How many greens can there be?
The landscape changes every hour, fields and hedges and trees cloth themselves in more and more leaves. High spring springs forth everywhere. Daft baby rabbits tumble out of hedges, easy meat for hard pressed foxes, feeding an earth full of hungry cubs. Hen pheasants make nests too visibly in open hedges, and they and their eggs succumb too – the cock pheasants display to each other, with all the ladies gone, puffed up feathers and stiff legged stance.
CROPS – the wheat and barley look so prosperous, each plant now 4 or 5 plantlets, leaves bold and green, at the end of the month sending the flowerhead, the ear soaring upwards. One winter barley field that the deer hammered is looking a bit sorry for itself, very open, you can see the individual plants, not a mass all together. The oilseed rape mostly got away fine, and is doing that amazing growth – flowers sent out on the end of stalks branching in every direction until it becomes a tangled web almost over your head. The maize emerges, pale green against the soil. We’ve got a lot on the clay ground: we are banking on newer varieties than will grow OK on the colder, heavier ground, close to the deer in the woods – a gamble that I hope we win.
We wanted rain – but be careful what we wish for – was the dry spring our summer? Weather seems to come in chunks – long stretch of dry; will we have an equally long stretch of wet that leaves us grumpy – there is no pleasing farmers!
GRASS – the peak month for grass growth, especially now we have had rain. At the beginning of May, some paddocks outgrow the cows’ ability to eat it, even though they are at their milkiest and hungriest. So we walk the grass, measure it, guess how it will grow over the next few weeks, and lay aside the paddocks that will grow too long for the cows to eat right down, to make into winter feed. Then out comes the silage caravanserai, a metal team of mower, tedder with its long whirling prongs to spread the grass to dry it a little, then row it up for the great beast of a forager with its hungry mouth to pick up, chop and throw into a chasing trailer. Back to the clamp with the chopped grass, roll it down tight and sheet it to exclude air, and wait for the magical fermentation to take the green leaves, so fleeting, to a feed that will last the cows through the winter.
It’s a joyful, purposeful time, lots of driving big machines, getting the work done against the weather, the fields turned white and the silage clamp filled. The silage team take off to the next farm, eagerly awaited in turn. A full team is a lot of money for a few brief days a year, so we share contractors who drive the biggest and speediest kit.
COWS – At the beginning of the month the spring cows are all empty, and all cycling like crazy, an erotic frenzy like Friday night in a student town. Knots of cows ride each other, bunt each other – where’s the bull? We start serving in early May, and by the end of the month it’s much quieter – maybe three quarters of them are in calf. We use AI during May for all the most fertile cows. We watch who is riding and who is ridden, and serve them. We defrost the straw of semen from liquid nitrogen, and stick it in the end of a very long (2 foot) stainless steel blunt syringe. You stick a gloved arm up the cow’s back passage (a few ears back at that), and feel which ovary is ripe. You then ease the syringe up into the cow’s uterus – if she’s good and ready, it’s open to receive it, and gently find the correct horn and discharges the semen in just the right place. Not so much fun for the cow, but it does get the best bulls for grazing and cheesemaking from round the world into our herd.
CALVES – The products of last year’s service are frisking in the fields, confident, curious and playful. They’ve recovered from the tummy upsets they had – the fertility was so good in May last year, so many calves came at once, we struggled to keep the calving area as clean as we should have. If we do as well getting the cows in calf, we need to make sure the maternity ward is big enough for the deluge of calves. We are working out what we can sensibly do.
HEIFERS – The 15 month old heifers are now big enough to conceive. Different breeds start cycling at different ages; Friesians when they are far too small, even cycling at 6 months old; if they conceived, a calf would split them apart. Montbeliards and their crosses don’t cycle till they are a safe weight. We anxiously wait for them to get going, they show no interest in sex whatsoever, then when they start, they get in calf at once.
CHEESE – we are selling a little milk out at the peak to avoid making too much – no point in having more than we sell and also handling so much cheese puts huge extra pressure on everyone with such a physical process and our half-hundredweight cheeses. We started weighing each cheese when we make it, to avoid making some big and some little depending on who punches the curd or how much curd in the vat. This is to make the weight people are lifting as reasonable as it can be, but it means suddenly the shelf full of new cheeses look like peas in a pod – a real satisfaction, like looking at a tidy room, not a teenager’s bedroom.
The milk is steering a course between too creamy and rich giving too rich a curd, and too proteiny, curd that is heavy and grainy. We’ve a great interchange and interest between the cow and cheese teams: each side interested in having just the right milk to make the right cheese. I can’t wait to get to the grading at 3 months and find out whether the cheese is as right as the curd feels. Last year’s May cheese is coming through with a rich buttery note in the back of the flavour that is very luscious.
RECIPE – Nettle pesto: I love the satisfaction of foraging for food. Nettles are a rich vegetable, introduced into Britain by the Romans. They are uncomfortable if they sting you, so we might as well make use of them. With gloves, pick the top 5 leaves from a nettle patch before they flower – I keep a little patch picked to stop them flowering. Wash in salted water, they are a rich home for insects.Put in a pan with a little boiling water to blanch the nettles (why is it called that when it makes them go bright green?), drain and puree. Pound garlic, cobnuts/hazels rapeseed oil and Quickes Traditional Goats Cheese. Use as pesto, on pasta or as a sauce on slices of chicken.
I apologize, I can’t remember who gave me this recipe at a show – if you read this, please let me know, so I can credit you.