It has been over a month since my last blog. February is now behind us and the evenings are becoming that little bit lighter. The routines carry on, feeding the five Highland calves in the shed, filling the rings with haylage for the rest of the fold out in the fields, checking the Portland sheep, especially the ewes, with lambing getting closer.
In the middle of the month we collected the second young ram we hired out to Kingston Maurwood College, where they keep a flock of Portlands. He was very popular with all the students and well taken care of. Once home he joined in with my other rams with very little head banging.
We had our television debut on the 23rd! Last summer’s filming here and at the Melplash Show appeared on an episode of ‘The Farmers Country Showdown’ series on BBC One. Our Portlands looked lovely, but I didn’t like seeing myself! We have has lots of positive feedback and I was even recognised by the man taking my credit card when I got fuel for the Land Rover.
The dreaded TB testing, scheduled at the end of February, is always in the back of my mind through the month. We gather the cattle into the two fields adjacent to our handling area. Then each group is brought in, run down the race, into the crush. Mary the vet trims the hair, takes a skin measurement and then they get two jabs. As my fold of highlands is in a premier health scheme, they also get blood taken. Not easy! Tail lifted, needle stuck up into the vein running along the inside of the tail, all the time cow trying to pull away. The bloods are checked for certain diseases and I continue to have a clean record.
My poor little white calf, an unexpected surprise born in September, has been doing so well with all the big ones. He was too young to wean and spend winter in the shed with the other five calves. But the poor thing was knocked in the race and emerged in the cattle crush with a bloody head. His little horn was badly bumped. The vet attended to him and.applied antibiotics. His mum then licked and cleaned him up and he is fine. But the cattle never like this process and I just wish the fanatic ‘badgerists’ would understand that badgers also suffer from TB as their population has exploded. Farmers do not want all badgers exterminated, just controlled. And it should also be noted that the dwindling hedgehog population is making a comeback in badger cull areas. Save the hedgehog and continue the cull!
Three days later the cattle are all checked for a reaction. A worrying time and it was blowing with heavy rain so the cattle were reluctant to cooperate but we got through the whole ordeal with no positive reaction and all clear.
A puppy arrived! Archie found a very good gun dog breeder and an eight week old Black Labrador has joined the family. He is gorgeous of course but I forgot how much work is involved in a new puppy…still haven’t quite sorted the potty training.
The days are beginning to feel that little bit longer now, no longer dark at 4.30 in the afternoon. January drags on as it always does, definitely not my favourite month of the year.
My two stock rams have finished their time servicing the ewes. I removed Shurper and Sirius from the ewes and then put them together in a small pen for several hours to sort themselves out. They push and shove each other for a while but emerge friends. If I didn’t shut them up together first they might really hurt each other. In a small pen neither can get a running start to bash their horns together and do serious damage.
I also have two shearling rams who were hired out to other Portland flocks. One has returned so I repeated the process. The three were stuck together again in the pen. The young ram would have been attacked by the older two as he had the smell of ewes all over him. They sorted themselves relatively peacefully.
The twenty nine ewes, hopefully all in-lamb, are together in Holes ground. I visit everyday to make sure they are all okay and will start feeding them closer to lambing time in April. Right now the grass is enough for them. There is occasionally the dirty bum or lameness and I try to attend as quickly as possible so no serious problems develop. Today a ewe needed her feet trimmed so I made her pose with me! (note my very attractive hi-vis fleece) I cannot always ‘turn’ a sheep, some are too difficult but she cooperated and I put her on her bum, leaning against my legs so I could reach down with the feet trimmer to snip away the problem.
Very sadly, we lost our lovely Fletch on the 4th of January. He was our ‘rescue’ dog. We kept him temporarily when his owner, Richard, went away for two months, and Fletch never left us. At the local dog show Archie entered Fletch in the rescue dog class for a laugh. Richard was not always the most attentive owner and Fletch was well known by all the local farmers because he often ended up in their houses. As we all watched the dog show judging, Archie realised he was in a bit of trouble. The judge interviewed each rescue dog owner, who related traumatic tales of suffering and rescue. Archie hesitated and then did a brilliant job of stretching the truth. Poor Fletch was twice run over by the owner…actually it was three times! He was abandoned…Fletch did spend many hours waiting for his previous owner to emerge from a late night out. Archie and Fletch were awarded third prize which hangs proudly amongst the sheep ribbons. He was a lovely gentle dog, who would smile when he was paid attention. We made sure he smiled lots.
