Triple K

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Cultivator in transit

It is certainly worth recording the acquisition of even more agricultural equipment to add to my growing pile – a fantastic Triple K cultivator in full working order. The machine came over from the Borders at the end of last week, and I am ever-grateful for ongoing support from a friendly benefactor near Kelso. The picture (above) shows it in transit while I stopped to fuel up with chips in Langholm late on Friday night, and it’s clear that the Triple K cuts an imposing figure wherever it goes…

I had planned for this machine to work the ground a few weeks after the plough so that it can break up the clods and prepare the soil for sowing. Having shown it around a few neighbours, it was surprising to find that none of them have ever used anything like it before.

A few old boys had heard of spring cultivators like these, but the general consensus was that they are designed for use in the East of the country, where soil is deep and easy to work. Where I am in Galloway, the ground is littered with stones and the same job is usually done with disc harrows. There’s no doubt that the cultivator was the right tool for the job in the lush arable country near Kelso, but it may struggle to win through here.

I am still determined to give it a go, but it may be that I also need to look for some disc harrows in my first year. Once I have had a chance to assess the soil and see what I’m dealing with, the Triple K will surely come into its own. Progress is imminent!

The Ploughman Cometh

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“littered with lapwings”

I’m always pleased to receive feedback from readers of this blog, but I must say that it’s equally gratifying to receive material support. Having followed my progress and been in touch for several years, a long-term reader recently contacted me with the offer of a plough. Knowing that I would soon be needing such an item and having little use for an old one of his own, he generously put the implement at my disposal. It was good fun to head over to Roxburghshire to see him and collect the plough last week when work finally made the two hour trip convenient.

I found an arable landscape in the east; I was a fish out of water. The countryside smelled of soil and vegetables – a patchwork quilt of colours and textures. Galloway is rich and varied, but our agricultural land is dominated by grass. The view from my office window provides me with a million shades of green. I forget how monotonous this place can be when compared with other parts of Scotland, and it was a joy to drive through alternating stubbles, furrows and winter cereals.

One recently ploughed field was littered with lapwings, and I slowed down to watch a pair of hares wandering through a strip of something I couldn’t identify. Reed buntings and larks rose up from the barley stubble, and rooks stirred to and fro in the cold wind. There are still wild partridges here, and a local shoot has resurrected them back into prosperity again. Wildlife has been lost in the Borders over the past forty years, but there are still burrs of activity which our grassland world sadly lacks in the west.

The trailer was soon loaded and I took to the road again. I couldn’t resist the idea that I was taking some part of that mixed arable richness home with me – the seed of proactive diversity, symbolised in a plough.

Striking a Balance

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A move to big bales has required an upscale in farm equipment

The last fortnight has been bogged down with illness and work. At the same time, words which would usually have been published here have been siphoned away to help with the construction of a book, and I am pleased to say that substantial progress is being made with that project.

In the meantime, it’s worth a note on our cattle. Having almost exhausted my reserves of hay, I have started to buy in big bales of haylage from a neighbour to make up the deficit. Haylage is a kind of half-way house between silage and hay; a compromise for the hay enthusiast in a world where good weather is hard to come by.

This haylage is beautifully sweet and florid. The cattle love it, and while I was dismayed to break with the traditional joy of hay, the heavy, plastic-wrapped bales are an excellent second best.

I was always going to have to buy in extra forage, but this running cost has been an interesting wake-up call. My cows are going to have to be fed until the grass starts growing again, and their pregnancy provides an additional demand on nutrients. I estimate that I will have to spend around five hundred pounds on haylage over the next few months to meet the demand. This is a substantial amount to draw from your own pocket, and it ignores the cost of several other inputs, including minerals and medication. My little “hobby” has grown into a substantial interest; I welcome that expansion.

When I took on the new hayfield at the New Year, I was pleased to think that producing my own grass would cut out some of these costs in the future. I like to be independent in this project as with most things, and it pleased me to think that I could cut out any middle men and meet my own needs.

