Facing the future of dairy farming

Jersey herd

Jersey herd - Credit: Archant

A herd of cows is always a fine sight, but an increasing rare one in the county. Elizabeth Hamilton, Herts chairman of Campaign to Protect Rural England, visits a Kings Langley dairy farm determined to carry on the tradition in the face of multiple threats

Charlie and Barbara (centre) with their Open Farm Sunday team

Charlie and Barbara (centre) with their Open Farm Sunday team - Credit: Archant

Charlie and Barbara Wray and their herd of 75 Jersey cows are survivors. When the couple came to Wayside Farm in Kings Langley in 1980 there were around 160 dairy herds in Hertfordshire. Now fewer than 10 survive in the county and only two are Jersey herds.

School children from Hemel Hempstead get down on the farm

School children from Hemel Hempstead get down on the farm - Credit: Archant

The Wrays brought 17 cows from their former home in Little Gaddesden and have gradually built up the herd, surviving BSE and foot-and-mouth disease (although the disease did not reach Hertfordshire, all livestock farmers suffered badly due to disinfectant measures and animal movement restrictions). In addition, the price the Wrays get for their milk is lower now than in 1984 and they have had to invest in new buildings to meet ever-more stringent environmental and animal health regulations.

A new addition to the Jersey herd

A new addition to the Jersey herd - Credit: Archant

Wayside Farm was one of a number of properties purchased by Hertfordshire County Council in 1919 to enable servicemen returning from the First World War to become established in farming.

‘In 1980 there were 160 dairy herds in Hertfordshire. Now fewer than 10 survive’

Construction of the M25 motorway nearby and later the A41 Bypass meant that Wayside Farm has grown in size from 62 acres to 127 acres during the Wrays’ tenancy with re-allocations of land from holdings left unviable by the new roads.

When I visited the farm on a warm July day, it was time for the afternoon milking and the cows were coming down the track towards the milking parlour. They were eager to greet us and Charlie knows them all by name. Milking has to be done twice a day every day and it is a significant tie – holidays for the Wrays are rare, not least because finding someone to take on relief milking is difficult because the tradition of dairying has reduced significantly. Their milk goes to Upper Norton Dairy in Witney, Oxfordshire, which specialises in Jersey milk products. Jersey milk is especially prized for its high protein, calcium and butterfat content and attracts a premium price. It is also in demand for specialist chocolate due to its high butter fat levels.

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Keeping animals safe

I was especially interested to learn from Charlie and Barbara whether being located near several large towns made farming more difficult. The couple said dog mess, which can harbour roundworm and other parasites, is a problem, and if eaten by cows can cause them to abort unborn calves. Dog owners are urged to bag their dog’s droppings to take home or leave in a dog bin, not a hedge or tree.

Surprisingly, Chinese lanterns are another real problem to livestock farmers. They are often still alight when they land, creating a serious fire hazard. Charlie recently found one next to his straw barn. They also contain metal wire which if unseen and mown over is cut into small pieces that can cause serious, even fatal, internal injuries to grazing cows. There are several public footpaths crossing Wayside Farm, one of them part of the Hertfordshire Way. The Wrays welcome people on to their farm, but ask them to keep to the public paths, and avoid walking on either the maize crop, which forms an important part of the cows’ winter feed, or the grass which is made into hay or silage and is also important for the cows’ diet. Straying off the public footpaths can also disturb ground-nesting birds such as skylarks and lapwings, and even destroy their eggs. Dogs need to be kept under close control to avoid damaging the grass and maize, and on a lead when near the cows. Cyclists on footpaths are another hazard. Cycling is not allowed on public footpaths, only on public bridleways. Nonetheless, and despite the ‘no cycling’ signs, cyclists persist in coming down the footpath towards the farm buildings at high speed, the Wrays said. .

The future of the farm

What of the farm’s future after the Wrays retire? I wondered if a new tenant might want to continue with the hard work, commitment and uncertainties of dairy farming. As with so many aspects of agriculture, large-scale enterprises now dominate. At one time there were a string of dairy processing plants around London – now they are all gone as milk travels much further distances and farmers receive a fraction of retail prices. Even the farm’s Green Belt designation is not set in stone.

It will be a sad day if the cows disappear from Wayside Farm and I hope the beautiful Jersey faces will greet visitors here for many years yet. They maintain a link to a more traditional farming life in this corner of Hertfordshire and provide a chance for people to connect with the production of one of their staple foods.