Category Archives: Uncategorized

Testing times when you’re trying to find a better class of monkey for the circus

Testing times when you’re trying to find a better class of monkey for the circus

As you can imagine, a slaughterhouse will get an awful lot of paperwork, and a lot of it has to be properly disposed of because it’s government documents. So a manager I know installed a shredding machine to dispose of it securely. Last time I talked to him he saved this paper for bedding up the pen in the lairage that they put the old bulls in. As he said, bullshit to bullshit.


But yes, one for the problems of farming in Europe, (for the purposes of this blog, consider the UK, Switzerland and Norway to be part of Europe. I mean the geographical not the political entity) is that the inhabitants, the consumers, our customers, set high standards. It isn’t merely they want decent food, they want it cheap, and on top of that they want it to be produced with high animal welfare and environmental standards. The latest thinking seems to be that we farmers will cut our CO2 production so that they can continue to fly abroad on holiday.

Within the EU (and the western non-EU countries) there was a political acceptance that there was no way to square that particular circle other than by the state covering the costs that farmers couldn’t recoup from the market.

Now the world market price for some crops is set by the use of GM varieties. They can undercut EU produced crops produced to different (and more expensive) standards. Even if you don’t accept these standards as higher. It’s the same with beef (and not using hormone growth promoters) or milk (unable to use bovine somatotropin.) Whether European farmers should or should not use these products is a different argument. I start from where we are.

Then there’s the weird randomness of regulation that suddenly hits farmers. For example the EU suddenly introduced the Three Crops Rule. It required farmers with more than 30 hectares of arable land to grow at least three different crops on that land. Even if they didn’t want to. Even if they hadn’t got suitable machinery, storage or a market.

The reason this came about what probably because of the Germans. The EU encouraged biodigesters to produce energy. The idea was that they would turn pig slurry or whatever into clean, green energy. The problem was that you cannot efficiently run a biodigester on pig slurry alone. But add some maize silage and it works well. From what I’ve been told the more maize silage the better. As always with political decisions, the law of unintended consequences is the only law that is ever binding. To quote,

“A combination of bioenergy, especially biogas, with livestock activities, have together been a strong engine for the “maizification” of the German countryside. In northern parts of Lower Saxony, e.g., the district Rotenburg (Wümme), there are more than 150 large biogas plants and maize is grown on 63% of the total arable land. In some areas, this rises to 75%, and places even greater pressure on biodiversity.

“The conversion of the cultural landscape to maize has displaced many grassland birds. In this way, Northern Lapwing, Grey Partridge, Eurasian Curlew, and other species have no future. Nests are being destroyed and feeding grounds have become worthless. For species like the Barn Owl and Red Kite, life has become even more difficult as giant grasses and maize remove the clear views from fields where they normally hunt for prey. When food is scarce, breeding success declines or even worse, no chicks survive.”

https://www.eubioenergy.com/2016/05/24/corn-mania-the-absurd-hunger-for-bioenergy-in-germany/ 

So the EU realised they had to stop this. But being politicians and bureaucrats the last thing they were going to do was go to the Germans and say, “Come on chaps, let’s stop taking the mickey here.” After all to do that would have been to admit a policy failing. Heaven forfend!
So they brought in the three crop rule so farmers in, for example, the UK, Greece and Spain who hadn’t been taking the mickey, were hit by a whole new raft of regulation. So, in a nutshell, that’s one of the reasons why agriculture in Europe needs support.

Now we’re leaving the EU, and the UK government has seen this as an opportunity to put in a better agricultural support system, one tied to delivering environmental benefits. Obviously there are arguments to be had over this, but nobody seems to have started from the stance that after decades of trying, the EU system had reached such a high level of perfection that it would be foolish to abandon it.

The government (this is well before the last election so we’re thinking May as PM, not Boris, so it’s not an attack at one or the other) put forward a timetable. Under this, the current support, BPS (Basic Payment System) would be tapered off and the new system, ELMS (Environmental Land Management System) would be brought in to take up the strain. The idea behind ELMS, to make sure that the money goes to provide clean air, clean water and all sorts of other environmental benefits is basically a good one. Creating a scheme from scratch to do it is complicated. The scheme designers couldn’t just tweak an existing scheme as no existing scheme attempted to do this.

But thanks to the monkeying about by MPs, everything got delayed. Given that we had two years where, effectively government couldn’t govern and nobody knew whether we were leaving or not, Defra was trying to plan the future with its hands tied. It was going to be the loser whatever happened. If we left and the system wasn’t ready, it would be Defra’s fault. But if we didn’t leave and Defra had spent £150million getting a new system ready to go, only to have all the work abandoned because we’d be sticking with the EU system, Defra staff would be slammed for wasting money.

Now the dates for tapering BPS have been set in political stone, but because of the political nonsense we’ve had to put up with, the ELMS system has slipped. So we’re no longer talking about a smooth transition from one to another. There’s going to be a gap of some years where there’s going to be no meaningful income coming in from either scheme. Now we cannot just expect the market to fill the gap. I mentioned about the way farm gate prices have fallen here

https://jandbvwebster.wordpress.com/2020/08/07/livestock-farming-where-did-the-money-go/

and in the world of covid, with a lot of consumers having a lot less money to go round, I foresee consumer resistance to higher prices. I can understand that.

But to be fair to Defra, they could see the problem. So they set about trying to tackle it. The obvious thing to do would just be to delay the taper. Things would happen two years later and that would sort the job. It would take no more staff, indeed if you handled it properly you could quietly withdraw staff from this scheme to start working in the ELMS scheme.

But no, Defra has suggested a whole new scheme, the Sustainable Farming Initiative (SFI). This scheme will ‘bring forward’ some things from the ELMS scheme into the years 2022-2024, but will be retired as ELMS takes over. Now to be fair to Defra they’ve got a lot of people working on ELMS. There’s a lot of things they’re trying to get right, like the inspection regime. The EU didn’t seem particularly bothered if it inflicted overly cumbersome and expensive inspection regimes on member states. But Defra feels that this is a chance to do something better. So obviously the people working on ELMS have to stay working on ELMS. Because if they don’t, ELMS will be even later. Similarly Defra cannot withdraw staff from BPS because they’ll still be busy. So they’re going to have to find people from somewhere to create a scheme from scratch and get it running in a very short period of time only to shut it down again. Surely it has to be easier and cheaper for everybody just to slow the taper on BPS. But apparently it’s set in stone because somebody’s staked their political credibility on it. (Between ourselves anybody who stakes their political credibility on the civil service delivering a scheme on time and to budget when the House of Commons hasn’t finished arguing over whether we’ll need a scheme anyway, hasn’t got any political credibility to stake but obviously I couldn’t say that.)

This starts to fit in with a broader picture. At the moment the ‘test and trace’ system is being widely abused. Somebody commented to me that government were foolish to announce targets. But with my experience of Defra, the civil service will ask for a target. After all they need something to aim at. Without a target they don’t know whether they’ve succeeded or failed. “Produce a world beating testing system” isn’t a target, it’s a political aspiration and it’s impossible for the civil service to deliver. “Be able to test 150,000 people a day and get the results back to them within 24 hours is at least something they can work to.

The testing system shows some of the unforeseen problems. You get the sample to the labs. Apparently people discovered that the medium they use to preserve the samples doesn’t kill the virus. So you’ve got all this live virus coming into the office. Because it’s a live virus it has to be multiply wrapped and the people unwrapping it have to be careful. All this takes far more time than anybody predicted. It’s the same with any government scheme, there will be something that nobody thought of that screws things mightily and takes a while to get right.

Now this is where MPs can come in and scrutinise things. The systems are there. We’ve recently had all sorts of dubious regulations brought in by statutory instrument. Whilst an individual MP cannot block them, they can put down a marker. To quote from the Commons library,

“Motions to annul a negative instrument can be tabled by Members of the House of Commons or members of the House of Lords. In the Commons, the motion is generally tabled as an Early Day Motion couched in the form of a prayer.  An example tabled by the Leader of the Official Opposition is given below:

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Education (Student Support) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 (S.I., 2015, No. 1951), dated 29 November 2015, a copy of which was laid before this House on 2 December 2015, be annulled. EDM 892, 08.12.2015

In order for a negative SI to be annulled, a prayer must be tabled and passed within 40 days of the instrument being laid. The 40 day period is known as praying time.

The Government will typically find time to debate an EDM praying against an SI that has been signed by Shadow Ministers, but is not obliged to. It is very rare for a Negative Instrument to be annulled; 1979 was the last time an SI was annulled in the House of Commons, in the House of Lords it was 2000.”


