Whisper it softly at present, especially after recent news of delayed payments to farmers and a further plummeting milk price, but there was a time when dairying was considered to provide a great future.
It still should hold a better future than the present day - with farmgate prices per litre as low now as 20 pence - as export markets open up for dairy products around the world in tune with population growth, but for Ferryhill-born Sean Robinson he has given up dairying for a trade which has proven to be a consistent earner.
Sean now runs a hoofcare business looking after cattle’s feet with his wife Annabelle from their home in North Duffield, but he remembers the words of a friend when he was making his first tentative steps into farming in the early 1990s.
“I’d wanted to be a gamekeeper when I was at school because I liked wildlife, but was told there were only so many gamekeepers’ jobs and that agriculture was the way to go.
“I’m from a council estate and my parents both worked in factories so I had no background in farming but I got a job on day release from school working on a beef farm in East Howle. When I left school at 16 I joined a YTS scheme and worked on a beef and sheep farm.
“A friend who milked cows told me that dairying was the future but the first time I milked at Houghall College where I studied for my NCA I thought how does anyone get any enjoyment out of this?”
Despite that first shock Sean took to dairying and at 19 he made the move from his homeland of County Durham to Yorkshire settling at Home Farm in Thorganby, near Selby.
“I didn’t even drive when I first came down in 1993 but I had taken a job as an assistant herdsman for Harold Fry’s dairy herd of 250 cows and it included accommodation on the farm.”
Further roles with the Hobson family at Elvington; a brief move over to the East Riding on a farm in Burstwick; and a quick return to Elvington followed. But dairying was soon to be overtaken by Sean’s specialisation in foot trimming of cattle, although that’s not exactly how it had been planned.
“There were some changes to come at Elvington and so I decided to make a change myself and went self-employed with a view to taking on relief milking.
“The internet had just started and I set up a relief milking website to perhaps also be an agent to get work for other relief milkers. It worked but then I also realised I could do more with each day by milking the cows and then offering a hoofcare service on the same farm. Just at this time there had been a foot-trimmer who had passed away. I found out the charges he’d been making and the sums seemed to add up. I bought a second-hand cattle crush and we were on our way.”
Annabelle had always been involved with helping on the farms where Sean had been employed and she immediately took to working alongside him on foot trimming. So is this a case of the couple that trims together stays together?
“We’ve always worked really well as a couple,” says Annabelle.
“We met when I was working in the Jefferson Arms in Thorganby. I grew up in the village and love the countryside but until I’d met Sean I never realised there were two 4 o’clocks in one day!
“We are often on the road by 4.30am even though Sean doesn’t milk anymore, mainly because we like to get to the cows straight after their milking. Cows don’t like to be stood all day so if you can get them early in the day they can then go toddling off, have their food and be ready for milking again in the afternoon.”
The Robinsons now look after the hoofcare needs of beef and dairy cows and bulls from as far afield as Skegness in Lincolnshire and Wigton in Cumbria.
“Our system is that the cow comes in to the crush and Annabelle operates it so that the animal is held and turned,” says Sean.
“I then trim the feet and administer whatever is needed. Some need a shoe, a little bit like a wooden clog to take the pressure off the foot if it has an ulcer or abscess.
“We record everything on a touch screen computer so that we have each cow or bull’s history, which helps with farm assurance. Annabelle passes me anything I need and that makes sure the truck is kept clean too.
“Our normal day includes taking care of 30 cows on one farm and then a bull on the way back. In recent times we’ve designed a new crush too called the FMC Hoofchute that squeezes the animal in. We go to beef farms generally once or twice a year and dairy farms every month.”
Three years ago Sean and Annabelle set up an online business selling equipment and sundries for those who do their own foot trimming on farms and for other foot trimmers like themselves.
“We’re on the road foot trimming for four days a week but the evenings and one day a week are spent administering the orders that have come in,” says Sean.
“Digital Dermatitis has become a real problem for cattle. Since 2010 the disease has become even worse and can lead to the blowing off of hooves. Cattle lameness is a national problem and we use a Derm paste that is a mixture of copper sulphate, zinc sulphate and cream to bind it.”
For more information about Sean and Annabelle’s business venture, visit www.hoofcaresupplies.co.uk