Things have calmed down since my last blog in November and the winter routines are well underway. The weather, though, is not cooperating. It has far too warm and damp all through December.
The ewes have all been marked with a red or blue backside, so early in the new year we can take away the rams. The five calves in the shed have settled down into their routine, looking forward to their daily bucket of nuts. Archie is handling them as much as possible, grabbing them by their horns for a little wrestle, and they are getting very used to him.
The rest of the cattle are in two fields with feed rings. About every three days they are delivered a fresh bale of haylage. Our beef sales have gone well, there is little of the last steer left in the freezer. And we busy delivering several trailer loads of our seasoned logs every week. So the farm is ending the year in a good place.
Last Sunday at Nine Lessons and Carols I heard again the story of those poor shepherds, no doubt frightened out of their wits by a host of angels singing! I am sure those angels must have promised to stay and watch their flocks before the shepherds abandoned them to go see the baby.
God’s son born in a stable, maybe not the nicest place. But they would have kept it warm, and really, they don’t smell so terrible either. The baby was surrounded by lovely beasts that give us wool to keep us warm, and milk and meat.
By C.S. Lewis
Among the oxen (like an ox I’m slow)
I see a glory in the stable grow
Which, with the ox’s dullness might at length
Give me an ox’s strength.
Among the asses (stubborn I as they)
I see my Saviour where I looked for hay;
So may my beastlike folly learn at least
The patience of a beast.
Among the sheep (I like a sheep have strayed)
I watch the manger where my Lord is laid;
Oh that my baa-ing nature would win thence
Some woolly innocence!
Merry Christmas and a Happy and healthy New Year to you!
The ewes and rams are settled in and Sirius and Shurper are hard at work, plenty of red bums appearing. Last week on my way down to the sheep for the daily check I came across a very unexpected sight. There were the seven black Hebrideans trotting towards me on the bridleway. They were as surprised to see me as I was them.
Luckily Archie was with me in the Polaris ranger so we very slowly continued forward and they turned around. Before we knew it they shot off the bridleway cutting through a hedgerow and up toward the beehives and freedom on Lewesdon Hill. Archie jumped out and cut them off in the nick of time. I went ahead and opened a gate into the pond area which leads in to the woods. It was a miracle we were able to guide them on through. How did they escape? Not my fault! We discovered an unlatched gate, where Dan had left them a trough with some sheep nuts. It now has a chain for extra security.
The Highland calves were born in April (excepting the white calf ‘accidentally’ appearing in September) and November is weaning month. We called two mums and calves into the holding area, separated them and loaded the cows onto the trailer. One cow is old and I don’t want to breed with her again. The other has been a very indifferent mother (rare with Highlands), has small teats and small calves. She will be culled and become mince and sausages, on the recommendation of my butcher. The older will be culled and probably become dog food. The life and death of a Highland cow. I remind myself of the decent life they have lived, and that I am a farmer and a carnivore.
Next day we gathered in the other three seven month old calves, walked their mothers back to a far field, and borrowed a pair of electric cattle clippers from our dairy farming neighbours. Although their winter shed is open on one side and very well ventilated, the calves still get sweaty. Archie became a barber and snipped a nice wide band of hair from the middle of their backs. Although held in a the cattle crush, the calves behaved very badly and one almost managed to leap out. So we were very pleased to finally get them settled in the shed.
All night long I heard the mooing and moaning, calves calling for their mums and mums calling back, the quiet night carrying their voices. I did feel very badly for them all…until the following morning. Archie and I had begun the annual apple juice production (eighty two bottles so far) when we looked up from the barn to see Morag strutting down the bridleway heading for the calf shed. As the heavens opened with freezing rain we forced her into a turn-about and whacked, pushed and shoved her all the way back into the field.
