Working Lives

Following the cow’s tale (1960-2018)

Location: Martham

John was the herd manager at Billockby Farms and still works for the farm in a part-time capacity on Martham Island (Heigham Holmes)

I was born in Wisbech in 1944. Father was a grocery shop manager; we lived on the edge of town, so we were town people as such. Then in 1951 father moved on in the grocery trade to manage a shop in a village called Friday Bridge, between Wisbech and March. We were right on the edge of the village and down the road next to us was a small farm. I went to school with the children from there and we used to play together. There were four milking cows on the farm and I got involved just being on the farm, which I really enjoyed and that’s how my interest started.

Farming apprenticeship at Coldham Estate

I moved on to grammar school and when I left there I decided I wanted to go into farming. There was then a county apprenticeship scheme running with Coldham Estate, which was owned by the CWS [Co-operative Wholesale Society], based between Wisbech and March. I went there for three years as an apprenticed worker. I remember the second day there I was leading horses potato harvesting, spinning them out with what they called a ‘spinner’. Then a gang of women used to put them into baskets and a man used to come along picking the baskets up and throwing them to another man, who was in a horse and cart, who emptied them and threw them down again. That was the initial harvesting stage and, of course, then there were a few horses about.

Most of the power on the place consisted of grey Ferguson tractors with some crawler tractors. That estate was split up into five farms and each farm had its own suckler herd, which it grazed round the farm; bearing in mind this was right in the middle of the Fens so there wasn’t too much grass about, but we used to get involved with that as well.

Easton Institute, then back to Coldham and barley beef

I then went to the institute at Easton for 12 months and learned a bit more about farming. You had to get up early and go and work on the farm and milk the cows before you went to lessons; my grandson goes there now and I think they have a slightly easier life. So that was my first introduction to milk and, of course, I rather liked the beef, because you didn’t have to get up so early. I moved back to the farm at Coldham in 1964 from the institute.

In late 1965 they started a barley beef unit and I was put in charge of it. We started off with 1,000 barley beef a year. We used to have 20 calves coming in every week and we moved them round the farm, utilising whatever buildings were empty until they were needed again, of course, which also meant the muck was spread about the estate.

Raising barley beef was very popular at the time, because we were using bull calves from the dairy herd, which were then Friesians, and feeding them in yards, because there was plenty of reasonably cheap barley about, therefore, we were using these two what you might call by-products and turning them into quality beef.

During the latter part of the last few years I had at Coldham Estate, they got rid of all the suckled cattle, because they were using too much land, which could be utilised more for arable farming.

First taste of milking

We used to keep one flat field, which was big enough for an aeroplane to be used on to spray wheat against wheat blowfly, for instance, in a hurry and also to put top dressing on early when the land was wet. So what we did do was we brought Friesian heifers in, reared them up and sold them as calvers. Then the latter part of the time we actually calved them. I set up a little milking system with a bucket and we milked them before they were sent off to be sold as fresh calves heifers. So technically that’s the first bit of milking I did.

Dairy farming at CWS Roden

There was an influx of Canadian Holstein, being more dairy than beef, into the dairy herds, because they wanted to increase the yields; but the confirmation of the calves then coming forward was not very good and we used to have a job to finish them. So in 1977 I was transferred from Coldham Estate to CWS Roden, on the Shropshire border, to be in charge of 320 milking cows.

That took a bit of learning for a start coming from just beef to dairy, because suddenly there you are you’re running that. I carried on with this until 1984, when the biggest thing was that quotas came in and, of course, everybody had their own idea what quotas were going to do. We’d been pushing to increase yields and all of a sudden we were feeding them to decreased yields, which seemed strange at the time.

Joining Billockby Farms

Anyhow, I got fed up with this situation and so I answered an advertisement in the Farmers Weekly for work at Billockby. I came along and had an interview with Gavin Paterson, who was in charge of the livestock. The farmer, Willy Austin, had died and left a widow and two young sons. Gavin was a relation and he took over management of the livestock and Willy’s younger brother took over management of the arable side of things.

Gavin took this on, in addition to his own farm, and he used to come over to Billockby Monday and Thursday afternoons. We used to go through what to do and what not to do and he used to leave me to it and away he’d go.

