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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.

Freshly Mowed

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A blackcock got up from one of the small greens on the right

The frost fell with a vengeance last night, and morning came as a throbbing pain.

I headed for the hill to gather in more firewood at first light, but I could hardly resist a quick walk onto the moss to explore the work carried out a fortnight ago by the rush cutter.

A contractor comes to mow a pre-allocated area of rushes every year, and this work is undertaken to prevent the hill from becoming clogged with tired, woody old rushes. Deep stands of rushes are too thick for the sheep to navigate, and without any grazing whatsoever they soon form a kind of overgrown jungle. The problem is aggravated by the absence of cattle on this part of the hill, particularly in the winter months. Cows trample dense rushes and break them up so that sheep can poach away at the fine details – it is a nice example of cows and sheep working together to benefit the entire hill. The lack of balanced grazing, the collapse of existing drainage systems and an increasingly soggy Scotland have combined to create a time of great prosperity for rushes, and these need proactive management.

Mowing rushes is slow, arduous work, particularly on rough ground where machinery can be smashed by hidden lumps and boulders. Coming at rushes from a conservation perspective, I’m keen to see extensive areas of uniform vegetation broken up, and agricultural improvement marries nicely with the management of game and wildlife.

Longer term readers will remember (EG see here from 2013) that I’ve mowed patterns and strips into extensive areas of rushes, and I’ve tried to encourage contractors to “get creative” with their management work to create wavy lines, edges and islands in the undergrowth. This often falls on deaf ears, particularly for tractor drivers who pride themselves on straight, parallel lines – they can’t understand why large open spaces of stubbly rushes are just as bad for young curlews as dense thickets of tall stuff. My conservation plans produce scruffy, patchy habitats which don’t match the prevailing agricultural aesthetic, which generally tends towards the geometrical.

I was thrilled to find totally new areas mowed when I walked up with the dogs this morning, and ten acres of very promising ground had been cut right next to the moor. As I walked over the prickly stubble, I thought to myself that here was a fine spot for a blackcock; sheltered from the wind by the dyke; a clear view over a thousand acres of hill ground; a mess of seeds and buttercup heads to work away at – what more could a black grouse want?

As I thought these words, there was a twinkling of white in the corner of my eye; I turned to watch a fine blackcock rise up from the fallen rushes and pound away into the cold wind. He was too far away for any detail, but there was no questioning his identity.

Gratified at have been able to anticipate the situation, I hugged myself with delight all the way back to the car. There is no doubt that wildlife (and specifically black grouse) respond to change and proactive management, and alongside many other relevant drivers in their decline on farmland, we can’t ignore the influence of human abandonment. Compared to the pre-war years when black grouse were common and hill farms were viable businesses, vast areas of our uplands currently receive very little investment or work. When the landscape is expected to provide nothing more than low input/low output sheep grazing for decades at a time, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find that it has become incapable of providing anything more.

Bull for Sale

The man himself

I am now working on the assumption that my heifers are pregnant. It is still too soon to have them properly tested, but there have been no signs of hormonal “bulling” for several weeks, and Dominic the bull has taken a noticeable step back from proceedings.

Dominic has produced many fine offspring in his life, so there is no real reason to doubt that calves are now on their way. The time is right to find a new home for the fine young beltie bull, and the process has been accelerated by the fact that he now seems to be losing a good deal of weight and condition. I understand that this is only normal for bulls in his situation, but there has been a noticeable shift from his original “muscular curves” to a kind of fighting-fit angularity. There is no doubt that he is a very fine animal, and he belongs with somebody who can keep him in a style befitting his status; it would be disappointing to see him drop any further out of condition.

This summer’s work with bulls has provided me with a very steep learning curve. Looking to the future with the knowledge of a riggit bull on the way, it is clear that I will have to “raise my game” if I intend to keep a bull properly. I don’t think I have over-reached and I have the capacity to expand and develop my operations, but it is clear that you cannot simply “dabble” with breeding stock – it’s a major commitment and needs to be done properly. Part of me recoils from this next level of engagement, but another part says “bring it on”…

The annual belted galloway sale takes place at Wallets Marts in Castle Douglas in two weeks. The sale catalogue was closed over a month ago, so I missed the chance to list Dominic and see him sold through the ring. I have listed him for sale privately, and I hope that as the belted galloway world descends upon Castle Douglas, one or two interested parties may also be tempted to travel another five miles for a look at Dominic. There is a great deal to play for, and the process is guaranteed to be fun and informative.

In the meantime, I cannot quite overlook the fact that this moment represents a significant departure from belted galloways. I’ve written at length on this blog about my increasing focus on riggits, but as I start to move away from the famous “belties”, I’m quietly confident about the fact that my future has a stripe down its back.

I would be very grateful if any readers of this blog could spread the word regarding this sale. My small herd is always open to visitors, and I would welcome any interested parties if they wanted to come and see the “man of the hour”.