Archie found the spot where she had jumped over the fence onto the bridleway and promptly reinforced it. We do have very good fencing, but if a cow really wants to, she can jump over a very high barrier. At about two in the morning I heard mooing outside my bedroom window. There were three unhappy cows in the field by the house. My Highlands had become Show Jumpers! For whatever reason, they become rather defeated in this field, spent the next day bawling, and agreeably walked back to their proper home the following morning. Calves quieted and peace was restored and I hope I never have a weaning episode like this again.
A few days later we had very heavy rains, apparently rainfall for the month in less than 48 hours. Rivers of water poured down the bridleway. The next morning I went to check the stock as usual and there on the bridleway were five steers! They had been in a field at the very far end of the farm, up by the top of Lewesdon Hill. We think they got spooked by the ferocious winds and rain and five jumped a fence. They stopped and settled on the bridleway by another field of Highlands, hoping to join them I guess. As they were due to be moved soon, that is just what we let them do. Later we collected the other five better behaved boys and walked them to their winter field. The cattle rings are now filled with bales of haylage and all is calm.
Dan’s seven Hebridean sheep were purchased to live in his woodland. Instead they have been in a field behind the barn, living it up, as Dan has been giving them sheep nuts to ‘tame’ them. Dan is away and Archie and I decided it was time to move them to their proper home. The bribing did not work! They were crazy, almost impossible to pen. Twice we managed to catch them and some jumped over the hurdles and out! Very frustrating, but on the third attempt we managed to squeeze the hurdles around them in a tight little bundle. They did try to climb over each other but with a channel running up to the trailer we quickly loaded them up. They are settling into the woodland, and easy to spot with their black coats.
The two rams will soon be introduced to the twenty nine ewes, “tupping” season. The ewes have been on good grazing, getting in top condition for pregnancy. On Wednesday I gathered them all in to give them a careful inspection and then Archie, Matt and I set about doing their feet. Foot trimming is necessary, as the hoof grows, a bit like human fingernails, and must be cut back. If you ever see a sheep kneeling on his front legs while eating grass, he is not praying. Or he might be praying that the shepherd comes and trims his sore feet!
We also trimmed the lamb’s feet, the wethers (castrated males) and the rams. A long morning and a rather sore back from leaning over. Some of the lambs needed worming, the rest of the flock did not, so another job completed. We loaded up the lambs and put them all together, except for the two ram lambs staying with the big boys.
Late last week we gathered in the twenty nine ewes. Archie loves the new race we bought for sheep handling. They run through the race and with a small swinging gate can then be separated into two pens. I had my clipboard all ready with ewe tag numbers listed and marked left or right, thirteen in one pen, sixteen in another. There is not a terribly large population of Portlands, so we must be very careful about inbreeding. Luckily our Breed Group has a very smart piece of kit, computer software that compares the relationship between rams and ewes. This Kinship Analysis is vital at tupping time, and ewes are allocated to the ram they are least related to.
Next we loaded them into our little sheep trailer and transported each group to different fields. Now for the rams. ‘Raddles' were clipped on, each holding a big red crayon. I will know when Shurper or Sirius have serviced a ewe when I see a red patch on the ewe’s back end.
Time for mutton sausage making! We allowed the carcass, prepared last week, to hang for six days. Matt, a trained butcher was in charge and Archie and I were his enthusiastic apprentices.
We set up our work station with mincer and sausage making machine. All of the meat was minced, only saving a shoulder for a mutton tagine I’ll be make for the weekend. I had spices, herbs and dried fruit flavourings and we made Merguez and Moroccan Spice sausages. The mutton is perfect for richer spicy flavour. And they are delicious!
Time again to call the cows and calves into the holding pen. We separated Primrose and her heifer calf and the six bull calves, and released the other mums. I dread the autumn task of castrating bull calves. And I have sold Primrose and her calf. It is a legal requirement to get cattle TB tested before they can be moved off a farm. I also wanted to be sure she was in-calf so needed her scanned. The vet came on Monday and would return on Thursday to check TB results.