So if, for example, MPs of any party felt that government was going too far with regulations restricting personal liberty, they could pray against the regulation and force it to be debated in the house. Somebody told me that MPs seem to be happier moaning on twitter than in the Commons.

As an aside, somebody commented to me about the introduction of free public libraries, the act was driven by MPs not parties. I picked a couple of these MPs at random, here are their biographies from wiki.

Joseph Brotherton A nonconformist minister

In 1819, aged only thirty-six, Brotherton retired from the family business in order to devote his energy to his ministry. He used his position to actively improve the conditions of workers and campaign for reforms. Among his achievements the building of schools, the opening of a lending library and the establishment of a fund to support the victims of the Peterloo Massacre. He was also an overseer of the poor and a justice of the peace.

After the passing of the Reform Act 1832 which he lobbied for he was elected as Salford’s first member of parliament at the ensuing general election. He was re-elected five times, unopposed on two occasions. In parliament he campaigned against the death penalty, for the abolition of slavery and for free non-denominational education. He actively supported the Municipal Corporations Bill, which led to Manchester and Salford having democratically elected councils. He took an interest in the facilities provided by the new municipalities, and was largely responsible for the opening of Peel Park, Salford and Weaste Cemetery. And of course the introduction of free libraries across the country.

William Ewart

He was called to the bar at the Middle Temple in 1827, and the next year entered Parliament for the borough of Bletchingley in Surrey, serving until 1830. He subsequently sat for Liverpool from 1830 to 1837, for Wigan from 1839 to 1841, and for Dumfries Burghs from 1841 until his retirement from public life in 1868. In 1834 he successfully carried a bill to abolish hanging in chains, and in 1837 he was successful in getting an act passed to abolish capital punishment for cattle-stealing and other similar offences. In 1850 he carried a bill for establishing free libraries supported out of public rates, and he was instrumental in getting the Metric Weights and Measures Act 1864 passed to legalise the use of the metric system.

He remained a strong advocate for the abolition of capital punishment, and on his motion in 1864, a Royal Commission was appointed to consider the subject on which he sat. Other reforms which he advocated and which were carried out included an annual statement on education, and the examination of candidates for the civil service and army.

I think we need a few more MPs with Victorian Values! We might be better governed. At least these chaps new how to actually do something and get things done.

♥♥♥♥

 

There again, what do I know?

More tales from a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England, with sheep, Border Collies, cattle, and many other interesting individuals. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is just one of those things.

As a reviewer commented, “This is the third collection of farmer Jim Webster’s anecdotes about his sheep, cattle and dogs. This one had added information on the Lake District’s World Heritage status. This largely depends upon the work of around 200 small family farms. Small may not always be beautiful but it can be jolly important. If you want to know the different skills needed by a sheep dog and a cow dog, or to hear tales of some of the old time travelling sales persons – read on! This is real life, Jim, but not as I know it.”


The Dairy Farm in the year 2050

Yes, Prime Minister, if you’ll just walk this way please. I’m glad to see that your advisers made sure they bought you a pair of wellingtons especially for this trip. Oh? Wellington has been airbrushed from history because of his links with Slavery? Or Ireland? Whatever, just put them on.

The purpose of taking you round this comparatively ordinary dairy farm is to let you see what really happens here on a modern farm in 2050. Obviously as you’ve come up through the Environmental Movement you’ll know the theory. Oh, it’s just, ‘The Movement’ now. Sorry, we are a little out of touch here. But anyway your advisers thought it would be useful for you to know what really happens lest you do something to screw the system by accident. After all we don’t want more people going hungry.

When you look around you’ll see we’re quite a large dairy farm, one of the largest. We have a hundred cows and over a hundred and fifty staff. Each worker has one cow to look after. In winter, in the grazing season, they will accompany their cow as she grazes, in summer, they fetch her cut grass from store and fan her to keep her cool and keep away flies.

Where do all these people come from? Well they just walk here every morning, it’s only four miles from town. Oh, what did they do before they were in agriculture? A mixture of things really. We have people who lost their jobs with the collapse of the tourist industry, catering and hospitality, and the town centre retail trade. We have people who used to work in the distribution warehouses for the collapsed on-line retailers. Then there are people whose jobs were no longer necessary when the Movement took the necessary steps to reduce our carbon footprint. So we’ve several ex-journalists. There’s quite a few lawyers and accountants, several sheet metal workers and a lot of people who were in construction.

How do we pay all these people? A good question. The economics are quite simple. As you know, everybody nowadays gets the universal basic income. Seven kilos of kibble bars per head per week and a Netflix subscription. Working for us allows them some little luxuries. Each employee of ours will get three kilos of cheese a week. Even if they don’t like it, it allows them to enter the barter economy. But there are other perquisites. As we walk down to the farm, you’ll see that each side of the track there are a series of little plots, each about two meters by two meters? Each of our employees has one of these which they can cultivate. Here you’ll see somebody is growing Scots bonnet chillies. Yes, they’re quite a successful crop, I believe she does nicely selling them on the black market. People like to add them to the porridge they make by boiling up a kibble bar in water.

Another of our people has quite a nice opium poppy crop, I do think they make the area look quite attractive.

Yes, our people are enterprising. May I introduce you to Anna here. As you’ll see, she’s wearing ten of the new, Movement issued, fitbits. It was very enlightened of the Movement to proclaim that in an attempt to fight obesity and the illnesses caused by sitting around just watching Netflix, they’d issue fitbits. Promising to pay a bonus ration of fresh fruit and vegetables to those who do more than 10,000 steps was genuinely inspired. As it is, our people have been very busy. Everybody here is paid by friends and neighbours to wear their fitbit for them. Thus everybody wins.

How are they paid? Oh the usual, Prime Minister, barter, black market goods, sexual favours.
Anyway, we’re now at the farmstead proper. Because it’s the end of summer most of the cows and their handlers are out grazing. You might have passed several of them on your way here, we keep the grass down not merely on the verges but on the middle of the road as well. Because only officers of the Movement have access to cars it works pretty well.

As you can see, the cows are milked wherever is convenient and the bucket of milk is carried into here and poured through the cooler. Because it’s summer there isn’t as much water in the stream as usual, so it takes longer to cool the milk. So we make summer cheese and winter cheese with slightly different flavours. Here is the cheese room. Our cheese room team are working on one of our last batches of summer cheese. This will mature in our underground cool room, and then when it’s ready our distribution team will distribute it. It’s already wrapped in half kilo blocks, and we’ll take it into town. Actually our staff rather like that part of the job. They can sell any manure the horse produces on the trip.

As for distribution, as you probably know, anybody who has earned a virtuous worker token gets given a block of cheese. We collect the tokens and send them back to the Movement Headquarters. The feeling amongst our staff is that these tokens are miniature works of art. The Green logo from the old days of the Movement is most pleasingly depicted. As, might I say, is the scene of the tourist being hanged for her carbon footprint.

Meat? Now this is a tricky one. Since the introduction of compulsory vegetarianism, all male calves are sent to a Movement controlled fattening unit. You’ll be taken to that next. There they’re fattened and killed and the meat is supplied only to members of the Movement. They are the only people who can be trusted to eat it with the proper expressions of moral disapproval. Old cows? It has to be confessed in this matter we’re a little unconventional. They’re slaughtered here, and we produce stew which we serve to our staff. We did try sending them home with it, but there were endless problems with neighbours reporting them to the Purity Marshalls. It’s easier if they just bring their families here and we eat together.

Ah and here we have a delivery of cattle feed. Just step to one side please, Prime Minister, let the horses pull the dray round. Since the embarrassing discovery that repeatedly ploughing ground released more carbon than keeping it as grassland, the grain necessary for the population has been produced in the east, using no-till. Arable agriculture has been kept to an absolute minimum. Apparently these arable farms have special cultivators drawn by scores of oxen. I hope one day to see them. But as I was saying they grow the grain and the beans for the general population. A proportion of the better grains are kept for the work horses, whilst the poorer stuff, considered unfit for people, is sent either to us for cattle feed, or it goes to the environmental offenders labouring on the huge recycling lines in the re-education camps.

Each cow will get a varying amount of these nuts, depending on her stage of lactation, the quality of forage in her diet, and whether the bureaucrats working in the Movement’s central distribution office remember to send us some or not.

