The grass really is growing, but our patchwork fields means that growth is far from uniform. The animals need to be moved almost daily to take advantage of new grass without overgrazing. It is a busy time. So, after a long days work yesterday, and with the weather still smiling on us, it was lovely to take a relaxing stroll around the orchard.
The orchard was one of our first projects when we first moved to Wenallt. We were lucky enough to be able to buy trees from Ian Sturrock and Sons, a grower in North Wales who specialise in rare, old Welsh fruit varieties with exotic names such as ‘Pig’s Skin’ and ‘Goose’s Beak’. The orchard is also bit of an experiment in silvopasture as we graze the grass underneath (keeping a close eye to make sure nothing escapes to have a nibble on the trees themselves).
We brought the cows back to the main holding yesterday. This usually means an early start to avoid there being too many vehicles on the road. Traffic obviously wasn’t so much of an issue this time around and we had them home by lunchtime rather than before breakfast. We have never yet had any serious mishaps, but with herding livestock on a public highway this is always a very real possibility. We always breathe a sigh of a relief when they are back ‘home’ again.
Although the fields are greening up nicely, the cattle are back to bale grazing. We have a few more to use up and it is good to return the fertility to the soil.
We also have some new arrivals to the holding – a pair of Middle White weaners, on temporary loan. The pigs have moved into the cow shed, where the cows spent the winter, and are they are busy turning the deep litter bed. They enjoy rooting and digging, and as they do so they speed up the decomposition of the muck. This means that it will be more easily incorporated back into the soil once it is spread after haymaking. Using piggy power rather than our rather elderly, diesel guzzling, John Deere is much better for the environment and much more entertaining to watch.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that we were in the grip of cold, wet, muddy, sludgy winter. All of a sudden it is Easter weekend, and we are preparing for a summer crop of haylage to be taken from our two traditional haymeadows.
The cows have grazed about as much as we want them to take from the marsh and early yesterday morning we opened the gate to let them through into the adjacent lower hayfield. The ground is less wet in this field and the pasture here is all lush and green. As I stand here in the warm spring weather I imagine I can almost see it growing. Under the terms of our Glastir contract we don’t take a crop from the haymeadows until mid July. If not grazed off now, this crop would mature too soon. The resulting overblown pasture, when made into haylage, would be less nutritious.
At the other end of the holding, the sheep are similarly engaged in grazing the top haymeadow. It is a bit of a long round trip, but in the glorious weather a thrice daily stock check is no chore.
We do spend a lot of time on our holding setting up electric fences and moving animals from one enclosure to another. This micro-management system of grazing is aimed at optimising both the animals’ nutrition and the healthy growth of the grass and other pasture plants without the need for costly inputs of fertilisers or weedkillers. Sometimes DH and I seem to spend all our spare time playing with fence wire. But not always.
It didn’t take the cows long to finish the pasture in the side field. Spring is here, but a lot of the grass is still short in most places, fine for our micro flock of sheep but not for cows. So this weekend seemed like the perfect time to try out bale grazing in one of our poorer fields.
Bale grazing basically means allowing animals in a field to eat directly from the bale of hay or haylage. Sometimes you can unroll the bale, or just dump it on the ground. The idea is that the animals will eat some of the bale and spread and trample the rest around where it will eventually rot down, improving the organic content of the soil. In the meantime the scattered haylage provides a nice mulch for the grass seeds that hopefully you remembered to sprinkle over your field beforehand!
The field we selected for the experiment was once part of a coal mine. The underlying geology of the coal outcrops means that areas of heavy clay sit next to shaley sections, you can see the evidence on the surface with the differences in vegetation.
We selected a relatively small area which we marked out with an electric fence. It is a low lying part of the field and the heavy clay means drainage is poor. What little grass is there is very short, stunted after months of the soil being effectively waterlogged.
We tried unrolling the first bale, but we weren’t able to spread it out as far as we would have hoped. Subsequent bales have just been unwrapped and left in the enclosure. The cattle seemed to enjoy the intact bales more, pushing and rubbing against them and flinging clumps of haylage about with their curved horns.
They have made quite an impact only in a short time, and we’ll see the improvement in later years.
The Shetlands are finally out to grass. The wet Welsh winters and our heavy clay soil means that, although some Shetlands live happily outside all year round, we prefer to keep our cattle inside over winter. They are still pasture fed, preserved in the form of a haylage crop taken from our hay fields in the summer. It was beginning to feel like a very long winter but suddenly, miraculously, we had a few days of warm sun and it was finally time to let the cows out again.
In late afternoon we ran the cattle out from the barn, down the lane and into a small field near the house. Thankfully, although obviously very excited to be outside again they remembered the drill. They quickly settled down to their first taste of fresh green pasture in more than 5 months.
For our small herd (8 head) a 1/3 ha field was too large for effective grazing so we split the field in half with an electric fence. After 36 hours they were moved into the second half of the field.