps they’d hung something from it? If they did it was at least a century ago and I’d got fed up of trying to avoid knocking my head on it and had taken it down.

But it was just the right size and thickness to weld as a band over the top of the metal I’d hammered back into place. So I cut it into lengths and held it in place with mole grips and welded it up. It is was barely drizzling, it wasn’t raining properly.

I think the technical term is ‘clagged it on.’

So a piece of blacksmith iron that came out of the forge perhaps a hundred and fifty years ago was used to cobble together something a little more modern. Not only that but whatever the analysis and temper it had had before I got to play with it, by the time the welder had heated it up, and the molten weld had soaked up the muck around it, I shudder to think what its properties changed to.

But any job that gets you ‘back on the road’ for the cost of two welding rods is a good job.

Always remember, if some other part of the scraper gives up the ghost before bit you repaired breaks again, it was a successful repair. If you want pretty, I suggest you follow the YouTube channel of one of the more fashionable ‘influencers.’

♥♥♥♥

There again what do I know, ask one of the experts featured below!

A collection of anecdotes, it’s the distillation of a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England. I’d like to say ‘All human life is here,’ but frankly there’s more about Border Collies, Cattle and Sheep.

As a reviewer commented, “

This is in the same league as Herrick, absorbing you into a different world, with its trials and tribulations making a background for the occasional moment of hilarity or joy. Hats off to Jim and his ilk, putting food on our tables despite our unwillingness to pay a decent price for it. I am frequently outraged that I live in a society which is prepared to pay more for bottled water than milk, and drowns the country in plastic in the process.

Jim manages to get this across without ranting and then uses his wry sense of humour to leave you howling with laughter at a series of events that a mere townie could never have imagined. Thanks for letting me into your world Jim – I am now committed to changing my behaviour and paying the extra for local, seasonal produce.”

Funny what sticks in your mind

I remember the lyrics,

“All good things around us,

Are paid for by the bank,

So don’t forget, oh don’t forget, the manager to thank.”

I read them in a copy of Farmer and Stockbreeder many years ago. A farmer’s wife had sent them in as suggested new words to ‘We plough the fields and scatter’ which were more appropriate to the industry of the day.

Another strange thing that sticks in my mind are two lines from a song written for the satirical radio show, Weekending. It was a spoof lament, supposedly sung by the Scottish football manager after the team’s performance in the 1978 world cup. The only bit I can remember is

‘Willy Johnston’s like a lark

He’s high and on the wing.”

There again, I do occasionally remember stuff which might be useful. One is a comment made by John Cherrington, farmer, agricultural journalist and broadcaster who was in a fair way of businesses. Back then the arable men were king and he was something of a ‘barley baron’, although he grew a lot of wheat as well. But unusually he still kept a flock of sheep and he also had quite a big pig enterprise. On a programme (or perhaps in an article) somebody had asked him why he kept on the sheep and pigs, because compared to grain at the time, they weren’t all that profitable.

It was his answer that stuck with me. I’m quoting what he said from memory so it won’t be word perfect.

“You see, I have the pigs because I’m a bad farmer. All my neighbours produce fabulous crops of high quality wheat and barley. They never produce anything that the buyer turns his nose up and will only pay a pittance for. But being a bad farmer, I do produce some of that stuff, but I can sell it to my pig unit at full price and the pigs don’t care.

As for the sheep flock, you can sell sheep pretty much at any point of the year. You can sell them when they’ve just lambed and have lambs at foot, and you’ll have a good trade. You can sell them when they’ve run with the tup and they’re scanned and can be given out as in-lamb. You can even sell them when the lambs have been weaned and the ewes are now dry, because people are always looking for some more ewes to tup.

Now the value of my sheep flock is the same as my maximum overdraft. So if the bank manager ever plays silly beggars and starts talking about putting charges up too much, or wants me to reduce my limit, I simply sell the sheep, pay off the overdraft and shift banks. He knows I can and will do that.”

But looking even further back I can remember there was a programme on the BBC called Tonight. It was hosted by Cliff Michelmore and ran up until 1965. They’d often have a singer on it who would sing a song that was hopefully topical and comic. I remember the words to one verse, sung to the tune of Hark the Herald Angels Sing

“Hark the Harold Wilson Sing

Blame George Brown for everything thing.

Peace on earth and pint of mild

God and Mammon reconciled

See the cost of living rise

Freeze the price of all mince pies

Hark the Harold Wilsons Sing

Blame George Brown for everything thing.”

Back then a comic had to be able to get a laugh out of all political parties, but also all professions as well.
I remember the verse from another song, sung by a folk singer who was taking a poke at all those people who looked down on him because he was a mere folk singer.

“Doctors and teachers, exams must pass,

If ere they want to rise above the working class.

And if perchance, they just scrape through.

I’ll give you ten to one that they look down on you.”

