Is Dairy Farming Tougher Than Working on the North Sea? Matthew Zonderop

Remember the Seinfeld show? Jerry went to the studios and said “I want to do a show”. “What’s the show about?” they asked. “Nothing” was his reply. It’s a show about nothing and yet there were 180 shows. So today’s effort is about nothing. It’s a hard one to write this time around as those of you reading this will all know what a dire situation we are all in, whether you’re a system 1 (like myself) or system 5, autumn calver or spring, we are all in a serious deficit of feed and moisture.

Those of you who know me also know that I’ve spent the majority of my working life over in Europe and, of all places, on the North Sea, crewing on super trawlers, oil rig supply ships, anchor handlers (they pull the anchors up for the oil rigs when they are on the move), beam trawlers, and even the odd trip down the Rhine on barge boats transporting coal (from Africa to Belgium!!), margarine (when you see it in its raw form – yuck), and iron ore.

Yes, the work was physical, the hours worked were brutal, health and safety didn’t exist. It was common-sense, unless you were on the rigs and the conditions we worked were also harsh, driving rain, heavy seas, and high winds. We would go days without sleep: repairing nets, hauling anchors, or meeting deadlines with an oil rig to empty its cargo before heavy weather set in. I’ve seen men that have met their demise, smaller vessels being hit by tankers in the English Channel; brothers, sons, and fathers drowning. It wasn’t all bad, there were a hell of a lot of antics, practical jokes, laughs and tears (although that was never shown on board). I was privileged to see ‘war games’ in the Channel, with anti-submarine helicopters, who promptly told us we were fishing in the wrong area, head south east and you will strike gold – and good golly, miss molly, are submarines big..really, really big.

Why am I telling you about this? What’s that got to do with SMASH? Patience.

In all my years at sea I never once thought about my mental health or that of my colleagues, the hours we worked often peaked at 9 hours on 3 off, or in the peak of herring season, 20 hours on 4 hours off then 24 hours on 4 hours off in shifts. And during these times I never heard anyone complain about the hours worked or the conditions, we just did it. But nothing prepared me for the life of being a dairy farmer. Yes, the weather can be tough and the days long, but the effect on your mental wellbeing is BRUTAL. This season taught me that.

Riding the high of the record payout and reasonable spring to boot set up what we thought was going to be a great year and then the circumstances changed with El Nino hitting us harder than expected. The continuation of this dry period is really taking its toll on stock, the farm and of course our ‘health’, and now these anomalies of war supply chain issues and inflation – could it get any worse? And most of us have not experienced such a high payout. Everyone and everything had to perform at optimum level for us to maximize the hard work we put in every year. Perhaps those expectations I’ve put on myself have taken their toll, as per in my previous blog everything that could break down did.

We are drying off the herd in the next few days and even though I’ve met my targets I feel as though we have achieved nothing, almost numb really. Once we are dry I will be able to evaluate the season, the good, the bad, and the ugly. But, most importantly, it will be time to rest the body and mind, declutter, spend time with family and friends to relax and talk again. So this blog is not really about nothing, it is about something. It’s about our wellbeing, our health, and our families. So please take care of yourselves and your family.

The calves’ final weigh in – they averaged 245 kg.


Regrassing the calves’ chicory crop, sowed 17/3.


Preparing the calf shed with hydrated lime.

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