The ragged figures huddled under the hedge, Prime Minister? Oh, they’re part of our diversified enterprise. They’re the hedge wardens. Because of the major reforms the Movement brought in, we had no need for vast swathes of the civil service, so HMRC, DWP, Defra etc were all closed down and the bureaucrats working for them were repurposed. Most of them were re-employed as hedge wardens. A coffle of them were marched out here some years ago and set to work under a supervisor. They go round trimming the hedges, filling in gaps and planting and weeding. They’ve improvised a shelter out of branches and an old tarpaulin they found. They live there quite happily, winter and summer. They’re quite a fascinating group, I’ve watched them for hours through binoculars as they cook their kibble porridge over an open fire and season it with fruit, nuts, herbs, mushrooms and small animals they’ve caught. Don’t go too close, some of them can kill a rat with a thrown billhook at forty yards.
Oh yes, if we walk across here and watch from this vantage point, you’ll see the night soil carts arriving. We’re up-wind so it’s not too bad. Thanks to the closing of the urban sewers and the regulations insisting everybody moved back to dry closets, we now recycle one hundred percent of all our night soil.

Why are they pulling the carts themselves?  This is a punishment detail. All of them are members of the Movement who disagreed with the motion you put forward at the Movement’s last conference. As you most rightly say Prime Minister, “A wretched hive of scum and villainy.” Yes, I did read somewhere that you’d studied Classics with Media Studies for your degree. But back to our night soil. See how they leave it in small heaps, a shovel full every few yards. Once they’ve emptied the cart they’ll come back with rakes and spread it properly. I agree entirely, Prime Minister, it’s all they’re fit for. As an aside, isn’t the tall one wearing the broken spectacles with only one lens your predecessor?


 *****

There again, what do I know. You really need to speak to the experts!

More tales from a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England, with sheep, Border Collies, cattle, and many other interesting individuals. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is just one of those things.

As a reviewer commented, “This is the third collection of farmer Jim Webster’s anecdotes about his sheep, cattle and dogs. This one had added information on the Lake District’s World Heritage status. This largely depends upon the work of around 200 small family farms. Small may not always be beautiful but it can be jolly important. If you want to know the different skills needed by a sheep dog and a cow dog, or to hear tales of some of the old time travelling sales persons – read on! This is real life, Jim, but not as I know it.”

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance

Billy, walking the mean streets. When it comes to vermin control, he’s a leading player, and is pretty indefatigable. The other half of our vermin control is an enthusiast with an air rifle. It has to be said that with these two working in harmony and mutual respect, they have managed to keep on top of something that can be a problem on farms.

I prefer these two methods to poison, neither of our paladins is liable to kill a dairy cow by mistake. Not only that but they’re synergistic. The air rifle takes the big rats that might give Billy reason to pause, and Billy has the patience and cunning to take out the smaller stuff that somebody with a rifle might not even see.
Indeed if I see a rat and Billy is about, I’ll pick him up, carry him to where the rat disappeared and stand back. It’s impressive to watch as he catches the scent, the tip of his tail flicks, and he starts to cautiously follow the scent. It has to be admitted that he probably won’t catch a rat then and there, but he seems to mark the location and I won’t see a rat there again for quite a while.

But whilst these two paragons maintain constant vigilance to keep us free of rodent infestation, what about other problems that can beset us? Like, for example, the perpetual tide of bureaucracy and regulation which threatens to constantly overwhelm us.
Here we’re in the hands of others. The best analogy I’ve seen to describe the process is that we have two opposing forces, glaring at each other from opposing trench lines. The problem is, on one side you have, defending us, all sorts of factions and lobby organisations who are allies of convenience. There are issues they disagree on and even work against each other. So the National Farmers Union and the Country Land and Business Association represent different sides when discussing landlord and tenant issues.  But because they do have in their ranks a lot of proper grown-ups, they manage to work together pretty well at times. Think of our defenders as a collection of bickering barbarian warbands faced with the might of Imperial Rome and it gives you some idea of our dilemma.
But fortunately for us, the other side, which in theory should be joined up and efficient, is equally fragmented. Rather than the might of Rome, we see a score of bureaucratic empires, often at cross purposes, each pushing their own agenda. The fact that one faction within a bureaucratic empire is pushing forward with a policy that another division of the same empire has abandoned as unworkable is merely par for the course. Democracy survives because of bureaucratic inefficiency and division.

These two forces face each other, glaring across the great divide. But as I mentioned, there are proper adults involved. I’m trying to find a good example here of how grown-ups can get sensible things to happen. Ah, I’ve got one. When the EU introduced Cattle Passports, the UK had a reasonably casual attitude to them. You couldn’t move animals without one but if you were late applying for the passport, when you eventually remembered to apply, then the British Cattle Movement Service sent you the passport, but included a ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ reminder that we were supposed to apply within a fixed time after the calf was born. So effectively on this part of the front, the trenches were quiet, there was no shelling, and we even played football together in no-man’s land.

But then the EU decided this sensible attitude wasn’t good enough. Somebody in a Brussels office decided that a farmer couldn’t be expected to remember which calf belonged to which cow if they didn’t apply pretty damned quick after the calf was born. So they demanded the UK tighten up their systems. Indeed if the passport hadn’t been applied for within the time limit, the calf couldn’t ever get one and could never enter the food chain. So effectively it would just have to be shot and buried.

Now this produced problems. Farms are busy places, the office staff are the same people who’ve already put in a full day’s work before they spend a quiet evening relaxing doing paperwork. Stuff gets missed, perhaps because we’re silaging, or Granny’s ill and the family is spending the evenings hospital visiting, or whatever.

Now the farmer suddenly discovers that he hasn’t applied for a passport in time. Think about the situation for a moment. The only people present at the birth are normally the farmer and the mother. I suggest that never in the history of agriculture has a dairy cow contacted a government office to tell them she’s given birth. So the only witness who is going to testify is the farmer. So for somebody who is perhaps a little casual with the paperwork, there isn’t a problem. The date of birth can drift until suddenly the calf isn’t late and can get a passport.

But problems arise for the people who are scrupulously honest and want to get it done properly. They are the ones who would phone BCMS and say, “I’m late registering a calf, what can I do?” To which the only answer the bureaucracy left the people in BCMS was effectively, ‘Kill it now.’

So the EU created as system which only penalises the innocent. Luckily the grown-ups in opposing trenches were willing to do something about it. We talked to the staff at BCMS. They were only interested in making sure the mother and calf with firmly linked together. They are running a maternity tracing database. (That’s another story but not one for now.) When asked if they would accept DNA testing, the grown-up people in BCMS said they would be happy with it, but the various other factions within other bureaucratic empires wouldn’t allow them to.

So that’s where grown-ups got together. Somebody took a delightful picture of an utterly charming small girl with a remarkably cute calf. This appeared on the front page of a national newspaper. If you just read the article’s headline, it wasn’t entirely clear whether the government was intending to kill the calf or the child because their paperwork wasn’t entirely up-to-date.

Moving back to our trench warfare analogy, we mounted a short sharp offensive, and in the opposite trenches, the defenders, BCMS in this case, made no attempt to defend what they regarded as an indefensible position. So we advanced, shored up the flanks and dug in to face the inevitable counter-attack. This counterattack floundered on the fact that the government position had been damned silly and was virtually impossible to defend. Especially as BCMS kept saying that bringing in DNA testing to deal with the issue wasn’t a problem. So we got DNA testing.
Then somewhere along the lines there was another issue, another offensive and we had to rush reinforcements in to prop up a front before it collapsed. Otherwise we might have ended up with having to inform government when livestock moved from one field to another, rather than just one farm to another. Which was something the epidemiologists wanted initially, until it was pointed out that even a comparatively small dairy herd, say a hundred cows, would have to notify perhaps 400 movements a day and government couldn’t put the systems in place to cope with that volume of epidemiologically meaningless data.

I suppose the problem for most people is that they’re too far behind the lines to know what’s going on in any detail. Certainly for members of various organisations like the NFU and CLA, they might wonder what they’re getting for their subscriptions. It’s simple, as Thucydides said, “Having abundance of gold and silver makes war; like many other things, go smoothly.” A subscription is cheap!
If you want to see the result of bureaucracy untrammelled by lobby groups keeping it honest, the last few months have given us an object lesson. From local authorities rushing through bizarre road schemes without bothering to consult the people who live in the areas, to the ever more contradictory or irrational suggestions for what should or should not be allowed under lockdown. What you see there is the sort of nonsense you can see in any sector when the bureaucracy produces the draft regulations but before the various industry groups start asking questions and the grown-ups on either side quietly come to a sensible wording which achieves the desired effect without destroying the industry.  

