‘It’s like having 300 children. You can’t just abandon [the animals] for 48 hours. They’ve got to be looked after.’
Job: Livestock farmer.
Typical hours worked: 45–50.
Profile: James is a white male in his early 40s. He lives with his wife and family in the Southwest of England and is part of a family farm partnership.
Being a Farmer was always the top of my list of things really. I grew up on a farm – it’s a family farm – and for generations before we have been farmers. I went to agricultural university straight from school. After the course, I worked for a year, then went travelling. When I came back, I did farming full-time. The first few years I was back, I was working half the time with my dad, and the rest of the time I was contracting myself out as just a general stockman type to various other places. Then, as dad got a bit older and we got a bit busier, the decision was made that I’d come home full-time essentially.
I’ve never felt pressured to be a Farmer – if anything I was discouraged, because it has never been an easy job. I always enjoyed the livestock side of it and to do livestock work, you are going to be a Farmer really. I’ve now been a Farmer for about 18 years.
My working day
We do ‘suckle beef’ production, which is the breeding of cows and the rearing of their calves to, in our case, about between eight and ten months. Then we sell them live to a market.
It’s such a seasonal thing, farming, there is no average week really. At the moment, I get into work at 8am and I tend to leave 5:30pm, 6pm, something like that. There will be a couple of breaks in that for coffee/lunch whatever. But although it’s a break and you’re inside, often you’ll be doing something work-related as well, either your office work or making phone calls. It’s like having 300 children. You can’t just abandon animals for 48 hours. Even when they are outside, they’ve got to be checked and made sure they are well and well-fed and all that sort of thing.
I generally work weekends, certainly one day a week, if not two. This time of year, I’m going in two or three hours a morning, Saturday and Sunday, to make sure everything is fed. Once they are housed, which is sort of December-ish then it will be every day, every weekend, three or four hours to feed them, bed them up and make sure that they are all alright.
When we are well into calving, which is the middle of February, for about three months, then it gets a bit more work. You can be needed anytime, so seven days a week. Not quite full-time at the weekends, but it would be five or six hours and then there will be calving no matter what time it is. Then you are through to the summer, which is very dependent on weather. You are trying to make hay or harvest, but there is not so much stock-work to do.
You have to be willing to sacrifice a fair bit to the farm, which is difficult. I mean it can often appear to others that the farm comes before everything because of the amount of time you end up spending there. It doesn’t. My family is the most important thing. I probably sacrifice more family time than I should, to be brutally honest. I think that wouldn’t be a surprise to any Farmer really.
*This graph shows James' score alongside the UK mean (average) for the 7 dimensions of CIPD Good Work Index.
I don’t get bored – I do enough different things. The seasons decide when and how I do the job though. It follows a fairly set pattern – if it’s calving time, you are calving, if it’s silaging time, you are silaging 1 – but it’s all got to be done and generally in its place in a year. I feel that we do quite an important job in that people get hungry – the saying is always 'you are three missed meals away from civil unrest', aren’t you? Which is true. It doesn’t take hungry people long to complain. Yes. I personally feel I do an important job in that I’m feeding people.
There are two sides of the coin. Positively, you get a lovely spring day or whatever and you see all your stock and they are all looking well and healthy and that’s fantastic. The flipside of that is if it’s brutal weather and you’ve got three dead calves to pick up because they’ve died of something unspecified. I’m afraid the saying is, ‘If you’ve got livestock, you’ve got deadstock.’ You can’t keep everything alive, it is part of the life cycle, but it is incredibly frustrating and annoying and upsetting at the time. You have got to compartmentalise that and get on with the rest really.
Pay and benefits
As producers, you get the smallest bit of the pie. We will sell these animals at eight to ten months and the best of them might make £900, some of them, but I should think we’ll average somewhere around £700. They are good cattle. Someone else will take that on and sell it fat for £1,200 or £1,400, and someone will look at that and cut it up a bit and sell it in the supermarket for three or four times that. I don’t know that people should pay necessarily more for food, but I think people would be surprised how little actually goes back to the Farmer, as opposed to Mr Tesco and Mr Waitrose.