There are times when I wish I could remember something useful. I suppose one piece of advice that did stick was from one farmer a lot of years older than me. I was collecting a weigh-crush. Milk quotas had just come in and we’d decided to start finishing some bull beef, and because of handling them, we needed a crush. Then because the weight you sold them at was a bit crucial, so we might as well get a crush that could weigh them.

As I collected it from the agricultural engineers this old chap was watching me and then asked why I was buying it. When I explained, he just said, “When I was a lad, I was told that if a bullock had shoulders like my father, and a backside like my mother, it was ready to go.”

I suppose that is correct now as it was then. And then there was another old farmer who told me, “You can be too busy working to make money.”
He was right as well.

♥♥♥♥

There again, never confuse me with somebody who knows what he’s talking about, try speaking to the experts.

A collection of anecdotes, it’s the distillation of a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England. I’d like to say ‘All human life is here,’ but frankly there’s more about Border Collies, Cattle and Sheep.

As a reviewer commented, “
This is a selection of anecdotes about life as a farmer in Cumbria. The writer grew up on his farm, and generations of his family before him farmed the land. You develop a real feeling for the land you are hefted to and this comes across in these stories. We hear of the cattle, the sheep, his succession of working dogs, the weather and the neighbours, in an amusing and chatty style as the snippets of Jim Webster’s countryman’s wisdom fall gently. I love this collection.”

“Don’t do stupid things.”

Apparently, Mr Whitty urged people not to do “stupid things” at Christmas. I suppose the obvious response to this would be to abandon any plans you have to invest in agriculture and food production!

But now the official guidance from the civil service is not to hug granny. Granny might be glad of this, I don’t know. But I was on the phone to one person and she remarked she had had no physical human contact for some months. She was contemplating a hair appointment and commented that she wasn’t sure she could cope. It’s so long since anybody touched her she found the idea of being touched by a stranger disturbing. The damage this pandemic is doing to people will still be emerging in three or four years’ time.

But the big problem is the total inability of our civil service to cope. At the moment ministers are taking a lot of the flak which is fair enough. I suspect that it’s getting increasingly difficult to find competent people who are willing to go into politics. But the real problem is that the civil service is completely out of touch. Look at their habit of producing increasingly restrictive diktats which are totally impossible to police.

This isn’t new, I am constantly reminded of Foot and Mouth. The levels of incompetence achieved then seem to be equalled or even exceeded now. We had a Prime Minister who wanted to declare the disease over so he could hold a general election. We had senior civil servants who had utterly lost control of events. I know one person, comparatively junior, who was left in charge of a sub-department because everybody else had been seconded to do something else. I remember him saying that because so many offices were being set up ‘elsewhere’ people were ordering computers and other IT systems and when they arrived the kit was just being loaded into taxis and sent to addresses in and around London. He was left wondering how many people just got themselves a new home computer.

But we were on about civil servants being out of touch. Firstly because of the risk of the virus, you couldn’t allow livestock to cross a road. The problem is that you had dairy herds with no winter forage left who had to go out across the road to eat grass. This produced discussions. There were even people advocating shooting the herd as a matter of ‘welfare’. Eventually sanity prevailed and you could get a licence to move dairy cows across the road and back for milking. But sanity only prevailed a little bit. If one of those cows calved when she was across the road, you could fetch her back, but you couldn’t fetch her calf back! It wasn’t a dairy cow being moved for milking so it had to stay there. Well it’s one way to bring government into disrepute.

We had to get licences to turn our heifers out. But the big problem was getting a licence to move our bull to join them. At one point you couldn’t move an animal along a road, only across the road. So you could move it from one field to another provided the gates were directly facing. So I had to send the MAFF office in Leeds a map showing the route our bull was going to take. To be honest I might have ‘drifted’ the gateways a bit on the map because some of them aren’t perhaps directly opposite each other.

So the licence came through and we set off to move him. Instead of just moving him 150 yards, we had to lead him on a complicated route that was probably close to a mile. The cutting edge team of stock persons consisted of my lady wife, my mother and my good self. The bull, Ted, was a home bred sim-luing we used successfully on heifers for several years. He was big, and fortunately he was good natured, because we were about to trespass on that good nature. Remember that when we set off on our expedition, Ted could see the heifers. So we started by moving him in exactly the opposite direction. Anyway we moved him through fields where he normally spent time in the summer, so he was happy enough, obviously he thought that there was another batch of cattle waiting for him. Eventually we got to the place where we had to constantly cross and recross the lanes. (By the way, these roads we were avoiding were single track lanes that don’t get a lot of use.) The first place where we had to cross the road was at the top of a hill. I opened both gates, my mother stood on one side of the road to stop him going one way, my lady wife stood on the other side to stop him going the other way, and I walked behind him to guide him forward. As Ted (all 850kg of him) stood in the middle of the lane he could look down the hill and see the field where the heifers were. (And also, about 150yds from the heifers but slightly further from us, he could see the yard where he’d spent the winter.) He looked at my mother, looked at the empty field he was expected to go into and with immense courtesy, he carefully stepped past my mother and walked calmly down the lane and round the corner to the field where the heifers were. There he stood quietly by the gate waiting for me to open it for him. I mean, I’d tried, I even showed him the bluidy licence.

