Mr Pygge

“The cottage is the thatched building on the right just before the corner as you go down the drive”, my friend said.

“Don’t you mean on the left just after the corner?”, I replied.

“No, it’s definitely that lovely long curved building on the right”, she responded.

I can understand why she thought it was the cottage, for it is truly beautiful, and very ‘twee’.  But it is not the cottage; it is the pig sty and horse box!  Such a gorgeous pig sty was crying out for a resident, and so when a local farmer had a spare weaner we couldn’t resist.  He became known as ‘Mr Pygge’.

Mr Pygge has connected us non-farmers with the total commitment required if one is going to rear animals for food.  He came at a good time of year; September, just as the cooking pears were dropping and littering the track in their hundreds (thousands?).  They were soon followed by apple windfalls, and then we discovered just after Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s food waste programme that the shop was delighted to give us wilted vegetables.  I once worried that Mr Pygge might be bored, but then someone commented, “on his diet of avocadoes, cauliflower, peppers and such he has enough food interest to keep him well-entertained!”  The local brewery provided bags of spent brewers’ grains – barley that had been malted so had lost its carbs but is still rich in other nutrients and fibre.  Meal made up mostly of grains grown on the farm augmented this, with slack periods being filled by pig nuts (a balanced pelletised feed).

Mr Pygge is now filling our freezer.  He ended his days at C&S Meats near Sherborne, a lovely little abattoir much used by smallholders in the area.  He was handed over to Dorset Charcuterie to butcher.  Within days we had a bag containing 2 kidneys and a large liver, and the reality of the food chain hit home.  The rest of Mr P has come home in dribs and drabs:  first the joints and sausages, then pancetta and bacon.  We are still waiting, several months on, for the deli type meats like coppa and it has hit home how time-consuming it is to make these semi-dried meat products….and helped us appreciate why they are so expensive!

He has been succeeded by ‘the pygges’- a male and a female weaner.  I am assured that they will too have gone to Holnest by the time hormones begin flowing and adolescent passions are raised.  They have picked up where Mr Pygge left off in turning windfalls into pork, and have done their bit (maybe) for international animal welfare by amazing a visiting Chinese postgrad student with their beauty and cleanliness!


Not Just Any Old Grass

Now that the spring barley has been cut, you can see the grass coming through.  This was ‘undersown’ when the barley was planted in the spring.  A specially bred variety is used:  it is called Festulolium because it is actually a hybrid of Festuca (fescue) and Lolium (ryegrass).  There is more about selective breeding of grasses here and more about the particular uses of the many varieties of ryegrass here.

festulolium growing up through spring barley

festulolium growing up through spring barley

The process of crossing two grasses which are not closely related means that the hybrids are tetraploid.  ‘Tetraploid’ means that the cells contain 4 of each type of chromosome:  normally in both plants and animals there are only 2 of each type of chromosome.  Having twice as many chromosomes means that each cell is much larger:  this in turn means that the leaves are larger.  (Modern wheat is ‘octoploid’, ie it has 8 of each type of chromosome.  This happened as a natural mutation thousands of years ago, but partly explains why a grain of wheat is so much larger than a grass seed.)

The reason that these two are hybridised is that each parent species bring a particular set of desirable characteristics.

The fescue (Festuca) brings high yield and durability:

  • high dry matter yield
  • resistance to cold
  • drought tolerance
  • persistence

The ryegrass (Lolium) brings rapid growth and tastiness!

  • rapid establishment
  • good spring growth
  • good digestibility
  • high sugar content
  • good palatibility

There are many varieties of this same hybrid, and each has slightly different traits so farmers can be very specific about the qualities of the grass they grow for a particular purpose.  The various varieties are created by ‘backcrossing’ the hybrids with either the ryegrass or fescue parent species.

This spring barley was undersown so that there would be a grass ley in place when the barley was harvested.  It will be grazed over the autumn and winter, and so the fescue’s resistance to cold will complement the ryegrass’s palatibility and digestibility well for this purpose.

