February 2016 on the Farm
When I was a child, it felt like we always had two good weeks of frost in February. That desiccates diseased leaves, so plants are healthier. The soil structure gets shattered with the frost, giving lovely friable tilth. And the slugs and slug eggs, bugs and bug eggs freeze, the weakest wild creatures starve, giving a clean start to the Spring.
Recently, we've had a warm run of Februaries - slugs, bugs, the weakest young and olds all survive, giving more mouths for our crops to feed. So we are looking forward to some promised cold weather. No doubt we'll complain when it's here.
The warm mid-winter kept everything growing. The pastures kept the luminous green of active growth. My damson tree flowered. The bumble bees kept buzzing. It feels like all that growth is over-hopeful, skipping unwarily into the jaws of the frost that must surely come, a ravening wolf from the Arctic behind the wandering jet stream. And the later the frost, the shorter the cold time, as the lengthening days coax warmth back into the soil and water.
CROPS - The new life promised in the warm winter may get singed by cold, and it will recover. The wheat and barley are hardy troopers, frost resistant until they flower.
GRASS - The grass, with all its established roots and more robust soil structure, grows as soon as we are free of frost. The grass grew so actively through the winter, it'll be interesting to see how it comes through. Actively growing grass will resist the frost, and we want it to leap into action, to feed the freshly calved cows.
COWS - The Spring cows are giving birth - first slowly, a few early birds, producing little calves that we nurse along. By the middle of the month, there are calves everywhere, the farm suddenly full of that distinctive 'blart' of a calf making its feelings known. Our little crossbreed calves are vigorous. The new Jersey cross-breds in particular are bursting with life and vigour. It's so satisfying to see a calf hit the ground, given a lick from its wondering dam, take that first breath (I notice myself holding mine till it does), then marshalling its unwieldy legs, teeters itself upright, then nudges its way around till it finds what? Aaaaaah, suck, slurp, that's what's I'm looking for. Then no more than twenty four hours together, to avoid a too-sad detachment, and calves go to join their herd-mates, little subdued creature, within a day skipping and bonded. The cows go to join their herd, a welcome recovery, within earshot of their young.
First milking - Like people, their udders fill up with 'nature', that sore firmness that sets the milk flow off. The older cows have seen it all and know the relief that milking brings. The first-time heifers can't know, and it takes a little while to gain their trust and by the third milking, they too learn to love it. In French, the milking parlour is the 'salle de traite', the treatment room, a place of relief and quiet intimacy.
Then there is the magic day when the cows go out to grass. They skip, buck, charge and butt each other in delight, then settle down to the serious business of harvesting the delicious leaves.
CHEESE - In the cheese dairy, we watch to see how the milk is, and immediately that next milking after the ladies go out, the flavour and aroma changes, taking on notes reminiscent of a cow's breath: warm, animally and utterly gorgeous.
Now the work start as at first a handful of fresh calved cows' milk comes in, then a torrent. We finish off the jobs of the quieter time, cleaning and repairing racks, in readiness for the labours to come over the next few months.