March seems to be one of those months where you can very easily get too far ahead of yourself. With every glimpse of sunshine your heart begins to race at the thought that summer is just around the corner.
I can see it in the eyes of everyone who works here at Cockhaise; the desire to shed the many layers of clothes and to ditch the winter routines until the autumn. But alas, the changes come slowly and we need to temper our desire to get back into shorts with the reality that the biting North Easterly winds bring.
Even if it isn’t a month of huge change, there are still ample opportunities to prepare for the seasons to come. When I last wrote our cows had just been turned out for the first time this year. We are very fortunate to have a farm that allows us to have our cows out when many of our contemporaries are counting the days until their soggy fields are dry enough to stop several hundred tons of cow from creating lasting damage. In order to preserve our fields we only let the cows out for a few hours at a time, with the aim that they are merely heading out to eat as much as they can before coming back in, thus protecting our valuable soils from poaching. Occasionally we get it wrong and we need to try to rectify the problem of surface compaction.
For this we use an aerator which slits the top 5-6 inches of soil to allow air and water to percolate through rather than sitting on puddles on the surface. The oxygen is vital to support the huge population of microbes, invertebrates and worms who are busy making sure our soils are working well.
As I walk around the farm it’s important that I’m aware of what is happening above and below the surface if I want to get an idea of how well our grassland is going to work this year. Something that I should do more often is to carry a spade with me so that I can dig plenty of holes in the ground. This is exactly what I did today in order to take soil samples from some poor performing fields. Despite the cold and wet weather, I was amazed at just how many worms I discovered working hard down there. This is a great sign for us but it wasn’t all good as I found signs of iron rust in the soil. This is generally a sign that the soils have been waterlogged over a long period of time, with nowhere for it to go.
I’m hoping that these samples will tell me if there are mineral deficiencies within the soil and also look at the microbial life there to see if it’s missing something really important that could help the soil to recover quicker.
Away from the fields, we are busy vaccinating our younger animals before they are all turned out in April. For our autumn born calves this is for lungworm and Leptospirosis. As we’re organic we can’t just vaccinate for everything under the sun, instead need to prove a need for such a vaccine. In the past a number of our calves have died from lungworm when turned out to grass, so it’s a risk I’m not willing to take.
Our 20 month old heifers are also starting to creep out, with our first bunch going out last week.
Many of these have become lame in the last few weeks. This is highly unusual at this age and has caused me a fair amount of heartache and soul searching to find out the reason why? It looks as though I put them all under an unnecessary amount of stress when they were housed last autumn, which has also had an effect on the fertility levels. Sometimes in farming you must learn the best lessons from the biggest mistakes, however hard it is to bear at the time.
I am very fortunate to have an incredibly strong support network within our farming community, which can really help at times of difficulty, change or uneasiness at the direction we travel in. I am a member of Moovers and Shakers (excuse the terrible pun!), a local dairy based discussion group that meets on a monthly basis for most of the year. It gives us an opportunity to leave the farm for a few hours to find out how people do things differently and, often, far better on other farms. One of the most amazing things that I’ve found in farming is that we aren’t generally competing with one another and that if someone is doing really well they’re really happy to invite you into their business and tell you just how they’ve done it! What other industry would have an openness such as this?
I can’t go a month without a mention to my kids. There is a duck and pheasant shoot here on the farm and we all generally breathe a huge sigh of relief at the end of January once the guns have been silenced. This means that the kids can start to venture back into the woods around the farm. I love nothing better than seeing their imaginations running riot for hours on end as they get lost in a completely different world, somewhere that our daily worries are non-existent and life is put back into perspective.