Bulling

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This blog is consumed with farming, but in fairness so am I.

I can hardly resist the briefest post to record that the bull is now out and has started working, albeit with a single heifer. She was an offering to calm him down after the excitement of his recent escape, and the sacrifice will simply mean that she has her calf a month before the others – we can handle that mild inconvenience. I have had this bull for seven months, and every bulge and wrinkle of his body is a burning pride to me. Above all else, I love the rising curve of maturity which has sculpted the shape of his neck into a shallow hump.

Our neighbour has lent us a slice of his moor behind the house, and it is a stirring joy to see my animals grazing through bog myrtle and blow grass. A pair of curlews is still calling over the granite craigs, and this can only be good news. They must have young near the point of fledging, and it is fine to see old-fashioned hill cattle standing beneath the whaup’s call.

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Wholecrop

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The oats in a two and a half acre patch beyond the house – NB orange, dead countryside…

The plans I had to cut and dry my oats in the autumn are beginning to fall apart. The crop is ripening fast in the heat, and now two thirds of it are yellow gold. This is far ahead of schedule, and the dry summer has played havoc with my plans.

This would hardly matter at all under normal circumstances. I would simply harvest my crop a month early, but the dryness has hurt in other ways. Our best hayfield has failed to produce a single blade of grass in the six weeks since we cut it, and the six acre meadow by the merse is horribly brown and lifeless. The chances are that I will not get a second cut of grass this year, and I was relying on at least fifteen bales of silage to help feed the cattle over the winter. As it stands, I will come up short. I need to make alternative plans.

Plan B would be to cut my oats now and bale them into “whole crop” silage to plug the gap. This would be a shame as I was hoping for a traditional harvest of stooks and sheafs in the stackyard, but the summer has been so bizarrely disastrous that I am sorely tempted to grab what I have now. I could leave it to mature fully and derive similar benefit from the crop, but my luck could run out and the whole lot could be lost in bad weather during August and September. This would be great for the birds, but it would leave me sorely out of pocket. By my reckoning, the oat crop could offer seven weeks of decent feeding – this could be an important part of the winter’s puzzle – do I want to gamble with losing it, or should I accept the “bird in the hand”?

Once the oats are off, I could sow the stubble field with grass or stubble turnips and give myself an extra boost at an uncertain moment, but it is all a nail-biting gamble. Of course my project is small beer compared to some of my neighbours, but with my first calves growing well and the wind behind me, I am loathe to lose this momentum. Everybody is suffering in this desert, and autumn looms heavily on the horizon.

Decline

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The final calf came at last and he is a thing of beauty. Unlike his siblings, he is almost a riggit; black and white markings swirl around him like a pint of guinness. His eyelashes are ludicrously long, and whiskers trail from his chin like threads of black silk. Of course we loved him from the outset.

Now a week has passed and things are falling apart. He is withering away and will not suck. His lusty little bellow became a retching croak and he finally fell silent altogether. He lies in quiet corners with his head down like a newborn, and he discovers new ailments every day.

We have to milk his mother and feed him with a bottle. I had never reckoned to handle these cows at close quarters, but now I find it possible to stroke and whisper them into submission. The calf’s mother kicked us at first, but now we can quietly slip down into her udders and pull milk from her thick teats. Dribbles of warm cream run down my wrist and into my cuff. She sighs with relief.

Clegs cluster round us and raise the temperature to boiling point. Waiting for the vet, I set myself a competition to count the bastards. I was bitten seventeen times in a minute; if I were to stand in one place too long, their crushed bodies would build in a heap like cinders around my feet. As well as clegs, the hot breeze hums with the blare of giant horseflies which are as thick and heavy as shotgun cartridges. These often land on the cow’s back and are lashed away by the flick of a tail, but mainly they cluster on her ankles and drill through the hairy leather.

The calf will often take from a bottle, but never from the teat itself. We have fought to make him take properly, but he pushes stubbornly back against us. We have used stomach tubes and enema pipes, and he has endured them both with quiet resignation. I lift him up and feel heavy bones beneath thin skin. He rolls his blue, cloudy eyes and gazes past me as if I am not there. I begin to wonder if this passive disinterest is merely a symptom of something more serious. He began to suck his own navel, and the habit consumed him.