Alongside the financial advantages of a new hayfield, I also planned to reseed the field with a native hay meadow mix to improve its wildlife value and introduce some fresh aspects of grass ley management. But having done some sums and investigated what impact this could have on the yield of harvestable grass, I am now beginning to wonder if I can afford to overhaul the ground in this way. Based on studies elsewhere, the shift away from modern ryegrass to traditional grass species can reduce productivity by 25% or more. In real terms, this represents the difference between the new field producing 40 bales and 30 bales – the difference between being able to supply myself with grass and having to buy in forage from others.

This quandary should be no surprise. Conservation and agriculture need to be carefully balanced, and my dilemma is nothing new. But perhaps I am slightly unusual in that I receive no farm subsidies, grants or funding. If I want to put the hayfield back into a more wildlife friendly state, I will have to pay for the work and I will also take the financial hit from any drop in productivity. It would be lunacy to invite further costs at a time when I am already haemorrhaging money – but that’s not to say I won’t do it… we’ll see.

There’s no tragedy here. I deliberately invested my own cash and put myself in this precarious position because I wanted to be squeezed. Knowing how it might work out, I over-reached myself because I was looking for a tricky situation. That’s not to say that I don’t believe in the end-product or anticipate a viable return someday. This is more than an academic exercise, but I have a very deep barrel to fill before any profit can trickle over the lip. In the meantime, I can understand that the prosperity of Britain’s wildlife hangs in decisions like mine around the hayfield. I need to understand how tradeoffs like these work at first hand.

I love every inch of this project, but balancing aspirations for wildlife against financial returns has been the most informative and useful vein of all.

Hayfield

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Looking along the edge, where grassland meets estuary – the best ground is towards the cottages

The New Year has brought some exciting opportunities, and I am thrilled to have taken on a new hayfield down by the Solway. The field lies across six acres, but only four of these are good. The remaining two acres are literally crumbling into the sea, and the soil is poisoned with salt and estuary mud. When I went to look at the field today, I flushed teams of redshank and wigeon from the flooded fringes, and a handful of tiny dunlin rose up to turn in the wind. Most of these birds will be gone by the spring when I bring out the roller and start work here, but there will be opportunities to learn about new habitats and species on the edge of the sea all summer.

And the good ground is very good. The previous tenant took over forty big bales of silage off this field last year. I hope I might be able to turn the same grass into six hundred bales of hay, but whatever form the summer takes, I should now have access to enough grass to make my farming project self-sufficient. This is a major step. Until now I have been forced to buy in silage or haylage to top up the forage I’ve produced myself, but the new field should provide everything I need and more. In fact, if all goes well I could easily be selling surplus hay or silage in the autumn – I had not expected to make money this early in the project, and I can’t help treating financial good fortune with a note of suspicion. It will also be useful to have an extra field for my cattle next winter when my first calves need to be weaned and the project becomes more complex.

 

But I can’t ignore the fact that this field completes the Galloway set; it allows me to farm across rough moorland, rugged in-bye and fine lowland – from the high hills to the wide Solway seascape. Galloway is characterised by complex variety, and while these small fields and projects are dotted around over a few miles, they can be run as one to create a cohesive whole; a whole which reflects many characteristics of Galloway as a region.

I don’t have the finances or the ability to grow any faster than I have done, but this project continues to teach me so much about our complex, essential countryside. Much more on this to come, of course.

but the devil was in them…

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Butter wouldn’t melt, but movement has troughs to match the peaks

I am drawing together my new book from many disparate and confusing threads. It’s a delight, but it’s hard to pare down a mountain of raw material into something with a coherent structure and narrative. More on this to come, but I can’t resist publishing a quick excerpt from my notes which raised a smile.

