Tag Archives: Grandfathers

The little ones are the real problem

Stampeding-Longhorns

We were moving some heifers, they’d escaped from field A into field B. I fixed the fence and two of us, plus dog and quad when to bring them down field B, along the road and back into field A. This went well enough except for one of them who took umbrage at the presence of the dog and jumped out of field B, over two perfectly good fences and a bit of broken down hedge, into field C.

We looked at her disappearing down field C to join stock already present, shrugged and decided to get the rest moved to field A. We’d let her calm down a bit and move her tomorrow (or whenever.)

That evening I checked field C. Our errant heifer wasn’t there. So I wandered round a bit and finally discovered she’d worked her way through two perfectly stock-proof hedges to rejoin her mates in field A, entirely of her own volition.

Moving cattle is easy if everybody keeps calm. The problem is that young cattle quite like to run. There’s obvious something atavistic about it all. The thunder of hooves, the dust, the endless prairie, all they need is John Wayne. As an aside here I always remember my Grandfather’s comment,

“Hell I wish I’d had John Wayne working for me.”

“Why Grandad?”

“Because he’s just driven Longhorns into a canyon and they’ve come out the other end Herefords.”

But anyway, a big part of moving cattle is keeping it boring. Not only that but it helps if they know you. So every day, I, and whoever was ‘the Dog’ would walk through every batch of cattle we had. Indeed I’d often take a little bit of feed with me. When I mean ‘a little bit,’ I’m talking a couple of pounds for a batch of sixty or so. It reminds them that you’re one of nature’s nice people and worth following in case you might spontaneously produce more of the stuff for them.

I’ve regularly moved thirty cows with their calves at foot just by walking among them with the bag, then out of the gate and along the lane with Jess quietly trotting along at the back making sure the laggards kept up. If she’d been able to close gates behind us, it would even have saved me having to go back to do that later. This is from Jess’s earlier career when she had proper cattle to play with and wasn’t reduced to putting fear of Dog into sheep for a living.

But when you’re dealing with cows and calves, the problem isn’t the cow, it’s the calf. The cows are, in a vague sort of way, rational. When they set off at a run you can normally pinpoint the stimuli which provoked it. With calves they can just do it for no reason whatsoever.

The problem with calves running is not only that they are fast, but they’re not really bothered about directions or destinations, but are concentrating entirely on the running. So they can blunder through fences, end up in ditches and generally cause all sorts of problems. Not only that but as the dog tries to turn them they can run straight over her, or alternatively, they might stop abruptly, tentatively sniff the dog’s nose and then run wildly in an entirely different direction.

Once they start running, the only real solution is to put Mum back in the field, let her restore order and then bring Mum and calf out together.

Then you have the problem of gateways. Twenty of them will troop quietly through the gateway with no trouble, and one calf will somehow miss the gap and stand facing the hedge bawling for Mum. And Mum is standing on the far side of the hedge bawling back. Something like

“Help, help, I’m lost, I’m trapped, I’m alone in the world, doomed, doomed.”

And from the other side of the hedge, “So help me, don’t you make me come in there or you’ll be sorry.”

“Doomed, doomed, there’s no way out, help.”

“You wait ‘til your father gets home, we’ll see what he has to say about it.”

At the same time the dog is standing there muttering, “I can see why they eat grass, everything else is smarter than they are.”

So the solution to this problem is for a human to very quietly edge the calf along the hedge until it can see the gate again. If you’re lucky the calf will move slowly, a few steps at a time, and finally inspiration will strike and it’ll follow the others. If you’re unlucky it will set off at speed in some random direction and you’ll have to start the process all over again.

 

And in case you want more tales of Border collies and real life, have you read

 

 

Milking it

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A lot of years ago, when I was probably about seven or eight; I was with my Grandfather, father and others when they were ‘leading’ hay. The trailer was loaded and a small Fergie 135 pulled it out of the gate and into the lane.

Now the gateway itself slopes steeply because the lane is about four feet lower than the field, so as you can imagine, with the old 135 not being the world’s most powerful tractor, even in its day, this was something you took carefully. It was going really well then at this point somebody in a car came hurtling up the lane, screeched to a halt and gestured for the tractor to back out of his way.

This wasn’t going to happen. Even if we’d wanted to do it, it was probably beyond the capabilities of the tractor. So we had an impasse. My grandfather was in charge, and he wasn’t entirely impressed by the car driver. I suspect the lack of good will was entirely mutual because the debate grew heated. I learned a lot of interesting phrases that I was later to try out in conversation at school, with mixed results.

But one part of the exchange has stuck in mind. The car driver, frothing slightly, shouted, “You wait until we nationalise you.” Remember this was the early 1960s, so it was probably still Labour party policy in some diffuse way.

My Grandfather just looked at him. Remember he’d lived through two world wars and arrested German pilots at pitchfork point. Working by himself, he’d once gone into the beck to unblock it to stop flooding, and in pulling stuff out a nail in a fence post had been driven deep into his arm. So he climbed out of the beck, with the fence post still fastened to his arm, and walked a good four hundred yards, climbing over two hedges, to reach a neighbour who would give him a lift to hospital. That’s where they removed the post and nail under proper medical supervision.

So that’s the sort of person who, in his early sixties, is confronted with some overexcited and raving car driver out of town. When the bloke shouted “You wait until we nationalise you,” my grandfather just looked at him and said, “Forty hour week, every weekend off, guaranteed wage, I’m looking forward to it.”

At some point the car driver realised that physics was against his plan and backed away and we carried on working. This was about 7pm and I was the only person who hadn’t been working since 5am, and they probably finished about 10pm because later than that it gets too dark to stack hay inside.

 

I stopped milking cows in 1999. The milk price, which had got up to 30p a litre, had dropped to 14p a litre. I decided milking cows was a more expensive hobby than Ocean yachting, wetter and with less sex appeal. It was about then I divided my annual profit by the number of hours worked, to discover that in the previous year, I’d worked for nine pence an hour.

 

Currently Sainsbury’s are offering farmers what is probably one of the best UK milk contracts. It’s done on a ‘cost plus’ basis, with the idea that a farmer who has some economies of scale, who is doing the job properly and to a high standard of animal welfare, will be able to make a living, contribute to a pension and invest in his business.

The Sainsbury’s price is about 31p a litre. A lot of other suppliers are paying between 16p and 23p a litre. So just remember, if you’re buying cheap milk, don’t go lecturing farmers about ‘sustainability’.

Anyway, I was at a meeting a while ago when the speaker, from one of the quangos, said that dairy farmers had to get more efficient. Somebody in the audience then suggested that if the speaker was willing to go back to being paid his 1999 salary, then he could lecture them on efficiency.

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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!”