Helen’s Notes From the Farm

The most nerve-wracking time in the farming year is hay and silage time. For most of the year, you just have to go with the weather, drilling or harvesting when the conditions are right. But getting the forage in for next winter requires us to gamble on the weather because we need a decent spell to be able to mow, wilt and harvest. Get it wrong, and we have blown our chances of good performance from the dairy cows especially. Beef cattle will do ok on a lower energy ration, but dairy cows need the best, especially if you are trying to use as little grain and protein concentrate as possible.

So we are plumbed in constantly to every weather report, looking for the week of sun we need. If we are too cautious, then the grass and clover leys will go past their best; ideally we will be cutting by 20th May, before the crop starts to head.

It’s a big team effort, the one time of the year when pretty much everyone on the farm works together. And this year we are one man down. The professor, as Andrew was often known, has piloted the forager for the last 12 years. Dai, more experienced with livestock than machinery, has done brilliantly in his stead. But the professor’s absence is profoundly felt everywhere, all the time, and especially as his forager trundles up and down the fields, without him on board.

Sheeting down the clamp at the end of the day gets everyone off their machines, unrolling plastic and throwing tyres to weigh it down tight. There’s often a beer on hand once the clamp is put to bed, and this year, a chance to reminisce. A couple of recurring themes: we never know what is around the corner (so make silage while you can), and how much knowledge has been lost to the world (not least, the intimate details of our ancient combine).

silage making

While the bulk of the silage was being made, I was in Leicestershire for our Board of Trustees policy days, courtesy of Graeme and Vivienne Matravers. Two great days of discussion and farm visits, including to Jo Bradley’s biodynamic farm near Sutton Bonnington. His cattle looked fantastic in the sunshine.

Half a day at the farm, spent mostly in our own board meeting reviewing the businesses performance and plans. The rooms at the pub are going down a storm, but we need to get them full now, and more people eating too, if we are to cover our higher rent and labour costs. Brand sales are pretty good, but with pig prices up to cover the increases in feed costs that have come through this year, the margins are low; we need to get retail prices increased. It feels as though there are lots of ‘buts’ and much hard work ahead.

Then off to the Hay Festival, where I am speaking on a panel entitled ‘Green tech tinted glasses; how smarter farming can reduce farming’s footprint’ with Jake Freestone (progressive farmer, expert in soils and low till systems) and David Speller (intensive poultry entrepreneur)… both sparky and insightful speakers. I love Hay, and usually come here for a week’s leave; it’s a great chance to broaden my horizons, and hear fantastic speakers on topics I know nothing about.

Pigs in wallows

This year it’s a flying visit… though manage to squeeze in a couple of sessions, on quantum computing and the history of the protestant church… but our session goes well, with a lovely mix of farmers and general public. The discussion continues over a drink afterwards, with quite a lot of local farmers. As ever, I am reminded how much the world is changing; they are all keen on their soils now. One guy told us the moment he saw the light… when he realised that the seagulls were no longer following his plough as there were no worms left.

Back home again, and it’s baking hot. The pigs have their wallows on the go and the downland looks wonderful after rain and then sun. It’s a bitter/sweet time.