Has the rain now stopped?
We all have a sense that when it does stop, it’ll do that in earnest, and we will be complaining about lack of water. Right now that seems a very attractive prospect. The glorious signs of spring gather pace, and by the end of March, will be rampant. The primroses go from shy and retiring, to all over their favoured hedgerows. The wild daffodils – and all the tame ones – are out. I love the wild daffodil; they are more delicate, and seed (which tame ones don’t) so they spread more evenly, rather than staying in crowded clumps. The wild sows are dispersing, the sows to produce ever more piglets. I saw a family of seven, a sow, and her year old pigs in tow in the road. They looked coolly around at me, and in an orderly manner, climbed the hedgebank, and through the hedge into one of our wheat fields. No panic or alarm, just ‘if you want to pass, we’ll let you through’. A young buzzard (lots of white) sat on the gate post and a daft young deer, both set free from family protection, their mothers now thinking about new babies, brave and scared at the same time.
The soil is still folded in the sticky embrace of the rain we’ve had, and we can’t yet see how the soil & crops have come through the winter. I heard the wonderful Jo Scamell of Ground Level Nutrition, ‘healthy soil – healthy forage – healthy livestock’ talk about how to restore the ‘sponge’ of the soil after the long wet. She said use physical means, making slits in the soil, to let air in. Use chemical means – get the cations, the positive charge, right on the soil and the soil particles will repel each other to give a crumb structure. She said Devon soils mostly seem to need calcium, say from gypsum, and a little salt. We will test our soil to see which cations it needs. Get those things right, and the biology will work so you have a soil teeming with life that cycles all the nutrient correctly for the health of the soil, the plants that grow in it, the animals that feed on them, and the nutritional value of the foods they produce for us.
I came into farming because I’m inspired by having people be the stewards of the delicious richness of life, and this feels like a way to manage the soil in line with that. We’ll get Jo in to advise us and take us forward – very excited.
We have got calves everywhere, all looking sweet and gorgeous. We keep the bull calves as short a time as we can, and sell them to someone who will rear them. The heifers stay to become the next generation of milking cows, or we rear them because other dairy farmers want our hardy little graziers. As soon as they are born, they get a wide collar, cut from the inner tube of a tyre, with their identity, so we know their name (from their mother’s family) and their number (from the year of their birth and when they were born) . Soon they get their ear tags, with look like the ear rings on a Spanish baby – huge, and they will look in scale when they grow up. It’s important we know who they are so we can mate them to the right bull when they are big girls, as well as being an important part of keeping the nation’s animals healthy (you need to know what came from where if you see a diseased animal and can track it back).We are now weighing older animals monthly so we know how they are doing – you can look healthy and shiny-coated, but you might not be growing into a big girl quite soon enough.
The spring calving cows move from late pregnant dreamy, restless and absorbed while calving, battered and sore just afterwards, then calm and peaceful members of the herd in the space of a couple of weeks. It’s lovely to see them safely through that process, and every year we have one or two ‘downer cows’, where either their mineral status (calcium again) isn’t right, which is easy to fix, or the calf has damaged some nerves in their spine (those sharp little hooves that lead the charge out). With those, we put them in a little paddock on their own, carry food and water to them, and lift them up with straps attached to a tractor loader every day so they can try supporting their weight on their legs. Some recover, the nerves bruised not damaged, and they start moving under their own steam. Some don’t and sadly become food for hounds. Hunts keep slaughtermen for the purpose, with their need for free meat for their hounds. They provide the important service of putting incurable but otherwise healthy animals down, an important but regretted part of a farm’s life. For the vast majority of cows, the grass is growing, they are grazing, out day and night since February 23rd , and life is good.
The milk has taken on the lovely quality it has when the cows are out to graze. This year, with the pastures underwater for some of the winter, we need to watch that the grass has the right balance of minerals in it (thanks Jo, for that tip). The milk over winter has been a little too rich – cheese flavours will be wonderful, buttery, even caramelly, but the texture will be a little soft, and on occasion, some vats retain a little too much moisture. This creates a sharper cheddar; we have got customers who have selected that profile of flavour when aged, so they will find a home where they are appreciated.
In March, the milk starts rising very rapidly as all the cows come into milk and the grass growth takes off to feed them. This is when the cheesemakers’ endurance test starts. The work explodes – not only today’s cheese to make, the last 3 days’ cheese to handle through the press, dressing in a finer cheesecloth every day, and then taking the cheese to store and turning each one once a week while they are young. We bring cheesemakers back from the housekeeping tasks, rack repairs, shelf cleaning and packing. Heads down, and respect for the work involved – 27kgs or 60lbs per new cheese, and around another 10kgs/ 12lbs for the mould. It is heavy work requiring great skill, and the toning of muscles gives upper bodies that partners appreciate!
I’m not expert at pairing cheese with good things to drink, so when I met Todd Eng & Dan Greenberg of the amazing Corkage Sake and Wine Shop in San Francisco, I got them to give me their views about what would work:
Quicke’s Traditional Cheese Dan’s pairing Todd’s pairing
Mature Cheddar Shiraz, Cabernet - oaky Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux, Petite Syrah
Extra Mature Cheddar Porter - Pinot Grigio, Californian Cabernet Sauvignon
Oak Smoked - Cheddar Zinfandel
Ewe’s Milk Cheese Zinfandel Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Chinon, Vouvray – some acidity. Sake for the earthiness
Hard Goat’s Cheese - Ale, Guiness Loire: Red Chinon, French Cabernet Sauvignon