Rob Barnett, Head Milker
By Brian Biggs, Meon Matters 2010
East Meon’s heritage is essentially one of farming, with most of the inhabitants working on the land, in trades supporting farming, or in support services such as bakers, butchers, blacksmiths etc. Nowadays the reverse is true, most villagers are either commuters to jobs outside of the village or retirees. However there are still a number of working farms left in the village, plus a large shooting estate, where people still work on the land and help retain East Meon’s link with its agricultural past.
This article features a Rob Barnett who is the Head Milker at Whitewool Farm, also known locally as ‘Butlers Farm’, which lies in the next valley west of East Meon. It also looks at the team of people he works with on the farm. Rob lives in Duncombe Road and travels to Whitewool Farm at least twice a day, and when the cows are calving he often goes back in the evening to make sure that all is well or give a helping hand as required as the calves are born.
Rob’s day starts at 5.00 am when he does the morning milking, he comes home for an hour or so late morning and then gets back to work for just after 1.00pm for the afternoon milking which starts at 2.30pm, finishing between 5.30 to 6.00pm. Quite a day, especially as there maybe that evening visit as well. This is clearly no 9 to 5 job where you can shut the door, lock up and walk away! He tells me he loves the job, loves being outside, and loves the variety of work. The word dedication comes to my mind, especially as this work has to go on 365 days of the year. If any of the team is on holiday or sick the others just have to work longer and harder.
Rob has been working in farming for 22 years, the last 8 years milking. When he left school his father had arranged an electrical apprenticeship for him, but there was a six-month wait until the job started. So to fill in the time and earn some money he took a job working on a farm. He enjoyed farming work so much he never took up his apprenticeship. Previous to becoming Head Milker he ran the pig unit on Whitewool Farm for 14 years. He had just received a top industry award for managing a pig unit when the bottom fell out of the UK pig market – yes pigs did not fly! His pig unit was closed down and he was transferred to the dairy unit, which is how he got to work with cows.
The farm covers approximately 1,200 acres, with over 380 cows. As I write this article at the start of October, just over 300 of these cows are milkers. The number of cows milking varies during the year depending on how many heifers there are, plus how many of the mature cows are coming into calf and have to be dried up before they produce milk again when the calves are born. To keep producing milk, cows need to produce a calf approximately once a year. The female calves are mostly kept on the farm to replace the aging cows, which have to be replaced as their milk production goes down. The male calves are sold off to local farms within 10 to 12 days of being born for rearing as beef cattle.
There are 2 or 3 bulls on the farm, I met a very handsome but docile Hereford bull, but most of the cows are impregnated by artificial insemination to give greater control as to when the calves are born. There are a mixture of Friesian, Holstein and Hereford breeds.
The first day or so of milk from a newly calved cow is called colostrum and is full of special minerals, antibodies, extra goodness etc. to get the calves growing and healthy. So for the first four days after birth this milk is not allowed for human consumption and has to be directed into a special container and then fed to the calves. The system for telling which cow’s milk is to be treated this way is very simple and effective – coloured plastic tape around the lower leg. Different coloured tape is used for other information.
When I got to the farm, before the afternoon milking started, Rob had to sort out a cow that had become lame. He had to clean and pare off the affected hoof with a special knife, see picture below, until the infection was exposed and the puss drained. This one of the many and varied jobs that has to be done to keep the cows fit and healthy. Looking after the health of the cows is a very important part of his job.
Milking started at 2.30pm, with cows milked in relays of 24 at a time. The milking parlour can take 24 cows each side, so when one side is being milked the other side is being prepared ready for milking. The cows came into the parlour like a line of school children and quickly got into their positions for milking. Apparently they have their own pecking order and stay in the same place each time, though this gets disrupted when the new heifers join the line and there is often much pushing and shoving until a new order prevails.
Working on a farm is not without risk. Some while ago Rob was kicked clean across the milking parlour by a cow, and was off work for 8 weeks with torn knee ligaments. Of course there is the ever present danger when working in close proximity with the cows of being covered in muck, so staying alert at all times is very important.
The cows each have their udders and teats wiped down and then the milking array with four suckers is put in place, this automatically falls away when they have finished milking. Rob can place these arrays on the cows at a great pace and even with his eyes shut, I had a fumbling go and would need much more practice to get up to speed. It can take between 5 to 20 minutes to complete the milking of each cow depending on a number of factors, the fast milkers generally come in first. Milking finished, the udders are sprayed with a barrier mixture to stop infection in the teats, which take about 30 minutes to close up, and then the cows are off back to the cowshed or field depending on the time of year. Rob is supported during milking by Kate Kingham, who has worked on farm on and off since she was 15. She is now 19 and has been working full time for a few months and hopes to make this her full time career. Kate also looks after the calves, feeding them the colostrum and cleaning out their pens.
Mucking out and cleaning is an important and constant job if the cows are to stay healthy. If the cows are housed in the cowsheds then there is a race to clean out their stalls each time they go in for milking. The muck is raked out and goes on a big pile, which is later moved to various parts of the farm to rot down for a year before being spread on the land. The slurry runs into a trench and then into the slurry pit, this is then spread regularly on the land as fertiliser. This work is carried out by Peter Richards and Krzysztof, who is Polish. It looked as though the tractors where part of a well choreographed ballet as they raced around picking up the muck, getting the new straw and sawdust down and refreshing the feed. Most of the cow feed is produced on the farm except soya products and sugar beet pulp.
There is a friendly rivalry and banter between the inside team of milkers, Rob and Kate, and the outside team led by Peter who deals with the cattle feed, management of the silage clamps, muck & slurry spreading, moving the cattle around, fencing etc. This all helps the work go round and keeps them on their toes. Paul Baker is the farm manager in overall charge and keeps them all in order. I did not meet Paul as he was on a well-earned holiday at the time of my visit.
As I write the farm was producing approximately 6,000 litres of milk a day. This goes up to 11,000 litres in the winter when all the cows are producing milk after they have calved. This also means winter milking takes much longer! The milk from the cows is cooled and then stored in large tanks. It is collected every other day by a tanker-lorry and is sold to Sainsbury’s, so a number of you may be drinking the fruits of Rob’s very hard work.