The size of Billockby Farms is about 1200 acres and there were 200 milking cows, keeping all the young stock, and they used to calve the heifers at three years then, because they’d just started grading up to pedigree; there’s various grade cows and the yields initially were about 5,000 litres. That was in a big herringbone parlour, 16/16, which was only about 12 months old when I got there.

Dairyman’s working day

I lived just up the road in a tied house, only about 400/500 yards away. There were two of us there and we’d do a 12 day week, as you might say, worked 12 days and had a weekend off.

We used to go into work about a quarter to five in the morning. The most important thing was to get the cows milked, so the milk was in the tank and cool before the tanker arrived. So we used to get the cows in if they were out grazing, or if they were in the buildings, get them out and get milking. If they were in the buildings in the winter, the other person would be scraping out the cubicle sheds and putting the feed out, ready for when the cows went back in.

We got the cows in the collecting yard and the person who was milking would bring them up to the parlour; 16 each side. He’d bring 16 on. You’d wash them, dry them and put the units on in succession. When you got that done, if the other side had finished milking, you’d spray the teats with an iodine solution for cleanliness, let them out and the next lot on. Then you’d put that side on and wash them, dry them, and put the units on. By which time the other side would be getting finished and you’d be working the other side, so it’d be continuous.

Each cubicle shed held 60 cows, so we used to milk each cubicle separately. It was broken down according to when they were calved. At that particular point in time we used to autumn calve, so we’d start in September and go right the way through to perhaps November/December. This meant we had a lot of cows to dry off in the middle of the summer; we were restricted on grass there, because we were grazing marshes. These were at the back of Billockby Farms and we made as much milk off grass as we could. We didn’t have huge yields, but it didn’t cost as much to get.

If we started milking at five, we’d be done by about half past seven. Everything had to be cleaned up and finished off. We were rearing our own calves, so we had to get them fed. We’d have a check round, initially the calving yard if it was at that certain time of the year, and carry on from there. When we’d finished, we’d go and have our breakfast.

We would have half an hour/three quarters of an hour for breakfast. Then there’d be young stock to go and see to, straw and feed; the larger young stock and then it’d be getting on for lunchtime. We’d have two hours for lunch, come back in at two, check round to make sure everything was alright, then all cows out the buildings ready for milking again at three.

Leaving the milking side of the business

Initially I left the milking side of the farm in 2006. I had a stroke and I packed up work. The cows were still being milked at that time and this carried on right up until last year. They stopped the dairy herd, because it was costing more to produce the milk than they were getting paid for it. All the cows were dispersed. They were sold as they were freshly calved up in Cheshire, because the beauty of this part of the world (Norfolk) is it’s TB-free.

When I left in 2006, there were 200 cows. After that though, they put up another building with a view to increasing the number to 600 and a big new 40/40 parlour was put in. They did get up to about 450, but they’re gone now.

Just before I left, they started using sexed semen, because we used to have all the hassle with Holstein bulls and what you do with them. They rear the youngsters and sell them as fresh calved animals. They’re still using sexed semen on them, so it’s rolling forward with a lot of youngster heifers all the while.

Initially we had our problems going through the dairy herd there. BSE started in 1988 and ended about 1996. We had about 100 cases of that and BVD (bovine virus diarrhoea) hit us about 2000. We used to have animals that would die for no apparent reason. We had a vet come in and I said, ‘They’re like sheep. When you look at a sheep … they’ll look at you and all of a sudden they’ll just die won’t they? Sheep seem to die for no apparent reason,’ I said, ‘I’ve had a couple of heifers like that, you know’. ‘BVD’, he said, just like that. So we vaccinated everything. Then about 2003, because a lot of local herds had gone out, we went to the sales and bought a few good cows in, because we were building them through onto pedigree.

Grazing on Heigham Holmes, ‘Martham island’

I also had responsibility for the grazing too. Most of our young stock and calves were grazed on Heigham Holmes, ‘the island’ as we used to call it, which was owned by the family until 1987 when they sold it to the National Trust. Anything dried off for autumn calving would initially go over there, so we were able to reduce the dairy herd grazing at Billockby, because it only had 120 acres.

We also had yards in several villages round here with cattle in and we used to go round to each one and feed them each day. Also so many days a week we’d go round and bed them up, but in the summer, of course, we’d have to see to them over the marshes.