But of course real life gets involved as well. During the course of writing this I had to go and do some real work. Some of it involved moving some heifer calves from one pen to another. Given it was chucking it down and we really didn’t need a rodeo we loaded them into a little quad trailer. I rode in the trailer to make sure none of them panicked and jumped out.
As I said to one of them, “You don’t need to piss all down my leg.”
But apparently she did.

Some days you’re the person who knows what is going on. Other days you’re just the guy in the trailer with three heifers and wet legs.

*****

There again, what do I know? Ask an expert.

Another collection of anecdotes drawn from a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England. As usual Border Collies, Cattle and Sheep get fair coverage, but it’s mixed with family history and the joys of living along a single track road.

As a reviewer commented, “Excellent follow up to his first collection of bloggage – Sometimes I Sits and Thinks – this is another collection of gentle reflections on life on a small sheep farm in Cumbria. This could so easily be a rant about inconsiderate drivers on country lanes and an incessant moaning about the financial uncertainties of life on a farm. Instead, despite the rain, this is full of wise asides on modern living that will leave you feeling better about the world. Think Zen and the Art of Sheep Management (except he’s clearly CofE…) Highly recommended, and worth several times the asking price!”

Agricultural Epidemiology and going back to school

Looking round yesterday everybody was busy. Combining, baling and carting straw, baling and carting round bale silage, each one was working flat out. I suspect the average age of drivers was a lot lower than what it’ll be next week when so many of them go back to school.

It’s been an ‘interesting’ harvest round here. We tend to be later than further south, and as August gets blown into September the whole thing can be pretty much catch as catch can. I noticed one field where the combine was leaving muddy wheel marks behind it. This isn’t a good sign.

I saw another field being scaled out for silage. The chap does try and make a bit of hay, because we’ve a decent trade locally selling it for horses. But whilst he’s managed to make some beautiful stuff this year on other fields, the weather was never right long enough to mow this one. Now he’s got a field of elderly grass that he’s mown. I felt some of it by the gate. Late August sunshine is never going to kill it, and indeed he rowed it up not long afterwards and it’s baled and wrapped. It’s just one of the gambles of farming. If he’d had a fine week in the last month and a half, he’d have produced something which would have been sought after, as a lot of horse people don’t want ‘seeds hay’ but prefer something older because they worry about the horse having digestion problems. Now he’s got some moderate round bale silage. A lot of horse people turn their noses up at it because of the danger of mould. So he’s probably hoping for a long winter then somebody will buy it off him for feeding big rough store cattle who will eat anything and thrive. The problem with agriculture is that the Bank will ask us to do a business plan, but to produce one that has even the most tenuous connection to reality, you really have to sit down with God and have him feed in his side of the job.

This set me off thinking about a lot of the tractor drivers working at the moment. I know lads who’ve not been at school since March and have been working seven days a week since then. One lad has effectively been half of a contracting business. Dad would drop him off at the farm with tractor and slurry tanker and leave him to it. My guess is that the tractor had ten horsepower for every year of the driver’s age. But having watched him at work, he’s perfectly competent. What intrigues me is how he’ll cope when he has to go back to being a schoolboy having been treated as a proper adult for the last five or so months. Looking at the forecast, I can see a lot of Dads asking their lady wife to phone the school to express doubts about the safety of their son going to school, what with the virus and everything. Or perhaps they might suggest she explain to the head that they’ve just come back from a heifer sale in France and have to quarantine for a fortnight? Otherwise they won’t get the straw cleared before the weather breaks.

Mind you, schools appear to be suffering from epidemiologists at the moment. We’ve seen them when they inflict farming. In the middle of a disease outbreak they’ll appear and put in place systems which they assure everybody will halt the disease in its tracks.
If you try to explain that the suggestions are impractical, impossible to implement, or just counterproductive the normal response you get is that ‘farming ought to become a modern industry’ and ‘if you cannot keep up, perhaps it’s time you left the industry.’

And now teachers have got them. I extend my genuine sympathy to every teacher and head who is trying to work out how on earth you follow the advice. (To be fair, you’re lucky it’s only advice, in agriculture, we just get regulation. But then they know we just ignore advice that is so bad that it’s just silly.)

I was talking to a friend. He has had to work all the way through the whole mess. Ships don’t build themselves and you can hardly take home a section of hull to work on in the back garden. So on the first day of school his lady wife has been instructed by the school that their two sons, aged four and six, have to be at school at exactly 9:30am. But because of bubbles etc., one of them has to be presented at the door at one end of the school and one has to be presented at the door at the other end of the school. (And don’t fetch the wrong child to the wrong door, perhaps because the bubble will pop.)
Alas for the epidemiologists, these two small boys share the same bedroom, use the same bathroom, and eat their breakfast at the same table.

There again somebody was telling me about her daughter’s dancing class. The hall has tape on the floor and each child (from what she said I doubt any of them are much over 12) has to dance in the socially distanced box created by the tape. The exceptions being when they’re taught those dances which you dance in pairs. When learning those dances two girls dance together in one box. Let’s not beat about the bush here, I’m not sure you can dance a socially distances waltz or tango.

Mind you, there’s one positive thing I’ve noticed. If you watched the responses to YouGov surveys, all through this summer, when asked about lockdown, the largest number of people asked always wanted the lockdown increased in severity. But last week when asked about opening schools I noticed that over 70% wanted all children to go back to school. Whether people are beginning to get over their fears, or are just desperate to get their children out from under their feet I don’t know.

Yesterday as Sal and I arrived back from feeding heifers, Sal noticed that some milk had been poured down a drain. (A cow had just calved and the first few milkings don’t get put into the tank.) Billy had found prime position for reaching into the drain to lap it up.

Sal walked behind him, put her nose between his back legs, and lifted him out of the way. Billy, somewhat indignant picked himself up and watched her. Sal then went to take his position so she could lap up some milk. But even as she took up position she stopped. I think she realised that she would leave herself open to Billy getting his own back. So she went round to the other side of the drain which wasn’t quite such a good place. But at least she could lap the milk and keep an eye on Billy at the same time.

Sal has learned that you cannot take the micky and not expect people to get their own back.

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, “A collection of blog posts that give a real insight into the harsh world of a small farmer. But this book is much more than that, imbued as it is with Jim’s trademark sly humour and his evident love of his countryside and his livestock. Excellent holiday reading.”

Welcome to the world’s most expensive broadband?      

scan-41

 

 

Well it’s official. We’ve had the formal notification. To quote,

 

“As discussed the detailed quote provided by Openreach to upgrade your connection under the Universal Service Scheme is

 £ 104,311.20    ”

 

So there you have it. I must admit that it struck me that this wasn’t so much a quote as a case of them saying, ‘Bog off and bother somebody else, kid.’

 

They were supposed to send me a breakdown of the cost, and now they have.

The quote received from Openreach is £ 104,311.20

 

Total Homes Passed=10

Network: Cables and Jointing=30%

Network Build Civils=60%

Planning and Other Issues=10%

I confess that if anybody presented me with this as a tender for a job I wanted doing, I’d probably glance at it, giggle, and drop it in the round filing cabinet before looking at the tenders from the professionals.

What did intrigue me was the comment about the number of homes passed. We had a quick look at Google maps to work out which they would be. Whether Openreach want me to negotiate with everybody to chip in I’m not sure. Or perhaps they just expect me to pay for it all and then they can phone them up and offer them a cheap connection? But one of the potential people on the route did ask Openreach about getting broadband a couple of years ago and was told they could have it for £10,000. They walked away from it. I suspect most of the ten will share the same robust disdain for being screwed. Indeed in some cases they’ll already have moved over to mobile broadband. So I would rate the chances of getting any of them to go shares on £104,311.20 as zero.

I decided to run through a few costs to produce a rough and ready estimate of my own. Now the nearest cabinet to us with fibre to it is just under two miles away, so we’ll call it three kilometres. This cabinet, Cab 26, is the one we’re connected to now. Admittedly our connection is an ad hoc assortment of elderly copper and nicely rotting aluminium but that’s beside the point. Cab 26 is the cabinet they have hooked in all those locally who get fibre broadband. Indeed the fibre optic cable that runs past the top of our lane to serve the village apparently comes via there. To the best of my knowledge the cable to the village is ducted, so they’d only have to thread a new cable through the existing ducting. However let us assume that we need to dig a trench the full way. It’ll be easy enough as it’s along a very wide grass verge on the side of the main road. Then when it gets to the top of our lane let’s assume we can bury it rather than string it from the poles that are already there.

