Rachel Banks, Spence Agricultural Scholar 2018

Rachel is eligible for a scholarship because she is from a village in Cambridgeshire, which is an area where the Trust owns a large estate. During her first term of study she introduces herself and offers some advice to future students.

Growing up on a farm, I really enjoyed looking after the animals and the respect I learned for them. Being able to contribute to producing food is important and it was a pleasure to help my Dad, from corn carting during the harvest to opening the gates for feeding the cattle in the winter.

Farming was never pressed on me, but I have always enjoyed the outdoors and studying biology and geography, and as I have become older I have become passionate about the subject. I want to help educate people about how farms work, while also improving techniques for welfare and profit, this made studying agriculture a sensible step to take.

I chose to study at the University of Nottingham because the course had the perfect mix of academic and practical study, as well as a large emphasis on research. It also wasn’t too far from home, meaning I could easily get back if I was needed in an emergency. The campus itself is nicely located near the main university, with hopper buses to enable me to travel to the city and mingle with other students, while still being based on a lovely countryside campus surrounded by like-minded people.

The intake of new students this year was smaller than at some other agricultural universities, so I felt I would be able to better get to know my lecturers. Being top of the league tables was also good, it meant I knew I would have an advantage when it came to looking for placements or employment, which will be further assisted by the university’s links both nationally and abroad. This will be useful because I hope to take up a year in industry for my third year.

So far in my studies I have particularly enjoyed animal biology and food security. Next term I am looking forward to taking part in more specialist modules, especially grassland management, which I think will be interesting and easy to see the effects of.

My ambition for the future is to work on a farm, where I can use the knowledge and skills I’m learning at university. I also want to help others to understand the importance and practicality of agriculture, spreading the word and being involved in keeping it a world priority. If such an opportunity opens up then I am not afraid to veer away from my current career plans to follow it.

This scholarship has helped me to settle into my studies with fewer worries over finance. It has contributed to fuel for me to visit home and support my Young Farmers’ club, and to go to agricultural shows where I have been able to independently learn more about my subject. It’s also paid for trips to farms and talks with the Agricultural Society at Nottingham, which has been very interesting and useful for my degree. My area doesn’t benefit from many scholarship opportunities so I’m very grateful to have received this and have a better university experience as a result.

If you’re considering applying to the University of Nottingham or for a Spence Agricultural Scholarship then I think it’s definitely worth it. The Rochester Bridge Trust is an amazing organisation I hadn’t previously heard of and my course is a great choice if you enjoy biology and geography. It’s applicable to lots of things and can lead you into research-based or practical careers.

Rachel Banks shares some of her spring term lambing experiences.

Coming back after the winter break I was greeted with exams and new modules, followed shortly by sheep duties, giving little time to sit around.

The university’s flock of 40 lleyn cross ewes had been brought into a shed over Christmas to keep them warm and to start their tailored feed plans. As half of the ewes are owned by the Agrics Society at Nottingham, we are invited to help out with events that occur throughout the sheep calendar.

At the end of January we trimmed any of their overly long feet to prevent and treat any issues surrounding lameness, and scanned them with a portable ultrasound. The sheep also received an injection (heptavac) to prevent clostridal diseases.

The ewes were then all placed on a diet fit for themselves and the lambs they were carrying. As there are only 40 sheep and they were not separated by how many lambs were due, they all received enough food for twins. This consisted of barley and oats as concentrates, haylage as a sweeter grass alternative, and sugar beet from the farm. The students undertaking an enterprise management module in second year are responsible for their feed plan alongside the farm manager.

In the UK lambing time varies depending on location, if a farmer wants more people available for work experience, and also when holidays/ optimum market take place. It can be as early as December or as late as June in some areas (more typically around March/April). The Nottingham ewes were put in with rams in the autumn around October, in two sets, so the ewes had two different due dates, at the beginning of March and and the end of March (145 days later). The first lambs from those ewes were born in the first week in March.

As I am writing this, we have two ewes left to lamb out of the group, with all the lambed ewes now out in the field with their respective lambs. Some of the first-time ewes need a little assistance with lambing, which is one of the reasons they are brought indoors. We also check them regularly during the day and some farmers also check their flocks at night, and as a result, this time of year is very busy!

