March 2015

View from the Hill                                                            15th March 2015

Eggs hatching, cows calving, muck spreading, barley sowing, suddenly it feels like spring has arrived.  The ground is dry and we are flat out trying to do everything at once because the forecasters keep telling us it’s going to rain tomorrow.  Three days later when I have come back to this, it feels 10 degrees colder and we are reminded that perhaps winter is not quite ended yet.


Our Blandford St Mary hen hatched 10 out of her 13 eggs on 26th February, which is a crazy time of year for hatching, it’s far too cold, however she obviously kept them warm enough for 21 days, and we have now nearly doubled our poultry flock.  It remains to be seen how many will be cockerels.


Calving has begun since my last entry here, we are about half way through our 55 cows as I write this, with one set of twins so far.

For video of calves playing in fresh bedding, click here

For more video of calves playing click here

More sobering news in the cattle department is that at our latest TB test a couple of weeks ago, we were found to have 3 inconclusive reactors, this means that they showed a reaction to the skin test for TB, but the bumps were not big enough for them to be deemed reactors.  These 3 animals have now been isolated from the rest of our cattle, and will need to be tested again after a 60 day interval, if any one of them is found to be a full reactor, or again is an inconclusive, they will be taken away and we will be deemed to have had a breakdown, which means two more tests for the whole herd, at 60 day intervals, both will need to be clear for us to have movement restrictions lifted, the same as with our last reactor back in the summer.  This sorry process is being repeated month after month across hundreds of farms in the south west, and many more in other areas of the UK. Regular readers will not be surprised to hear me repeat my frustration with the whole TB situation, it seems utterly pointless going through all this testing and movement restriction in our cattle when there is a reservoir of this disease at large in the countryside which we are not allowed to do anything about.  Many, many farms operate a closed herd policy, which means that no animals are ever brought onto the farm, the cows are all artificially inseminated, and dairy replacements are all bred on the home farm.  Farmers operate a policy like this to prevent spread of many diseases, not just TB.

On farms like this, where it impossible for TB to be brought in from the outside by cattle, we all know that it can only come from the badgers, which are higher in number in the countryside than at any time in my lifetime.  Evidence of their presence is everywhere to see, not least in the numbers being killed on the roads.  I only ask that we be allowed to address the problem of badgers when they are sick with TB themselves, it should be an animal welfare issue, not an untouchable political minefield.

We have made a good start to our spring sowing campaign.  After a healthy dose of chicken manure which our friendly contractors have hauled in and spread for us, we have now cultivated and sown over half of our spring barley acreage, all one variety this year, Propino, which has now got a pretty reliable reputation amongst the maltsters and brewers.  If all goes to plan, we should produce enough spring barley for around 8.5 million pints of beer.  All we need now is for some sunshine, to warm up the soil, and a drop of rain from time to time, to get the seeds to germinate and grow.  In another week or so I hope it will be warm enough for us to be able to push straight on and sow this year’s poppy crop.  The tiny poppy seeds are more sensitive to soil conditions than the big bold barley seed, and we have to be reasonably confident of improving weather conditions when we sow poppies as the seed has so little energy in reserve.

It is clear from the pictures that we attracted the attention of a good many seagulls.  They are usually keener on following a plough than a cultivator, a plough goes deeper into the soil than a cultivator or disc machine like the one pictured, and so exposes more worms to the unforgiving beaks of these aerial scavengers.  We have not used a plough for a dozen years or more, we employ a reduced tillage system, which is quicker, cheaper, and more weather resistant than a plough based cultivation system.  A plough moves around 8 inches of soil, whereas we aim to move only 4 to 5 inches of soil, except when subsoiling, once every three years or so, when the machine goes down to about 10 inches.  More soil moved equals more metal worn off the machine, more rubber worn off the tyres, a slower job, more fuel used and more worms upset, killed or eaten.  Worms are essential for a healthy soil so I am not too keen to see them stolen.

This was the field we were sowing on the morning of the eclipse, work stopped for a cup of coffee, and to watch the sun peeping in and out of the clouds as the moon almost blocked it out.  The light faded a little, but far more noticeable was how cold it was while most of the sun was blocked.

With great anticipation, after at least two years in the planning, we have finally been connected to the Wessex Internet broadband service.  The old BT lines cross miles and miles to connect us to the real world, and we never managed a speed greater than about three quarters of a megabit per second.  With no hope of BT ever improving this for us we got together with neighbours to invest in fibre optic cable and receiver/transmitters, and now each house and farm is connected at up to 30 MBPS.  This hopefully means an end to interminable buffering and arguments about whose turn it is to download something.  You might be surprised to learn that farmers generally are pretty intense users of IT, of course the mobile phone is essential when we are so often working on our own a long way from help, but computers and the internet are more and more difficult to cope without, whether it be taxing vehicles, paying bills, checking the weather forecast, or applying for cattle passports.  Yes every bovine animal has its own passport, and it must be applied for within a month of the animal’s birth.  Pity the poor soul who forgets, his animal is deemed non-existent, and will have to be destroyed.

The next couple of months are likely to see the media becoming completely obsessed with the approaching election.  The rural communities of North Dorset are already being given opportunities to meet and question candidates for parliament, and questions high on the list for farmers in particular include TB, the price of milk, poor broadband provision, regulations in general, and engagement with the EU.


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