 

So I got a quote from the chap I turn to whenever I need a digger. He’s dug and backfilled for water, gas, and electricity and he cannot see any problem with doing an armoured fibre cable. (Somebody I know who has done fibre optic cable work all round the world has mole ploughed the cable in in the past.)

Anyway, his bill for digging and backfilling the three kilometres would be £4,000.

 

Trying to find a price for cable itself is tricky. The chap I know who has laid cable all round the world reckoned they used to estimate it at £500 a mile. But he worked with people who dealt in serious, ocean spanning quantities. I googled prices for cable, and there, tucked away amongst all those companies just trying to sell me broadband, I found one selling cable. I went onto the page and ended up in a chat with a lady in China! I confess I only realised it was China when she asked if we had a Chinese shipping agent! But they could provide me with direct burial type 12 core fibre cable, fob Shanghai for $386.88/km. So the cable would cost £878.59 plus shipping. It’s not a long way from my neighbour’s estimate of £500 a mile. You do then wonder just how much Openreach are charging to connect up at each end?

 

But I realise these are very simplified figures. So I thought I’d look round for somebody more professional who knows how to charge. So on an American website, I found a company that does a lot of connecting rural areas. This company was quoting between $18,000 and $22,000 per mile. Reading it, this sounded like they were doing it properly with ducting so that you could add other customers later and there’d be access points and suchlike. If you’re putting in ducting, there is obviously a considerable extra cost, but then you do get to use cheaper cable. (I was quoted, Duct type 12core :$285.71/km fob Shanghai.)

They also estimated that the cost of connecting to the house was perhaps $750. So let’s say getting us broadband will take two miles worth of work, and say the cost is $40,000.  That’s £30,279.63 in ordinary money.

We’re struggling to get to a third of the Openreach estimate here. I’m really scraping the bottom of the barrel trying to pad out the bill.

 

Now people have suggested we go for mobile broadband. If we had useful mobile signal inside the house we would consider it. Others have suggested we put together a ‘community scheme.’ The problem is, the community has been done, we’re the ones that weren’t worth putting on the scheme. By my reckoning we’ve got half a dozen households to connect up and they don’t really fit into the same scheme. None of them have the slightest interest in broadband at this price.

And remember it’s not as if we’re all that isolated. I can walk to the telephone exchange in the middle of town in an hour and ten minutes.

♥♥♥♥

Never mind, there’s always a good book to turn to

 

 

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, “Yet another quiet, but highly entertaining, amble through Jim Webster’s farming life, accompanied by Sal, his collie extraordinarie.
Sheep, cattle, government eccentricities and wry observations are all included.”

Can we cope with too much testing?

251017-cattle-is-tested-for-tb-c-tim-scrivener-142014-11659

When all this coronavirus business kicked off, it was foot and mouth that came to mind. After all it was a case of coping with a virus. But now it’s our experience with bovine TB that seems to be most relevant.

All cattle farmers are used to regular TB testing, and I’m pretty sure we’ve all heard the terms Sensitivity and Specificity.

 

Sensitivity – The probability that if the animal has the disease then the test will be positive. The higher the sensitivity the fewer false negatives but at the cost of false positives.

 

Specificity – The probability that if the animal does not have the disease then the test will be negative. The higher the specificity the fewer the false positives but the more false negatives.

 

The terms “sensitivity” and “specificity” were introduced by American biostatistician Jacob Yerushalmy in 1947. So you can blame him for picking two such similar words which makes them easy to confuse.

 

The advantage of the current skin test is that it has a high specificity (thought to be around 99.98%). This means if the animal doesn’t have the disease, the test will show it to be clear. You don’t get many false positives. This is important on a herd test, because you’re doing a lot of cattle and if you get a lot of false positives, a herd will never be clear of TB. Test a 10,000 cows and you’ll probably get one false positive.

The problem is that the skin test has a lower sensitivity, between 81% and 85%. This means that you will miss cows with the disease. On a herd basis this isn’t too worrying because herds are big enough that if the disease is there, it’s probably in several animals and you only need to pick up one for the whole herd to be locked down and repeatedly retested. Mind you it’s a nightmare for the farmer trying to get rid of the disease in his livestock.

Then you have the gamma interferon test. It has a sensitivity of over 90% which means you miss fewer cattle who have the disease. You can clear the disease out of a herd more quickly.

Unfortunately the specificity is lower than the skin test. It’s about 96.6% so you have a lot higher chance of getting false positives.

To give an example, with a 200 cow herd with the skin test you’d be unlucky to have a false positive. With the gamma interferon test you’d expect two false positives.

So using gamma interferon you actually clear the disease out of a herd faster than you do with the skin test. But in reality you never stop testing because of the levels of false positives.

This is why the vets use them in tandem. You can use gamma interferon and be confident you’ve probably detected the diseased animals. But you stick with the skin test for determining whether the herd is finally clear because you don’t get false positives.

 

So as a rule of thumb, if there’s a lot of the disease about, you want a test with a high sensitivity, because then you don’t miss the disease carriers and false positives are a very small proportion of those you find.

But if there isn’t a lot of the disease about you want a test with a high specificity because otherwise your false positives can end up outnumbering your real positives.

 

Moving on to coronavirus (COVID-19) tests, I’ve seen an article in the BMJ

https://www.bmj.com/content/bmj/369/bmj.m1808.full.pdf

 

This stated “Further evidence and independent validation of covid-19 tests are needed. As current studies show marked variation and are likely to overestimate sensitivity, we will use the lower end of current estimates from systematic reviews, with the approximate numbers of 70% for sensitivity and 95% for specificity for illustrative purposes.”

 

Whilst these are approximate numbers, they aren’t entirely encouraging. A sensitivity of 70% leaves a lot of room for false negatives. It could miss up to 30% of the people tested who have the virus. These people walk away thinking they don’t have it and might spread it through the population

On the other hand, at 95% specificity, this means that you’ll get 5% false positives.

In a large population with a lot of the disease, this isn’t too much of a problem. But let’s assume that you have a large population with very little disease.

Let us assume we test 100,000 people, and only 0.1% have the virus. This is probably the stage we’re at now and it means there are 100 people with the virus.

With our test, we would expect to get 70% of them, so we find 70 people with the virus. 30 are missed.

But with 95% specificity we’ll have 5000 people marked down as false positives. So at the end of a day’s testing we have 5070 people test positive and are asked to isolate. But actually only 70 of them actually have it and we haven’t got a clue who they are.

The problem with fetishizing testing in populations with low levels of the disease is that whilst the disease might have died out, you’ll keep finding it for ever because of the nature of the test.

Not only that but the more you test, the more false positives you’ll get. It strikes me that they’re using the tests wrong. If you have three people in a factory who go down with the virus, then by all means go in and test everybody in the factory. But I see little use in testing entire populations, especially when the level of cases gets down to the level of expected false positives.

 

Actually we’re currently field testing the specificity of the test even as I write.

On the 18th August there were 150,174 tests and 1,089 new cases. This means that the system probably has at least 99% specificity because otherwise you’d get a lot more cases, even if they were all false positives. But of the 1,089 cases, it would be interesting to know how many of them were false positives? If has struck me that the high number of ‘asymptomatic’ cases, plus the fact that we’re not seeing people being admitted to hospital might give us a rough indication that a fair proportion of these ‘cases’ are people who don’t actually have the virus.

 

Now I’ve just heard the Minister on the radio this morning saying they’re going to roll out mass testing. Even assuming the test has a specificity of 99.99% that means that when they test us all, they’ll find 6,000 cases even if nobody has the disease. Second wave here we come.

♥♥♥♥

There again, if you’re going to be locked down for no obvious reason you might as well have a good book to read.

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 delightful collection of gentle rants and witty reminiscences about life in a quiet corner of South Cumbria. Lots of sheep, cattle and collie dogs, but also wisdom, poetic insight, and humour. It was James Herriot who told us that ‘It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet’ but Jim Webster beautifully demonstrates that it usually happened to the farmer too, but far less money changed hands.

I, for one, am hoping that this short collection of blogs finds a wide and generous audience – not least because I’m sure there’s more where this came from. And at 99p you can’t go wrong!”

