It’s a long time since I had a rant so maybe it’s been brewing for a while, without me noticing. I’ve so many things to rant about, some more maddening that others, that I decided to create a list! When I reached the number 8, I wondered if any of these things are infuriating other farmers too – so do let me know. Surely Brian and I can’t be the only ones?!
I was at a very enjoyable conference in Airfield Dublin last Thursday, my first day out since calving started and one of the speakers said something that got me thinking. Michael O’Muircheataigh, the GAA commentator (who I’ve never really listened to before as I’ve zero interest in GAA) spoke about the farming of his childhood. His voice is so melodic that his prose sounded like poetry as he told us about the pride amongst farmers – proud of being farmers; of owning land; of creating produce to sell, to consume themselves and to share with neighbours. It resonated with me as I wondered to myself where is that pride in farming gone? Do we still have it? It’s not that I’m ashamed of farming but there are days when it feels like the pride has been bashed out of us. Why do I feel like that? Read on ……unless you’re offended by bad language.
Farmers just aren’t efficient enough – according to many journalists and farming experts. I know profit monitors have their advantages, for example, you can work out your most profitable (or least profitable) enterprise, see where you’re spending too much money and know your costs. But perhaps it’s going too far. It seems that every cent has to be measured. The occasional farmer will admit to letting a “good” cow skip a season and become an autumn calver instead of a spring calver, for example, if she didn’t go in calf. Now, many would argue straight back that if she didn’t get pregnant within the breeding season, she’s not a good cow and yes, there could be some truth in that. But the fact is, she’s a favourite cow and the farmer wants to cut her some slack. My favourite story ever (and this could be an old wives tale) is of a nephew visiting his uncle while milking and seeing an old cow with just two of her teats being milked (she was dry in the other two quarters – while a three teater will continue in the milking herd if a good cow, it’s rare a two teater does) he wondered aloud what she was doing in the parlour. The answer: “that cow has paid a lot of bills and she’s not going anywhere for another while”.
Now, I’m not saying that letting lots of cows skip a season is a good thing but the emphasis on efficiency and knowing your costs down to the exact cent irritates me. In my opinion, if you can’t have favourites and cut them a bit of slack, if you have to be so caught up with costs, pounds, shillings and pence, then you might as well be living in Dickens’ Hard Times and there’s certainly no point in being your own boss. What’s the point in being self employed if you can’t set your own targets to meet let alone being able to enjoy giving your favourites some special treatment?
Are we sentimental? Occasionally. Queenie, our matriarch in the herd, with a quarter of the herd descended from her line, was getting very old. Somehow the bull got to her when she was on heat. A gate was left open by accident, (if you believe that you’ll believe anything) and as she was pregnant, she got a reprieve of another year – even though her udder was nearly touching the ground. She received royal treatment for the last couple of months of her pregnancy on a straw bed rather than the slats too.
Last year, our last born calves were twin bulls – absolutely tiny and probably worth about €20 each. They both got crypto, one needed a drip, they made multiple attempts to die but we managed to foil every single one. I spent hours keeping them alive. Much smaller than their comrades, they were always housed together on their own, are now out at grass and were vasectomised two weeks ago. One would have done but we weren’t going to separate them. They are going to have a fun summer with the heifers now before going to meet their Maker next winter.
Of course farmers have to be efficient but apparently some farmers get really stressed if say, for example, animals get sick and they have to spend more on veterinary products than planned. I still groan when I think of the calves that we lost 4 years ago when we got a really bad bout of crypto – not because of the financial losses or the cost of the vet visits and products but because those calves never got a chance to live their lives. I’ve also learnt since then that calves with a bad bout of crypto need to be rehydrated every two hours – the four hours suggested in the textbooks is too long a gap.
I’m sure we probably feed a bit too much meal according to some experts but our cows are well looked after and they reward us with 500 kgs of solids. I was amused yesterday when putting the cows out, they headed to one side of a field thinking they were getting fresh grass at that side and stood and bawled in protest for two or three minutes until they realised the fresh grass was at the other side. Spoilt! But happy cows make for happy farmers and a happy farmer is a lot easier to live with – says this farm wife anyway!
2. 80/90 Hour Week
It’s a bit like the “experts” have only suddenly realised that farmers work really long hours or else they have decided that this is why some are stressed and depressed. The 80/90 hour week is now a buzzword and it seems that you can’t open a paper or attend a discussion group without being told to cut your working hours or your health will suffer.
