This month Dan Burdett returns from a well earned family break and is now mid way through calving 250 cows. Somehow he’s managed to find time to update us on his calving rollercoaster and a new never-before-seen issue – the wandering cow..

Having thoroughly enjoyed two weeks in France followed by a couple of quiet weeks finishing off all the jobs on farm, we are now well and truly up to our eyeballs in calves!  In fact, it all started off so quietly, with a 10 day lull between the first and second calf to be born; this was going to be easy I thought.

It’s funny how calving always takes me slightly by surprise.  I look back mainly with rose tinted spectacles at calving in the past and forget just how much it can take out of you, in fact I would highly recommend it for anyone wishing to loose considerable amounts of weight!

Calving lift-off

Our planned start date for calving was the 26th August, and as I write this on the 3rd September we have around 110 cows calved out of the 250.  The vast majority of these have been trouble free, with all bar 3 of them having the calf themselves with no assistance from the team here.  This has to be our main aim as interfering with a cow at this time generally leads to complications further down the line.  We make sure to choose sires who are known to have calves that are easy to give birth to and this is certainly paying dividends.

Cows and calves

Cows and calves

One thing that we have no control over is twins.  When the cows were scanned back in April we only had a couple of cows having twins, but in fact we have already had 7 sets.  Generally these are not that great for the cow as they are likely to have more complications and a higher chance of still births.  However this year we have again been fortunate that they have all managed on their own and we have 5 more heifer calves as a result.

Having so many cows calving in such a short period of time means that statistically we are likely to get a few problems and this has certainly been the case over the past week.  Our biggest challenge is to stop the cows from getting milk fever.  As a cow goes into labour her body suddenly requires a large amount of calcium very quickly in order to produce the milk.  If she has insufficient levels in her blood stream then she loses the ability to stand up.  We then have to administer calcium in order to get her back in balance.  In the worst cases this can go on for a few days, requiring a lot of time and TLC before they fully recover.  It’s the one problem on the farm that we are still trying to get to grips with and frustrates me every year as great plans to fix it fall and we go back to the drawing board once again.

Feeding time!

Feeding time!

Of course, all of this means plenty of beautiful calves to feed.  They are quickly put into calf boot camp, being trained first onto a bottle and then onto a group feeder.  This can be a tough time as some calves are very stubborn, taking 2-3 feeds before it all clicks, but once they do they are fairly easy to manage.  The heifer calves are all reared outside, in one of our calf fields, in groups of up to 40.  They are fed using this milk trolley which we tow into the field and then beat a hasty retreat back out as the calves find it difficult to say goodbye to the milk when they’re finished!

We already have around 60 heifer calves who will be reared by us and will have their own calf in 2 years’ time.

The straw bale calf pen

The straw bale calf pen

I’m always being asked what happens to the male calves, as many of these have historically struggled to find a home after birth.  Ours are reared in pens outside for 2-3 weeks before being sold to a specialist dairy beef rearer, who will take them through to slaughter at around 17 months old.  We have an excellent relationship with them and regularly see pictures of them on twitter and I know they’ve gone to an excellent home.

Wandering cows

Every year also brings up a unique, never-seen-before type of issue.  This year it is the wandering cow.  Over the past couple of days we have been retrieving one or two culprits from the local roads and are fortunate that they haven’t caused an accident.  This culminated in a 3.30 wake-up call this morning from the police to say they were walking one back down to the farm!  Despite our best efforts, we have yet to discover her escape route.

Both Luke and I know that for the next 6 weeks or so it is all hands to the pump and also have some excellent help in the form of Lewis and Ben who are able to take the strain off at key times during the day, allowing us to come up for some air every now and then.  It is also hugely rewarding to see the fruits from our work during the winter and to get the cows milking well for another year.

Plans for the future

Due to our recent success here at Cockhaise, Luke and I have been looking for another farm to try and replicate the system we have here.  I have spent the past 2 months tendering for just such a farm in West Kent.  In the end we came a very close second to a much bigger and more established operator.  Having put many hours into this proposal it was always going to be a little disappointing to fall at the last hurdle, but it has been a hugely educational experience for both of us.  It has proved that other farms would like our input but that being a small fish can sometimes have its limitations.  Undoubtedly we will carry on our search, using the new skills we have acquired during this process to push for the number one slot.

We will now also be pushing ahead with plans to increase the number of cows here and to start to put into practice the improvements we’d like to make to the ecology and soil health of the farm.

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