Queue here for really expensive rural broadband.

rural-home-broadband-comical-representation-slow-isolated-white-background-100309705

Today started at 4am. That’s when I woke up and realised it was dark. What I didn’t realise was that it was 4am. The darkness and my inability to tell the time had the same cause. The radio alarm clock wasn’t on. So we’d had a power cut. Now that needed further exploration. Had there been a power cut, one that effected a fair area, or had ‘we’ had a power cut? By which I mean it was only us who were without electricity. When you’re rural both can happen. Or was it a trip-switch issue?
Given that by 5:30am we really needed electricity to milk with, it struck me that now was the time to start making enquiries. After all if it was a genuine power cut I was going to have to contact the utility to find out what was going on.

Anyway after making my way down stairs, finding the torch (always keep your torch in exactly the same place. It saves an immense amount of trouble when you’re looking for it in the dark), I went to investigate the trip-switch.

Now our house and buildings are on three separate trip-switches. So tripping something in the buildings doesn’t put the house of, and vice-versa. The house trip-switch had tripped and when I flicked it back, it tripped out again. The good news was that the buildings had electricity and so we were good to go for milking. The bad news was that the fridge and chest freezer didn’t have electricity.

I went round unplugging stuff and eventually came to the conclusion that whatever I took out, the switch still tripped. Fine. I went back to bed to get another hour. Now with daylight I had extension cables snaking through the house so that the freezer and fridge were plugged into parts of the house that were on a different trip.

Then I phoned the electrician. He arrived and agreed that, yes, the trip-switch was kaput. So that had to be changed. All before 9am.

So yes, we’re used to electricity that needs to be cherished and pampered to ensure it keeps flowing.

If anything, broadband is even worse. As I write (because I checked) our broadband has a download speed of 3.28Mbps. This is about as good as it gets at the moment, it can get below 1Mbps. To be fair it used to run at 4.5Mbps but I suspect more people working at home etc has strained the system and those of us on the periphery are paying for it. It’s so bad, two people tried to phone me when I was in a zoom meeting. Both told me that their phone rang once and just went to static. Luckily it didn’t drop me out of the meeting. But obviously I don’t have a camera on the desktop machine I use for doing zoom. I mean, why would somebody with our line speed want a camera?

Anyway we were talking to the engineers trying to get our broadband improved. We do this reasonably regularly. They come out, tweak something, the speed goes over 4Mbps and over the next week erratically drops to average about 2Mbps. One of them suggested we try the Universal Service Obligation. To quote from Offcom,

 

“From 20 March 2020, if you can’t get a download speed of 10 Mbit/s and an upload speed of 1 Mbit/s, you can request an upgraded connection. You can make this request to BT, or to KCOM if you live in the Hull area. You do not need to be an existing customer of BT or KCOM to apply.”

 

What will it cost?

Again, I quote. “If the cost of building or upgrading your share of the network connection is £3,400 or less, you won’t have to pay for this work to be done.

 

If it will cost more than £3,400 to connect your home, and you still want a connection, you will have to pay the excess costs. If you want to do this, BT/ KCOM will conduct a survey and give you a quote within 60 days.

You will pay the same price for your new broadband service as anyone else on the same package, and no more than £46.10 a month.”

 

So we contacted BT. They checked and we are eligible. So they promised to start the process.

A couple of days later I got this email.

 

“Hello Jim,

 

As we mentioned when we spoke with you, there isn’t currently a broadband network in your area that meets the Universal Service Obligation (USO) set by Ofcom (a line that can give you download speeds of 10Mbps or more).

 

However, we can build a new network to bring faster broadband to your door.

What will it cost?

We still need to find out whether there’s a cost involved. If there isn’t, we’ll be able to get started with building the new network.

 

If there is a cost involved, we’ll be in touch to let you know an estimated price range. It could take up to 30 days for us to find out, so please bear with us.”

That’s fair enough I thought. Indeed a couple of days later I got another email.

 

“Hello Jim,

 

We’ve now checked and there is a cost involved for building a new broadband network.

 

We’ll call you shortly to let you know the estimated price range and, if you’re still interested after that, we’ll get a more exact quote for you. You can also call us on the number below. We’ll keep your request open for 30 days.”

 

Anyway, we got a phone call, they had the first price for giving us 10Mbps broadband. Now given that government is willing to chip in £3,400 I realised it wasn’t going to be cheap, but actually there are two other houses that are on the route and it struck me if we all went in on the project we could probably cover up to six or seven thousand pounds using government money. So I was perfectly happy to negotiate and help put a scheme together.

 

The price I was quoted was, “Between seventy and one hundred thousand pounds.”

Yes, between £70,000 and £100,000.

What are they doing, laying fibre direct from GCHQ just for us?

I pointed out I could buy a terraced house in our local town for less than that to use as an office and have better broadband than the 10Mbps minimum they were promising.

Anyway, they’re going to provide me with a detailed quote. This process can take up to 60 days. I await the result with interest. But frankly it looks as if we’re going to be on rubbish broadband for some years yet.

♥♥♥♥

Obviously I need a good book to keep myself amused.

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.”

Livestock farming, where did the money go?

images

A young farmer was talking to me. An old chap had told him that when they wanted to buy a new tractor they sold three new calved dairy heifers. The young farmer wanted to know if this was true.

The answer is, yes, it’s true. Admittedly his informant bred damned good cows, and the rest of us might have had to sell four heifers, but still. The problem for the young chap was that to buy an equivalent tractor he’d have to sell between fifteen and twenty dairy heifers. The reason is that tractor prices are linked to the general economy, dairy heifer prices are linked to the price of milk.

 

In agriculture we’re regularly told that we cannot rely on handouts from the state, we have to become more efficient. So I decided to explore the roots of our industry’s inefficiency.

Looking at milk first, because that’s what I know, we started milking in 1965 and we still have our first milk cheque. We sold 1822 gallons to the Milk Marketing Board, for the princely sum of 28.77d per gallon. That is in modern terms about 12p per gallon or in even more modern terms, 2.64p per litre.

Now then, my late mother-in-law was a remarkably organised lady who jotted down in a notebook exactly what she paid the milkman. In June 1965 she was paying him ten pence halfpenny per pint. This is 84d per gallon, or 35p per gallon. That, to keep a la mode is 7.7ppl.

So in simple terms the customer paid their supplier three times what the supplier paid the farmer. But then they got the milk delivered to their door every day by an environmentally sustainable electric vehicle in a reusable container. The empty container was taken away for them at the same time.

 

Now let time roll onwards a bit and we come to financial year 1995/6. Checking through each of the twelve milk cheques we got for that period, we were paid an average price of 24.335ppl.

In 1995 government statistics say that the retail price for milk was 36per pint or 63.35ppl

Today our current price is 24ppl.

If I go to Tesco and buy four pints of milk, it costs me 109p or 48ppl (or so it boldly proclaims on the shelf.)
So now the consumer only pays twice what the farmer gets, but of course they have to carry it back from the shop themselves and the container cannot be immediately reused (and you have to carry it to the recycling centre.)

 

But what about inflation. What is the spending value of a pound? Well a pound in 1965 bought as much as £10 in 1995 and £16.56 today.

So we can create this table.

 

 

 

 

  Milk Producer Consumer
Year Actual

Price

What Price should be allowing for inflation Actual

Price

What Price should be allowing for inflation
1965 2.64ppl 2.64ppl 7.7ppl 7.7ppl
1995 24.33ppl 26.4ppl 63.3ppl 77.7ppl
2020 24ppl 39.74ppl 48ppl 127.5ppl
         

 

So rather than earning 24ppl the dairy farmer ought to be on 40ppl to keep up with inflation.

1995 is actually an interesting and significant year, it was the year of the 1995 Agriculture act. Pushed through by the Conservative party, one thing it encompassed was the death of the Milk Marketing Board. To simplify history and paint with a broad brush, British dairy farmers, faced with being picked off by the dairy industry, formed another co-op, Milk Marque. Membership was very high, probably well over 90% of dairy farmers joined. This obviously didn’t suit our political masters because the Competition Commission was called in and it insisted that Milk Marque should be broken up. There was argument at the time that the Commission had overstepped its remit as in this case competition was an EU issue not a UK issue and Milk Marque was not a threat to competition on an EU basis. As the BBC commented, “[The Labour] government announced a shake-up of the milk supply industry in July to prevent Milk Marque, the major supplier, from exploiting its monopoly by manipulating prices.”

If by manipulating prices it meant ensuring farmers in point of fact got a fair price, then it was probably guilty as charged. But with the break-up of the co-op, our two main political parties basically threw dairy farmers to the wolves. So if anybody asks why UK dairy farmers don’t form co-ops, the answer is, we do but governments destroy them.