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I’ll just pop this advert here…

Hay Revisited

181 bales under a tarpaulin cover as the rain batters down

Having revelled in the joy of making hay at the start of September, it is worth reporting what has happened to the crop since then. As soon as the grass was processed into bales, we moved the whole lot into a tall, narrow “dyke” so that the drying process could continue. Proper hay is supposed to have a moisture content of around 12%, and some of our stuff fell a little short of that mark. It was fascinating to note such variety in such a small field, and while some bales were crisp, light and fluffy, others were noticeably moist.

Damp hay can get very hot after it is cut, and it’s not uncommon for tightly packed haystacks to reach seriously high temperatures. My uncle’s haystack caught fire for this reason in the 1970s, and my grandfather’s hayshed near Auchencairn was reduced to cinders by the blaze. Stacking the bales outdoors to sweat off some heat takes the edge off this effect, and piling the bales in a long, thin line helps to disperse any heat build up.

There is no escaping the fact that the hay was made in the first week of September. The magical afternoon we had for baling was followed by a week of perpetual, hammering rain. The tarpaulins held the line, but there was plenty of unavoidable seepage. The bales grew extremely hot, and it was not hard to imagine what a fire risk this could have been in our hayshed. Water pooled around the bottom of the dyke, and it started to seem like disaster might still catch up on this year’s crop. I hadn’t realised that turning and baling the hay had only been half the story, and we were still a long way from success.

As soon as the weather changed, I hauled a hundred bales into the hayshed and stacked them loosely to keep the air circulating. Although the grass had grown a nasty-looking culture of white mould on the outside, the flakes inside felt cool and dry. Aware of “farmer’s lung” and the risks of breathing in too much of this powdery residue, I stood back from the dyke and wondered what to do. As much as I dreaded every rainfall, the hay which remained outdoors was surprisingly dry and seemed to be prospering. Of course the situation would have been more productive if it had been late June and the sun had continued to batter down, but this was a salvage operation and I was in too deep to change course.

In the end, I left half the hay outdoors and stacked half in the hayshed for almost three weeks before finally bringing it all in together. I honestly cannot now tell which bales were indoors and which were out, and there is no obvious lesson to take from the experiment – both seem to have reached a reasonable state of dryness and preservation. Some of the bales are very mouldy and may not be much use, but I think that perhaps 75% can be classified as acceptable, with maybe 10% as really quite good. I would be anxious if I planned to feed this hay to horses, but galloways seem to share the labrador’s greed, and there should be no problem when it comes to getting this forage inside the riggits.

Lessons have been learned for next year, and plans are already afoot to try something similar on a slightly larger scale in 2018 – I honestly cannot wait.

In the meantime, I went into the hayshed yesterday to see how it was doing and found a couple of bales covered in white-wash and fluffy blobs of down. It seems that the barn owl has decided that the stack is to his liking, and he has been regurgitating gobbets of bone and fluff across the bales and the neighbouring woodstack – all the more incentive to get a move on with building him a nest box.

Foul Weather Friends

Lovely weather for ducks… and galloways

Quietly pleased to hear that the neighbouring farmer has decided to bring his cows into the sheds for the winter after two or three days of hammering, miserable rain. He had noticed that they were beginning to lose condition over the past fortnight, and the foul weather compounded the situation and introduced an element of stress. His beasts are continental cross breed cattle which form the driving force of the British beef industry, and there are so many reasons why these animals are the go-to choice for farmers across the country.

But at the same time, these animals are not invincible. For all their strengths, they also have weaknesses. If they are going to breed commercially, they need a good deal of TLC and depend upon a roof over their heads in the winter months. As the poor beasts stand with their shoulders hunched against the battering rain, they are wasting energy – and energy is money. By contrast, galloways were specifically designed for this environment. Not only are they almost waterproof beneath their shaggy coats, but they also have the street-wise ability to keep their heads down. It’s almost pointless going out to check on my cows when the weather is foul – they often can’t be found. While the commercial animals shiver in the wind, the galloways are buried deep in the gorse bushes, lying contentedly out of the wind and chewing their cud like smiling little Buddahs.

I don’t have access to sheds or cattle housing and my animals will now stay out all winter – they like it that way, and I love their stubborn resilience, which has a good deal of cross-over with the spirit of Galloway as a county. Lots of commercial farmers have gently sneered at my interest in galloways over the past three years, arguing that the little beasts will never turn a penny. Galloways are on the front foot at times like this, and their duck-like imperviousness to grim weather conditions is just one of many points in their favour.

My cows may not be able to match a charolais on productivity, weight gain and financial viability, but when the going gets tough, the riggits get going…

Bulls and Heifers

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Heifers in the evening sun

There have been further encouraging signs of progress with the galloways. Two more heifers failed to come in season last week, and the new bull is having an idle time of it. Logic dictates that these girls are now pregnant, but I can’t ignore the possibility that I have simply done my maths wrong. It currently looks like Old Charlie covered three of the six heifers, and Dominic has finished off the job with the other three. This is certainly a great deal more than we expected from Charlie at the time, and it may go to show that there was more life in the old boy than we gave him credit for.

Of course I may be totally wrong, but this guesswork and speculation is part of the fun. The worst case scenario is that next year’s calving could be spread out over almost two months, but I will have to grin and bear it. It’s another mishap which can be chalked up to experience.