Why is the focus on long hours a problem? Well, I think the reality is that most self-employed people work long hours. Speaking to a few friends, 60-70 hours is pretty standard and yes, they’ll go to 80 or 90 too at times. As a writer, I put in long hours and burn the candle at both ends when writing / editing my books. But what has made me cross is the timing of this buzz phrase. Many farmers will have exceeded 90 hours a week during the calving /lambing season and yes, probably are feeling a tad tired. They would probably be more appreciative of a clap on the back and a suggestion of how to take a few hours off now than being told they are in danger of killing themselves for working so hard.
The reality is that most farmers will be up a lot at night during calving. No farmer wants to get up in the morning to find a calf dead because they slept through the alarm at 3am. It’s just not in our nature for most of us. I was amused at the conversation between the bank manager and Brian a while ago:
Bank Manager: And did the calving go well?
Brian: Yes, very well, no problems to speak of
Bank Manager: Did you have to assist many?
Brian: Hardly any at all
Bank Manager: So you weren’t up at night then?
Brian: Oh, yes, had to keep an eye on what was going on
The reality is that the cow had to be observed as even with easy calving sires, things can go wrong. Of course, the calf had to be fed colostrum too.
I’m getting increasingly irritated by so many articles criticising farmers for working long hours and for all the other mistakes they make! Telling hardworking farmers that they are overworked idiots just after a busy season is ridiculously bad timing apart from anything else. The reality is that most farmers work 40 hours by Wednesday second breakfast. Don’t make them feel guilty for it. It’s part of what we expect. So yes, I tend to say “fuck off” when reading such an article and lob the paper/magazine into the recycling bin.
As a writer, I get feedback pretty quickly. Okay, not everyone will love or even like my books but then I’ll have a day like yesterday when I discover that one of my books was reviewed. Not only was it a good review but the lady was awarded an MBE for her contribution to agriculture (which makes me feel extra proud) and she said I covered all the right angles and she laughed most of the way through.
Unfortunately, farmers don’t tend to be praised unless they win an award so they do have to get into the habit of giving themselves a clap on the back. Stress will increase during busy times but in my experience (and I know everyone reacts differently), I get more stressed if I have to finish work by a certain time or when clueless humans are involved. I never clock watch when feeding the calves if I can help it – because it makes it more enjoyable and ensures that I’m unlikely to miss something.
The good news is that although I thought I was burnt out last May as I was never so tired or so stressed in my life after transferring the business to a company status, I wasn’t! According to Jim O’Brien in the Farming Indo “Burnout is … when even the smallest task becomes a major undertaking, when physically or mentally there is nothing left”. I know I like to stick my head in the sand sometimes rather than deal with people but I wasn’t that bad. Brian was right – I was being a drama queen!! Hallelujah.
3. Militant Vegans / Animal Rights
I don’t have a problem with anyone being vegetarian or vegan. I understand that some people prefer not to eat meat or fish. I’m a bit puzzled with them not wanting to drink milk but that’s their choice. What I do have a huge problem with is people claiming that farmers are being cruel to animals.
I actually believe that animals are treated better than people. Here’s just three reasons why:
- Our calves get fresh bedding every day, they get fed twice a day with warm milk, they are sheltered from the elements in airy sheds or hutches, the vet is called if they are ill. There’s a lot of people out there living as refugees or homeless.
- I called our vet at 10pm on a Sunday evening as a calf had deteriorated a lot since she was fed at 8pm. We were pretty sure she had peritonitis and as it happened, she did. She needed stronger antibiotics than we could give her, and a drip. She was flying it 24 hours later. I know of a woman who wanted a doctor to do a housecall as she felt too ill to go to the surgery. The doctor refused.
- If an animal is in severe pain with no hope of recovery, it will be put to sleep. I recently read of a man who requested this and it was denied by the courts. He now has the choice between breaking the law and travelling to Switzerland while he can (thereby shortening his life by a further six months) and enduring a long painful drawn-out death. I know which I’d prefer.
One thing I find hard to explain to people is why I get upset if a calf dies and yet we send beef cattle to slaughter at 16-22 months. In many ways, it’s the same reason I get very upset if I hear of a child or a young parent dying and yet, if at an old person’s funeral, you’ll hear many people saying “his/her work is done”. There’s an acceptance to a death of an elderly person. I want my calves to get to gambol around the fields but we can’t keep them past a certain time or we’d be bankrupt. Georgina Gater-Moore, a young farmer, wrote a good blog post recently explaining how she feels when her lambs go to market. There’s an acceptance when a person’s or animal’s life comes to what we see as a natural end.
This calf is a heifer and will go into our milking herd when she is two years old. Hopefully she’ll be with us for many many years. And yes, I adore the love heart on her forehead too.
