Short days and long nights, the sun wearily makes it above the horizon. No wonder people needed a winter festival to keep their spirits up. While people party, the natural world reaches its ebb. Trees bare, hedges trimmed and stark, the colour leaches out of the fields. In my garden, the salads for the Farm Kitchen get sparse, and land cress, chickweed and shepherds purse, normally unregarded weeds, become interesting bursts of flavour; they grow merrily while everything else slips backwards into the soil.
Flocks of birds - mainly Little Brown Jobs (I never was that good at bird identification) enjoy our overwinter stubbles. The autumn crops are a little clean for them. They seem to find all they need in the rough regrowth after harvest. Over the years, when we have thought about providing food for our wildlife, we've seen a big upgrade in the number of species we've seen on the farm. The hawks, buzzards and other predators let us know there is plenty of keep for them, as they wheel patiently in the sky or sit hunched on a handy field side tree. At night, owls hooting and screeching tell us our farming grows enough tasty morsels to keep them fed.
Wildlife round the edges of the field, productive land in the centre; that seems a fair split. Our crops went in the best ever in the golden autumn that is now a memory. The straight lines and even growth of the new seedlings remind us how it was. The good growth means much of the goodness in the soil, the nitrogen the soil made over the summer, will get harvested by the new crops' roots. That may make them a little lush, so we keep an eye on moulds growing. A little frost, and even some light deer grazing does no harm now to keep the crops clean. We watch to see the telltale bare patches of slugs - a good frost is our friend here, and failing that some slug pellets.
The animals harvest the last of this year’s grass. In a good season, we might be able to keep them grazing individual paddocks, just a day's grazing even into January. On a wet day, the paddock will look muddy. We move them on, the soil gets washed off, and the earthworms get to work restoring the structure, as long as we keep the animals on for a short enough time. That way we can harvest all the grass that our mild climate gives us.
The autumn cows are in the barn. They are at their peak milk, and are serving to get in calf. They fall into their inside routine. Our feed sheds give them the opportunity of some open air. Some mooch around outside. Most are content to eat under cover, then come in and cud, rest and sleep on their cubicle beds. Mainly it is the cows ready to conceive who frisk in the open air with others at the same stage. It makes it easy to see who needs the AI man's attention.
The spring cows start on the fodder beet. It always takes them a day or two to get used to it. The lift it by its leaves, and kick the great roots like footballs until they realise there is sweet food inside them. We've left some straw bales for them to eat, or they can gorge themselves on the beet and make themselves ill - a bit of bread with their jam. We aim for most of the spring cows to be dry by Christmas, to give us and the cows less work then. The spring cows need the rest before their calves come in February, and for the millers, less cows to milk at Christmas lightens the load.
The milk stays rich. Our crossbred cows, Friesian, Swedish Red and Montbeliard keep producing a rich, well balanced milk from silage, unlike a Holstein cow, that dilutes the solids with more water.
All the better for making cheese with - it is the solids that goes through to the cheese. Cheese is milk's leap to immortality, and the concentrated essence of the milk, the distillation of the feed they have, and the land they are fed from.
In the cheese dairy, we capture that by adding our heritage starters, those precious cultures that by a myriad of species of bugs, ferment the lactose into lactic acid, one stage in the preservation of milk. The rennet makes the milk solid, providing the protein web that holds the fat and a little moisture. The fat holds the vitamin A that allows you to hold onto the calcium that sits on the protein. Low fat milk or cheese short changes you the full benefit of the nourishment the milk provides.
That right balance of fat, protein, moisture, salt and acidity is the magic woven by the cheesemaker's art, not just nourishment but also exquisite flavour. We iron the cheese - take a core from each vat - at 3 months old and 12 months old to check we've got that balance of the ingredients and also that the flavour is unfolding in the quiet majesty of our cheese cathedral.
Honoured to have received the award for Exceptional Contribution to Cheese at the Wolrd Cheese Awards. We also won two gold medals for Extra Mature and Goats, and bronze for Elderflower. Huge well done to all winners, the standard was superb!