October is the time when the natural world is retreating. No longer is there an unmanageable riot of growth: the temperate jungle we live in becomes orderly. How that strikes you depends on whether you love the riot or are trying to keep it under control.
Now we catch up on cutting hedges: before, we hold back to allow birds to breed, fruit and seeds to set. You need to cut them or they grow out and become gappy: no longer a hedge but a long thin wood, shading out the understorey that makes hedges such rich habitats.
The dawn chorus almost disappears an almost eerie silence after the summer orchestration. The summer visitors have left, and the winter ones have yet to come. Everything is at is fattest and most flourishing: full of summer plenty, before the winter hits.
We’ve seen muntjac for the first time, little Japanese water deer barely bigger than hares. We’re happy that we have about the right number of red, fallow and roe deer for the balance of nature, and that does take management: each female produces another deer every year, so to keep the population in balance, we need to take out as many as we have females. Wild venison is very delicious too, from our farm shop. I don’t know if anyone eats muntjac, and we’ve heard this introduced species can become troublesome.
I saw two young, well grown buzzards catching the thermals up into the sky. They were calling and responding: it felt like they were playing for sheer joy in the autumn sun.
The new crops are coming through: the red clover is establishing really well. Little clover seedlings can snap in frost, so we want to get them a little more mature before the cold weather. We’ll start putting wheat and barley in, till with our no -till drill into the roots and crop residues of the last crop, which self-composts to retain organic matter. Looking at our soil, we may need to disturb our land that has been arable a little more while we get the organic matter and structure back in. Crops only year after year is very hard on a soil. It needs a grass or clover break to restore its heart. That is the weakness for me of farming systems without livestock.
The grass is growing like crazy: soil still warm, plenty of moisture, grass plants back to leaf growth not flowering. That’s why we calve the cows in August and September: just as they come into full milk, there is grass ahead of them that will keep them going till Christmas. So we measure the grass, work out where needs eating, do we have enough for a last cut? Better in the cows’ bellies than worked through a tractor, and can the cows keep the grass eaten down to keep it leafy and not trampled? Trampled adds organic matter to the soil, but on the way, leaves a mouldy layer cows don’t like to stick their noses into.
The new calves are settling into their routine. We get them grazing as soon as possible, a few days old, and feed them milk until their rumens develop enough to digest all they need from grass. Very soon they know milk comes from people, and follow the people around sucking and licking them (I know there is milk there somewhere). In the field, we take them a milk bar with fifty teats on it. They chase after it, barging their way to the teats. Everyone settled? Go over there, there are teats to spare. Soon everyone is sucking and slurping, tails waggling. Everyone’s tummies full? Good. All done, drive the milk bar out, closing the gate just in time to stop them chasing after it. Calves sit down for a sleep and digest. Up for a stretch and make room for what they’ve just consumed. In the evening comes playtime: tag, leaping, jumping, playfighting. Turn up and they’ll chase you just for the fun of it.
When we meet these girls two years later in the milking parlour, how we’ve treated them becomes clear. They just calved, they are feeling battered from calving, and their udders are full (anyone who has had a baby will recognize all of that). Now they come into the milking parlour, and we propose to put a milking machine on them. Ok, we distracted them with a tasty bit of cake, and nevertheless they are expecting a calf to suckle, and they get rubber liners sucking and letting go. Will they flail out, kick the machine off, kick the person whose face is at hoof level? Or will they trust you just long enough to feel the relief the milking machine brings? In the main, quiet words, a gentle stroke, and they are quiet. One or two, perhaps with some feisty Montbeliarde breeding may decide to take a pop, and we can’t blame them for that. Back out in the field, and everyone can be friends. Sit down and everyone comes for a chat and work out how you change shape like that.
October’s milk is good, still plenty of grass. We are making cheese for next year, and we hope all the upheavals of Brexit and US trade tariffs will continue to allow us to provide the riches of our landscape out to other parts of the world.
Breeding the cows, growing the grass, making the cheese, tending it in-store, letting time and care do its alchemy, turning grass into something delicious for us to share across the world: that’s our game. So we work on, assuming all the links in the chain will work for it to find its way onto plates across the world.