 

Lamb

Now back in 1965 we had some sheep. We made a living of 17 cows and 60 ewes. My father sold lamb, dead weight, for 3 shillings a pound, 15p per lb which is 33p per kilo. For comparison, I was sent the Hill Farming Research Organisation Farm Reports and Flock Record for the year ending October 1965. So it looks as if my Dad’s price was about reasonable.

 

Year Lambs sold Carcass wt. in kg Price in pence per kilo
1959 139 13.15 34.40
1960 85 12.47 31.47
1961 135 12.70 35.43
1962 94 12.25 33.15
1963 127 12.47 34.39
1964 111 12.47 33.35
1965 188 11.11 30.14
Average pence per kilo 33.19

 

 

The current farm gate price for lamb (from the AHDB website) is 470p per kilo.

Looking for consumer comparisons is trickier than for milk. So I picked for a comparison Lamb Shoulder, with the bone in. They didn’t start keeping prices for it until 1968 by which time we’d stopped keeping sheep but I feel the comparison is fair enough.

 

  Sheep Producer Consumer buying lamb shoulder
Year Actual

price

What Price should be allowing for inflation Actual

price

What Price should be allowing for inflation
1965 (1968) 33p 33p 46.6p 46.6p
2020 470p 546p 789p 761p

 

Sheep producers are doing not too badly. They’re getting 86% of what they got back in 1965 compared to dairy farmers are only getting 60%. The consumer price for lamb has also remained about the same, consumers are paying 103%. The difference is largely in the pockets of the retailers.

Beef

Then we have beef. My Father didn’t sell many bullocks, and he actually received the same price per pound as he did for his lambs. So I got a current price for beef of about the same quality off the AHDB website, and for the consumer, I picked Beef Rump steak because it was one of the few things with a price recorded through the period.

 

Beef Producer Consumer buying beef rump steak
Year Actual Price What Price should be allowing for inflation Actual

Price

 

What Price should be allowing for inflation
1965 (1968) 33p 33p 108p 108p
2020 370p 546p 1393p 1788p

 

So allowing for inflation, farmers are getting 67% of what they were in 1965. Consumers are paying 78%.

Why have beef and sheep suffered less than dairy? Bad to say, I’m just guessing. If I’d got figures for pigs and poultry they would have shown farmers having an even harder time. Their problem is they’re ‘efficient’ and the major retailers have pretty well got them under control. Dairy was screwed by a political decision. Beef and sheep are far less ‘organised’ and ‘efficient’. I remember one major supermarket buyer commenting at a meeting that they expected to do to beef and sheep what they’d done to pigs and poultry. In his words, “The learning curve was so steep we effectively ran into a brick wall.”

Sheep marketing is so ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘inefficient’ that the retailers haven’t been able to take control. As a result the sheep farmer keeps more of the end price. This is probably why the multiple retailers don’t push lamb.

 

With beef the retailers are currently trying to take over beef by the back door. To quote industry expert Ian Potter,

 

“Earlier this year, I described Sainsbury’s reputation with its aligned producers as continuing to slide downhill, particularly for those who have faced the impact of the Tomlinson’s collapse. Well Sainsbury’s (SDDG) aligned farmers are once again furious at how the retail giant “is walking all over us to the point we feel like contract milkers and may as well hand over control of our farm to Sainsbury’s”. 

The latest spat is down to the bully boy wanting to sell more of its own beef in store, insisting a minimum of 20% of the beef calves from each producer are sired by one of two Angus Bulls, with the semen only available from Genus at circa £11 per straw. The calves will be sold to Blade Farming at from 10 days old to a maximum 41 days for £156 for heifers and£242 for bulls less haulage. It’s a non-negotiable compulsory change starting in 2021 in England and 2022 in Scotland, and it has got the farmers steaming. Several are claiming its Sainsbury’s acting in an anti-competitive manner. 

I really struggle to understand how my close neighbour and current Head of Sainsbury’s Agriculture, Barney Kay, has seen fit to force this through! Surely, it could have been achieved by negotiation, especially if it’s such a great proposition. Furthermore, if Sainsbury’s is dictating the bull semen to be used it should pay for it! The move has gone down like a lead balloon, especially with many Sainsbury’s farmers who have long standing trusting relationships with others who take their calves, or who rear and finish their own beef in addition to those who breed only pedigrees. It has even resulted in one Sainsbury’s farmer representative resigning.”

 

Beef is still suffering from the impact of BSE. After all beef exports only resumed in 2006.

Looking at the table below, as usual prices are in pence per kilo. I’ve used the same rates of inflation as I have elsewhere.

Just to put things in perspective with the BSE effect; as you can see, for retailers, their selling price fell to 90% of the previous price before bouncing back. For farm gate figures I’ve used our numbers, we sold black and white bullocks so never topping the market. Also we sold live weight so I’ve done an approximate conversion to get dead weight figures. Do not quote these this conversion to reputable people, they’ll fall about laughing.

For beef producers their price fell to about 70% and looking at our figures for the rest of the decade we rubbed along at this sort of level and things never really recovered by 2001 and FMD hit.

 

 

Farmer % of 95 price Beef Producer Consumer buying beef rump steak Retailer % of 95 price
Year Actual

Live weight

Estimated dead weight 1965 Price allowing for inflation Actual

 

1965 Price allowing for inflation
100% Sept 95 115p 209p  

 

330p

857p  

 

1080p

100%
69% July 96 80p 145p 773p 90%
78% July 97 90p 164p 858p 100%
69% July 98 80p 145p 841p 98%

 

 

But there are consequences.

In financial year 1965/6 my father, in his first year as a tenant farmer, showed a profit of £1562 17s 8d. Allowing for inflation that is the equivalent of £24,304. This was off 17 milk cows and 60 sheep on 72 acres.

We can look at how much money has been sucked out of the industry. Assume a hundred acre farm milking a 100 dairy cows each giving 7000 litres a year, a total of 700,000 litres.
There is a 15.74ppl deficit on every litre compared to the 1960s. That is over £110,000 sucked out of the business. In comparison, the Basic Payment Scheme payment to a farm of that size will be £9422. Now you can see why my Grandfather could afford employ three full time men and a lad. That meant that hedges could get trimmed by hand and laid every few years. It meant that walls could be kept up.

There are further implications. The modern dairy farm is seriously efficient to survive. So the cows have to be happy and comfortable. The problem comes when it rains. The cow is neither happy nor comfortable and her milk yield drops like a stone. Because of the tight margins dairy farmers now habitually work to, a lot of them are being forced to look at whether they can afford to let cows graze outside, rather than have them inside all the year round. Talking to one he calculated that if somebody wanted him to revert to a traditional grazing pattern, they’d have to find him a 1.5 pence per litre grazing supplement to cover his extra costs.

Then there is the machinery issue. I started off by pointing out how expensive machinery is in real terms. So more and more farms fall back on contractors. The contractor makes his money by doing as many acres as possible during a day. After all when making silage for his clients, he could have half a dozen farmers waiting for him and only a limited window of dry weather. He needs a big forage harvester, large trailers and serious tractors capable of both pulling and braking the trailers. It’s the same with slurry. Not only to you have the pressure of weather and season, you have EU regulations saying when you can and cannot spread in some areas. So the contractor that turns up on the farm might be expecting to empty your slurry pit in the morning, do another farm in the afternoon/evening. So he needs a bigger tanker which therefore has wider wheels so it does less damage and an even bigger tractor to pull it. So if you dislike the huge tractors roaring around the lanes, now you know why they’re there. To make a living, a contractor has to have the biggest kit they can afford to pay the finance on.

 

Also remember that this all happened when we were members of the EEC/EU. You know, the bunch that ‘featherbeds’ farmers.

Indeed Article 39 of the Treaty of Rome reads,

“ARTICLE 39 1. The objectives of the common agricultural policy shall be:

(a) to increase agricultural productivity by promoting technical progress and by ensuring the rational development of agricultural production and the optimum utilisation of the factors of production, in particular labour;

(b) thus to ensure a fair standard of living for the agricultural community, in particular by increasing the individual earnings of persons engaged in agriculture;”

 

There are other objectives but we’ll stop there. It’s obvious this one was something they haven’t taken seriously for a while.

♥♥♥♥

There again, what do I know? Ask an expert.

 

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 delightful collection of gentle rants and witty reminiscences about life in a quiet corner of South Cumbria. Lots of sheep, cattle and collie dogs, but also wisdom, poetic insight, and humour. It was James Herriot who told us that ‘It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet’ but Jim Webster beautifully demonstrates that it usually happened to the farmer too, but far less money changed hands.

