The end of our long winter? The bitter sting in the winter’s tail last month makes the sweet weather of April all the more gorgeous. The late spring has the plants seem prescient – primroses, bluebells, blackthorn seemed to hold back their flowering, waiting till after the frost, only to come with a rush when the weather finally warms up. The leaves unfurl, the hedges bloom, the grass speeds up its growth, young rabbits appear, birds take on the busy air of those with many chicks to feed.
We've been hearing in the news about how many deer other people have, how much damage they are doing to fields and delicate habitats. I’m glad to hear it’s not just us. I love to see the deer, and you can have too much of a good thing.
We've had to re-drill more crops after the difficult autumn and winter. Continual wet, slugs, rabbits and deer have taken their toll. We've even had to re-drill winter barley, which we hoped would be less attractive to deer, as well as oilseed rape, which acts as an open restaurant to wildlife unless it gets away rapidly in the early autumn. We’ve put in more spring barley, which will yield a little less than winter crops, but with less cost, fine for business, but not to restore the nation's larder. Most crops are looking surprisingly OK for the winter they've had, although their roots will not be so well developed if we get a drought.
Growth gathers pace. That’s a good thing, as we have a lot of hungry cows to feed now their milk is coming to a peak in mid April after calving in February and March. We measure the grass, and as always, there are the heart-stopping weeks where the grass disappears into the mouths of cows, and we wonder if it can ever grow fast enough to feed all of them. It always turns round, by early April we stop fretting about having too little. By the end of April, we will have so much we take fields out of the grazing rotation and lay them up for silage, letting them grow longer than the cows can sensibly eat. That’s the amount they can get into their mouths at one time and eat it down to a lawn in one go. Then you get each cow standing in one place, harvesting the grass around them, taking a step only when they've got the grass in front of them. Each cow harvests the grass from a square of around 10 metres by 10 metres in a day when they get all of their forage from pasture. The cows spread out in the field and, as long as we have given them the right amount of grass in each grazing, they leave the fields neat, if well fertilized with digested grass, all the better to grow the next crop of grass. Just don’t stand too close behind cows; the grass has low fibre and moves rapidly through the cows on its way to becoming manure.
The cows are starting to bull very actively, frolicking around, the herd ablaze with hormones. We watch to see who is hot, and who is not, to check out the persistent cyclers (all frolic and no egg) or the non cyclers (no frolic and no egg; has she cleaned up her womb after birth?). Many farmers very actively treat cows for fertility. In the main we don’t, and breed only from cows that do it naturally. As a result, we have a very fertile herd that mainly cycles actively and naturally.
The heifers calving for the first time always drop weight after calving; we watch to make sure they aren't dropping too low, we are more generous with paddock size if they are. Their year old younger sisters are all outside too, grazing, catching up with weight gain on the rich grass. We are feeding them a little cake too, to catch them up: they grew less well than they should through the winter. They need to be big enough to meet Mr Bull next month. They may be keen on him when they are small, but even if we get some little chaps (two very tasty young Angus bulls) on the job, the heifers still need to be big enough to bear the calf safely, as well as avoid being flattened by his amorous advances.
The calves are growing on. We are weighing regularly, to check them more accurately than in the past, and are keeping everything in small enough paddocks to keep them moving often to fresh grass nutritious enough to grow them on fast enough. The target is to grow them on grass totally. Our swards don’t all have enough clover in them to do this completely: feed clover seed to them so the clover gets sown with fertilizer? People say this works, and it sounds clever, let’s see if it works here.
The milk is currently at a beautiful balance for cheese – enough fat and protein, not too much, neither a grainy residue nor excess fat on the top. We are spending some grant money (thank you, taxpayers) on energy saving gentle pumps which will also be kinder to the milk, and protect the delicate fat particles. I think this will further improve cheese flavour, particularly at the far end of our long flavour: I can’t wait, and that’ll only show up next year. I have a blessed job where I spend a lot of time seeing how to make our cheese as delicious as it can be.The curd feels just right in the vat at the moment. We’ve now moved from one vat a day in mid February to 3 vats a day at the peak. Hard work for the cheese team. No spare time to do the extras. More butter to make, hand rolling each curl, several hundred in a sitting. Cheese to make, to press and dress in muslin, cheese to turn weekly in the store.
All that cheese making needs a long drink to quench the thirst, restore energy. We had a very pleasant beer and cheese pairing session with the wonderful Patrick McCaig of Otter Brewery. We enjoyed the pairings that made a statement, rather than just blended well.
Vintage Cheddar - Otter Ale. The bitterness of ale complements the sweet finish on the Vintage Cheddar.
Double Gloucester - Otter Bitter. The buttery, fresh flavour cuts through the bitter and leaves both balanced on the palate.
Hard Goat’s Cheese - Otter Bright. Patrick called this a session beer, the cheese is a session cheese – time for a session?
Mature Cheddar, Extra Mature Cheddar, and Red Leicester all paired well with Otter Head. The beer had an aromatic quality that worked well in different ways with all of these.
We stock all of these beers in our Farm Shop: if you are close, come and get your own favourite pairing. If you aren’t, what pairing works best for our cheese? Do you like the statement or the blend?