Local Farmers are Nearing the Completion of the Harvest

from Edward Gallia, Nether Cerne Farms, and Advice on Farming and the Rural Environment

At last harvest has been completed.  We completed the final field yesterday – one of beans destined (we hope) for north Africa, the near and middle east, where they soak them, grind them up, and make into a paste / dahl called “ful madammas”.  As far as I can make out, it is what Egyptian and Sudanese folk really miss when out of their countries.

For us, harvest started with the rapeseed and progressed through barley and into wheat.  The rapeseed harvest started on 23rd July so it has stretched for a period of 7 weeks.  There have been quiet gaps within this period, usually enforced by rain but sometimes waiting for crops to ripen. But when it has been busy, it has been very busy.  To give an indication, one person chalked up 280 hours worked in a four week period.

There are broadly 3 roles for the harvesting:

  • Driving the combine to harvest the crop and separate the grain from the plant.  This requires huge concentration for long periods.
  • Driving the tractor and trailer full of grain from the field with the combine back to the farmyard.  This is the stop-start job and involves a fair bit of bumping about on farm tracks.  To give an idea, a trailer of grain is worth in the order of £1300.
  • Operating the grain store and drier if the grain needs to be dried.  The grain has to kept below a certain moisture content (and temperature) in order to prevent it deteriorating in the store, and also because the sales contracts specify a certain maximum moisture.  This is a dusty job, and the most physically demanding.

A beer (made from barley) and a day or two off are well deserved indeed.  But only one or two days off as we need to prepare the fields for sowing the seeds for harvest 2016.

What’s Growing in that Field? part 1 Dairy Farming and Cereals

By mid-January a lot of the forage brassica crops, described in my post of 18th December about feeding cattle outdoors, will have been eaten, but also the young sprouts of next year’s crops are visible in many fields. Further fields are lying fallow.  Obviously the type of farming engaged by a particular farm will have a significant bearing on what is grown.  In the words of the dairy farmer I was talking to last night, the main objective is to get back to grass as soon as possible.  At the same time, however, other crops need to be grown to provide supplementation and food for the winter:  these are planted in rotation.

As well as grass, cereals are planted.  These comprise winter wheat, winter barley, spring wheat, and spring barley.  The winter cereals are sown after the harvest in September/October.  The spring cereals are sown in about March.

winter wheatWheat is favoured because it has higher yields.  The downside is that it needs a deeper soil so can only be sown in the ‘better’ fields.  Barley is better in poorer soils such as those found on slopes because the soil is thinner over the chalk.  Wheat is also particularly susceptible to disease buildup in the soil.  The dreaded ‘Take All’ fungus can reduce the crop yield by as much as 20%!

Competition is a fact of life.  Humans create a fantastic opportunity for other organisms through ploughing, creating square miles of virgin soil ripe for seed germination, and fields of monoculture crops, creating a seemingly endless food source for fungi and other microorganisms as well as insects and larger animals like birds and mammals.  Modern farming uses chemicals to redress the balance so that other species do not take too much of the food we are growing for ourselves and our animals.  Herbicides kill the plants (‘weeds’) that lust after the freshly ploughed soil and pesticides kill the insects and microbes that see our crops as an easy food source.

Rotation is an ancient form of land management which also reduces the buildup of weeds and microbes (which cause diseases).  The agricultural pest ‘Black Grass’ is now resistant to selective herbicides and is becoming a more serious pest.  It is partly for this reason that increasingly cereal crops are not sown until the spring.  Instead the field is roughly cultivated in the autumn in order to ‘chit’ the weed seeds (encourage them to grow).  Once they have been tricked into growth, the field is sprayed with Roundup (glyphosate), a herbicide which kills plants by interfering with biochemical pathways unique to plants.

Black Grass rearing its heads above Barley Maccheek at the English language Wikipedia  CC-BY-SA-3.0, from Wikimedia Commons

I once knew a farmer in Herefordshire who was totally unembarrassed about using chemicals.  “Jane”, he said, “when you’ve spent your youth hoeing the weeds from 50 acre fields of potatoes, you KNOW what the alternative is!”

