Our new arrival!

Our new arrival!

Pedigree Lleyn ram

“This blog is the unfolding story of Rush Farm and an exploration of life by its philosopher farmer.”

The new word for the week is ‘turducken’ – clue: north American version of ‘gooducken’! 

Sometimes, when faced with writing these notes, I feel a degree of admiration for the writers of the ‘Archers’ who churn out scripts day in and day out, and then I remind myself they can always fall back on personal dramas.  

Sat facing the computer towards the end of the week I often fear that I am going to have no farm news to share.  

This week that has not been the case. For a start came the news that Tim’s mother was back at home after a bumpy time in hospital. We have met his mother several times when visiting her Red House plant nursery, something which, with the support of daughters continues in a small way. Mrs Weaver is a true plants woman, and her nursery was the place to go to find plants that were not stocked in more commercial enterprises – sadly here I am talking about a period for us long gone.  

On the farm, again at the start of the week, we welcomed the arrival of our new pedigree Lleyn ram, and then on Thursday the arrival of a new male calf.

The week also saw the departure of two of the three remaining puppies. So now it is only four dogs that tear around the gardens. In between whiles, life on the farm was pretty quiet and routine – certainly a matter not to complain about. 

Record keeping for the sheep is quite different from that for cattle. I have to maintain a flock register in which to enter movements on and off the farm whether live or dead. Movement of animals requires additional paperwork, all of which has to be kept for inspection at any time.  

As we are organic there are in fact two forms to complete. For dead animals the requirement is that the body is moved as quickly as is possible, to an authorised reception site, which inevitably requires yet another form called appropriately ‘Fallen Stock’. All this has to be available both for formal inspections, and ‘drop in’ visits by the local authority. Finally, once a year, on the 1st December I must submit a form showing what sheep were on the farm on that day. 

Incidentally, dead animals may not be buried on the farm as would have been the case historically. All part of the safeguarding process against the spread of diseases.  

All this is understandable given the ever-present fear of ‘foot and mouth’ disease.  

The problem obviously is no different from all such procedures; the majority of us conform and follow procedures, and should we bring fresh stock into the farm are wary of our purchases. However, there is always a minority who chance their luck.  

With the cattle, the system is less paper driven, and in most ways far simpler, given the use of cattle passports. These are issued by the computerised Cattle Movement System, and in theory at least make sure that a reoccurrence of an illness such as Mad Cow Disease cannot have the ghastly consequences of that outbreak.  

The passports show the registration number of bull and cow, date of birth and gender of calf, and require additional signatures as and when the animal is moved. One would like to believe it is fool proof.   

Cattle, as do sheep, additionally must be tagged in both ears. Indeed, if on inspection a tag is missing, trouble can follow. The reality is that ear tags, unlike more primitive systems such as branding, can be too easily lost. When this happens with a cow, identifying the missing tag details is a lot easier than with a sheep. Indeed, in the Flock Register there are sheets to list retagged animals – easier said than done!  

Pure Hereford cattle, as is rather too well known, put on weight very easily. Of course, 200 years ago fat was not regarded with the horror it is today. But then of course there was no central heating, and physical activity was not about attending a gym. But though fat is vital in at least two respects, taste and health, it was only in the last century that it was found that for Arctic and Antarctic explorers, survival chances were much reduced if they only eat the red meat from killed seals; And fat is no longer welcomed by meat consumers, despite its role in taste. Part of the reason for that may simply be that we no longer need the calories. Another health reason may be that we know animal fat carries the chemicals on which the beast has been fed. One of the many reasons for eating organically raised meat perhaps…  

This natural habit of the Hereford to grow fat is of course why, two years ago we decided one winter to rely on organic straw as the main feed for our young stock. It was an error we have not repeated. These last weeks have seen a great exchange on the Pasture Web site on the feeding of straw, probably as a result of its very high current price, about its use for feeding, indoors and outdoors, and as a bedding material.  

As regards its use for feeding, it seems as if there is universal agreement that this is not a good practice, but if adopted for dry cows or ‘stores’, requires both straw from the correct cereal, and additionally high protein supplements. Wheat straw it appears, is the least nutritious, worse even than that from barley. All in all, not the best way to get cattle to lose weight or maintain growth.  

The discussion on bedding has been even more interesting. Among the cheaper options are the use of pea haulm, bracken, wood chip and sand. The latter really caught my fancy, but it seems an approach only used in the South-West of the country where the sand used comes from beaches. Used in this part of the world it would obviously have to be the coarsest sand available, and though our clay soil might benefit, sand has such obvious disadvantages as to rule out its use. Bracken and pea haulm are certainly not locally available, and we got our fingers burnt a few years ago with wood chip which we discovered came from furniture and contained a variety of toxins and certainly could not be used as bedding.  

