Farming in June

PUBLISHED: 16:50 18 January 2010 | UPDATED: 14:35 20 February 2013

John's silage passes the taste test

John's silage passes the taste test

Why did the tractor cross the road? Because it's silage-making time down on Cirencester's Abbey Home Farm. Join Hilary Chester-Master for more lambs' tails in Farming for Townies, our instructive guide to the farming year.

June means many different things on the farm here. The dog roses are out, the silage is cut, the vegetable garden is in a flurry, the grass is topped, the yurts are enjoyed, the spring cereals are weeded, local schools visit, and this year there is an archaeological dig on the farm.

Let's start with the silage. It's probably not the most interesting subject in the farming year so I will be brief. Historically, animals were fed hay; but silage became popular around the mid-'70s as dairy farmers began to concentrate on getting more milk from their cows. Hay has about 70 percent dry matter, silage about 30 percent. So, being a wetter feed, it helps to increase the milk yield.

Making silage to many people means hearing tractors and trailers pounding up and down the lanes at all times of the day and night - maybe narrowly missing one - and wondering why they are in such a hurry in the first place. Silage consists of mainly grass and clover, which is cut and then left to wilt in the field for 12-24 hours; this concentrates sugars in the grass, aiding fermentation. It is picked up, chopped to between one and two centimetres, and blown into a trailer with a forage harvester. The aim then is to get the silage air-tight as quickly as possible which might explain (or should I say excuse) the often rather fast drive back to the farmyard. Here it is put into an enormous heap, squashed by being rolled on by a heavy vehicle - usually a tractor or materials handler - and then sealed with black plastic (very ungreen but there's no substitute yet), all as fast as possible. This is called 'clamp' silage, and is made mainly from red clover and grass. Red clover has high protein content, so we feed clamp silage to our milking herd and finishing stock.

Finishing stock, by the way, is the farmer's way of describing animals that need that final bit of fattening before going to the abattoir to be - dare I say - finished off.

Back to the point... We (or rather the contractors who make our silage for us, using kit that can cost more than a quarter of a million pounds) also make 'bale' silage with white clover, which contains less protein. This is baled and wrapped in black plastic in the field. Baled silage is not chopped up when it is cut. It is slower to digest and is good as a maintenance diet for growing animals.

Conventional farmers usually apply large amounts of nitrogen fertiliser, maybe 100 to 150kg per hectare, to produce the lush grass needed for successful silage. Nitrogen fertilisers are made using fossil fuels and give off nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide: the Soil Association estimates that, for every ton of fertiliser made, 6.7 tons of Co2 are emitted.

Organic systems use legumes (beans, clover, peas, Lucerne, etc.) to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere in nodules on the roots of the plants using sunlight energy. Because good silage needs lush grass, it can be quite challenging to make organic silage.

It is very important to cover the bales or clamp well. If any air gets in - for example, birds attacking the plastic; rooks being particularly keen - the silage can get secondary fermentation and end up as compost, which would be a financial disaster

At this time of year, conventional farmers might also be applying fungicide and possibly insecticide sprays to their crops. This is to protect them from fungal diseases that can appear on the ears of the winter-sown cereals that are now emerging. Our crops don't seem to get fungal diseases, maybe because the crop is less stressed or more naturally resistant as it has a thicker cell wall on the grain

June is quite a relaxed month for our animals: lots of grass, good weather, and any problems due to drought not yet too serious. Last month we had 35 piglets. Now they are enjoying a wallow - mud is factor 25, says John. The chickens are giving us mountains of eggs; the new lamb comes into the shop at the end of the month; and we have our first 10 Gloucester calves.

In the vegetable garden, there is lots of ground preparation, sowing and planting. Keith and Nick are spending hours moving irrigation pipes around to water the recently-planted field, garden and tunnel crops to help them get established.

I don't enjoy seeing mesh covering the young crops: it's not particularly pleasing visually and it is extremely costly, especially this year as our plots have nearly doubled in size. But I have learnt over the years that it really is doing an excellent job, giving protection to a number of the field crops from insect and bird damage. The much-increased carrot area has to have a particularly large net, which we hope will defy the dreaded carrot fly.

The sowing and planting lists are still endless... We can tick off parsnips, beans, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, cucumber, lettuce, spring onion, leaf beet, lettuce, squash, calabrese, kohlrabi (some sown into blocks which we make ourselves, some in modules, and some directly into the field). Peppers, aubergines, three kinds of basil, and French climbing beans have been transplanted into the poly tunnels; celeriac, parsley, celery, cabbage, early leeks, calabrese, kohlrabi, basil, beetroot, lettuce, and lots of different varieties of squash have been planted out in the garden.

And all for our shop. How we shop staff love the new season - the first vegetables coming in bit by bit, listening to the gardeners telling us what has just gone in, what has just come up and what has not germinated.

Now you can enjoy our first sugar snaps, young beetroot and their sweet leaves, broad beans, spring onions, the first outside-grown lettuce, and maybe even some fresh garlic and over-wintered onions.
We hope for the right weather: just enough rain, just enough sun, not too much of either... you know how gardeners are.

You should never feed your animals something you wouldn't be prepared to eat yourself, John told me. So he tastes the silage.

And? Very bitter, quite vinegary, sort of sweet and sour...

Have you ever wondered why lambs wiggle their tails when feeding? Mum, needing to confirm her lamb by smell, sniffs lamb's bottom; lamb wiggles tail in response to sniffing; the wiggling tail encourages Mum to sniff more; the lamb suckles in response to the sniffing; suckling stimulates lamb to wiggle its tail; the wiggling tail encourages mum to sniff the lamb's tail again

June is a good time for badger watching. The cubs born in February will be weaning, and like to forage near the sett. Be in position downwind an hour before sunset, as they often emerge well before dark. Be patient: they often appear just as you are about to go home!

The young swallows in our old stone barn are learning to fly, and this year a pair of ravens nested in an old pine on the farm. Their young can be heard kronk kronking with their mum and dad round about. The farm is full of birdsong; the sun has risen by 5.30; sunset stretches to 9.15 at midsummer

Silage is fermented grass and clover without air. Bacteria react with the sugar in the grass to make a good feed. A good winter supply of home-grown silage means the animals have a forage-based diet, and therefore need far fewer cereals or beans in their diet. As organic farmers, we are allowed to add non-GM bacteria to help this process if there is no sun.

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.

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