Perhaps there is something damaged in his brain. We don’t know the circumstances of his birth; he arrived in the rushes overnight. Even the smallest deviation from perfection could have far-reaching consequences, and I am left wondering what other problems may come if we fix this one. He may well die, but we are advised to keep trying.

Chaos and outrage have lapped across this project over the last week. I have been kicked and crushed by cattle a dozen times, and my knee has swollen to be almost unbendable. Vandals set the forest on fire behind the house, and the bull escaped through palls of smoke and pulled down fences on his way. The herd refused to be gathered for blood testing. The vet breathed down my neck and checked her watch for the next appointment until I finally gave up and sent her away in defeat. Behind these exhausting failures, I have watched this fine little calf decline and fail.

I try not to forget where I am and what I have chosen. The old, consoling hills stand against the sunset; they’ve seen worse than this.

 

 

Sailor

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We found our buck sailing on the edge of the forest. The sun was gone, and the birds were up to roost. He drifted in silence through webs of deep grass like a boat in the twilight, stirring up a bow wave of moths and froth which glittered around him like spray. He was in his element; foxgloves bowed, and the grass lapped against him.

His evening dreams smelled of myrtle and asphodel and we closed the gap until seventy yards lay between us. Then a bullet slipped through that warm blur of midges and pollen to strike him amidships. He rushed for one taut moment, confused by the damage and unsure. Then he sank into the long grass and it closed above him with a swirl like water.

An owl tacked into the wind and passed away over the hill.

Dry

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Looking up to the farm

Nobody can remember a summer like this. Old folk draw comparisons with dry summers they knew in their youth, but none can match this rough, dusting decline which has run for weeks in Galloway. We have had three showers and one wet night since the oats went in at the end of April. It is often dry in the summer, but this heat comes without precedent. Clipping sheep, I felt the skin scorching off my shoulders and blowing away like a burnt amaretti wrapper. My nose is crimson, and I have a deep brown vee above my collarbones.

I had confidence in the oats for several weeks, but now I find the heads are starting to blow empty and white like spider legs. The thick leaves are shrinking back, and the smooth green ribbons are curling up like orange crepe paper. I was glad for the dryness because I hoped it would slow down the crop’s growth and redress the error I made when I sowed the seed too thickly. Now I wonder how the growth can proceed at all. Small, sagging patches have emerged where the stems are drooping. They widen every day and the dancing heads feel hollow and thin.

Now the ground is powder. The grass lies dead for miles around and the greens have become golden. I notice trees beginning to die; birches turning yellow as if October had come early. Hedges are hung with brown streamers like ticker tape; these are the desiccated remains of new shoots which began the year so well in April and May. My new hedging plants have been decimated – the tall hazel whips are brown and brittle; promising life has become scaffolding for spiders.

There have been winners and losers; now I find broods of wild pheasants at every stage of growth and development. These birds are unimaginable in a normal year, and their success is almost dreamy in the half light of dusk and dawn. The burn is bubbling with ducklings of all sizes – teal and mallard in the shade of the willows; both love the warm, shallow pools below the bridge. Demoiselles and damselflies flutter like puppets above trailing beards of dry, crackling crowfoot. Trout stir the limpid broth with their fan tails and gape in the heat. A heron measures his depth by the scum on his shins.

It remains to be seen how the grouse will fare, but there are some tiny chicks on the hill behind the house. Some of the broods are no more than a week old; tiny bees in a world of dry moss and cotton. Perhaps the early broods were wiped out when it was cold and insects were sparse. The birds will hunt the wheezing peat for flies and spiders, aware that a second failure hangs in the balance.

