WHEN I was five, my father was lured by an eccentric Dutchman to work as a tractor driver on a dairy farm in Hertfordshire. The farm was not large, somewhere in the region of 200 acres. A fair proportion of the land was taken up by hedgerows, spinneys, a river and the extensive grounds around the manor house to which the farm belonged.
There is a rule of thumb (perhaps that should be rule of hoof) when it comes to calculating the number of cows any given acreage can sustain: the carrying capacity of the land. On this farm, the figure was approximately one quarter to five eighths of a cow per acre.
Since it had proven tricky to raise quarters and eighths of cows, the farmer had been persuaded by his new, enthusiastic, Dutch manager to employ a system called zero grazing to increase the size of the milking herd, and hence milk yields.
With zero grazing on a dairy farm, the cows do not go out on to the pastures. They remain in sheds, and their feed is brought to them. My father’s job was to drive the tractor which pulled what is called a silorator. This is a bizarre, palaeontological-looking piece of agricultural equipment, with rotating blades at its base and a tall, giraffe-necked spout for spewing the mown green crop into a loader, towed alongside by a second tractor.
The green crop on the farm was kale. Once cut it was stored in silage pits and fed to the cows. Other green crops could be brought to the farm from further afield. The waste stems and pods from factories processing frozen vegetables were a popular choice.
The milk yields on the farm soared. The milk produced was of such high quality and so copious that important people came from miles around to visit the farm and wonder at this fantastic new development. Morale rocketed, as did my father’s pay packet. His wages went up to £12 a week, and we all thought that we were living in clover, which is ironic considering that the cows weren’t. But success can sometimes be too successful, and with it can come unforeseen consequences.
Our farm had only one milking parlour, with about a dozen pens. Although the milking was done with pneumatic suction machines, all other operations were manual. The cows were led to the parlour; the udders and teats were washed with a soapy rag; the cups applied and removed, all done by hand; then the emptied cow was gently slapped out of the parlour and the next was ushered in. When all the cows had been milked, the pens and yards had to be hosed down to clean away the cowpats, which were particularly pungent and adhesive. It was a complex, highly coordinated operation, and there were only two cowmen.
Before the Dutch manager flew in, the cowmen had been milking the herd twice a day, at ten minutes per cow. But with the advent of zero grazing, additional cows and the high-quality feedstuffs, milking times increased, and backlogs occurred. Cows queued, lowing in agony as their taut udders were on the point of bursting. Some could hardly move their hind legs, their udders were so distended. The cowmen had to cut corners to keep up. The operation became rushed and slapdash. Safety was thrown out of the window, and the hours worked began to get ridiculous.
Then the head cowman was kicked in the neck by a cow and was off sick. The second cowman was doing the work of two men, which properly should have been the work of three or more. This meant that inexperienced casual labour had to be brought in to help with the milking and feeding silage to the cows.
One such was Reg. He lived in a council house in the village and was an alcoholic. One day in his usual hungover haze he drove a cabless tractor up on to the silage tip. The tractor overturned and pinned him underneath. He was seriously injured.
And still the milk flowed!
Then real disaster struck. The Dutch manager, who never seemed to sleep or to eat a proper meal, developed severe stomach pains. He was taken off in an ambulance. We never saw him again.
My father, worn to a frazzle by the long hours and angered at having been co-opted into working with the dairy herd, which he loathed for the simple reason that cows don’t do Christmas, handed in his notice.
Shortly after we had moved 18 miles to another place, the previous farmer turned up in his battered old Land Rover and asked my father to come back to work for him. But by then my father had developed zero tolerance for zero grazing. Well, wouldn’t you?
The moral of this tale: stick to the carrying capacity of your land. And don’t be a cowboy.