With farming life you get seasonal sights and scents, but you also get seasonal sounds. I remember stopping the tractor on top of the silage pit where I was buckraking grass. I sat there and listened and could hear seven forage harvesters working on seven different farms. Since then, four of those farms are no longer in existence, the houses are domestic dwellings and the land is farmed by neighbours. Mind you, round here the neighbours are still family farms. If you wander into the yard looking for somebody, the boss is probably the one with a muck fork and wheelbarrow, not somebody in the office playing Solitaire on the computer waiting for the broadband to come back on.
This morning as I walked round checking sheep, the seasonal sound was the Maize harvest. In my lifetime I’ve seen breeders produce hardier varieties of maize and a crop which was once rare in the south of England can now be seen growing regularly in Ayrshire. Because October was such a sodden month round here, I suspect that the harvest is running slightly late. As it is, this far north we can only grow maize for cattle feed, and the sound is the noise of the contractor’s big self-propelled forage harvester working away.
It has to be said that modern farm machinery looks awfully expensive. I remember seeing figures which said in the 1960s you had to sell 3,000 finished lambs to buy the average tractor. Currently it’s about 10,000 lambs to buy the equivalent mid-range tractor.
So a lot of us use contractors. For the maize harvest the contractor will turn up on farm with over half a million pounds worth of equipment. The tractors will work all year round, the loading shovel might spend winter loading salt in a local authority distribution depot, whilst the self-propelled harvesters will start with silage at the beginning of May and finish with Maize in November (or December if it’s a bad year.)
I must admit I’m not a fan of maize. I’ve got nothing against it as a crop or a feed, but I’m not enthused by the season you have to harvest it in. I remember one year when people round here were still trying to harvest it between Christmas and New Year. In this area, Milk Cows will go inside for the winter in October, and I’m old fashioned enough to get nervous if all their winter feed isn’t inside with them. Having to rely for winter survival on a crop that isn’t harvested and might never be doesn’t make for a good night’s sleep.
Cattle tend to spend winters inside. It’s not that they cannot cope with the weather, more that round here our winters are so wet that the land cannot cope with cattle. It is possible to winter them outside happily enough, if there aren’t many of them, you’re feeding them on a stubble field you are going to plough anyway, and they’ve got plenty of room to lay down on dry ground with a bit of shelter from a hedge.
Sheep on the other hand are a lot lighter on their feet. Not only that but they don’t take well to being housed. I remember years ago talking to somebody who did house his ewes. He used to bring them in and shear them again. If he left them with the wool on they’d sweat, get chilled and get pneumonia.
So with sheep at this time of year we’re constantly managing the grass. Grass will grow if the soil temperature is over 4 degrees C, but at that point it’s growing pretty slowly. So at some point the grass will probably ‘run out.’ Also at some time our bottom land will get so wet that even sheep would make a mess, so we have to take them off it. So at the moment we’re trying to get the bottom land eaten off.
Yet because the tups are in with them and we’re hoping to get them in-lamb, our ewes also need a ‘rising plane of nutrition.’ At the very least they don’t want to go short.
Also we’re already hoping to get them off the lambing fields. This means that these fields get a chance to green up and have a bit of grass on them for when ewes start lambing.
At some point we’ll have to start carrying hay or silage out to feed our sheep. Later, when they’re heavily in lamb we’ll have to take a concentrate feed out to them. But the more grass they’ve got, the less expensive feed we have to buy.
So managing the grass is something you’ve got to get right.