We had a busy weekend. Contractors arrived on Saturday and despite a day of rain on Friday, they cut silage. They then returned on Sunday, baled and wrapped it, and then headed on their merry way.
Over the past weeks, we have been plotting which paddocks of grass to keep for winter fodder. During May, conditions for grass growth are usually at their peak and it is the time of year when it will grow the most. Very quickly, a paddock will go from being ‘good for grazing’ to being ‘too strong’. This means that there is too much grass in the paddock for the sheep to tackle. It literally happens overnight.
So, too much grass? Is that actually a thing? Yes, yes it is. We paddock graze, which means that instead of giving the sheep a full field, we split it up into sections. This system of rotational grazing makes the best use of the grass – each section gets fully grazed before the group is moved on to the next – and it also gives the grass the best chance for recovery between grazings. For us, and for our sheep, this means that the sward (grass by another name!) is maintained in peak condition.
When the grass gets a little too long – and sometimes when it goes to seed, shooting up fibrous stems – there tends to be a lot of waste. As the sheep walk through the grass they knock it and being heavy and long, it does not spring back into an upright position in their wake. Instead, it remains lying flat and gets trampled into the ground. Bruised and stomped on, it is obviously less appetising and does not get grazed. Furthermore, it hinders new growth from the base of the grass plants. Over time, this will drastically reduce the quality of the paddock so, instead of grazing it, we may choose to cut it and bale it instead.
Seasonal planning on the farm includes having a plan for winter fodder, so certain fields or paddocks will be kept for baling and wrapping. This is then fed to the sheep in the months that they are housed for the winter. Our sheep eat grass twelve months of the year… it’s what they like best!
We tend to do a number of smaller cuts throughout the growing season. If we are lucky, we may even cut silage as early as April. Our ultimate goal though is to have in the region of two hundred bales of silage wrapped – that will be enough to sufficiently get us through the winter and early spring, until the sheep are turned out onto fresh grass.
So, with the fields shorn tight and dotted with large splodges of black plastic, we bring it back to the yard and stack it neatly so that it is ready for use when the time comes. Each is marked with circles using white spray paint and if the bales cannot be transported back to the farmyard immediately, we lay gates on top of them too – this is to deter the crows in particular, who seem to have a penchant for landing on them and picking the plastic. This breaks the seal which keeps the air out and means that the grass will mould and spoil instead of being preserved by fermentation.
For the final step of the process, the sheep are allowed into the paddocks where the silage has just been cut to tidy it up. They eat any of the bits the machines have missed including the fringes where the long grass is out of the reach of the massive mowers. They tidy and munch and pick their way through all of the edible leftovers. And then the grass will grow again and start the cycle anew.
It’s a lengthy enough process and we don’t have any of the necessary heavy machinery, so we contract it out and pray for good weather. Sometimes we get to cut in April. Sometimes, like this year, we don’t make our first cuts until late May.
Regardless of the timing though, one thing is for sure: when the machines come, it is as though the birds have been waiting for it. They come in their hundreds: rooks, crows, magpies and later on the starlings and other hedgerow beauties. They fill the sky and then the fields: first wheeling in great Hitchcockesque numbers, screaming their discovery to the masses, then alighting in groups of hundreds and finally picking their way across the acreage.
Perhaps it is worms that they seek: those that are close to the surface who have lost the shade and mulch of the long and thick vegetation. I don’t know, but it is a sight to behold!