They six calves each entered the crush as a Bull and departed as a Steer! Never an easy job for the vet or us. The calves are very frisky and can nail you with a back kick right in the shin. The vet must get behind, the tail is pulled up, she injects painkiller and then with a quick slice she cuts out the testicles. Archie was a huge help this time, and Pam, the vet, was brilliant. We ended up sedating a few, calming them down, and it made the procedure much less painful for all of us.
It is possible to ring them within a week of birth, a tight rubber band goes over and around and slowly squeezes the life out. It is quite tricky to catch the little balls as they pop up inside the body while holding down a strong young calf, and I’m not confident that we can do it correctly. Maybe next year I’ll ask for assistance from a fellow cattle farmer.
Pam scanned Primrose, with a positive result, and TB test results were negative, so Primrose and the calf were ready for collection. Yesterday we called them back into the holding pen with the usual bucket shaking, and the buyer arrived to collect them. Off they went to a new home in Devon.
A new Portland ram arrived last week, very late in an evening. Archie got a late start, had a three hour drive to West Sussex which turned into a traffic jam on the M25 and a 5 hour drive. Southover Sirius arrived in good form and in the morning was busy grazing and getting used to his new home. It is good practice to isolate a new arrival on the farm so he will be on his own for a couple of weeks, then straight to the ewes to ‘work’, a job rams clearly enjoy!
Yesterday my ram, Bemborough, departed for a new home. He is a good Portland ram and has produced a good number of Portland offspring. He will now service some bigger ewes, not Portlands, Size doesn't matter too much with rams, I'm sure he will be up for the task. He is going to be used by two smallholders, in the hope of producing slightly smaller lambs.
And the final departure is a little sad, but part of farming life. My oldest ewe, age 9, was ‘dispatched’ a couple of days ago by Archie and his good friend, George. George is fully licensed and very experienced, and the ewe was killed humanely. It is legal to do this on the farm as long as we consume the meat ourselves, not sell it to the general public. (Usually I send them off to the abattoir and they are butchered there). I caught her in the evening, we popped her in the shed and then very quickly she was dispatched. We are not being cruel or heartless but have raised this animal and she has had a good life. The carcass will hang in our cool room for about eight days, and then we’ll be sausage making next week, all about that in the next blog.
It has been a busy time since the little white calf was born. I flew to New York for a much planned reunion - 60th birthday year - with my best friends from university days. We spent our time together in the Hamptons on Long Island, visiting wineries, eating, drinking and laughing. We are now planning to reunite much more often!
While I was away the calf got Flystrike. This is very nasty, sometimes occurring in sheep, but we have always treated in the early summer to prevent it happening. The weather turned quite warm in mid September, blowflies hatched and became attracted to my calf. The flies lay eggs near the back end of the animal by any poo bits, the eggs hatch and the maggots hatch and eat into the flesh. Horrible. Dan noticed it right away, as the calf was flicking his tail constantly at the irritation. Treatment was applied and maggots are gone. His back end has been covered in Iodine so the calf is now white with a yellowish rear. I am calling him ‘Fried Egg’. He is happy and healthy and we have learned a valuable lesson.
My biggest steer was set off to the abattoir last week. He was 3 and a half years old, with the longest horns ever. The horns on a steer grow any which way after they are castrated. Sometimes they turn up and look like a cow’s horns, very symmetrical. Other times they shoot off in different directions, one up, one down. When we were in Scotland the abattoirs refused to accept horned animals so we had to dehorn them when young. I did not like doing this as their horns are very much part of their character. Our abattoir is local and small and we are grateful they have no such policy. The carcass will hang for about 25 days, so we’ll have beef to sell in a few weeks.
There has been much to and fro-ing with the cattle and the sheep in the last couple of weeks. The bridleway has been a cattle highway, to the surprise of a few walkers. We have to block their path temporarily but they usually enjoy seeing the cattle saunter down the lane. I have to think about where the livestock will be for winter grazing, making sure of course that the bull is kept away from the heifers.
The rams will join the ewes in early November for ‘tupping’, and the ewes are in ‘flushing’ stage, that is, getting them in tip top condition on best grass to promote fertility. We moved the two ram lambs into the field with my four other rams and thankfully they were not bullied.