It didn’t seem very funny at the time, but there are some truths here which might ring a bell with anyone who has tried to work with livestock on their own, particularly within the jarring confines of a nasty hangover. It sits nicely alongside my aim to live in this landscape “as if my life depended upon it”, and perhaps the misery is as instructive as the fun.

For a little context, I was trying to move galloways off the hill and down into the handling pens, but as I noted earlier in my endless stream of words, “the devil was in them…”

I was losing the ability to think clearly. I yelled and fell, and then I fell again. Each fall made me angrier, and soon I was sweating and swearing with incoherent rage, grinding my teeth and lashing my stick at the thistle heads. A sensible farmer would have seen that the task was impossible, but I had passed beyond the point of reason.

At length I cornered four beasts and tried to work them on towards the next gate, but the others ran out of sight into the cloud. The four seemed to submit and began to move downhill – I was on the verge of success, but in running to steer them I tripped for a third time and crashed into a frozen pool. The beasts turned on me and doubled back as flakes of grey ice spattered on my face. I lay still and felt the ground rumble as the bastard animals galloped back the way we had come, kicking their heels and hacking with excitement.

Rain drummed on my back. I found my hand next to my face and examined the red, sodden knuckles as if they belonged to somebody else. I was in pieces. Ice began to seep into the gap between my torso and legs. The horizon swayed. There was grit in my mouth.

My fury would wane on the short walk home, but now I was dizzy and the stench of last night’s gin was tainted with the first nip of vomit. A snotty dribble ran off my nose and ambled sideways over my cheek. I rolled over onto one side, and half a pint of slush wandered curiously into my wellie.

I couldn’t see any cows as I slowly stood up. Dark cloud had come down in deep folds until it smothered the beds of raw, angry bracken on the hill. I tried to imagine fun in this godawful place; to dredge up some happy memories of summer and daylight. I couldn’t.

Food Critics

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The daily procession

Our summer’s hay has received mixed reviews from the galloways. Some bales are beautiful and flossy, but others burst apart in clouds of mould like talcum powder. This mould is horrible stuff, and the heifers combine the powder with their frosty breath until they almost vanish behind a smoke screen. I’m assured that it will do them no harm, but this kind of feed is far from ideal.

We knew that some of the bales were damp even as we made them. There was an astonishing variety of moisture even in a small field, and good bales were made within a few feet of poor ones. There seemed to be little rhyme or reason to this, but the problems have not been helped by storage. The bad bales have not got better, and several of the good ones have grown mouldy. Some have had to be thrown away altogether, while others have gone for pig bedding. I still maintain that we were right to make hay, but we were very close to the dividing line where the cut grass should have been wrapped and made into silage.

The cattle are fed on a different spot every morning, and it is interesting to inspect the remains of the previous day’s bale when I go out. A sweet bale has often vanished without a trace, but poorer stuff is often visible in tufts and crusts of leftovers. This year’s  haymaking has been hugely instructive, and I continue to learn about winter forage with every passing day – hay is not a definite article, it is a sliding scale running from sweet and pure to lank and lumpen. Galloways are a forgiving audience since they will eat almost anything, but lessons learnt this winter will be hugely useful when the summer comes again.

Bull Surprise

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The new bull calf “godwit” and his mother (taken in September)

I was confused about dates and got the wrong end of the stick. When I heard that my new bull calf would here in less than a week, I was inclined to panic. I thought I had months to spare before Stonehouse Godwit would arrive in Galloway, and plans were all in place for an easy winter and a gradual lead into spring. I thought I had plenty of time to prepare.

In the event, it hasn’t taken much to organise a reshuffle of livestock. In fact, this self-inflicted shock has been a pleasure. I started this project because it’s a challenge, and I enjoy the occasional jolt. Once I had settled down with a cup of coffee, the shuffle actually seemed quite straightforward; we have enough hay and haylage, and provided the new heifer is kept away from the bull calf, everything should be easy. I’m desperately looking forward to taking on a bull calf, and I hope he will become a project in his own right. I’m now thinking how fine it would be to have him halter trained, and in this respect it’s actually an advantage to get hold of him sooner rather than later.

