December 2013 on the Farm

Farming in the Winter Season

How quickly the autumn seeps away, the sun drops, the leaves fade, days become dusk then long night.  Look carefully, and you’ll see that the new growth, the promise that the earth will turn and the light returning, is everywhere.  The hazels start growing flower buds and hardy plants like chickweed and shepherd's purse provide a green nibble now there aren't more interesting wild things to pick.  Half grown deer, deserted by their mothers now pregnant with next year's young, hang around in familiar places uncertain about what to do.  Leaves are off the trees, and are starting to develop next year's, visible under tight buds.  

In the fields, next year's crops are already growing – in fact, pretty intensely, in the case of the winter barley we sowed in early October, which was bitten by the previous year's difficulties.  Their leaves are lush and straggly, with some disease coming in – and they could certainly do with a little grazing..  In the silage pit, the cows are eating the stored maize and grass at an alarming rate, when we first bring them in at night, and then all the time when the ground becomes too tender.  By Christmas, all the spring calved cows will be on their holidays, and the feed, we hope, will last until the grass grows.  

The spring cows, on their break from milking, and most of the heifers are grazing the winter crops.  We've grown them fodder beet - sweet like beetroot, yellow like swede - sticking proud above the ground, like a tower of feed with a little topknot of green leaves.  We've fenced the badgers off the beet, as they love it: so far they've kept off it, with bits where they had nibbled, healing over.  We've also grown the cows kale for January - a triumph of hope over experience. Last time the deer ate every paddock overnight just before the cows went in and some heifers will be on long grass that we let grow long for them.  We'll have some animals inside if they need a little more TLC than the great outdoors can provide in this season. The cold or wet weather doesn't perturb cows and heifers if they've been outside and grown a woolly coat.  But this type of weather is harder on those that are little.  So we'll watch, and weigh, and assess what will support them best.

We calve the autumn cows to give us milk through the winter as people eat more cheddar in the winter and so we need to produce enough milk to keep the cheese mature enough.  We aim to keep grazing as close to Christmas as we can, to keep those lovely grassy flavours coming through.

The milk gets more creamy in the winter.  We handle the milk much more gently now, so the cream will hold its structure, and I can’t wait for the cheese tasting richer, with no trace of astringency in the flavour.  In the vat, the milk is looking wonderful: neither grainy with protein, nor with little globules with fat meaning that the milk is holding its shape properly. We make a lot of little cheeses now, and the challenge is to keep the curd warm in cold weather while we get the cheese into the little fiddly moulds.  We keep it under blankets of cheese cloth, and get it from under the covers like reluctant schoolchildren when it's time to get up.