I have helped lamb two ewes this year who were struggling, as well as working to get the lambs ready to go out to the fields. This involves giving them a spray of iodine and some probiotics when they are born to dry up the umbilical cord (to stop nasties) and give them a natural boost. After a few days (or a day if they are doing well) we spray the ewe’s number on both the lamb and the ewe to help identify them when mixed, and we ring the tail to dock it a little shorter (so that when they are older they are less likely to get flystrike). The ewes are also given wormer before getting turned out in good weather.

Occasionally it is possible or necessary to adopt a lamb across to another ewe. There are many reasons for doing this. One reason is that the ewe dies at some point after delivering her lambs, which fortunately has not happened to our flock this year. Another is because the ewe rejects her lamb(s) so it needs milk from a reliable source, which is when a suitable ewe can be chosen. Similarly, if a ewe has triplets or even quads, she will not produce enough milk to keep them very healthy, so, where possible, moving a lamb onto a ewe who has only one lamb is desirable.

When adopting a lamb over, time and smell are both very important as the ewe bonds to her newborns based on scent. We successfully moved a lamb from a triplet ewe onto a single ewe, as they had lambed at the same time, and once it was born it was rubbed in the new ewes placenta and afterbirth to make it smell like her own, before being placed with its new sibling for her to lick.

Thankfully the ewes should be done lambing before my Easter break, so there will be less worry and more time to focus on the exams approaching in late May/June.

The end of my first year at university was 21 June, celebrated with the Summer Ball and our exam results being released. I was happy to see I had passed all my modules, doing even better in some of the harder exams than I thought! I then had the privilege of enjoying the glorious sunshine with all my friends at the ball, with fairground rides, tasty food and performances from S-Club 3 and DJs through the night. I even made it to the survivors’ photo and a much-needed bacon butty at 6am. 

The next few days involved packing up all my belongings and getting ready to move out of my accommodation. While taking down all the photos that have gathered on the walls throughout the year and boxing up all my kitchen things to move over, I appreciated how welcoming the university has been; from setting us up with welcome boxes and introducing us to tutors in the first week, to providing us with exam support and coursework feedback. The socials organised by the Guild and societies have brought lots of fun throughout the year too. 

Some highlights of the year for me have definitely been going to the DairyTec show with the university to look around and talk to people about the courses, looking after the Agrics sheep flock and the summer ball. 

I have enjoyed joining societies at the university such as the Agrics society which gets me invloved in talks, farm visits and socials with vets, agriculture students and more who all appreciate the outdoors and farming lifestyles. I am also a member of the Farmers Market Society which gives me discounts at the monthly farmers markets held on the campus and member bonuses. Being invloved in these societies has given me a wider range of friends and has definitely enriched my university experience over the year.

Over the summer I am helping the university on open days and I’m looking forward to showing my enthusiasm for the university. I am also working on my home farm helping to make hay for our cattle, then for harvest on the arable side. 

I am looking forward to spending some time at home before heading back for an exciting second year.

Since the last blog at the end of June, a lot of time has passed and a lot has happened. I worked full time for the first time over the summer, having the delightful 7.30am start with variable finish times for the whole two and a bit months. My job was on my home farm, as a labourer or farm worker over the harvest period. It was a very busy time of year for the home farm, with hay and silage making at the start of June leading into July for harvest. The home farm is made up of about 1,000 acres and we have both cattle and crops across South Cambridgeshire.

Hay is typically made when mature grass is cut and left to dry out, before being gathered up into condensed bales. As a result it requires a few good dry days, which were few and far between this season. It can also be relatively labour-intensive, turning the grass over to dry evenly with a tractor in the heat. It will come as no surprise that we chose not to put as much energy into hay making this year, and a lot of our grass went into silage. 

Unlike hay, silage can be a lot wetter when cut as it has a different system to preserve it. Where with hay you dry it out to make it inhospitable for microorganisms such as mould, silage gets wrapped up in a thick film to isolate it from any bad microorganisms getting in. This method also creates a fermentation process without oxygen present, and essentially turns the grass into a softer and sweeter food. You can see most silage in little round or square bales in fields, or often more towards the dairying side of farming, in “clamps” where large quantities of fresh grass and other forage (this can include maize or clover etc) are compressed in large pits and covered over.

