December on the Farm
It's the depths of the year; the sun just creaks above the horizon and the watery light drives plant life underground. It's easier to see the wildlife, with the undergrowth gone. We saw a little family of wild boar in the woodland, bold and wary at the same time. I saw a young fox and a gorgeous fallow buck, both bursting with life, style and elegance. I'm seeing a lot of barn owls too, fleeting silently from the trees.
We've sown most of the crops for next year's harvest. The fields that remain will produce spring crops, leaving stubbles to feed overwintering birds. This year, we used our new GPS system: the tractor steered itself to sow the crops. They've come up in even and unerring rows; that's the first step of good yields. The seed and plant food goes precisely on the cropped area, with no wasteful overlaps or gaps. It's very odd when the tractor takes a sudden little kink to deal with a dip in the ground and then beeps to tell you it's getting to the end of the row. No complicated working out which bit of the field to do next to cover the whole field, as the computer remembers where you've been and what's left to do.
The grass grew well this autumn and we hope to graze up to Christmas – although the weather turned wet after that very dry September. Warm wet winters give grass that the cows, each around half a tonne, can't graze without damaging the soil. No problem; if this gives long enough grass to feed them in that important first round of grazing in February, we can use stored feed over this tough time of the year until the soil can support the animals.
We graze some dry cows and heifers on fodder beet, where we can mend the soil by ploughing and sowing a crop in the spring. We are fencing the cows safely away from badgers; last winter, a sick badger caused havoc with our animals. So this year, we are doing everything we can think of to protect them. Housing the cows won’t help as a sick badger will seek out the shelter of farm buildings when they are in the last dangerous grip of TB. All we can do is keep them separate from our animals.
Our heifers grow well where we can leave them outside safely. It's odd; you'd think outdoors in the cold and wet was too harsh for them. But we've measured that our cows grow better outside than in. This year, we'll try some groups indoors and some outdoors to confirm this result. It's lovely to go out at Christmas and see lush grass in front of cattle. The lighter, younger animals do less damage than cows would. We move them every day to keep the soil safe and the cattle interested with fresh grass to attack. After a downpour, the patch they are in looks muddy. But it soon washes clean, and the earthworms and frost restore the soil structure.
The milking cows are inside from Christmas at the latest. I love the warm purposeful sense of cows in the barn, eating, resting, growing their calves and making milk. You do see them sniffing wistfully at the grass growing on warm days on the other side of the gate. Patience, girls! Not long now.
We pack and send off cheese for Christmas around Britain. We started sending cheese to the four corners of the globe in September, to make its stately way by boat across the oceans. I love that the sun, soil and water of this valley find their way onto thousands of celebration cheese plates across the world. I love the idea that lots of people I don't know (and a good few that I do!) are enjoying grass transmuted – like alchemy – into luscious, rich cheese.
We are over the moon to have won gold for our Mature, Extra Mature and Vintage Cheddar at the World Cheese Awards 2014. This is all thanks to our hard-working team.
To finish my last diary entry of 2014, I would like to wish you all a very Happy Christmas and magical New Year!
MARY QUICKE MBE