But at the same time, Godwit will bring me up to eight beasts. This project has quickly become the largest business investment I’ve ever made, and I’ve already spent a dizzying amount of money. Every penny has come from my own wages (with a fair amount of support from my wife), and we have now passed the point at which there is a strain of anxiety to the project. I was always keen that these animals should be more than just a hobby, and my wish will come true with the arrival of this top class pedigree bull calf – I never wanted to be a smallholder, and I’m about to go beyond.

Perhaps I’ll live to regret it all, but I am reassured by the idea that every farm business requires a fair block of capital investment – every business starts with a leap of faith. At the same time, it’s hard to see how any “New Entrants to Farming” can make a start without grant funding or extensive credit arrangements, and I’m lucky that I can draw on income from existing work to get things started.

Perhaps there’s also a self-destructive streak in me. I am determined to see these animals as more than just folly or decoration, and I absolutely believe that they can be viable. A visiting friend from London described galloways as “middle class cows”, reflecting that belties have become a fashion item for a certain Home Counties demographic. I was a bit dismayed by this, because I’m looking at the animals from the other end of the scale. I need to understand how these animals look when finances are tight and calves need to fit in spreadsheets.

And from a creative perspective, I don’t want to write observational anecdotes from some bucolic idyll; “playing farmer” in a sunny field – I want to live in this place as if my life depended upon it – to see where the pinches are and vanish into the joy, misery and boredom of every passing season. That’s when I’ll really be able to write.

 

Winter Riggits

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A couple of heifers against a fine galloway backdrop

The galloways continue to take winter in their stride. A good dusting of snow fell on the hill last night, and the beasts were utterly unfazed when I went out to feed them this morning.

We have decided not to do pregnancy tests. Finances are tight as we approach Christmas, and I found it hard to justify an additional vet bill merely to learn facts which will become all too evident over the next month or two. I can understand why many farmers PD their cattle, but I’m inclined to grin and bear the uncertainty in this first year. Working on the assumption that they are all in calf, the heifers are being carefully fed up as the days continue to shorten. None have shown any real loss in condition and there is still some usable grass here and there, but their hay ration will have to increase if this cold weather is here to stay. I can’t ignore the beautiful circularity to feeding the hay which we harvested with our own hands in sunny September – perhaps it’s a little mouldy here and there, but it’s truly ours.

It’s hard to imagine what farming would be like if you were not proud of your animals and took pleasure in seeing them prosper. My galloways scratch an additional itch because they have a profound connection with this landscape – their ancestors have been reared and bred in these hills for centuries. I never looked twice at cows until a few years ago, but I must admit that these beasts put a swell of pride in my throat.

Fingerbar

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In full working order (if a little rusty)

It was worth an extensive trek into Cumbria to recover our latest eBay purchase. It looks like a short step across the Solway to the Lakes on a clear day, but it took almost three hours to reach our final destination above the monstrous hulk of Sellafield nuclear power station. We had travelled this long and weary road to collect a Massey Ferguson finger bar mower – a classic of British agriculture, and a familiar shape to anyone farming before the 1980s.

My father’s finger bar mower stood in the corner of the farm steading at home throughout my childhood. The savage shape and rusting blades were an obvious hazard for children, and I was warned to stay away from the mower so often that the grim bar acquired a bogeyman status for my brother and I. We didn’t know what it was for, but we warily assumed that it was designed to impale little boys.

Fast forward twenty five years and finger bar mowers are obsolete. Even my father’s mower was dead, and I don’t think I have ever seen one in use. I am assured that they are a moderately effective (if rather slow) means of cutting grass, but it’s not altogether clear how they perform this function – time will surely tell…

As this project rolls on, it might seem like I am assembling a vast collection of tired, hopeless old machinery. Perhaps I am, but there is a stable rationale behind these rusting investments.