And then there was the ‘disinfecting’ the roads after stock had crossed. I cannot swear to what we were using, not after 20 years. It was probably sodium carbonate, washing soda, the cheapest and least polluting thing on the list. I would mix it up in ten gallon churns, these I would take to the bit of road to be disinfected, and I would carefully pour the magical liquid onto the lane and my mother and wife would scrub the road with yard brushes. To be honest I wish I had photos. It was a cold spring, and we were well wrapped up. With the two ladies wearing multiple layers, topped off with old coats, wearing wellingtons and head scarves, one of them commented they probably looked like peasant women from an early soviet newsreel.

On one never to be forgotten day, we’d just moved some stock and I’d backed up the hill with the tractor to bring the ‘disinfectant’ to the site. As we scrubbed the road a car came roaring up the hill, couldn’t get past the tractor and sat there blowing his horn. I went back to inform him that we were disinfecting the road and as he’d driven on un-disinfected road we’d have to disinfect his car as well. I consoled him with the thought that the substance we were using wasn’t very corrosive. When he started to explode I pointed out that if he didn’t like it I’d just phone the police and they would come and impound his car until it had been properly sterilised. I then went back to where we were cleaning the road. I didn’t want to spoil things by looking back but I could hear him reversing at speed down the road and away. Some people do bring joy to an otherwise dull day don’t they?

There again, I can remember being lied too by at least three civil servants. We had gone out of dairy but I still had some heifers coming up to calve and somebody wanted to buy one of them off me. So everything was agreed, he actually paid me, and I would get the licence to move it. I got together all the paperwork and faxed (FMD must be the last ‘fax’ emergency. We still have a couple of rolls of fax paper left from the box we bought. We no longer have a fax.) it to Leeds which was the office we had to deal with. After a week I phoned. The person who took the call put me on hold as they checked and said that our paperwork had arrived and was being dealt with.

Nothing happened to next week I phoned again. Again the person taking the call put me on hold as they went to check, came back and said that the licence was ready and was just waiting to be posted out.
A week later I phoned again (the heifer was starting to look as if she wasn’t far from calving by this time) and I was told the licence was in the post.

Nothing appeared so three days later I phoned and the person at the other end went to check and came back to tell me that my application hadn’t arrived and there was no record of it ever having been seen or dealt with. I may have got sarcastic at that point. I may even have asked to speak to somebody more senior (but they were all out to lunch.)
So I resent the paperwork and phoned later that day to check that it had arrived. In an unguarded moment the person (a different person every time remember) said that it had and that it was being worked on. I phoned every day until finally, a week later, we did get the licence and got the heifer moved sharpish.

But the incompetence and inability to keep track of what was going on wasn’t limited to one or two offices.

When a foreign vet arrived to work on FMD they arrived at the airport and a fully equipped car hire car was waiting for them. Not merely a car, but the maps they’d need, the paperwork they’d need and a full vet kit. A chap I knew pretty well put the kits together and sold them to MAFF. They included all sorts of things a vet might need, including the aerosol marking paint sprays they used to mark various livestock.

So a South African vet arrived, found his car, left his luggage in it, and went to phone to find which office he should report to. He came back to find that a can of aerosol marker had exploded and the whole of the inside of the car was green.

Now these were all new cars so it would probably have to have everything ripped out and replaced. Not a cheap option. MAFF informed my friend that a can had exploded. They said that a bill would follow once they’d had the car dealt with. My friend frantically phoned the company that produced the paint sprays. The chap at the other end was entirely sympathetic. Apparently there had been problems with a batch and every so often one of them did that. It might have been one in a 100,000 or something. Anyway their insurance covered it, so when MAFF sent him the bill, all he had to do as to forward it and they’d pay it.

So my mate relaxed a bit and got on with work. He never did get the bill from MAFF. He couldn’t work out whether somebody in an office somewhere felt it was easier to let the taxpayer cover the cost than send out the invoice or whether the system was so chaotic that they just lost it.

♥♥♥♥

But then don’t get carried away with the idea that I might know what I’m talking about. Talk to the experts!

 

The fourth of these collections of anecdotes, rants, pious maunderings and general observations on life. Yes we have dogs, quads, sheep and cattle, but in this one we follow the ‘lambing year.’ It starts with ewes being put to the tup in late autumn and finishes in summer with the last of the laggards lambing. But as well as this we have endless rain, as well as sleeping in a manger. Be brave and you’ll meet young ladies in high heeled cowboy boots, Sir John Moore of Corunna, brassieres for cows, and, incidentally, David Essex.

As a reviewer commented, “This book charts a year in the life of a Cumbrian sheep farmer. It’s sprinkled with anecdotes and memories of other years. Some parts (especially when featuring Sal, the Border Collie) were so funny as to cause me to have to read them out loud to my husband. It’s very interesting to read these things from the pen of the man who is actually out there doing it – usually in the rain! A very good read.”