Keeping an eye on salt levels in the marshes

Of course, the cattle drink from the ditches, as we’d train them to stay within a ditch system as calves, so in the summer you definitely have to watch the salt levels. We never used to have this problem at Billockby, because we were a lot farther away from the sea. However, at Heigham it was possible, because there’s a big seam of gravel runs up along this coast and if we get a very very high tide, it tends to pressurise and push salt water through into the nearest Broads and waterways to the coast here, which can push the salt levels up. On the marsh, although it’s lower than the river level and all the water’s pumped off, if you do get a problem on there, salt water sits at the bottom of the ditch, or sits lower than freshwater and in the summer, with evaporation, all the clear water goes and just leaves you with salty water.

I take regular samples of the water and someone from the Drainage Board tests them for me using a conductivity meter. If the level reaches 10, which is 10,000 parts per million, this is when it becomes poisonous to cows.

The highest we’ve reached is 8 and what I do then is leave a bit of water in from the river, because usually the water level of the river is lower than 8, and build the water level up. Then I switch the pump on, with the idea that I’m letting clean water in and when I pump that out it’s mixed water, so I’ll gradually lower the salt level of the marsh. So with just a bit of adjustment, I improve it. If it ever got up to 10, we would have to actually carry fresh water in water tankers over there. We haven’t had to do that yet, although I hear that some have had to do that odd times on the Acle marshes.

Moving from one marsh to another

There’s a dyke system and gates into each marsh, so you can only go through from one marsh to another through a gateway. So you have to know where the gateways are, but over the last few years these marshes have ceased to become first and foremost grazing marshes. They’re now a wildlife habitat with just a grazing tag on them. So the water levels have been purposely allowed to rise, so we’re sitting on a higher water level than we used to. This does mean that the foot drains that were put in years and years ago to drain the marshes are now full of water, creating mini rivers that run across these marshes.

They’ve been putting some what they call ‘foot drains’ in just recently, which are about four foot wide at the bottom, which you can’t walk through. So you have to know where you’re going on these marshes now, else you’ll just get stuck, because you just can’t get any further.

A marshman called Arthur Button

Years ago in the late 80s we used to have a marshman over there permanently; he used to look after the cattle in the summer. Arthur Button his name was and he used to rear calves over there until he retired and then they were put to Billockby. At that particular point in time there used to be quite a bit of sea traffic. I can remember going over there in the fog and you could hear the foghorns of the boats and you would think they were in the next marsh. The only way you could get off then if you went on a marsh was to look for a ditch and you’d just follow that until you came to a gate. So there’s no other way, because you just lose your bearings completely.

Rescuing cattle from the dykes

It was common for cattle to fall into the dykes. When this happened, we’d have a rope and we’d loop it round their neck and twist it, so it gradually tightened up and the rope would be round the top of the head and underneath the jaw. Then we’d either pull them out with a tractor, or a truck, ensuring they were on their side and then just slide them out.

I’ve only ever actually lost two in about 30 years. Initially when you’re checking cattle on marshes, you’re checking to see if they’re all still on top and not in the ditch and then you’re checking the state of the livestock themselves.

Another health problem peculiar to these marshes was keeping a look-out for animals bitten by snakes (adders).

Martham Island

Martham Island is on the river down Ferrygate Road, towards what we call Martham Ferry. It’s 470/500 acres and the only way on is via a floating bridge.


We’re not allowed to graze it during the winter, in fact, there’s various grazing restrictions on it. Initially when the ESA [Environmentally Sensitive Area] came about, we’d got to be off at the latest by 1st December, but now with the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme, technically we’re supposed to be off by 1st of November, but we can get permission to graze a bit later if there’s grass there to graze.

There’s 37 different marshes on the island, ranging in size from 2 acres up to 35. There’s also three different levels of grazing management that has to be used. Under the new Higher Level Stewardship Scheme things have had to change, but the biggest problem now is we’re not allowed to cut anything to conserve it. Therefore, all the grass has to be grazed, which obviously grows at different speeds at different times of the year, but you’re not allowed to under-graze it either.

The whole island now is all grass and has to be grazed, but the two big marshes in the middle, 36 and 37, were used for growing wheat when I first came in 1984, but have since been put back into grass.