First, modern farm implements can be extremely expensive. This mower cost less than £150 – around half the cost of the cheapest drum mowers which made finger bars obsolete and around ten times less than a functioning second hand commercial mower. I need to mow my grass, and I need to carry out that work within a very tight budget. I also need the flexibility to cut my grass when the conditions are right to do so – I’ve had my fingers burned in the past when I asked contractors to come and found my little jobs at the bottom of their list of priorities. Hay is now so time-sensitive that it is better to be independent and make my own decisions.

Second, modern farm implements are designed for use on large, carefully worked fields with wide gateways. My best grass grows in little paddocks on raggedy ground; there are knowes of granite and stumps of gorse around every corner. A small machine can work away slowly and carefully at these fields, but they are a no-go for most commercial contractors. My main concern this year was whether or not contractors would be able to get into my fields at all, and the prospect of widening old ten foot gateways seemed like a bad dream – this part of Galloway is famed for its granite gateposts, many of which must weigh the best part of a ton. It is no simple matter to dig these out when a contractor is drumming his fingers on the steering wheel and deciding to charge you by the minute.

Small, old-fashioned machines suit me perfectly. I can’t deny that there is a certain buzz to using implements which would have been familiar to my grandfather’s generation, but that is an insubstantial reason to justify an investment. The mower may also require some maintenance and sharpening, but this is a plus-point for me – there is a queer pleasure to be had in tinkering with machinery, then seeing it “in action”.

This rationale does not apply to everyone. The chances are that I will spend many hours working with this mower when I could save money and simply pursue faster, more efficient options. I balance this with the fact that my farming project is not solely for financial gain – labour is often the greatest pleasure, and I would sooner spend time over money.

Expect to hear more on this…

 

Oxford Sandy and Black

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One of our new weaners (although this one does not meet breed standards)

While perhaps not closely bound to the driving themes of this blog, my endeavours with pigs are worth recording now and again, if only for my own interest’s sake.

We enjoyed keeping a pair of saddleback weaners over the summer, and their journey into our freezer left a big hole in the farm. I grew to love the contribution that pigs made to the yard, and the place felt very quiet and empty without them. While hams and bacon still hang curing in the sheds, we went over to Galashiels yesterday to collect a few new pigs.

Since stepping into the world of riggit galloways, I’ve become more fixated on the idea of rare breed livestock. I took a pig-keeping course in 2010 and fell in love with many of the old British pig breeds we found. It was fascinating to discover animals which had been bred over generations to suit specific human requirements, and the heritage value of these beasts was enormous. It seems perversely wasteful to abandon dozens of old-fashioned breeds because they simply don’t fit a modern niche which favours nothing more than high productivity on a quick turn-over. Who knows what the future holds, and the rush towards new breeds at the cost of older stock is horribly short-sighted.

It’s hard to ignore oxford sandy and black (OSB) pigs – they are some of the most attractive and endearing native breeds, and I have wanted to learn more about them for years. OSBs have been close to extinction more than once in their history, and despite a small resurgence in recent years, they remain in a perilous position. Slow to grow and mature, they simply cannot compete with commercial pigs on a productivity basis, but they are known for producing superb bacon and flavoursome pork. As my taste-buds grow ever more snootily refined, this seems like a fair trade-off.

We came home with three female weaners in the trailer – cheeky little souls wearing expressions of placid curiosity. One of the weaners does not meet breed standards because she has a white spot on her back, but the other two are tip-top pedigree animals. The misfit may end up in the freezer because we plan to breed from these pigs and only the very best will suffice.

Breeding should give a fascinating window into the life of an OSB. There may a reasonable demand for their piglets in due course, but it’s hard to view a project like this with too much financial scrutiny. The pork will be superb, the project will be fun and perhaps we can cover some of our costs; It’s a hobby after all.