This year we made a lot of silage in pink wrap, in support of breast cancer research. All the silage and hay will help feed our cattle and some local horses for the winter. I found that this work is highly enjoyable as the rake which I was in charge of, was relatively fast paced and satisfying. I had a challenge of getting through lots of small gates with the tractor and rake, but learnt a lot and surprisingly didn’t break anything!

Any free time at work was then spent sweeping, vacuuming, and disinfecting the dormant grain sheds ready for the influx of grains, beans and peas. It was hot work with a dust mask for my protection and no music to listen to over the vacuum, but important for the biosecurity of the food. I would also walk through the fields pulling out weeds that had survived any previous attempts to thwart them, before they could seed and produce more stubborn children. You were never standing still for long, with plenty jobs just waiting to be tackled during a quiet moment. 

Soon, on the other side of the business, the barley became ready. It is important for us to harvest crops when they are at a specific moisture and condition for their job. This particular barley was grown for malting, so that it could go into foods such as bread and drinks such as beer. It also needs specific nitrogen content and other criteria for it to be sold in the food market. As a result we have lots of visitors over the summer sampling everything. 

As the barley was ready, it was time to start the combine’s engine, give it a once over and get ready to escort it along the working roads. Unlike a car or even most tractors, the combine is a formidable machine. It is over 4m wide, which takes up well more than half of the road, and weighs more than 17 tonnes empty. It can go 30km/h top speed on the roads which is around 20mph. Our model is nothing particularly large or fancy for its job, and there are lots smaller and bigger. Due to its size there had been one job I did not want over summer; escorting.

Unfortunately not all of our fields are accessible through other fields, and we do need to move it as efficiently as possible on the roads. The farm land rover is equipped with an amber flashing beacon on the roof and an attachable sign that reads “WIDE VEHICLE FOLLOWING”. This car then scouts ahead of the combine, identifying areas where cars will not be able to pull over in, and thus waiting at areas where they can, so the drivers need not reverse or put themselves in danger. Strangely enough though, some drivers seem to read this as “irritating driver within, please ignore and continue aimlessly” sign. It is again no surprise I dislike this job, but it is necessary for everyone to be safe and for us to get off the roads again as quickly as possible. 

It is also worth mentioning that the combine has relatively poor hind visibility. It has no mirror that looks directly behind and therefore cannot see behind. This makes reversing unfavored and another reason why the combine cannot manoeuvre out of the way easily, both from safety and practicality points of view. We had only two occasions where angry drivers over the summer told the combine to move out the way, thankfully. To my delight I was only entrusted with escorting short distances, and on the less troubling journeys, reducing my stress levels a little. The barley that was ready was soon all in our sheds in a matter of days, and some sold soon after. 

Conveniently the farm had two weeks off from combining as everything else wasn’t quite ready. I took a few days out to help at university open days, and went on a short holiday with some friends. It didn’t seem like long before the rest of the barley was ready, followed by the wheat, peas and beans. 

This was the busiest period of work, with my record working day stretching from 7.30am to 11.30pm that night. It’s not uncommon for some farms up and down the country to keep going while they can – until 3 or 4am. Our farm is lucky enough to have a more relaxed approach this year, with my father and Jack, who works full time, only going past midnight combing once this year, the day before rain was forecast. 

I was on a tractor with a big 14 tonne yellow trailer, watching the combine from the side until it was nearly full (as signalled by its flashing lights). I would then drive alongside the combine and its spout would turn out. As both of us drove along the grain would fall from the spout into my trailer, and I would be careful to keep it filling up evenly, and slightly from the back, so that it would fill up back end first and I could then see the grain fall for the front half. It has taken lots of years of practice and I am still not perfect, but maybe I will be a wizard at it by 60! 

Wheat is the UK’s biggest crop produced, and the third most in the world, behind rice and maize. It is an important source of energy and relatively easy to grow on the soils found here. There are lots of places it can grow, doing especially well in the fenlands around North East Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire. It struggles anywhere particularly cold or really wet, which is why it is less common in the north and west of the UK. 