I, for one, am hoping that this short collection of blogs finds a wide and generous audience – not least because I’m sure there’s more where this came from. And at 99p you can’t go wrong!”

Beware the wrath of an angry dog.

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It has to be admitted that Sal is not the most aggressive of dogs. Unusual for Border Collies, she rather likes people. In fact she has no concept of social distancing and no understanding of the fact that people might not appreciate muddy footprints on their trousers/shirt/jacket.

It’s the same with livestock. She is remarkably longsuffering. Cattle can sniff her, I’ve even seen calves licking her. Admittedly she does tend to move away if they start chewing her ears, but that is understandable. And all she does is move away. She metaphorically shrugs and gets out of range.

Even with sheep, if nothing particularly is happening and a lamb wants to play with her, Sal will play. I’ve seen her quietly sidestep wild charges and occasionally dance in front of one to tempt it into running at her.

Even with rats, I’ve only ever seen her attack two. I don’t know what one of them did but she killed it. The other was sitting on the grass six feet away from her quietly washing itself. She obviously felt that this was an insult that couldn’t be borne and pounced. The rat shot into a hedge and disappeared.

Obviously she dislikes foxes. She chases them enthusiastically but has never got so close that she had to worry about what you do next.

Then we have Billy. He’s a feral cat who likes people. So much so it seems to be trying to copy our greeting. When he approaches I’ve noticed that we all say, ‘Hello Billy.’ The noise he makes when he comes up to us does sound a bit like ‘Hello’ as produced by a cat. Not only that but he’s fascinated by Sal. I suspect it may have something to do with the fact that she’s the nearest to him in size. They do seem to have a working relationship. They mind their own business, don’t get in each other’s way and whilst when passing they might sniff the other’s nose, that’s about it.

Then last night I noticed a rat drinking out of Sal’s water bucket. Sal had obviously not seen this. So I did the obvious thing. I got Billy. I took him across and placed him where I’d seen the rat. As a hunting technique for getting rid of them goes, this one is pretty successful. He probably will not get the rat then and there but obviously he marks the spot and builds it into his daily round.

On this occasion he could obviously smell the rat, his tail started twitching and he started to hunt. Sal came across to me to get her ears tickled. Billy continued to hunt. This took him into Sal’s cattle trailer and it was then he saw Sal’s bowl. This still had some of her supper in it.

Billy hunted across to it, sniffed it and at this point I said, “Billy.”

He looked at me, drifted away from the bowl and then drifted back to get another mouthful.

It was at this point Sal flew at him. There was nothing playful happening here, Sal went from Border Collie to Angry Wolf and hurled herself in defence of her supper dish. Billy had the problem he was trapped, he couldn’t get out for the dog coming in. In the circumstances he did the sensible thing and apologised. His stance was defensive but without the spitting and suchlike you can see from a cat that is ready to attack.

Sal stopped, came back to me, and Billy, somewhat sheepishly, quietly made his way out of her cattle trailer and made his way across the yard to stare at her from a safe distance. Sal lay down across the door into her trailer with her head on her paws, and gave the impression of a dog who was dozing quietly without a care in the world.

Me, I just left them to it.

♥♥♥♥

If you want to meet Sal at her more emollient

 

Another collection of anecdotes drawn from a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England. As usual Border Collies, Cattle and Sheep get fair coverage, but it’s mixed with family history and the joys of living along a single track road.

As a reviewer commented, “Another excellent compendium of observations from the back of Mr. Webster’s quad bike in which we learn a lot more about sheep, border collies and people. On the whole, I think the collies come out of it best. If you fancy being educated on the ways of the world, with a gentle humour and a nice line in well observed philosophy, you could do a lot worse than this.”

Exotic travel broadens the mind

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The problem with the world of lockdown is that it’s not particularly worth going anywhere. I was walking through town yesterday and perhaps 1% of people were wearing masks in the street. Then the minute they went into a shop, the mask was donned. (I’m the same, I wear a tube scarf, pull it up on the way in through the door and push it down as I go outside into the air so I can breathe again.)
But shopping has become a utilitarian experience, go in, get the stuff you want, leave. Damn, reminds me, I still need a new pair of trainers, but it’s not as if there’s any hurry. I’m still not going anywhere where I’ll need to wear them.

But yesterday I had a legitimate reason for travel. I’d nip to the vets for a worming tablet and some ‘Frontline’ for Sal.

Our Vets work out of Broughton and that’s where I was headed. So far the furthest I’ve been since March is nine miles to a neighbouring church to dig a hole for burial of ashes. It’s not fear of travelling, it’s just why travel for pleasure when there’s no pleasure? But now I had an excuse. I caught the train north to Foxfield. I had a carriage with three other people in it. Then leaving Foxfield there’s a nice path which leads you round the back and through some pleasant country. It eventually brings you to Broughton. That’s where the view comes from, looking north. Then as I dropped down into Broughton, that’s where I overheard the first conversation. Now it’s amazing what you hear as you walk past people or they walk past you.

 

Man to neighbour in garden below.  “What sort of idiot goes abroad on holiday at a time like this?”

Unheard response.

Man, “Yes, more money than sense.”

 

Then the vets. Get the stuff I need, and head back. As I passed the cake shop (with a queue that stretched half way down the street) I heard the second conversation.

 

Elderly lady in queue to family she’s chatting with. “So where are you from?”

Man, “Byker in Newcastle.”

Elderly lady. “I was from Burnopfield.”

Man, “That’s Durham.”

 

I walked down to Foxfield and decided to walk on to Kirkby to get the train from there. This route leads across the Angerton Mosses. It’s a world of its own, tucked away and forgotten. The land is never less than damp and walking through the area I suspect people were glad to get silage off when they did. I wouldn’t fancy trying to take a second cut anytime soon. The ground had that feel you get when there’s more water in it than it needs. Move tractors or a dairy herd across it and you could start making a mess.

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By the time I got to Kirkby it was getting hot. Seriously hot. I had a choice of three routes. One would take me up and over the fells to my east. I’ve done it before, it’s a bit of a slog but not something I fancied with the thermometer heading up towards thirty. Then there was the path which follows the coast down. Again I’ve done it and it can be pleasant, but not at the temperatures we were heading for. So I got the train to Barrow and walked home along the route of the old railway line. This is where I got the next two conversations.

 

Young woman One to young woman Two and young woman Three, “I was just back from furlough and then I got this email…”

Young woman Two, “You’ve got the same bag that I’ve got.”

Young woman One, “Yes but it’s a different colour.”

 

The old line is a popular route for walkers and cyclists. When the weather is like this, it’s also quite well shaded but still somehow catches any breeze that is going. And the final conversation.

 

Lady One to Ladies Two and Three, “…and they hired this whole building to move office staff into because of the pandemic and Heather is in there all on her own. She loves it.”

 

And home. At this point I give Sal the worming tablet. They must have done something with the flavourings because I pass it to her and she happily eats it. Then I have to put the Frontline on her. I’ve put ‘Spot on’ on dairy cows many many times. You just squirt it at them from a ‘worming gun’. It’s a doddle of a job. You just walk through them like a particularly officious celebrant laying about him with the holy water.
Frontline comes in a small vial, you snap the top off. Then you put the end as close to the skin on the dog’s back as you can get, under the hair, and squeeze. For some reason Sal dislikes this, and unless I have one hand clamped firmly round her collar, she wiggles off. I suspect it’s purely the sensation of cold liquid on the back of her neck. It cannot be that the stuff stings or anything because the minute I stop squeezing she is full of bounce and ready to go and do something useful.

So I collect the bucket and some tub and we wander off down the Mosses to feed the heifers and check that the dry cows are all right. The temperature has dropped and I have no doubt we’ll have rain before dark. It’s actually rather pleasant.

♥♥♥♥

Given the way the weather is at the moment, sitting with a good book is not a bad idea.

 

Instead of his usual collection of anecdotes, this time Tallis presents us with a gripping adventure. Why is Tallis ‘run out of town’ by hired ruffians? Why does a very sensible young woman want his company when plunging into unknown danger? Who or what was buried in the catacombs? And why has there been so much interest in making sure they stay dead? Also featuring flower arranging, life on the river, and a mule of notable erudition.

As a reviewer commented, “Tallis Steelyard is a poet with champagne tastes on a beer budget. Chased out of town, and into the bay, by irate creditors, he’s rescued by a passing boat and given the opportunity to become a part of the crew. Thereafter follow a series of adventures, many funny, before Tallis can finally return home again.

I thoroughly enjoyed the story and recommend it highly!”