It’s so lovely to see the season on the turn. There may be the odd frost or even flurry of snow, and each day the sun strengthens, the days get longer, so any cold will be short-lived. The sun is stronger; out of the wind, it can feel balmy against your skin.
All the plants know it, too. All of the cabbage family are making a leap for immortality as everything from the tiny shepherds; purse, oilseed rape in the fields or cabbages in the garden start flowering. Anything that flowers or breeds in the spring is on notice to get in action. Birds are building nests or already rearing chicks. They sing their hearts out in the dawn chorus carving out territory. It’s lovely to see the blackbirds assert themselves again, everyone excited by the onset of spring. Tom Browne, our neighbour, saw a magpie checking out an old nest. She was keen to tell everyone about it while she was inside.
I saw a little mouse hungrily eating away at some iris shoots as I sat to watch the sun go down. I watched, fascinated to see him attack a leaf many times larger. I did disturb him in the end when my gardening overcame my wildlife interest. Frogspawn is everywhere.
The grass is growing just as long as it’s not a frost. The fresh new blades eagerly soak up the sun. Last year’s leaves are tired, and waiting to be eaten releasing the plant for new growth. Hang on, we will get the cows to you as soon as we can. They went out first just before Valentine’s Day and they are nibbling off all the last year’s stored grass in a sequence by length. However cold it is, the first response of a grass plant to being nibbled is to send up a thumbnail-width of new tender growth to kick start new growth from the root reserves. We protect that from being eaten: it a month or so, there will enough for the cows to graze.
The grass is growing less that the hungry cows want. The autumn calving cows come inside for the night time, to slow down the amount of grass they eat. We feed them on the last bits of silage we made last year. The spring calving cows are calving like crazy, and come off their winter feed of fodder beet onto pasture when they calve. We have a little fodder beet left over, so we’ll give them a nibble to keep them topped up while it lasts.
We calve the spring cows in the barn, the only time those animals see straw, a roof and walls. We want to keep the wet newborn calves from chilling in the wind. Soon their coats fluff up, but we still will keep them sheltered until they are a little bigger and drinking milk well. They are born the size of a small person, and they won’t yet have the resilience to manage wet and cold together.
As soon as we are sure the calf has enough colostrum, the antibody-rich oral vaccine nature provides to protect new-borns, the cows will join their friends in the milking herd to get on with the sociable and serious business of milking. We rear the calves together, and very soon they form their own little herd, bonded to each other and to the people who feed them.
In the cheese dairy, the grass feeding comes through as a glorious extra layer of flavour in the warm milk. The amount of milk increases as more cows calve and their milk is added to the tank, and also cows yield more off grass, however well you feed them inside. The change in diet calls for subtle changes in make, with the low fibre in the new grass dropping the fat in the milk, making for a firmer curd. Every season, even every day is different, and it’s part of the cheesemaker’s skill to adjust each day’s make: timing, cut size, working of the curd, to have every day make the beautiful cheese hidden inside every vat of milk.
I’ve been overdosing on the last of the winter leaves from the garden and the polytunnel. Everything is growing so fast, and anything I don’t eat will set seed. My favourite salad is strong-flavoured winter leaves: salad burnet, chicory, sorrel, landcress, lambs’ lettuce, the Italian salads minutina and stridolo, and the shepherds’ purse and chickweed that grow so freely and uninvited. I pick and wash them twice. I serve with a cider vinegar-heavy dressing to balance up the bitter flavours. Then I grate lots of Quicke’s Mature Cheddar over the salad, so you find decent amount of it as you eat. That combined with some tasty sourdough bread and our Whey Butter makes a great first course or light lunch.
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