Country Matters: No starry eyes along this milky way

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Who would be a dairy farmer? As higher authorities wrangle about changes in the distribution system, down at the front the inexorable struggle goes on: morning and evening, day after day, 365 days a year, without fail, the cows must be milked.

To a man standing in the well of the herringbone parlour at this Gloucestershire farm, the backsides of the cows are at eye-level, six of them ranged in a line along either side. Whenever one of the animals relieves itself, liquid or semi-solid jets (or both) spurt out behind it, curve down and splatter on the concrete floor.

The shed pulses with the rhythmic hiss and thud of the pneumatic milking machine, overlaid by the babble of Today on Radio 4, and an occasional sharp snap from the Insectocutor, whose two rings glow cobalt blue overhead. The smell is sharp enough to stop your watch in mid-tick.

This is the environment in which John X has worked for the past 35 years. How much holiday has he had in all that time? Six days.

A stocky, sandy-haired man, John is self-made and proud of it. His father ran a fish-and-chip shop but he, being drawn to the land, went to work on a farm. When the owner fell into financial difficulties he managed to buy some of the ground. Until he was 36 he lived with his parents in the village; then he got married and built his own house only 100 yards up the lane from the farm buildings. Today, at 55, he owns more than 150 acres and a herd of 80 milking cows, mostly Friesians.

Cows dominate his life. He also has 100 beef cattle, but they are of little interest to him. He just loves dairy cows. 'If I had a choice of driving a tractor or milking cows all day,' he says, 'it'd be the cows every time.'

Some years ago he fell seriously ill and, because he thought he might not be able to work again, sold all but five of his animals. Then, as he recovered, so did his urge to milk and soon he had built his herd up again.

When the Government introduced milk quotas in 1984 to reduce production overall, he had to cut down from 120 cows to 80. He retained that number only by buying in extra quota from farmers who had given up their share. In all, he spent pounds 40,000, which allowed him to increase his allotted output by 90,000 litres a year.

For the whole of his working life, he has been chained to the same routine. In summer he walks out at 7.15am to bring in the cows from the fields. By 7.30am he has started milking, clad in long, green apron and rubber boots, and by about 10am he is through. The middle of the day is taken up by other jobs on the farm, and at 7pm he starts to milk again, finishing after nine. The only difference in winter is that the cows live in the yard and so do not have to be fetched.

Other dairymen start and finish earlier but, as he says, 'There's larks and owls, and I'm an owl.' Start times are immaterial provided they are regular and evenly spaced.

When his parlour was new, 10 years ago, it was the last word in modernity. A computer-controlled feeding system enables him to allocate every cow exactly the right amount of cake by punching buttons on a panel, and the milk, after collecting in large glass jars, is piped away to storage tanks, where it is quickly taken down to a temperature of 5C. Cleanliness and quality control are vital, for samples are taken for testing every week, and sometimes twice a week, without warning, by the tanker driver who comes to haul the milk to the depot.

The cows do not have names - only numbers freeze-branded on their rumps - but John knows every one. As he works, he points out that attitudes to farming are changing. 'A lot of young men don't want to milk cows now. They don't have the dedication. They'd rather sit on a tractor. And if you pay a cowman to milk a fairish herd, it'll cost you the equivalent of pounds 350 a week. That hurts.'

Younger men, he says, want a better return on their money than they can earn from dairying. He himself reckons he has pounds 700,000 of capital tied up in his farm, earning only 2 1/2 per cent. If he sold up and put the money into property, he would be far better off. Many other farmers, taking up the Government's invitation to diversify, have already branched out into more profitable sidelines.

For the immediate future, he has thrown in his lot with Milk Marque, the co-operative which will take the place of the Milk Marketing Board on 1 November. Under the old system he has been getting between 17p and 18p per litre, but the new body will pay up to 25p. One snag is that haulage, which until now has been free, will have to be paid for separately, and will cost about 1p per litre: even so, he should be substantially better off.

Yet nothing will remove the grind and uncertainty of his way of life. Four months ago his dairy cows were theoretically worth pounds 1,000 apiece. Today, after the scares about BSE, they would fetch barely pounds 700. Cows will always need attention as they calve in the middle of the night. They will also continue to fall ill. The vet charges pounds 50 an hour for his services, and when the cost of drugs is thrown in, a single visit usually breaks the pounds 100 barrier.

One perpetual worry is the threat of tuberculosis, known to be carried by the badgers which live in the surrounding hills. If an annual test reveals that a cow has TB, the animal has to be destroyed immediately.

Despite these hazards, John remains amazingly cheerful. From listening to hours of news and current affairs every day, he is notably well informed, and galvanised by contempt for the incompetence of politicians, both here and in Europe.

'Gwarn]' he cries, not at any politician but at number 34, which has finished milking but is reluctant to leave. A quick touch of iodine- based dip on her teats, to ward off bacteria, and she is ready to depart. The next half-dozen are already queuing at the door, patiently waiting their turn. In they come, heading for their rations of cake. So it goes on, day in, day out - and so, one feels, John will go on, until the Day of Judgement.