Here’s the latest extract from my book The Archers Year of Food and Farming. This is from the November chapter, and gives an insight into what some of the farmers of Ambridge are getting up to in that dank month.
For the farmers of Ambridge, it is the dampness of November which raises the greatest challenges. This is a key time of transition for Bridge Farm and Brookfield. At the start of the month, both have their cattle out in their fields. By the end, most of them will be housed indoors. The big question is, when to bring them in?
Johnny is in Long Meadow, gazing thoughtfully at the dairy herd. Montbéliardes are officially a red pied breed. ‘Pied’ in this case just means two-coloured, originally in reference to the black and white of the magpie. Each one displays a unique coat of random white and red-brown patches. They are good-looking beasts. But at the moment, Johnny is more concerned about the ground on which they are grazing.
With the reducing temperatures and elusive sunshine, the grass is getting dangerously low. And the more rain that falls, the more the horny, cloven hooves of the cattle will ‘poach’ the soil into mud. They must be moved into their winter housing before the ground is damaged, or it will not provide the high quality grass they will need come the spring. But as soon as they are inside, Bridge Farm’s costs will effectively rise, as the cows will be housed on straw, eating silage.
“What do you think, then? Tony joins his grandson in the gateway. “How much longer?”
“I were going to ask you, Granddad.”
Tony does not really get on with the ‘Monteys’. For him, they have too much Gallic obstinacy. But he knows his land, and has been checking the weather forecast.
“We’ll probably be all right for another week.”
Perhaps a fortnight after that, Tony will bring in his suckler herd of Angus cattle. A suckler herd is pretty much what it sounds like: cows who are still feeding their calves, although it must be said that by now these are pretty big calves. He will need a few helpers, so most of the family will turn out: someone leading, another driving them from the rear, plus a couple of stoppers in the yard, to make sure they don’t make a break for it and end up among the mismatched vintage crockery in Fallon’s tea room. The temptation to make a bull in a china shop joke here is almost irresistible…
At Brookfield, Pip, David and Ruth go through a similar anxious process. Although their timings might be a little different, the principle is the same. One evening after milking, rather than being walked back to the field, the dairy cows will find themselves directed into a strawed-down barn, their quarters for the next five months.
And within a few weeks, they will bring in their Herefords too. But not all of them. They will leave some youngstock (a term which covers anything from a calf to a heifer about to give birth) in the fields all winter. The Hereford is a hardy breed, perfectly able to ‘outwinter’. But any animal that is in the final stages of fattening is best brought under cover, so they can use their energy to put on condition, rather than keeping themselves warm against the chill winds and frosts of December.
If this whets your appetite, you can buy The Archers Year of Food and Farming as a hardback or ebook through all booksellers. If you’d like to buy online, could you consider using Hive, which supports local bookshops.
You can read other extracts from the book on this blog under The Archers tag.
And do let me know what you think of the book – or these snippets – by leaving a comment here or on Twitter: @keridavies