Stirks & Sunshine

BY JIM WEBSTER

I escaped and went for a walk last weekend. I just made my way along the various back paths to a village about eight miles away. It was a glorious day, the sun shone, and everything looked green and well cared for. The village has a coffee morning come jumble sale so I dropped in. After eight miles I felt I merited some refreshment. Indeed whilst I was there, I picked up a boxed set of eight Tom Sharpe novels for £3, which has to be good. For those who don’t know his work he is exceptionally funny, and can be remarkably cutting about the fads and fashions of the time he wrote. He was also remarkably rude. For those who are too young to remember the Apartheid regime in South Africa, his two books set there, Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure, are perhaps required reading.

But as I was walking, I noticed a couple of times that there was white ‘thistle down’ blowing past me. Which was remarkable because there were no thistles. It was next morning I worked out what had been going on. It was willow. I’ve never seen so much of it. Whether this has been the perfect season for it or what, but I saw one ploughed field where parts of it looked as if they’ve been ‘airbrushed’ with willow down.

By any usual way of measuring things, this spring has been four weeks late. Normally we’d silage in the first week of May, weather permitting. Even if the weather had permitted, at the start of May there was so little grass that we’d have had to go round with a dustpan and brush rather than the usual chopper and trailer. As it was we silaged at the end of last week and all around us everybody else is now working furiously to get the grass in.

Whilst spring does drift about, this year we’re back to what would be usual back in the 1960s and 70s. Back then we tended to find ourselves silaging during Whit week. Whitsuntide is one of those movable feasts (Easter plus 49 days) but it tends to be the end of May, start of June.

The issue with a late spring is feeding cattle. Firstly have you got enough silage left to carry them through the extra month? The problem is that even if there is grass out there, it’s not for them, yet. It’s being grown for silage to get everybody through next winter. Indeed we are already gearing up for next winter before this winter has finished.

It’s one of those instances where if you get it wrong, the problem comes back to bite you next winter, and can even ricochet into future winters. If you haven’t the silage to get through this winter and turn out early, you eat off some of the grass which should be silage for next winter, which means that next winter, you run out even earlier.

Some years you can ‘catch up’ in that you can make more silage in the next cut. But again that costs money. Either you try putting on more fertiliser to encourage it along (which is cost) or you let the grass grow for longer. This means you get more bulk, but the quality isn’t as good meaning you’ll have to supplement it with more purchased feeds. Again this is extra cost.

This spring we have one bunch of heifers who’re on a field that would normally carry them, but we’ve been feeding them silage as well to make sure they’ve got enough. In another field a small batch of young stirks have been grazing behind an electric fence. Between ourselves I’ve been proud of them. They’ve behaved beautifully. They’ve not had tantrums and run into it, breaking it down or anything silly like that. They’ve just grazed as sensibly as a bunch of elderly dairy cows.

Twice a day I’d go in with a bit of feed just to make sure they were getting enough of everything. Whilst they ate that, my dog Sal and I would quietly move the posts of the electric fence another foot forward. Before I finished the heifers would have joined me, tucking into the fresh grass.

We silaged the majority of the field they hadn’t grazed. We continued to strip graze up to where the mower had been, and then I quietly took the fence down. I rather expected them to kick their heels up and run a bit, but no, they just walked sedately to the hedge and ate the grass the mower hadn’t been able to get. Indeed yesterday when I went in to see how they were, rather than running to me to be the first to get to the feed, they just lay there, soaking up the sun. Finally as Sal arrived to see what was going on they slowly stood up, stretched and quietly ambled across to see me. After the wet misery of earlier this month, they seem to be really appreciating the sun.

Jim Webster farms at the bottom end of South Cumbria. Jim was encouraged to collect together into a book some blog posts he’d written because of their insight into Cumbrian farming and rural life (rain, sheep, quad-bikes and dogs) It’s available here.