There are too many contraditions in the advice given at the moment. Advice includes limited milking time to three hours daily so if cow numbers are increasing we need bigger parlours, automated drafting, cluster removers, automated calf feeders and more and yet we shouldn’t borrow too much. The reality is there are farmers out there who have doubled their herds and are still milking in relatively small parlours until milk price improves and they can afford the repayments. There’s no point in making them feel like a fecking idiot when they’re stuck in the parlour for two hours plus.
Some farmers swear by feeding calves once a day within 30 minutes once they are over three weeks old. And okay, good for them but don’t try to ram it down the throats of the rest of us who think its a bad idea. Having experienced many calves getting bloat with one batch of milk powder (I’ll tell you about our milk powder saga another day), there is no way I would risk giving calves a single feed of milk powder. Calves are not a nuisance, they are the future of the herd and they need looking after – that takes time.
Other contradictions tend to be things like the insistent advice to feed 3 litres of colostrum to calves within two hours of birth and yet the “efficient” farmers being profiled in various publications say they don’t get up at night to cows. Even if they feed the cows at night to reduce the night-time calvings, there will still be odd one born so I can only assume they suck the cow and it’s a guessing game as to whether it took three litres or not. Make up your mind folks – which is it going to be?
5. Short Notice for Meetings
I’m not sure why but there always seems to be very short notice for meetings. We often get a text just a day or so before hand and then we get a phone call that day asking us to attend. You’d think we were sitting down with absolutely nothing to do. Erm, we’re working, remember?
I tend to be a bit suspicious of carrots. Call me cynical if you want but I tend to believe there’s no such thing as a free lunch – especially in farming. Glanbia (the milk processor we supply to) is asking all its shareholders to vote and is offering a fairly significant carrot. Apparently the average payout in the spinout is about €6K. Now, if it was a good deal, why would we need the carrot? Why can’t they just give all farmers a bonus like a Dutch milk processor did? Hmmmm. Unfortunately, if farmers do vote the way Glanbia want them to, it will be impossible to tell if they thought it was a good deal or if it was because of the carrot. Which reason would you bet on?
Needless to say, if I was going to vote, it would be no but I doubt I’ll waste my time travelling to it.
7. Terrible Marketing
I’m not an expert in marketing but I do market my own farming books and think I do a reasonably good job of it. I’m not going to claim I could sell coals to Newcastle or snow to an Eskimo but I do okay. A couple of weeks ago, I received a flyer from Glanbia in the post with an offer for milk replacer and calf nuts. I threw it in the recycling bin thinking “ridiculous timing” to myself as the time to contact me to ask for an order was January. Calves are being weaned now plus no farmer in their right mind would change calves to a different product at this stage. Then I got a phone call the following week wondering why I hadn’t taken up the offer. There were a few deep breaths before I asked “are you serious, do you really not know?”. Anyway, she caught me on the wrong morning as she then had to listen to a ten minute rant. I mean, we, as dairy farmers, are trusting Glanbia to market products made from our milk and they can’t even work out the right time to market milk powder to farmers. Is that how far they are removed from farmers now?
Okay, I know they probably had pallets of milk powder left and were trying to shift it but to follow up with the phone call just seemed a waste of time and money.
The only good thing about Glanbia at the moment is that they do have local co-ops and the staff in our local one in Crettyard are excellent: helpful and know their stuff. Without those good staff, I wouldn’t be buying a thing from Glanbia currently.
8. Bad Profiling
This amused me rather than infuriated me although it did make me want to put my head in my hands, rock to and fro and groan. It might amuse you too so I’ll include it. I recently discovered that I had been profiled as ….. guess what? A farmer – nope. A farmer’s wife – nope.
Now, try if you will but I doubt you’ll find anything about me on this blog or on any of my social media accounts that suggests I’m anything other than a farmer and an author. But to suggest I’m a homemaker is an insult to all homemakers / housewives everywhere. I know I’ve said publicly that I get more satisfaction out of cleaning calf feeders than washing my kitchen floor and that’s true. In some ways I love when it’s busy on the farm as I can let the housework go – as long as the kids don’t decide to write their names on the dust on the hall table. I don’t stress about housework – as long as we are all warm (I always have the fire lit before the kids come home from school, I love the open fire), well fed and cosy, I’m happy. Okay, Kate or I cook every day and we do a good bit of home baking but nope, I’m not a homemaker.
Still with me? I have some positive stuff coming up – I promise!
Brian and I left science and teaching careers to return to farming. I was getting school holidays, Brian was getting 32 days holidays a year plus bank holidays. We didn’t decide to become farmers because we wanted to work less hours. We wanted to be self-employed, to work the land, to be with animals and yes, be proud of what we do. It’s about time that advisors and journalists and many more realised that they owe their jobs to farmers and stop telling us what to do. Advice is fine, telling us we’re crap if we don’t do as they say is not. We may not be the best farmers but we do the best we can in the time allowed and with the facilities available to us. And we happen to think we’re doing okay even if we are working 90 hour weeks more often than we’d care to admit. While these things just annoy us, I know that if I was feeling depressed, the relentless criticism, negativity and ridiculous contradictions would be enough to send me over the edge.
