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!


Winter Wheat in Elwell in Eight Steps part 1

Growing crops is a race against time to beat the autumn equinox at the end of September.  Farmers have been working round the clock through August to get the harvest in:  if there are few windows of dry weather a farmer may literally work around the crop as a wet crop is a lost crop.

a field of newly emerged winter wheatBucolic scenes of rustics enjoying a well-earned rest after the harvest home are visions of a world which vanished decades ago (if it ever existed!).  Even before the harvest was finished in September the ground of those fields whose productivity was finished for this season was being prepared for their 2016 crops.

Elwell is a field nestled between the Hill and the water meadows around the River.  It’s soil has become deep and clayey through the gradual erosion of the Hill over dozens of millennia.  In the 2015 season it was a grass ‘ley’ – a field of grass which has been planted with a special mix of grasses and clover.  Planting a grass ley is a way for a farmer to practice rotation to preserve the fertility of the soil whilst at the same time using it productively (in this case grass for the dairy and beef herd).

In September the ley was ‘sprayed off’ with glyphosate (which gardeners call Roundup).  This means that when the new crop is planted there are no persistent weeds whose roots will simply resprout after the field has been ploughed and planted.  Roundup is a chemical which is indispensable to modern farming.  Maybe this is why it has a habit of being in the news.  Here is a link to a recent article about its possible role in causing cancer.

After about 5 days the ley, together with the weeds that have grown the previous year, has died back.  The next step is to add rotted farmyard manure – the straw bedding accumulated over the previous winter when cows were being kept in the barns.  This post explains a bit of the hows and whys of this.

The third stage is to plough the field.tractor ploughing
As the soil in Elwell is so clayey it needed extra cultivation because it sticks together in large lumps.  So when the soil had dried out a bit the whole field was cultivated with a disk harrow.  Each disc is a bit like a pizza slicer – it cuts as it rotates.tractor and disc harrow

Well, now the work is about halfway done.  Someone still needs to drive a tractor back and forth across the whole field FOUR more times before they can pause a while.  Even then they cannot rest:  the field will have to be monitored for pests including slugs.

Threshing Straw for Thatching Houses

Straw for thatching needs to be well-dried.  Stooks and ricks were a two-stage process which enabled straw to be cured so it was in the right condition for thatching.  However, problems arise if there is a wet autumn because the straw is unable to dry out correctly.  As mentioned in the last post (Putting the Lids), 21st C technology has come to the rescue in the form of loaders which can shift sheaves to barns.

Manor Farm straw is threshed by Dorset-based Symonds’ Thatchers.  These photos were taken this year, on the 10th October.

overall scene

overall scene

dropping sheaf bale

dropping sheaf bale

Pete clipping reed

Pete clipping reed

Putting the Lids on Thatched Dorset Cottages

from Will Best in Godmanstone…. is the time of year at Manor Farm  for the visit of the threshing machine. When I was a small boy this was a commonplace on most of the farms in Dorset, but now I only know of 3 or 4 where it happens.

It is not that we dislike combine harvesters, but that we are making combed wheat reed from the straw. There are 3 materials used for thatching roofs: water reed, long straw and combed wheat reed.

Traditionally water reed was used for roofing  in areas where it was grown such as Abbotsbury, longstraw was used up country, but over most of Dorset it was combed wheat reed. Reed combing, which extracts all the long straight straw from a sheaf of wheat, used to be a winter manual job (Tess had to do it at Flintcombe Ash in Hardy’s novel) but in the early 20th century the mechanical reed comber was developed to put on top of a threshing machine; and, 100 years later, no one has successfully found any better way to do it.

A Stooked Field at Manor Farm

A Stooked Field at Manor Farm

So at harvest time we cut the wheat, while it is still a bit green, with a binder and stand up all the resulting sheaves in stooks, otherwise known as hiles, shocks or stitches, 8 sheaves to a stook like tiny houses: the result is rather beautiful. Once the crop is ripe and dry, the sheaves must all be carried into the dry. In the past this meant carting with wagons and trailers, building ricks the size of small houses, and covering them with thatch or tarpaulins. Rick building is a specialised craft and must be done correctly or the wheat can spoil, or be very hard to pull out when the time comes.

Building the Rick

Now we have mechanised this by making big string tied bundles of up to 100 sheaves and using a loader to stack them in a barn, and later, to take them from the barn onto a platform beside the tractor powered thresher/ reed comber which separates out the reed, grain and rest of the straw.

This is the process, but the vital bit is the growing of the wheat. Modern varieties are too short; so old, longstrawed ones must be sown. Nitrogen fertiliser and other agrochemicals weaken the straw, so the crop must be grown organically, or with very few inputs.  This means that in order to grow a good tall clean crop which will stand up well until harvest, you must have good natural fertility in the soil: we only grow ours after a grass/clover ley and an application of composted manure. The whole process is quite complex compared to modern cereal growing, but it must be done if we are to continue to cover our historic buildings with the correct material, and it helps keep alive crafts and methods which go back for millennia.

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!”

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!