There is also the matter of getting to it. The steep hills away from the east are not welcoming to the big machinery needed to grow wheat, and so such land is better devoted to grass which can be converted into energy by ruminants such as cows and sheep. It is also a nutrient-demanding crop, needing lots of added nutrients and minerals like nitrogen to grow properly. That is why farmers don’t grow it every year, so the soil can have a break. We use barley, beans and peas for this. It is very common to use oil seed rape and sugar beet as break crops too. The peas we grow are harvested dry and can go into human foods as protein, as canned peas and in our case, a lot to the animal feed industry, including dog food. The beans have a similar role as a protein source too.

After the biggest chunk of harvesting was out the way, some of us started the next jobs on those fields, including cultivating, ploughing and discing. These jobs essentially help break up the soil ready for the next seeds. There is a lot of research in this area at the moment in farming, looking at how much you should be driving on the soil, how much if at all should you break it up and when should you do anything. As a result most farmers have a different approach based off individual soil and machinery qualities, as well as preference. We also used this time to spread compost and our own cattle manure from over winter onto some fields to recycle the nutrients and boost the soil. We also have the choice between making rows from the plant stalks which we bale, or chopping them in the combine and spreading it as it goes. We had targeted fields where the straw was being reincorporated into the soil, and some where little straw bales were later made ready to sell or store for the cattle’s bed in winter.

We celebrated the end of harvest on our only bean field for the year, by which point, most of the other fields had already been churned up, a lot of the wheat and barely already sold and taken away, and a neat stack of bales in the sheds or on corners of fields for collecting. Over the harvest we only had 3 tires burst, a couple small spillages, and lots and lots of packed dinners sent out by my grandma. On one day we had 6 lorries one after another to collect wheat, and 5 another day. All with the correct feed passports and a big red tractor assurance sticker. That proved our farm had met extra standards of traceability, sustainability, responsibility and being British. 

Somehow in that hectic summer we also took down a shed, cleaned all the metal girders, repainted them to stop rust, and put in foundations for it to go up elsewhere. My dad and I constructed a bale wrap holder to go on the front of a tractor, and fitted water, gas and electric to a static caravan. I cleaned the 4 tractors, 1 combine and 1 telehandler more times than I could count, inside too! We had a TB Test with our cattle on the hottest day of the year (37*C) in the morning and a big mechanic breakdown during combining that same afternoon. I pressure washed an entire cattle shed and disinfected it, pulled thistles from a field and even helped the council look at drainage for a day. Some days I would be sat in a tractor seat for almost 15 hrs (with breaks of course!), and other days I wouldn’t even stand still yet alone sit. Some days I would come back and go straight to bed, and others I still made time to go to the pub with my friends. It was one of the most exhausting, varied, and unpredictable jobs I could ever have. I would’t ever change it for anything.

I have had a busy few weeks, with exams and farm matters arising at home.

Back in January I returned to university after a Christmas break, completing my exams for the Autumn Semester. Lambing then fast approached, which I discussed in more detail last year in my spring blog. I took a larger role within the herd this year, checking with the sheep manager each evening and between lectures, so those weeks went quickly and soon we were approaching mid-March. 

I heard news from a fellowship in the USA with the University of Georgia, that I had been successful in my application, and I would be jetting off to America in April! Alongside coursework being set and logistics of fitting extra-curricular events beside work, I miraculously kept on top of work and soon it was two weeks before the end of our spring term and the beginning of Easter Break. 

Pandemic

By this point news of the seriousness of covid-19 had spread around the country, and several worried parents were checking on students as we were still at university. Plans for socialising were vamping up in anticipation of our long Easter break, which were suddenly brought to a halt with the university’s decision to move learning online. We had a week of transition to online learning before requests from the university for us to move home where possible were sent. 

With two sheep left to lamb, I stayed till the end of the week helping tie up loose ends there, in particular allocating the sheep to staff who could remain on site to look after them. By the weekend I had moved all my items out of my student house and into my very cramped car. 

By the next weekend all the pubs had shut, and lockdown began. From then on I have been working on all coursework at home (perhaps more so than without lockdown) and running house errands such as shopping for the house as I have two parents who work full time in the food industry. 