So, at the end of the day, straw it has to be, in as early as possible when prices are lowest, as it has to be brought in – hence the need for the additional barn because wet straw is not good for man or beast.  

At the moment our existing barn is full of the stuff, and the cattle must stay out until the straw can be rehoused. The current date for the new barn’s build looks like being the 26th of this month.  

As to feeding outdoor, generally the argument is between those who use ring feeders and those who unroll feed from bales on the ground; the general consensus was that ring feeders are a bad thing: waste, poaching and limited access. We do have the odd ring feeder, but their use is limited. At lambing time, they may be used in the barn. Otherwise we rely on feed trailers which are most often used in the barn for the cattle. Their advantage to us that, given the way we have gated the barn, is that when empty they can be withdrawn, refilled and then put back in place. Moreover, the number of cattle that can eat at the same time from either side reduces tensions, and when you keep horned animals that is rather important.

The meaning of ‘exponential’

This week brought the series of ‘More or Less’ to an end for this year. However, the programme did tackle a word all too often misused. That word is ‘exponential’. I suppose it is possible that this is because the users have never had to think through how compound interest works. The use of the word as commonly experienced is simply incorrect and misleading.  

One disadvantage that most of us suffer from is that probability and statistics did not figure prominently in the education we were offered and, if they did, seem to have rarely been taught well. At a time when on a daily basis we get bombarded with figures and interpretations which are too frequently suspect, I think there is a clear need for better clarity from the presenters of the data, on the criteria they are using, and at the simplest level, whether figures relate to the mean or medium, while risk requires a much more realistic assessment.  

In fairness, probability is rather more complex than the notion; if I toss a coin 100 times, the number of times it comes up heads should be 50 but it does have a rational which we all can grasp.  

Trees and disease

After elm disease, and then acute oak decline, the country is, it seems now suffering badly from Ash Tree dieback. On the farm, if this visits us, things will look very different.  

The elm trees seem unable to grow above 12 feet high, our horse chestnut trees are dying, so far, the oak trees seem unaffected, but who can know what the future holds.

Epidemics

Perhaps the only thing we can be certain of is that global mobility has its pluses and minuses. It seems that many epidemics that have affected Europe come from a mountainous area in Central Asia. The Romans endured the first great plague in the sixth century which on the evidence now known, seems undoubtedly from Central Asia.  

However, to imagine Europeans have not played their part is quite untenable. Countless lives were lost as a result of European explorers and colonists – not only through genocidal approaches, but far more by bringing diseases to people who had no natural immunity. So, it is with our trees and other vegetation collected historically for hundreds of years, but now imported in vast numbers from far flung parts of the world carrying who knows what with them.  

Some countries recognised the problem years ago and took what action they could to prevent this importation.  

Frosty pockets

The frost of last week struck Britain’s only variety of maple tree, the field maple, leaving their leaves coloured varieties of red while other trees showed leaves of yellow brown. But the frost was uneven, and within a couple of miles the same kind of tree was still displaying green leaves. But autumn is definitely now here and that is an inescapable reality, though its nature seems quite unpredictable. 

Clive James and poetry

A new anthology of poetry to be ‘perhaps learnt by heart and read aloud’ came from Clive James and one of his daughters. Described as containing 80 or so poems, it is not for solidly reading through. The choice reflects the man. Clive James was a master wordsmith, a witty and perceptive chronicler of television programmes, writing and human nature. In his last years he turned to his first love poetry. A great man in so many ways, undone eventually, sadly by the self-destruct button that seems to be attached to fame and the lures of a hedonistic lifestyle.  

His last ten years, suffering from a host of ailments, left us with some great poetry. I have deliberately not chosen one of the most moving of these ‘The Japanese Maple’. 

English poetry is chock full of brilliant poems about autumn, and the choice is between the well known and loved in England, and those from other ‘English speaking countries’. I have picked on one that I was unfamiliar with called ‘Fall, leaves, fall’, Unfamiliar with probably because I have never enjoyed the writing of the sisters Bronte!

Fall, leaves, fall by Emily Brontë    

Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;  
Lengthen night and shorten day;  
Every leaf speaks bliss to me  
Fluttering from the autumn tree.  
I shall smile when wreaths of snow  
Blossom where the rose should grow;  
I shall sing when night’s decay  
Ushers in a drearier day.  

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