After a fairly quiet summer (all things considered), things are starting to pick up again. The excitement has definitely been building around the farm the past couple of weeks because… full swing calving is nearly here! I say ‘full-swing’ because this farm calves the majority of its cows in the autumn time, which means September to December is a hive of activity in the cow nursery.
There’s something pretty magical about seeing new life on the farm. I say it all the time, but it literally doesn’t matter how many thousands of calves you’ve seen born (and I’ve seen thousands!), every single calf is something to celebrate. Be it the cow with the perfect, textbook calving (when the calf literally falls out, she jumps up, starts to lick it and it guzzles down a belly-full of colostrum) or, the cow with an upside down and back-to-front baby, who gets a mouthful of calving ‘gunk’ and refuses to open their mouth to the teat! They’re all special, and they’re all a little victory!
As I’m writing, we only have 12 calves born so far, but a ‘calf-splosion’ is no doubt imminent. The farm is on an AI programme, with a sexed-semen policy which means that all the calves born at this time of the year should be dairy heifers. This works well, as going forward, we would like to move even more of the cows round to an autumn calving block. Having heifers born at this time of the year should hopefully then mean that they calve in the autumn of 2022 at 24 months (which is what most folk agree to be the optimum age of first calving!).
Being then, that the successes of this autumn will affect the success of the farm going forward, calving time can be preeeeeetty stressful. Farmers are well used to stress, working in isolation isn’t really new and long working days coupled with (very) short rest times can often just be “part of the job”. But when do we take a break from caring for cows and calves and actually take time to look after ourselves?
84% of farmers under 40 said mental health was the biggest hidden problem they faced within the industry. That’s a staggering figure. Dealing with stress is hard, especially in farming.
For me, despite being outspoken about taking a break, having time for yourself and making sure you don’t let the stress of farming get to you, I struggle with stress. I don’t own a farm, I don’t have to pay bills and I have no one depending on me to provide for them and yet I still find the pressure of farming on my shoulders. I often wonder too if I take on so much work because I’m a woman, and (again despite being outspoken on the issue) think that I have to prove myself at every opportunity. Sometimes, I feel that there is no option but to keep going, to keep getting up, to keep going till dark, to keep smiling, telling people “I’m tired but sure, what do ya do”.
But that’s not the right attitude. When someone asks “how are you getting on”, I should tell them. And I mean really tell them. I should tell them that I’m annoyed at myself for not getting enough colostrum into the calf that’s not well. I should tell them I’m cross that I didn’t spend enough time teaching that other calf to suckle on the teat before moving them into the group pen. I’m sad that a few of the older cows in the herd probably aren’t going to make it to another lactation. I’m worried that I’m not doing enough for other people to take the stress off them. I feel guilty if I do take time away because then I’m heaping more work onto other people.
Farming isn’t easy. Never was and never will be. It’s a profession we pick because we love being outside. We love welcoming new life, seeing animals thrive and being at the forefront of food production.
But we have to learn to take a break. Down tools and step back. Even if it’s just for few hours. In farming there’s no medals for who gets up the earliest, who goes to bed the latest and who does the most hours in between. We have this notion that we’re lazy if we don’t work 24/7, 365 days a year – but that’s simply not true. You have to take time to enjoy life too. Have interests away from the farm, make time to see friends and family, talk about how you’re feeling. Work to live, don’t live to work.