February always used to be the most difficult month, cold and still dark at the end of the winter. More recently, we’ve had some bright and warmer Februaries. Not complaining, and a bit scary if it marks a change in climate. It’s lovely to see the lighter mornings and evenings, I along with the rest of the natural world start unfolding to greet the strengthening sun. There are little signs of growth everywhere, primroses responding to warm days. A carpet of them, if you are fortunate enough to come across one, has a delicate and beautiful scent carried on the wind that makes you feel lucky to be alive. Birds pair up on Valentine’s Day, so they say, and certainly the old song, the desire to pair up and procreate, starts singing, first gently and quietly then loudly and insistently as the spring takes form.
While growth is starting, available food is scarce. The buzzards and kestrels sit around waiting for any likely meal. Robins get friendlier as the temperature drops and follow me around the garden. Pigeons flock up to find the remaining acorns, ivy berries or anything edible.
The farmed fields listen to the tune, and start to grow. Wheat and barley start making little plantlets. Each one will produce an ear. We want enough to make a good yield, and not so many that each is underfed and shrivelled. So we want the right amount of leaf, the right number of plants, good soil structure, and the right weather, wet, dry, cold and warm at all the right times. Some we have a say in, some we don’t: the joys of farming.
And the grass is starting to grow, making headway against the reduction in cover you get in a frost. The cows will go out at the end of the month. They will graze grass stored from the winter, and the small amount that grows in even the depths of winter. We want to see it just starting to grow a little more before we send the cows out for the first time.
For the autumn cows who’ve spent the winter in the barn, the grass is yearned for, chins resting on the gate, smelling the new growth. Open the gate, and the girls slowly see the track clear before them, start walking, trotting, then up to a full wild gallop out to the pasture where they leap and cavort and play fight each other for the joy of it. No wonder we need to wait for the soil to dry up a bit, or the party will plough the pasture like a muddy festival mosh pit. The spring cows have spent the winter on crop, and as they calve at the end of the month, they will go out to pasture. Less ecstatic, perhaps, a little subdued by the rigours of calving, maybe, and glad to be back on the pasture, hungry for the sweet green leaves.
Even the new calves go out, as soon as they can drink from the rubber teat. They are in sight of the cows as they come in and out for milking. Everyone shows a passing interest in each other. The milking parlour and relief for full udders pulls the cows away. The mobile milk bar, drawn by the farm buggy turns up, fifty teats sticking out from a 500 litre tank of milk. The calves sight it coming into the field and joyously leap to chase it for the rich sustaining milk.
The grass-fed milk starts coming through into the cheese dairy and makes a softer, richer, more aromatic curd from the very day after we send the cows out to graze. The cheese tells the story of the land and the new season, the start of the new grazing year, the real start of the year. We’ll watch to see if we need to make any adjustments to the set of the junket, the size and timing of the cut. Those are the daily judgements our Cheesemakers make to create rich and wonderful flavours out of our lovely milk with its twice daily harvest.