Ever used the phrase ‘make hay while the sun shines’? Well, at this time of year, every farmer wanting to secure their own supply of hay will be praying that the sun is getting ready to put his hat on.
When making hay, you allow the grass to run to seed and flower. It needs to be much more mature than grass for silage (preserved fodder for feeding the animals in winter), mainly because, in this case, you don’t want it to ferment. This time you want it to dry.
And that’s where the sun comes in. After you’ve cut your grass, you spread it out so that it will dry in the fields in the summer sunshine. You need to keep your eye on the Countryfile forecast though, because you need three or four days of gloriously weather so that the hay dries completely. Even a spot of rain can spoil the grass and reduce the quality of your hay. Get it right and you don’t even need to wrap it in plastic. It’ll be so dry that once baled, it can be stored for a year or more.
Of course, the last couple of years have brought some of the wettest summers in recent history. In 2009, we planned to produce a couple of hundred acres of hay. And then the rain came. We ended up having to turn two-thirds of it into silage because it had got so wet.
That’s all very well, but silage costs more thanks to all that plastic you have to wrap it in. Not only have you got to pay for the plastic in the first place, but you’ve also got to fork out for it to be sent off for recycling afterwards. Gone are the days when you’d bury or burn whole heaps of the black or green plastic. That’s now illegal, and rightly so, but we have been left with piles of it all over the farm that we need to send off to be processed. So everyone is crossing their fingers this year in the hope that we may actually get that promised barbeque summer.
Before we move on to the other big job that I have to undertake in July, I think it’s worth pointing out one thing. A lot of people confuse hay with straw, but they are two completely different things. Straw is a byproduct of harvest. It’s what is left when the grain has been thrashed out of your wheat or barley. It is used for bedding or – at a push – poor quality feed. Hay, on the other hand, is high-quality feed, which is why you want it to be just right.
Lambs to slaughter
Talking of feed, the last few months will have seen us fattening up the lambs that were born in March and April, and we’ll now start selecting the best animals for slaughter. We’re on the look out for sheep that weigh between 38 and 40kg (84 and 88lb).
Every abattoir has an independent grader, who accesses the quality of the meat and determines how much they are worth, so it’s important to choose lambs that will make the best grade by checking along their back. If you can’t feel the individual vertebrate of the spine, the meat cover should be just right; not too thin and not too fat. From now on, this is a process we will be repeating every month until the autumn.
Lamb prices on the up
Lamb prices are pretty fair at the moment. It’s been a long time coming, but you can now make some good money if you can lamb efficiently. To improve our chances, we team up with 40 other Cotswold sheep farmers so that together we can produce the thousands of lambs you need to supply the supermarkets. It also means we can buy our veterinary medicines or sheep feed concentrate in bulk for the entire group, meaning that we get better deals.
There are a few similar groups around Britain, but such collaboration is not that common. The French are very good at schemes such as this in a way that British farmers generally aren’t. I think it’s because we’re used to our farms being more self-contained and competitive over here, which is very different to the French system. When a French father gives up his farm, he breaks it up into smaller concerns between his children, whereas here only the eldest child usually inherits. That means there are more people involved in agriculture in France, and if they hit a problem they will march on Paris together, pouring milk down the Champs-Elysees in protest against government policy. Here we’re quite a small voice and so less notice is taken of us. The only way I can see us being heard is if we start to work together more.