The cows that milk themselves


JUST along the road from us is a dairy farm which I have walked past hundreds of times, and have seen the cows feeding and the delightful calves (some of which I filmed here), but I have never been in it, or indeed in any farm. Last week Paul and Charlotte took the time to give me a tour of Ribblesdale Jerseys, and it was a fascinating experience.

They have a herd of 300 pedigree Jerseys, and the first thing to say is that the cows seem entirely content and unafraid of people. More than that, they are positively friendly and inquisitive. I imagine this is partly their natural good temper, but perhaps partly because they are milked by robots. I had never heard of such a thing, and it is not all that common yet.

The cows have the run of a huge barn equipped with feeding stations and resting places where they chew the cud.

When they feel the need to be milked, any time of the day or night, they take themselves into a pen where there is a hopper of tasty snacks, and while they are eating the machine uses laser technology to locate the teats, attaches the milking apparatus and does the business. Because the machinery is set up for the benefit of the cows rather than photographers I couldn’t get much in the way of pictures, but this video from the robot manufacturers explains the process. Central to it are the collars the cows wear which identify them to the machine and record all possible information about their milking and their health. Apart from anything else, it prevents the smart ones from getting a free feed – if they have recently been milked there are no treats on offer. It really is astonishingly clever.

A few cows were queueing up for their turn, poking their heads through the gap between the machine and the wall to inspect me.

The system means they are milked when they need it rather than having to wait for the farmer to do it. It is stress-free, and they don’t have to be herded by dogs or stung with cattle-prods. The atmosphere in the barn is quiet and calm, some cows wandering around, most resting and peacefully chewing. From the farmer’s point of view there is a saving in labour, which is important because there not so many people who are prepared for hard physical work in all weathers, and who have the temperament for dealing with livestock. This farm is run by Paul and one employee, with Charlotte looking after the calves, which arrive all year round to ensure a steady supply of milk.

The cows are mated by artificial insemination, and here is something else I did not know about: the semen is sold having already been separated into male- and female-producing sperm, so it is 99 per cent guaranteed that the calves will be female. Therefore there are no male calves to be sent to be raised for veal. When the calves are old enough they are introduced to the herd. This is a young one distinguishable by her curly topknot (it settles down with age).

Some calves are sold, and recently half a dozen were airfreighted to Dubai where a sheikh has a Jersey herd. The sperm is obtained from a variety of studs to prevent inbreeding. As a result the cows’ faces have variable colouring, some like this one

being much darker than others. All are beautiful.

The milk is collected once a day by tanker and goes to a dairy in Leeds. Some is sold as Jersey milk in supermarkets (if you haven’t tried it, it is the king of milk, creamy and delicious) and some goes for cheese-making.

Goodness me, though, it is a hard way to make a living. Being responsible for all those lives 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, is not a light undertaking. Paul and Charlotte have hardly any holidays because of the difficulty of finding someone to run the place in the way that they would wish. But I don’t think they would want to work in offices or call centres. Being in touch with the land is a special privilege.


There isn’t such a thing as ‘dead of winter’. I saw these snowdrop shoots on a roadside last week.


Finally, I was lucky to snap this scene on Christmas morning. The sunbeams were moving along smartly from left to right (east to west) and I caught them as they passed Clitheroe Parish Church, a couple of miles away, with Pendle Hill in the background. It made me think of William Blake’s pictures, and that there may be some hope.

I wish all our readers a happy new year.

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