February 2017 on the farm
Valentine's Day: that's when all the birds pair up, a friend told me. Certainly, there's a lot of action quietly going on as everything starts to come to life after the dead of winter. By the beginning of the month, we are halfway to the equinox. The sun is stronger, days are longer. If cold weather comes, you know it can't last. Catkins that have been sitting tightly on the hazel in the hedges since the autumn start stretching out and releasing clouds of pollen to fall onto the tiny crimson and exquisite female flowers. Snowdrops doughtily peep through, and if it's warm, we'll get the first of the primroses.
Crops - Winter wheat and barley respond to light, and decide how many plantlets, and so how many ears, each will grow. We want enough to fill the field, and not so many the roots can't fill the grain. It's a balance of plant numbers, plant variety and soil fertility which absorbs arable farmers at this time of year. As the plants start to grow, we feed them to get the ears we want at harvest.
The grass starts growing, too, and we watch and measure the growth. In the middle of the month, the spring cows will calve and start producing milk. They swing from late pregnancy dreamtime suddenly to 'I'm hungry and need lots of grass to eat'. First they eat the grass we've stored over winter on the fields, which is not much. We need the grass to start growing reliably by the end of February, the pastures will be at their barest. If we've planned it right, and balanced grazing with silage feeding, the grass will start growing in time to meet the cows' hunger. We want warmer South-westerlies not chilly East winds that freeze the growth.
Calves - we get a few calves at the beginning of the month, little things coming early. By Valentine's Day, our official start date, they will be coming thick and fast. By the end of the month, we'll have calves everywhere. We are calving for the first time on the new grazing area to the South of the main road. We'll keep them inside until we know they are drinking milk well from a teat and out they will go, close to the buildings so we can keep them from the worst of the weather.
Heifers – their yearling sisters are out on kale, kinder on milk teeth. Their big sisters, with more adult teeth, have been with the cows on fodder beet, also known as mangel-wurzel. That's sweet and very heavy-yielding, and a bit firmer. They'll come in to calve so we can keep an eye on them. Mostly our vigorous little cross-bred ladies get on with calving by themselves. They are fit and well-toned from their outdoor life. The calves know their job from before birth and get their hooves into the correct diving position to be born easily, and land lively and ready to go. And you never know, so we are ready to help should someone need it.
New Parlour - It's very exciting to use the new parlour in earnest. We tried it out in November and December to troubleshoot any problems and now we hope it's ready to roll and milk all the cows quickly and comfortably for them and the people. We will bring the milk down the hill to the Cheese Dairy and mix it with the autumn cows' milk. The milk takes a little while to build up after calving starts: a cow takes 6 weeks after calving to hit peak milk.
Cheese - We need all the milk we can get, as people ate a lot of our cheese over the autumn and Christmas and we need to replenish our stores. We've been working hard on mixing the salt evenly once we have milled the curd, and that's given us a really unexpected benefit of some gorgeous textures and flavours. At the last grading, we couldn't believe how consistent and silky our 3 month cheese was. I can't wait to taste that when it's mature next Christmas.
Maturing - As the milk builds up, so the work gets more demanding: more cheese to make, press, dress, take to the store and turn weekly. Cheese gradually develops its beautiful mould coat in store. First its pristine white cloth, then a few blue green patches of mould, then something that looks like a painting, styles ranging from Matisse to Jackson Pollock. Then a heavy grey-green coat, then a more modest mature coat. The mould garden, we call it, developing all those gorgeous flavours under the rind. Happy days.