It has been interesting to live in a house with five out of six of us home. My sisters Millie and Emma are year 13 and 11 at school/ sixth form, so with exams cancelled they have been embracing the garden and television, as well as lie ins. My other sister Hannah is in year 10, so still has all her GCSE work to complete, which her school has been very on top of, sending lots of her usual work and checking up once a week on the phone. My mother, as mentioned, is working full time at home, managing her company’s response to covid-19 alongside her usual jobs, so the house is full of online conference calls and the kitchen table is covered with laptops, computers and paper for all three of us doing work. 

Family farm

My father runs our family farm, which I worked on last summer and will be doing so again. The farm has been facing its own challenges outside of the global pandemic. We have been calving since March, and so the time came to put the cows out to pasture with the good weather, and to meet the bull again. Temptation, as he is known, has been our only bull on the farm for five years, producing more than a hundred beautiful calves and he has become a favourite on the farm with his calm temperament and good nature. This year we also purchased a new bull, from the same breeder as Temptation, so that we could keep Temptation’s daughters to breed with. His name is Dave, and has been happily relaxing with his group of heifers (a cow that has not yet had a calf) on the other side of the village. 

As with any farm, unforeseeable accidents occur, and Temptation managed to injure himself one night, leaving him immobile for a few days. We brought him food and water, as well as painkillers to help him recover, aware that the cows were starting to come into heat. This is where the cow’s fertility cycle indicates she is ready for mating with a bull (or artificial insemination in some farms). A small group of cows had began ‘bulling’ where they start rubbing and jumping on each other to find a bull. 

Temptation did begin to get a little better. By the end of the first week he could stand up when I brought him silage, which is a sweet preserved form of grass, and by the second week he would walk about 50m a day to try and keep up with the herd. We had made the field smaller for his ease. This progress was still not enough for him to do his job, meaning the farm was put in a difficult position:

 

  • We did not know how many cows he had served, but it had not been all of them. The longer he was out of action, the more cycles would be missed by the cows, putting their due date gap a month later. This also meant artificial insemination was out of the question.
  • We had no way to move Temptation out, as a 1.5 Tonne bull is difficult to move in his state, and we were hopeful his condition would improve. Even if we did manage to load him onto a trailer, we had no one to replace him.
  • Although we now had Dave, he had his own girls to manage, so would not be able to move. We could not merge the herds as the fields are too small and it would overwhelm Dave.
  • We all loved Temptation so didn’t want him to go. The longer he was here recovering the more muscle mass he lost due to his injury and he lost condition, therefore making it harder for him to get up again.

By the end of the third week, the farm had begun to look at replacement bulls, as it would be the only way for the cows to continue making money next year. The breeder which had provided us with Dave and Temptation had one bull left, Eric, who we had seen when picking out Dave. The decision was made to retire Temptation to the abattoir, where his carcass could have some purpose, and they had the facilities to handle a 1.5tonne carcass. 

The breeder kindly dropped Eric off the afternoon after Temptation had left, and we know although it was sad to say goodbye to Temptation, he was still in pain after a large recovery window and would probably never have fully recovered. Eric is now settled in with a big task to get to know the herd of cows with their calves, and will hopefully stay on the farm for many years to come with Dave.

Hard choices

It is important to remember the hard choices any farm makes throughout the year, whether it be debating when to sell grain to get a profit, or when to retire a much-loved farm animal. There are always silver linings, in our bulls’ case, Eric and Dave used to be pen mates at their old home, so where we were worried over how to keep two bulls over winter, we now have the possibility of keeping them together as they are already friends. Cows make friends like people, which was clear by the sight of the same cows staying near Temptation during his injury. Eric’s arrival has created a large amount of interest among the herd, and he already has a small collection of calves who flock to him all day. 

The farm is now beginning to cut grass to make silage for the winter feed supply for the cattle. The barns are getting cleaned for harvest and work will soon become the classic hectic harvest each year. I have one online exam to complete and then I am free from university for a year, as I will be completing a placement year in industry with Bayer CropScience.

Remember to keep smiling! And look forward to the good things that can come out of bad situations, like I have been doing this week with our bull fiasco.