I wrote How To Be A Perfect Farm Wife with a few aims in mind. They included demonstrating all that is expected of farm wives by husbands, in-laws and neighbours. Apart from showing that expecting someone to achieve all of that is ridiculous, it also emphasises that many women somehow manage to achieve a lot of it. An Ideal Farm Husband followed a similar model and yet, I believe that the ones now putting the most stress on farming families are those who are supposed to be helping them. There’s a very fine line between giving advice and telling people that they are crap unless they follow the textbook advice.
Let’s Get Positive
Okay, so what can farmers do to help themselves feel more positive and proud of what they do? I’m not an expert and know everyone reacts differently but here’s what works for us:
- We take a holiday before the calving starts – usually abroad as the sunshine helps with the relaxation and the “get away from it all” vibes. A few days break between calving and the breeding season would be lovely but we just can’t fit it in. We did go to look at bulls the other day (and bought one) but we also fitted in a pub lunch and a walk on the beach – that recharged the batteries somewhat.
- We try to get everything ready before a busy time such as the calving. But occasionally we get a curveball and it doesn’t work out, an example being taking delivery of gates for a calving hutch that didn’t have instructions and needing a degree in Meccano to work it out.
- We know we’re not perfect but we don’t beat ourselves up when a mistake is made. We try to learn from it and move on.
- Always looking for the silver lining and focusing on that if there is one.
- Acknowledging that a death on the farm will take a day or two to get over and knowing we’ll move on.
- Ignoring what others do.
- When busy, I don’t buy newspapers.
- The beauty of social media is I can dip in and out as I want – it makes it very easy to ignore negativity.
- We set our own targets and I insist on celebrations when we reach them, even if it’s only a trip to the cinema or a meal out. I think it’s good for the children too to see us celebrating successes. We also celebrate their exam results or any achievements really.
- We laugh a lot. Telling jokes is good. We also tell each other to piss off if the other is being annoying.
- We recognise that tolerance disappears with age and we’ve both reached the stage in life when our tolerance is at zero so saying things like “that’s fecking shite” or FFS or WTF tends to occur more than we’re likely to admit. Saying “that’s nice” (Mrs Brown’s words for fuck off) is something that I’ve never dared do until recently when I recently did so in a DM and you know what, it felt good so it may be happening more often.
- I have to indulge in my favourite hobby daily, I have to read some pages of a book every day. If the hours are too long or I’m too tired to read and the weather is rubbish and things are going wrong on the farm, then it starts to feel like drudgery. But as long as I have time to read my current book, even if it’s only for twenty minutes, then life is fine.
- Stopping to smell the roses: well, for me it’s taking a walk to any of our highest fields and standing for few minutes to breathe deeply and admire the view. It never fails to make me feel on top of the world.
- It only takes one day in Dublin city centre to make me appreciate country living and the absence of a commute.
- I’m not really into inspiring quotes but I do have a few favourites. This is one: “The land is the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for, because it’s the only thing that lasts” from Gone With The Wind.
What can we do to support other farmers and help them to feel pride in what they do? We often hear the expression “if you ate today, thank a farmer”. One of the best examples of this has to be Fiona Graham. Fiona farms in Ayrshire and almost every day, she posts a picture on her Twitter account of a dinner she has just cooked or some home baking.
— Fiona Graham (@fionagraham13) May 2, 2017
Her captions always include the source of the food – it’s always British and often local. There’s nothing fancy about her photographs, they don’t have fancy props and she isn’t standing on a ladder to take them but they really do emphasise her pride in farming and cooking local food. It would be great if it was something more of us could do – not just taking photos of the food but emphasising the source and taking pride in using local ingredients.
To conclude then, I do think it’s wonderful that there are so many papers and organisations focused on farming but I think they have lost their way. They need to remember to look back over their writing and evaluate if the tone and structure of it helps farmers or if it serves to hammer them down into the ground that little bit further. Just to reiterate the “hours worked” theme: there were evenings where I came in too tired to even have a cup of tea and went straight to bed (and I love my tea!) yet I felt pleased that the calving season had gone well. Picking up something to read that tells me I’m crap because I worked so many hours is not helpful! Do let me know – am I being ridiculously irritated or do similar things annoy you too? What do you think of the recent focus on long working hours? Or do you have any ideas for how we can really emphasise and encourage the pride in farming?