Days soon getting longer….time for Lambing!

The ewes are currently putting on weight, getting ready for lambing.   They were with the rams in August, and there is a gestation period of about 5 months so the lambs will start arriving at the end of this month.

The sheep which graze in our paddock are Lleyns.  They are “renowned for their hardiness, prolificacy, ease of lambing, strong mothering instinct, milkiness, and easy handling” according to the National Sheep Association.Ewe_with_pair_300px_x_200px

In order that the ewes are able to maintain condition at the same time as grow lambs, the sheep are receiving supplementary feeding.  As with the cows, the grass is growing too slowly at this time of the year so does not contain much energy or nutrition.  

The mix the sheep are given contains

  • rolled barley (grown on the farm) – carbohydrate for energy
  • dried seaweed (bought) – vitamins and minerals
  • ‘blend’ made of bought in soya and oilseed rape, for protein

When the lambing time approaches, they will be brought in only if it is wet.  Lleyns have evolved to lamb outside if it is dry and cold.  The sheep are regularly checked and any lambs are brought in with their mothers in order to check they are healthy, and that they are able to suckle with no problems.  Later when they are stronger they are taken back outside with their mothers.  When they are newborn they can be quite vulnerable, and this is the time that they are most likely to be taken off by a fox.  Sadly we lost one from our paddock overnight last spring.

What do cows eat in the Winter? Part 2 Eating outdoors

cow winter grazingEvery year in the UK one hears stories about the RSPCA or police being called by a concerned member of the public because’there are cows standing in a muddy field with no grass’.

Of course cows can be, and are, put out into grassy fields in the winter.  These are usually sown with a ryegrass ley and this download can tell you more about the management of this.

agri_arable_roots_forage_rape1However, the alternative ‘fresh’ food is provided by brassica crops which are sown as part of the crop rotation.  There are a variety of these, and you can learn more about them in this download.  The ones currently being grown in the valley include forage rape, kale, and turnips.  The cows eat the foliage and, in the case of turnips, the roots as well.  

An electric fence is used to partition off strips in order to be able to periodically provide fresh strips of pasture.  So if you see cows in a muddy field, look closely at what has been planted there.  It may be that they are at the end of a day grazing kale.  

Or it may be that they are grazing a root forage crop, have eaten the foliage, and are now down to the sweetest part of the plant – the root!

What do cows eat in the winter? part 1 Eating Indoors

One reason why farmers are so busy in the summer is that they are having to grow most of the food that the cows and sheep will eat in the winter when nothing much grows.

Even though it’s the winter, the cows (and the bacteria in their rumens!) like grass.  As any gardener knows, the grass doesn’t grow much in the winter so the cows need to be given grass preserved in some way – either dried (hay) or pickled (silage).  Silage is a lot more palatable because it is moist and it is also more nutritbaling silageious.

silo near piddletrentihide

The key to making good silage is to exclude the air so that the carbohydrates in the grass ferment rather than decompose.

Grass may be ‘ensiled’ by packing it into a silo or by rolling it up into large bales covered with plastic to keep the air out. This favours the growth of acid-making bacteria such as Lactobacillus, and the weak acids they make preserve the grass and its nutrients.  Another species of Lactobacillus plays a similar role in the making of yogurt and cheese.harvesting silage

Another form of silage is made using chopped maize plants and ‘wholecrop’ wheat.  The maize and wheat are harvested using a forage harvester‘.  It gathers the crop in a similar way to a combine and then chops the plants and blows them into a trailer.  The chopped plants are then put into a ‘clamp’ and packed down to exclude air by driving the tractor over them.

silage clamp at TodberIn addition to silage, which is largely composed of fibrous cellulose, farmers give their stock ‘concentrates’ to enable faster growth and milk production by providing extra protein and carbohydrates. Concentrates are comprised of rolled barley (which is home-grown), and soya bean and molasses which are bought in.

The maize/wholecrop silage, rolled barley, soya, and molasses are combined in a ‘mixer wagon’ and taken to the feeding areas.  Judging by the eagerness of the cows, it’s pretty tasty!