On top of all the farming activity, our holiday cottage building project is now underway. I’m the reluctant project manager. More about that next time.
Dan and I went up to Melton Mowbray for the annual Rare Breed Survival Trust Show and Sale. We hoped to buy a few more Portland shearling ewes to add to the flock. We arrived home…with two Hebridean Sheep!
Hebridean Sheep are the ultimate conservation grazer. They thrive on tough grass, weeds, etc. The breed is used around the UK on many conservation programs. They will suit our woodlands perfectly. And although Dan is calling them HIS sheep, I will look after them, as per norm. I wasn’t so keen at first, but they are certainly growing on me. They are curious sheep, very bright and alert and such a contrast in colour to my creamy white Portlands. And they rather suit the farm, with my other Scottish livestock, the Highland cattle.
If that was not enough of a surprise, we woke up on Sunday morning to find a NEW calf! Whoops, only five months later than the other calves. She was born to Karen, my elderly cow, who was actually destined for burgers and sausages in just a couple of weeks. I did not think Karen was in calf. Clearly I was mistaken. She has always had bull calves and this was no exception. This little boy is pretty and very white, with a pinkish nose and lovely dark eyes.
He hadn’t been long in this world when we spotted him and saw we needed to get get cow and calf moved to another field. The steers were being overly inquisitive and began batting him around a bit. I was able to coax Karen and her calf onto the bridleway and we walked them all the way down to the field with the handling pen. The two settled in quickly but the bull calf was not sucking. He tried and tried but as mum’s teat were hanging very low he couldn’t latch on. So later that afternoon we got Karen into the crush and shoved him on. It took a little while, some struggling (the calf) and swearing (me). But it worked and he actually fell asleep as he sucked. Full belly and happy calf.
That is enough surprises for now.
If you have been following my stories you will know that Dan’s bees and I are not the best of friends. They were relegated to the far end of the farm last autumn, after they took turns stinging me through the summer months.
But all is forgiven! We have our first batch of beautiful honey, 26 one pound jars in total. Dan has been a busy bee himself!
Dan has five hives but only two made honey. The others were either weak or had badly behaved Queens or some such problem. This has been a difficult year for bees and some of his expert beekeeping friends had a smaller crop of honey than expected.
Dan collected the special frames in the hives where honey has been left. The bees make wax which seals the honey in. He had a special ‘knife’ which he scraped along the surface of the frame to take away the wax. (The wax is saved).He then placed the frames in a honey extractor. The extractor spins round and round and all the honey drains to the bottom of the extractor. He then strained the honey into another container. Jars ready, tap open, and the honey flowed in and filled up the jars. I stuck on the personalised labels which I ordered from a bee equipment company. They look beautiful and the honey is lovely. Dan says next year he and the bees will triple the harvest!
The week before the Melplash Show is always hectic. Melplash is our local agricultural show and our favourite. It isn’t only about showing the sheep, it is an occasion where friends and neighbours come out to see us, too.
And this year preparation was a bit more hectic because we had a film crew accompanying us. A film company got in touch with me a few weeks ago and asked if they could spend a day on the farm and then follow us around Melplash Show. They are making a series of programmes, showing different aspects of farming life. I had to keep this all secret and I’m not sure I should be mentioning now. But the film crew were certainly seen by people at the show. They were a lovely bunch and worked very hard. I am sure the sound man had to have several beers at the end of the day, if only to forget the constant babbling he had to hear all day. I had a microphone attached and must have driven him crazy.
The programmes are scheduled for sometime in 2017. I simply hope they will show the viewers West Dorset is a beautiful place and farmers here care passionately for the landscape and their livestock.
We received a First for our Ram Lamb and a Third in the Group of Three. The best award of the day was winning the Best Small Farm for Conservation. We received a cup at the main ring, presented by the President of the Melplash Agricultural Society. All very satisfying!
Jo Stover has daily adventures on her small farm, together with her Highland cattle and Portland sheep, bees, a few hens, dogs, and some two-legged family and friends.