Farming for Townies in July - Make hay while the sun shines

PUBLISHED: 17:00 18 January 2010 | UPDATED: 14:46 20 February 2013

hay bale

hay bale

Make hay while the sun shines! That's they're doing down on Cirencester's Abbey Home Farm, the place where everyone's proud to say they really make a meal of things. Hilary Chester-Master continues Farming for Townies, an instructive guide to t...

"After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, and so on - found none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear - what remains? Nature remains."

Walt Whitman, US poet (1819-1892)

Cut them in May they're sure to stay

Cut them in June they'll be back soon

Cut them in July you can say goodbye.....

And so in July we take the thistles to task...

July is the month for haymaking. All across the county, hay is being cut. Hay is a mixture of dried grass and clover and, on an organic farm such as ours, there is an emphasis on the clover. Having a lot of clover in the field makes it more difficult to bale, but gives a higher protein feed; clover is 14 percent protein and grass is usually under 10 percent. By July there is often a large surplus of grass here as it usually grows faster in May and June than the animals can eat it. But instead of the rich, lush pasture perfect for silage making, haymaking grass is ready to be cut when it is 'headed' - when the seeds, which are formed at the top of the stem, have set.

The famous old saying, 'to make hay while the sun shines', is still very relevant. It is easy to make bad hay, says John, whom I think uses a combination of watching the sky and watching the internet, to see what the weather is up to.

To make hay, the field is cut, the grass spread, turned over three or four times until it is dry, rowed up and then baled and put in a barn as quickly as possible before the rain comes. This can take us up to a week. If it rains in the middle of the process, it must be left in the field until the sun comes out to dry it off. Here at Abbey Home Farm, like on so many other farms around the area, we make only large bales. As with the silage, our haymaking is definitely a machine-based and, we hope, a cost-effective operation, using a local contractor who has the large expensive kit designed to clear the field as quickly as possible. No scything and raking, no cider and frolicking amongst the bales, no riding back home on the top of the hay. Imagine the health and safety officer in those halcyon days.

All bovine animals in Gloucestershire must be tested for TB at least annually. Our annual test is due this month so we are crossing our fingers. First there is a skin reaction test and, three days later, the reading. Hearing we have cows that have reacted positive to the test is depressing as all reactors are slaughtered. Oh, but you farmers get good compensation, I hear you say. Well, we have in the past. Lately, however, the sum has been reduced to below the cost of a replacement cow for us. Our dairy cows are now not only organic but also rare breed - hard to source and expensive if we do find them. Anyway it's not just about the money. We get very fond of our dairy cows in particular. They are on the farm for a long time compared to a chicken, a piglet, a lamb or even a beef animal, and it is very upsetting to be told to kill a cow that looks well and healthy. Like many other dairy farms in Gloucestershire, we have had TB on and off on the farm for a few years now. One time we had to take 20 animals to be slaughtered.

At the moment we are TB-free. And, in case you were wondering... Yes, we have lots of badger setts on our farm. And no, we would not kill them, even if it were made legal.

You might see the tractors out doing routine jobs such as topping the grassland, or the farmer doing maintenance jobs, which can carry on throughout July. Here we are about to put up two very long expanses of fence: the first a fox-proof fence around a large field where our new table bird (or 'chickens to eat' in layman's words) enterprise is going to have its home; the second fence is to keep the rabbits, cows and sheep out of our new vegetable area, so it needs to be rabbit and stock-proof. With the harvest on our minds, we are also cleaning out the grain store, making sure there is no grain lurking from last year's harvest, harbouring insects that have the potential to damage the new crop. The trailers are also being well cleaned, as they will be carrying a food product.

And I am sure I even remember seeing someone polishing the combine last July, although no one might admit to it...

These days, diversification, sustainability and local are the three buzz words one constantly hears around farming. We are trying hard to adhere to all three.

Sustainability? Taken literally, this is not easy. Energy use - or should we say 'carbon footprint'? - is the main challenge. We do have a small block of solar panels on the cafe roof; we do have a completely computerised wood-chip boiler, which is fed automatically. It's the most sustainable way we have yet found to heat the shop, cafe, conference room and offices - and it gives the cafe kitchen all its hot water, too, unless the solar gets there first. But we still use diesel to fire up the chain saw and the chipper to chip the wood.

We do grow a lot to feed our animals, but the pigs and chickens need concentrate which we don't make on the farm. We have not yet sorted a diesel replacement for the tractors, although Leila, our young Ardenne working horse, is soon to be earning her keep. Of course, we would need 20 or more like her and farm helpers doing 10 plus-hour-days even to touch the cultivations we do at the moment. But from an acorn...

We grow as great a variety of vegetables as the seasons allow. But the freezers and fridges in the shop, bulging with delicious organic chilled and frozen delights, still guzzle electricity, although there are plans to rectify this in the near future.

Diversification? For us it is people-orientated, and July is one of the busiest months for welcoming the public onto the farm. They come in all shapes and sizes, and for all sorts of reasons. Some help the farm finances; some don't. Fellow farmers come for conferences on all sorts of topics and to look at our farming practices. Corporate businesses are using our green room facilities and sometimes the farm and teaching kitchen for team-building and fun. Groups of challenging young people, groups with learning difficulties, WIs, campers, yurters - the list is endless. Buses full of pre-school through reception up to the local secondary school arrive, full of students who, although they live near the countryside, often have no idea how a carrot grows, what a warm egg feels like, or what their bread is made from. We are actively promoting more and more connection between our farm and the local community, enjoying the barrage of questions, debate, inspiration and pure enjoyment that comes from children, young adults and businessmen and women spending a little time with nature.

Local? Well, this is where we hope we are winning: seriously concentrating on multi-enterprise farming, trying to provide fresh food with minimal or no food miles for people who really want to buy proper local food. Recently, Points West rang me up and asked if they could do a bit of filming about the farm and shop as we produce an unusually large selection of food actually on farm. Oh yes! I thought: here we go again - a few pretty shots, background for some article on niche farming, or even the Antiques Roadshow in the Cotswolds. I was about to say, "No, sorry, can't come, too much fiddling about and time wasted, and we don't even get a mention" when, to my delight, the voice the other end of the phone started telling me how perfectly we fitted what he was trying to find. "Abbey Home Farm is really unusual," he said. 'You can eat a whole meal from food raised on the farm." "Exactly," I replied.

For more information about Abbey Home Farm, log onto; or visit the farm's Organic Farm Shop on the Burford Road, Cirencester, GL7 5HF. You can email on or ring 01285 640441.

When Will takes the school children walking, they are always on the look-out for patches of damp mud and animal tracks. Once they have seen one, the children soon become adept at spotting other less obvious footprints.

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