The miracle of spring is here in May. The farm had a bleak and wintry look through to the end of April, every bit of our 52 degrees north of latitude – we are as far north as Newfoundland. Buds burst into a blasting cold gale, the grass shrivelled into purple bonsai, all the right shape but dwarfed. The wildlife had a hunted, hungry look. I saw a treecreeper, the shyest of birds, come towards our bird feeders, where normally only the bolder birds come. Now, with sun and balmy warmth, birds are singing loud all day, bumble bees are starting their busy summer. I had no idea how much those simple sounds lift my heart. Oddly enough, the house martins arrived 11 days earlier this year than last year – perhaps they know something we don’t.
The spring now comes in all its rich glory, racing to fit all the growth stages into a shortened spring. Leaves emerge in a dizzying array, the quiet shyness forgotten, as if the treecreeper had turned into a peacock. Warm days are here, all the sweeter for the wait and the drama. It has been like being tossed in a wild sea, then the sea calms, and the sun comes out. What remains is that our normal illusion of our mastery of nature has been shattered by her effortless and unfeeling power over our lives as farmers. Very good for our humility, not so good for our bank balance. It’s been trying for us. We look around the country at those other farms that have been waterlogged, or with that devastating late snow, who are facing ruin. When we meet other farmers, we all have our story to share, ‘How is it with you? How is everything growing now?’
We re-drilled about half the arable acres where the waterlogging and the deer had damaged crops beyond repair. They are growing now in the warmer weather, changing before our eyes, chasing to catch up the growth stages. I fear that the emerging ears, coming already up the stems of the wheat and barley will reflect the harshness of the wet then the cold, will be pinched like people underfed in childhood; only the harvest will tell.
We are growing maize again this year, despite our half size crop of last year. We hope to fill our emptied silage pits again, to save the drama of this late spring, with little to feed the cows on, buying in silage where we can find it. We watch the soil, so recently drilled, to see the little plants emerge. Last year, they were chilled and damp from the time they went in, and took for ever to emerge, never really looking happy. This year we look to see them growing fast and thriving, no check to their growth.
The grass takes on the bright green of happy, fast growing grass, so striking to people from other countries. The hard grazed grass of last month, khaki coloured and white, and the purple tinged leaves of new growth now becomes soft and verdant. I can begin to see what delights a hungry cow so about a lush pasture, why they swish their tails as they chomp forward.
Our cows have looked askance at the grass we have been able to provide them, the autumn calvers particularly telling us they are at the end of their lactations, and don’t fancy yielding off what we have got for them. Hold on, girls, the grass is coming in May, just give us a little lift in milk before it’s time for your 2 month holiday from milking starting in June.
We will start serving the spring cows in mid May. We plan to serve on a ‘rising plane of nutrition’, starting with less food, and rising to more. This ‘flushes’ the cows with nutrients so they produce good quality eggs, and are happy to ‘hold to service’ – conceive, implant their embryos and continue to nourish them. We time service to hit the peak grass with their peak demand for food for milking and conception. Slow grass growth at this point risks the orderly progression of our dance with the natural processes, as if we started the tango before the music and we and our partners never quite get it right. The right lush grass, and all will be well.
The heifers have worked harder for their food than we would like. We have taken straw and cake out to them, when we would expect them to have plenty of grass. I think we will have to carry on feeding them cake to catch them up – our routine weighing tell us the girls are smaller than they should be. We will hold around half back and serve them in the autumn instead, a visible reminder of the poorer nutrition in the grass and the small maize crop last year.
We’ve got the heifers we are serving still inside just while we serve them once, then out they go with Mr Bull for company. It’s lovely to see their adoration of his masculine charms, how the ones in need of his attention clamour for it like so many groupies. Of course, we hope to catch most of them with artificial insemination. Then the girls graze quietly, as if he doesn’t exist, while he watches and waits. They all sit companionably at the top of the field. You can be walking round them and find yourself standing next to him in the melee. You beat a hasty retreat, careful not in any way to suggest you are attempting to remove any of his ladies from him as he looks at you with a suspicious and territorial eye.
The peak of milk is considerably less with the lower yields from the lower grass growth. The quality of the milk is perfect, though, beautifully balanced. It will be magnificent cheese, beautiful golden curd from the rich carotene of the grass. We now weigh each cheese as we make it, and have got some new moulds. Those cheese look perfect in the store, all the same size, all symmetrical, none of the slight dents from the old moulds. They are developing their garden of mould on the cloths. This helps to form the rind, and all the different species give different flavours. It’s becoming an area for academic study, and we marvel at the richness of the ecology of a cheese rind. What a pleasure – more things to understand to create wonderful flavour!
Sally’s lasagne – It been a tough spring, so we’ll go for some comfort food, and what more comforting than lasagne. We’ve all got our favourite recipes, Sally gave me hers – lots of Quickes Traditional Extra Mature Cheddar in the white sauce, and grated on top. She makes her bolognaise sauce with onions, beef mince (from the farm so she knows what it’s got in it) chopped tomatoes, flavoured with black pepper, Italian herbs, red wine vinegar and Worcester Sauce, plus a little sugar. She makes around equal quantities of white sauce, made with flour, butter, then gradually add milk, black pepper. Once it’s thickened, add enough grated Quickes Traditional Extra Mature Cheddar to make it good and cheesy. Layer bolognaise sauce, green lasagne sheets, then cheese sauce for as many layers as your dish holds, top off with a good layer of cheese sauce, with a good quantity of grated Quickes Traditional Extra Mature Cheddar on top. Bake in an oven at 180?C for 40 minutes or until the top is golden brown. Eat with salad from the garden (mine have been helped along by the leaves I’ve grown in the polytunnel) or some roasted vegetables if it’s still cold.