Farming in winter at Lower Hurst
Despite the cold, wet and fog, Farmers are frantically busy at this time of year. Lower Hurst sits on the banks of the River Dove on clay soil, which means during the winter months the ground gets too wet to leave the cattle outside, so we bring them in. This protects the cow’s feet from being constantly cold and wet, it also protects the soil- avoiding damage to the grasses and plants, and loss of topsoil caused by sharp cattle hooves.
Because our cows are in, they are utterly dependent on us for all their needs. First thing every morning the passage ways in the sheds are scraped clean of manure so the cow’s feet stay clean while they are eating, then they are fed fresh silage. Silage is preserved grass, it was cut from our organic pastures last summer and baled. These bales are then wrapped in plastic- you often see them in fields before they are picked up. The plastic serves two purposes, the first is to exclude the oxygen so the grass ferments and doesn’t rot, the second is to protect from the elements and birds so the food is in perfect condition when it is opened months later. This method of forage production also keeps moisture, protein and sugar within the grass so the cows don’t lose any weight over winter. Once unwrapped the plastic is sent for recycling- nothing is wasted.
Our 150 animals consume roughly two tonnes of silage a day- which is why we use a tractor and feeder to distribute it!
After the cows have been fed we add fresh straw to their beds. We also use a machine for this which chops and blows the clean straw in an even layer into the sheds. The cows stay clean and dry, wherever they choose to lay.
This day to day routine takes 2-3 hours every morning and allows our herd manager the chance to look at each animal; a great way to spot any subtle behaviour changes- a precursor for ill health, the start of calving, or coming into season, (known as bulling) to name but a few.
January and February are when are bulls are put to work on our autumn calving cows. We have two pedigree Hereford bulls, each capable of serving up to 50 cows, but we don’t work them that hard! The bulls; Liberty and Lincoln, went in on the 7th January and we allow them five-six weeks with the cows. This management approach means that in 9 months’ time the cows should calve in a five/six week block. It aids management at the time of calving, reducing the number of sleepless nights, and means that the calves will grow up together, be weaned together and learn to be unruly teenagers together. Cows form strong bonds with up to 30 herd members, so keeping the groups together throughout their time on the farm is a great way to manage them, it reduces stress, which in turn reduces the incidence of disease. It’s a holistic way of managing cows that is very common on organic farms like ours. Prevention is always better than cure.
The block bulling period (the time bulls are running with the cows) also helps identify those cows that have dubious fertility. We bull the cows twice a year, once in Jan/Feb to produce autumn calves born in October, and then in June/July to produce spring calves born in March. The cows are given two opportunities to get in calf, if when pregnancy scanned they are still ‘empty’ they are sold. This sounds harsh but feeding a cow that hasn’t produced a calf for a year (after two bulling attempts) is not economically viable on a small farm. Most farms adopt this principle. Because we are organic we cannot give hormone treatment (and nor would we want to), if cows can’t conceive they must go, which can be a real wrench, but farming is a business, albeit an organic, compassionate one.