Past midsummer is just getting into high summer for people. For the natural world, the year starts tipping towards the opposite. Plants tip into seed from leaf production, how to throw life forward through the lean time. Animals and birds have done with breeding and now it’s rearing young big enough and fat enough to go through winter.
Nature and gardeners slow down, heave a sigh of relief as the deluge of growth eases slightly. Set fruit swells. Birds fledge, and some don’t, sad remnants below the nest. Brambles throw out spiky lianas intent on world domination before they settle down to producing blackberries in a couple of months.
Stuart has cleared some derelict orchards in the Shuttern valley that I don’t ever remember being in use, and the apples trees he planted, all old varieties, are just starting to swell their fertilised flowers. All is thriving.
CROPS – The crops come to harvest, first the winter barley, with its graceful awns, spiky bits that grow from the ear, then winter wheat, then spring barley. We’ve grown a lot of barley because the awns have offered some protection from grazing by deer. Now we have fewer deer – we see a mere 60 at a time, not the devastating 250 we would see, the crops are in better shape. We’ve also worked much closer with a local agronomist, John Harris, who has given good advice about what to do when – what varieties, how to manage, when to feed, when to protect. The wet winter limiting rooting, the damp spring kept the plants growing. Now we want warmth to swell the grain, and we will have a good crop. Everyone else around the world is hoping for good crops, so the price is lower. Feed to buy in is still high, so we will cut and ensile more of our crops for winter feed.
HEIFERS – TB rumbles on, and we’ve made progress in how we will protect our animals.
The ministry vets confirmed that a single sick badger must have snuffled around picking up nuts we’d put out for the heifers to keep them growing on. We wondered: should we keep the cattle inside? The ministry vets and advisory services say that can expose them to as much risk. When badgers are really sick they can’t fend for themselves, and can come into buildings, affecting the whole herd.
We’d love to vaccinate badgers and cows to keep them safe. We’ve been advised that we couldn’t practically do our 34 setts often enough to work. Sadly there isn’t a vaccine you can use on cows. We wait for the scientists to come up with a sensible solution to protect wildlife and cattle.
Now our task is to work with the vets on how to protect our animals from sick badgers. No more nuts for treats! The fodder beet we fed them on last winter is liquorice for badgers, drawing them in. So we need to feed the cattle on food the badgers do not relish. Surprise, surprise: the key food is grass, the natural, healthy food for cattle. So our focus now is how we can have the cattle grazing grass all the year round. We carry on our programme of fencing so we can make the best possible use of our grazing fields.
We are also researching what we can do to keep the badgers healthy, for instance put out some mineral licks for them. Whatever we do mustn’t change their natural behaviour, and do what we can to support their immune systems.
On the farm, we are seeing animals that look blooming, and are becoming good grazers from a young age – the heart of a healthy herd.
COWS – The cows too are looking wonderful. We’ve had the best grass growth we’ve ever measured, with the warmth and wet giving lovely growing weather. Now we are coming into the drier, hotter months, when grass growth slows down. The August calving cows are on their summer holidays, exploring the edges of the farm. It’s lovely to go into orchards and distant fields filled with flowers, and cows look at you from the shade of trees, with mouthfuls of interesting flavours from the varied pastures. The further out fields are not as well manured, so have a more interesting flora.
With fewer mouths to feed, the grassland by the parlour can support the spring calved cows. They are settling into milking on pastures where the clover is building as the summer progresses. Their milk is perfect for our cheese, beautifully balanced. Most are now in calf, and getting that prosperous look cows get from good pasture, sun and fecundity.
ROYAL VISIT TO FARM AND CHEESE – We had the privilege of a visit from the Earl and Countess of Wessex, Prince Edward and Sophie. They were fascinated by the process of making cheese; Malcolm Mitchell showed them all the stages. You could see Prince Edward itching to have a go at the cheddaring and salting stage. To see everything, we had to sweep our visitors on to see the transit stores where we nurture the new-born cheese. They saw our cheese cathedral, the cheese maturing to its full splendour, how we blow the cheese to keep them free of mite, and ‘iron’ them (extract a core) to check its maturing quality.
We showed them the cows and calves. They loved our focus on grazed grass, and getting just the right milk from that grass with the right breeds to make the perfect cheese.
SHOP & KITCHEN – Finally they opened Quickes Farm Kitchen, our new venture, where you can taste the products of the sun, soil and water of our valley, while gazing over the pastures that are the source of our delicious flavours. They unveiled a plaque attached to a ‘wedge’ of cheese made from poplar boards. The poplars were planted by my father, and we made a couple of them into cheese shelves. Some of those cheese shelves have become the tables in the Kitchen, and it was lovely to complete the cycle – eat the food of this valley, see the grass and cows that make the food, eat it off the trees that stored the cheese, and see the trees we planted
We had a wonderful day, and felt very proud to be honoured by them on Prince Edward’ 50th Birthday tour of the Best of Wessex.
PRIZES – It was lovely to show them the stunning cup we have won for Best Cheddar at the combined British Cheese Awards and Royal Bath and West Show Cheese Competition, for our Vintage Cheddar. It was the best of a record 150 cheddars. Does that make it best cheddar in the world?
OPEN FARM SUNDAY – Thank you to everyone who turned up. We welcomed around 1500 people, a lot more than we expected. The numbers overwhelmed our Kitchen, and people had the wait a lot longer to be served than we would like.