Before I showed interest in farming, I would often treat the weather as a backdrop. I never thought to challenge the weatherman when he proudly foresaw “beautiful sunshine”. Now I see how subjective beauty is; perfect for sun tans and beer gardens, but nightmarish for some who depend on the summer’s growth. My hay is in, but three hundred small bales will not feed my animals. I was depending upon a second cut for silage in August – ten big bales would see me home, but the grass is just as brown as it was when I cut it a month ago. I may have to buy silage to fill the gap, but who will have any to spare?

We need rain.

 

 

Oats and Yellowhammers

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The oats grow every day, and the work I put into them is repaid by the extraordinary quantity and variety of birds which now hang around the rising crop. We have linnets and redpolls on constant rotation, and suddenly there are yellowhammers where before there were none. They must have come over from a nearby patch of scrubby gorse meadow, and it is impressive to see how quickly they have responded to our project.

I remember yellowhammers from my childhood, but they have become a rare sight in Galloway, which has become dominated by vast areas of grassland in the past two decades. My parents used to throw the word “yellowhammer” around as a cover-all name for little birds which they couldn’t identify; they were so common that a flicker of feathers in the hedgerow was usually dismissed with a shrug as “probably just a yellowhammer” in the way many people now say “it’s just a sparrow”.

The return of these birds is an absolute joy, and it is fine to hear them singing around the crop at the first moments of daylight. It’s hard to see what they are getting from the oats at the moment, but like the linnets, pipits and redpolls, they seem to lurk around the margins, hunting for insects. I can’t wait for my new hedges to grow and hopefully offer these stunning little canaries some nesting cover.

Yellowhammers will enjoy the stubbles even more when the oats are harvested, although there may be a spanner in the works. I worry that I have sown these oats too thickly, and the crop may soon collapse on itself. Recent winds flattened a large area of young plants, and while these are green enough to have stood up again, the future looks a bit messy. We will struggle to harvest and stook these oats if they collapse, and the solution may be to intervene early and make silage as a whole-crop. This would salvage some good fodder value for the cattle, but it will not have the same benefits for the wildlife.

Lessons are being learned, but this first dabble in arable (and specifically cereals) has been a voyage of thrilling discovery…

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A yellowhammer from the winter

 

Haymaking

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The hayfield is turning green again. The rain came and soaked out the rooty yellow stubble which was left after the baler came, and now the field shows a shimmer of life again. The baler came and it has stayed – I ended up buying it; a New Holland Hayliner 276. This machine might just be the most exciting and complex object I have ever laid my hands upon, and I have already spent a good deal of time oiling and greasing each of the many moving parts.

You could argue that I hardly need my own baler for the sake of three or four hundred bales a year, but hay balers are hard to come by and I value my independence in this project. My first steps into farming were utterly governed by the whims of contractors, many of whom felt that I was just a pipsqueak. I was continually sidelined and knocked to the bottom of the queue, and I have since worked hard to have my own machinery so that I can work as I choose. It’s hard to imagine how any small project can function successfully in a world of big machines and mega-contracts, and this baler should give me the freedom to work on my own terms.

It is also worth quickly recording an idea which came to me as I struggled and sweated through haymaking this year. Farmers often say that haymaking became unviable when the weather became wetter and less reliable. I agree – it’s wetter now than it was, but now I think this simple explanation is part of a more complex picture. We cut our hay on a Saturday, turned it on Sunday and Monday, then baled it on Tuesday. It is almost perfect; the best crop of hay that lots of neighbours have seen for years.

However, the job required a huge amount of labour and special attention to get the grass dry and ready for baling. I was able to tackle a six acre field and we took just under three hundred bales from it, but I’m not sure how I would have fared with ten or fifteen acres. Perhaps I could have managed fifteen acres in three days, but I would have needed a good deal of help.

The reality is that haymaking is much more hands-on than making silage – the level of human involvement is much greater. Hay is fiddly and subtle, and it simply doesn’t suit big operations which depend on volume over detail. Weather plays a part, but even the worst years often have three days of good weather – you can grasp a momentary window of good weather if you only have one field to worry about, but it’s harder if you have to tackle several hundred acres. Weather plays a part, but industrial economies of scale are probably more significant.

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A helping hand from my father’s Massey