I don’t think dad’s going to fire me, but I will be pleased to make it to retirement still farming. At the moment, things are tough. I wouldn’t say I’m financially too worried because we are owner-occupiers, not tenants, and so I think that we are not going to be penniless. I just don’t know whether we’ll be able to carry on functioning as a business profitably forever, but in the short-term, I’m fairly confident.
Health and wellbeing
My health in general I think is probably good because I mean, I’ve got a fairly good level of fitness. It’s quite a physical job. If nothing else, I’ve generally do an hour or two’s walking in a day which is quite possibly more than a lot of people, up to doing quite a lot of physical lifting and things.
There is a tendency, you are outside, and things are wet or sticky or muddy and so the chance of twisting ankles, falling over, dropping things on you, stuff slips out of your hand, whatever, because it’s a farm. It’s just working outside in elements and with livestock, which can be unpredictable as well. It’s given me a good level of fitness, but there’s definitely a chance something could go a bit wrong of course. I try not to think about it as best I can, so I don’t worry myself too much.
There’s no career progression, not doing what I am doing. Training-wise there’s not a lot really. I’ve done various health and safety courses and you need to have a ticket for my material handler, like a JCB handler thing and that sort of thing, but I wouldn’t say it’s like Farming Level Nine. You do your college HND, or diploma or degree or whatever you do and then it’s on-the-job practical training, often very specific. Farms are very different. They all look the same but the soil and the prevailing wind and the different, you know, there are not microclimates, but you don’t have to go very far for it to be a very different farm. If you’ve worked on a farm for a long time, you learn its intricacies and secrets and things.
Relationships at work
It’s just me and my dad really and it’s been like that for about 20 years. We get on fine really, perhaps because we’d have no one else to talk to! We occasionally have a casual worker come if we have a very busy stocktake. You can be sent off for a week on a tractor and you might see someone to say, ‘Hello’ to in the yard, but you could leave the yard at 7am in the morning and come back at 7pm at night having been on your own all day for a week. Then, the next week you could be three or four of you pushing cattle around together. You have to be quite a self-starter and a team player all at the same time.
Dad has always been pretty good about talking things through about what we are going to do and that sort of thing. But it’s an odd thing because he’s still my dad, but he is and isn’t my boss, I suppose. We are all in partnership together, but he’s still a lot more experienced than me. He’s my dad, he’s a mentor, and he’s my boss at times and my workmate. It’s pretty common in farming circles.
I wouldn’t say it’s an odd life, but it is quite insular. People on the outside don’t know farming really – it is quite a closed shop in some ways. It’s quite an unusual career in this day and age. You are brought up with it and you either love it or you hate it. I have known plenty of Farmer’s children that have done both. Some of them can’t get away fast enough and some of them have been out on the farm since they were knee-high to a grasshopper and are still there now.
What makes a good Farmer? Bloody-minded and stubborn, I should think. As a general rule, farmers have to be pretty thick-skinned and stoical because you are battling the elements, you are battling everything else and everybody can see your mistakes, so you are out there for the whole world to see, including most of the other farmers. You’ve got to be able to take a ribbing and be able to just carry on, no matter what life throws at you really, because you’ve got to look after the animals, or you’ve got to plant the seed, no matter what. You can’t just think, ‘Oh, I won’t do it today. I’ll go on a nice Caribbean cruise for a month and come back and do something then.’ It is pretty, I suppose, committed.
I enjoy working outside. I’m my own boss. It’s a lifestyle; I just enjoy it, I love it. I like to see the animals and that, and make sure they are all alright. It’s like having children really, in that you love them, but you’ve got to look after them. Generally, I’m happy with what is done that day. I always sleep well. I’m quite happy with life.
1 Preparing fodder by compressing and fermenting green forage crops, usually in a silo.
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