The Cerne Abbas Water Meadows

From John Staley, a retired estates manager who supervised the partial restoration of the water meadow –

Water meadows, constructed from the 16th to the early 20th centuries, were areas of grassland subject to controlled irrigation to increase agricultural productivity.  In Cerne Abbas we are fortunate to have a complex water meadow at Barton Farm.

The water meadow was fed by water from the River Cerne, diverted by a series of boards manually moved up and down in a channel which was called a carrier.  The first sluice controlled a series of four smaller hatches supplying a flow of water to the meadow.  Each section of the meadow was irrigated by a small channel called a main that carried the water to the crest of each ridge where it overflowed and trickled down the sides (the panes) to enter a ditch and so return the water to the river.

diagram of the channels dug to manage the water meadow

An irrigated water meadow accelerated the growth of grass as water warmed the land in the winter so as to encourage vegetation.  This was the result of a steady flow of water keeping frost at bay.  The early growth of grass enabled farmers to give their flocks, both cattle and sheep, “an early bite” some four to six weeks before normal pasture.

The water meadows were a remarkable feat of agricultural engineering constructed entirely with hand tools and over long hours of work.  The men who did the work were known as drowners and meadmen.

Visitors are welcome to walk through Barton Farm water meadow but are advised by the land’s owner, Cognatum Ltd, that they do so at their own risk.

HOW TO FIND BARTON FARM WATER MEADOW:  A public footpath and sign to the water meadow can be found at the entrance to the Tithe Barn in The Folly.  Please keep to the path as it crosses private property.  On passing through a gate turn left over a bridge to arrive at the water meadow.


How can Humans Eat Grass?

Every summer I mark GCSE Biology examinations, and every year I end up really depressed when I mark the agriculture or food question.  In a nutshell, the average British 16 year old – if what they write in this national examination is to be believed – has learnt that livestock farming has nothing good to offer society.  According to the 1500 or so exams I have read in the last three years, the majority of British 16 year olds believe that

  • farmers rear animals indoors because they enjoy (or at best don’t care) making animals unhappy,
  • everyone, human and livestock, would be better off if we were all vegetarian because then food would not be wasted on animals:  humans could eat animal food and that would be much more efficient,
  • possibly best of all would be if we grew all our protein in large silos in the form of fungus (this is what makes Quorn) because it protects farmland and has a much higher protein content than meat.

As is so often the case, there are grains of truth in all these which have been grotesquely distorted.  Some may be put down to adolescent inattention or intellectual incapacity, but strikingly similar arguments crop up in batches and frequently, which implies that the teacher has at best a poor understanding of the topic and at worst an ‘agenda’.

Aberdeen Angus in the water meadow, Lleyn sheep on the hill

Aberdeen Angus in the water meadow, Lleyn sheep on the hill

This photograph would not be possible in a society where no one ate meat.  I have read exam scripts in which it appears young people are being encouraged to think that if no one ate meat then farm animals would be left to live to a ripe old age in bucolic bliss.  They are also being given the impression that all livestock are fed entirely on grains which could also feed humans.  This may be true of the great stockyards of the United States, but in this country a significant part of the nutrient intake of cows and sheep is grass.

Feeding livestock with grass is a way of using land which could not be used for anything else.  The water meadow could flood.  The hill in the background is rather steep.  So both would probably be unsuitable for arable crops.  And even arable fields periodically need a rest:  a grass ley provides this as part of a crop rotation.

There is a ‘grain’ of truth in the argument that feeding grain to livestock is not the most energy-efficient (in terms of calorific content) way of growing food.  Dairy cattle in particular need extra inputs to enable them to make the many litres of milk that they produce each day.  Maybe the best compromise would be to keep using these excellent converters of grass into human food, but moderate our meat and dairy product intake whilst doing a better job of consuming the ‘5 a day’ of fruit and veg!

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!”

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!

Why are the cows put into barns over the winter?

This year's calves....tomorrow's dairy herd

This year’s calves….tomorrow’s dairy herd

The long summer is over, the rains have come, some mornings there is a light frost, and it’s time to bring the cows in.

When I asked a local farmer why the cows are brought in, the first thing he said is, “Because otherwise they get miserable.”

A miserable cow is an unproductive cow.

Although sheep, thanks to their thick woolly coats, seem fairly impervious to the weather, cows  do not like the cold and wet.  They will huddle together, in or by a thicket for shelter if possible.  They lose condition because energy from their food is being spent to keep them warm.  Their milk yield decreases for the same reason or, if they are beef cattle, they do not put on weight so quickly.

At the same time, as any gardener knows, the grass has stopped growing so livestock need to be fed.  The shortened grass is more of a problem for cows than for sheep because of the way they eat.  Sheep have a very mobile upper lip which they use to gather up a bit of grass and then nip it off with their incisors.  Cows rely on using their tongues to grasp a clump of grass and then bite it off. The lack of grass together with the need for more food to keep warm means they need to be fed, and that feed needs to be carted from the yard where it is stored up to the field…the first reason why it is simply easier, less exhausting and time consuming, and more cost effective to feed cows in barns in the yard.

Another reason is that cows can get so miserable and cold that they simply will not come when summoned by the horn of the Land Rover.  Sheep do.

The short days mean that the sun rises after the morning milking has finished, and it sets before the afternoon milking:  this leaves little time for the multiplicity of jobs so saving some time by having the cows in helps.  Some herds are kept in the whole time until March but the local herd is allowed out to play after the morning milking and brought in for the night at the afternoon milking.  Milking is an essential opportunity for the welfare of the individual cows to be checked.  Imagine checking a herd on a dark, wet, and stormy night on a muddy hill.  Imagine trying to help a cow in distress in those conditions!  All much easier for both humans and cows if they are inside.

There is also the welfare of the pasture to consider.  As the grass is not growing and it is very wet, ‘poaching’ can occur. When soil becomes poached it is compacted with no air spaces to nurture the soil organisms and microbes that help maintain a healthy sward.  The grass will  not grow so well, and the turf will become full of hardy weeds.

So for the welfare of the grass, the cows, and the humans working with them the cows are brought in in the winter.