| 11.5°C Dublin


Bringing new life on to the farm can be best and worst of times

Wanted: applicants for temporary post. Successful candidate will be on call 24 hours a day but may be allowed a catnap in the straw or hay. Veterinary and obstetric skills essential. Small hands at the end of long arms preferred, but they must be strong. Good hygiene vital, but anybody squeamish about blood or body fluids need not apply. Knowledge of nutrition, microbiology and animal psychology are definite advantages. Preference will be given to candidates with ability to keep records, with nursing skills and who demonstrate kindness and patience with the most obstinate of animals.

Successful applicants who perform to a high standard will be rewarded with a good reference.

If you meet somebody today with a pale, haunted look and black bags under the eyes, most likely he or she has come from the farm maternity ward.

This annual ritual of calving and lambing is the very essence of farming. Helping to bring new life onto the farm can be the best of times. Struggling with losses and long, long hours can be the worst of times. Either way, March is the month of peak birthing on Irish farms.

This spring should be one of the easier years for calving and lambing. The benign weather facilitates a quick exit of dam and offspring from busy, and usually overcrowded, sheds to the well-grassed fields.

As in most things, forward planning for the calving or lambing season will help for a smoother operation. Feeding hay to pregnant suckler cows, giving vaccination cover plus plenty of pre-calving minerals makes life easier on many farms I have visited. Having ewes scanned and matching the added concentrates to the expected lamb crop is vital in the sheep shed.

Putting mechanisms in place can ease the pressure during calving and lambing season. It is vital to have sufficient accommodation and individual penning in place, as well as back-up colostrum, stomach tubes, plenty of hot water and dry straw.

With sheep, the key is to have the ewes lambing with plenty of milk.

In this, it's hard to beat soya as the source of protein in that fortnight pre-lambing.

Full udders make life infinitely easier and gives the lambs a great start.

Once the actual calving is over, the biggest challenge on a suckler unit is to control disease.

Many herdowners, particularly in Britain, are now using blanket antibiotic cover on newborn calves. I think this is regrettable, but then again I am not facing the challenge of keeping the calves alive.

Even when things go smoothly, the annual calving or lambing season is like an annual marathon for the farm staff, which in many cases, is a team of one. Just as must happen in a marathon, there are stages in the race when the participant is feeling the pressure and asks: "Am I mad to be doing this? How long left to the finishing line?

"My body is crying out for a rest. Give me just a few more minutes' sleep and then I'll get up. This is the last year that I will commit myself to this madness."

They say that in long-distance running the body releases endorphins which act almost like a drug to lift the morale and keep the runner going.

I have no doubt that the farmer only keeps going through the lambing/calving season on adrenaline-fuelled energy.

People will say that farmers are tough, that they are reared to hardship, but the sunken eyes and pale faces give the lie to this.

Indeed, the pressures can be frightening in cases where the calving/lambing season is going badly with deaths and losses mounting.

For this reason one can never begrudge what windfall prices come the way of those who breed and rear cattle and sheep.

At least this year the flock-owner can look forward to the best part of €100 for every lamb kept alive and the suckler farmer can realistically hope to get €1,000 for good weanlings.

Dairy farmers, too, are well rewarded this spring for delivering live calves. Jersey cross calves, which two years ago couldn't be given away for free, are fetching €100 a head this season. The good Belgian Blue or Continental cross sated with over-quota milk is freely making €500 a head.

All I can do is wish every person in the maternity shed success and plenty of live animals.

As one farmer said to me: " If I survive March, I can usually manage for the rest of the year."

Indo Farming