Island landscape 2018

Martham Ferry

When I first went to the island, there was a ferry; a hinged floating bridge and what the original ring hinged on was actually a rudder bar off a drifter concreted into the ground. The tank on that was riveted rather than welded and I think it was built in the 1930s so, naturally, over the period of time the rust took its course and it sank a couple of times there in 1986. Initially a new one was built and installed in 1987, under the same design, which hinged from the same point.



Early photograph of Martham Ferry
Manoeuvring the old ferry with ropes

The National Trust have installed a new bridge, with hydraulics, electrically-driven pumps and so on, but it now takes four times as long to get over as it did with the old ferry. You can get two/three vehicles on it at a time. We take lorries and diggers over there and the cattle, of course, get taken across on a tractor and trailer.

Controlling the ferry in 2018

Three herds; potential problems with the bulls

Billockby’s not got enough cattle to actually graze it all, so we do have between 80 and 90 suckler cows and calves come on from a local farmer at Somerton Holmes, which is next to Horsey, to help keep the grass down. This does have its problems though in that they’re split into three herds and, of course, at certain times of the year there’s got to be a bull running with each group. However, the bulls have to be kept apart as you can’t have one bull one side of the ditch and another bull with a group the other side of the ditch, because it just doesn’t work; they wind each other up.

Just to add a little bit of spice to it, I have two Holstein bulls running with the dairy young stock cattle at times, so I have to keep them away from maiden young stock and also keep them away from the beef bulls. So it’s not an easy thing to actually keep all the bulls apart, keep everything fed, keep the grass down and neither under-graze, nor over-graze. I do it all on my own but once you get used to it and have a reasonable plan, everything falls into place.

I only have four days a week there now. I have one of the two weekend days, then the boss Henry, he’ll do one day, because he likes to just look round there. Then I’ve got two days in the week I say one of the permanent livestock men has got to come over, because they’ve got to know what’s going on in case anything happens to me.

Conservation and a balancing act

They want to reduce the stocking rate early in the year; I assume so that cows can’t tread on birds’ nests, but the problem is if you put a reduced amount of livestock on a marsh they’ll happily graze all the palatable grass and don’t eat the under-palatable grass. Then later when they want you to increase the stocking rate, or allow you to, the cattle won’t eat because the grass is unpalatable anyway; it’s even more unpalatable because it’s matured. Then, of course, that seeds and you get more of the same. It just doesn’t work at some marshes, in fact, it’s just getting worse and worse.

With regard to conservation, there’s a big balancing act going on and really each marsh wants managing separately to achieve the aims of both parties. The trouble now is one size fits all. So with some marshes like these ones containing the tall fescue, which wants eating off early; you’re not allowed to go in early, because of restrictions, so it just doesn’t work; there’s a load of rough old grass and nothing goes on it. If you want food for geese, waders and so on, you need short grass.

Special Operations Executive

Apparently the SOE took the island over and used to fly spies off it into France during the War. Some of the old guys have said that they can remember the Army being over there during the War and, in fact, when you look at the buildings in one particular place, it can only be War Department, because farmers never put reinforced concrete floors in.

Love of the marshes and its wildlife

I carried on doing the work on the marshes, because I was asked to do it and it was something to do that I’m finding more and more interesting, because of the wildlife over there. We get quite a few Eurasian cranes and there’s a pair over there every year and, of course, we get all the various ducks and geese dropping in on their migratory travels. I can remember one day there were four different types of swans there. There were mutes, Bewicks, hoopers and actually two of the black swans from Wroxham Broad. That’s certainly not a sight you’d see very often.

There’s muntjac deer, Chinese water deer and we’ve got this increasing herd of red deer now; I counted 37 over there the other week. I saw a kingfisher last weekend, which is only the second one I’ve seen in 35 years.

Coypu were gone by the time I got here. When I went to the Institute of Norfolk at Easton in 1963 though there were still a few about, but they were just about getting on top of them then.

This island is only open to the public once a year. The warden also does guided tours through the summer, by appointment via the National Trust at Blakeney. I think you’ve got to have areas like this in the country where nobody goes, so that nature can just take its own course.

John Stafford (b. 1944) talking to WISEArchive on 29th January 2018 in Martham

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