Autumn: A year in the life of a Cotswold farmer
PUBLISHED: 11:37 07 October 2019 | UPDATED: 11:37 07 October 2019
Copyright Ian Boyd
So what do farmers actually do from day-to-day and week-to-week? In the first of a quarterly series, Katie Jarvis finds out
How many hours a day do farmers work? What are the regular jobs that need doing, and how do they fit in with the seasons? We'll be following the Boyds - a third generation farming family - throughout the next year as they run Whittington Lodge Farm, 900 feet up in the countryside outside Cheltenham.
The farm is organic, Pasture For Life-certified, and practises regenerative agriculture, focusing on caring for soil and enriching biodiversity. Ian is responsible for general farm work, as well as tending their herd of pedigree Hereford cattle. Cathy runs the farm B&B, and manages meat retail sales in partnership her daughter, Steph Ackrill. Steph also runs her own business, Bhoid: contemporary British fashion accessories. In the longer term, Steph is preparing to take over the farm.
Ian Boyd at Whittington Lodge Farm
The farming programme on Radio 4 (Farming Today) begins at 5.45 so I'm always up at half five. (I'm not allowed up until then!) But I usually wake earlier, thinking: 'Another half hour…' I always start my day with tea, and a Bourbon biscuit from a secret drawer in my office. My sister reminded me that dad used to bring us a glass of Ribena and a Bourbon first thing when we were kids - and I've done it ever since!
I'm sure people picture me on a tractor day and night, but that's not the reality. So much time goes into planning the movements of the farm, and I tend to be on the computer first thing. Cathy will sometimes say, "I've got to the end of my office pile!" I don't think I've ever got to the end of mine. Steph is a big help with office work, especially in making the farm accounts digital - great fun!
We're fully organic and PFLA-certified [Pasture for Life] on the farm, meaning there's an awful lot of paperwork and procedures to follow. Also, entering into Brexit, many current schemes are disappearing. I'm helping to develop the ELMs [a new agri-environment funding programme]. I've been to a couple of meetings with Michael Gove, the previous Environment Secretary, who is very impressive; he listens and understands in a way that others haven't.
We're part of a 'pasture-fed' Google group [guaranteeing 100% grass-fed meat and dairy], which means a constant stream of emails. Currently, there's a lot from Natural England on the subject of herbal leys - trying to develop the right combination of grasses, legumes and herbs, which benefit cattle and soil fertility. A lot of farmers are contributing their opinions: whether you should use fertiliser; what species should be grown; how much biodiversity there is in rye grass compared to others.
We are genuinely concerned about the bigger environmental picture and are hoping that the current uncertainties will encourage a change of farming mind-set. Farming has a big carbon footprint, yet it's one of the only industries that has a viable solution - by putting more carbon back into the soil. The NFU [National Farmers' Union] has declared it aims to be carbon neutral by 2040. While important to us, perhaps it has not captured the industry as a whole, owing to lack of incentives.
In my farming life, no two days are the same - we're either very busy or unbelievably busy! - but I do like to get the cows moved before breakfast. We constantly migrate our cattle around the farm, which means we keep the grass tall with lots of roots. That's good for the soil, plus the cattle get fresh grass every day.
Planning is absolutely essential on a farm like ours, and I spend a lot of time working out where the cows should move and when. Typically, I've got about 150 cattle, and I plan their moves around how much grass there is, and how much the ground is getting damaged by hooves. It's a balance because you also want the disrupter effect of the cattle's hooves: that's what treads vegetation in to feed the worms.
Our main concern in autumn is making sure our cows have as long a grazing season as possible - until Christmas, ideally - so we want the weather to be not too wet, not too cold, not too dry. If we have to use hay or haylage to feed them, it costs twice as much.
We have two herds: the cows and calves; and the yearlings and two-year-olds. The cows live outside all year round - they're never in until calving. But November is the time we will house the young stock in barns because we want them to have good-quality hayage so they continue to grow. We're always happier, seeing them outside, but they react remarkably well to being indoors: they like the fact that they're not getting wet, and they're having regular food put in front of them. Between two and three years, they reach their optimum weight of 550kg.
We use a local abattoir, half an hour away, which slaughters once a week. I'll always take an animal to the abattoir personally - loading at 7am and arriving at 8, with all the paperwork ready. Because ours are organic, they're slaughtered first so there's no hanging around, minimising stress. Ideally, I take two cows at a time, which creates a calmer environment for them. It's as smooth a process as it can be. We dry-age the meat for 28 days at the abattoir so the carcass hangs in a fridge with fans in to reduce the water-content. You end up with a very nutrient-dense, flavoursome meat. Cathy and Steph will have sold all the beef before it comes back to us, either to a high-end wholesale outfit, or via our box-scheme to our retail customers.
Then it's back home to pressure-wash and disinfect the trailer.
At around 9am, it's time for breakfast. I cook my own, and I've got to have one of our free-range eggs! Sometimes, I get leftovers from the B&B breakfast, which is a real treat. We're increasingly fussy about where we get our food from. We buy whole lambs from a local farmer, and Gloucester Old Spot from another who uses the whole animal for sausages. They're all within a quarter of an hour of us.
At 11 o'clock - in theory - it's a stop for coffee. After that, there are all sorts of different jobs crying out to be done: fixing fences; checking the cattle have water. We're too high for the mains so we have spring water that we pump to header tanks. Everywhere I go on the farm, I take my camera - I'm a passionate wildlife photographer. If we didn't have the cattle, we wouldn't have nearly the amount of wildlife, and health in the soil, as we do. Autumn is the time you'll see huge flocks of goldfinch and linnet as they flash across the sky, feeding on the thistles and chicory. I have a bird-feeding station outside my office window - but, often, it's a family of muntjac, with their young kids, that I see eating from it!
Another of my autumn jobs is managing tests and checks, including inspections for organic, pasture-fed, and Red Tractor [farm assurance schemes]. They all involve a lot of preparatory work, proving we've done what we've said we've done. We also PD [pregnancy diagnose] all the cows each autumn. The bull will go in at the beginning of July and come out mid-September - and the vet PDs a month later. Last year, was incredible: all 45 were pregnant. Even the vet was amazed! However, when they calved, we had three that had either lost their calves or reabsorbed them. We've never had 100 percent.
Most stressful of all, in a month's time, we've got TB testing, which runs over two days. It involves a huge workload for us. You can't tell in advance whether or not your cattle are OK; you just have to be accepting. Fortunately, the vet says our system will typically have a low incidence of TB because the cattle are not in one shed, and we're not feeding grain to attract badgers to the food trough.
When lunchtime comes round, it isn't a question of stopping; it's a matter of grabbing something! I live off cheese, bread and tomatoes, and we eat lots of fruit, hummus and veg. But never packets.
I'm 65 this year, and I've spent the last five years saying I'm going to retire at the end of 2020… and it looks as if that might just be possible. For the first time, we are employing someone full time on the farm. For Whittington Lodge to remain in the family, diversification is key. Whilst Steph wants to continue to develop the beef business, as well as her own business, there are only so many hours in the day: so it was clear we needed a stockman.
We offered the job to Dale, who's local and in his mid-20s - and he jumped at it. Importantly, he understands the sort of ecological farming that we're doing; it has to be commercial, but it's still possible to look after the wildlife at the same time. Will it be difficult for me to let go? We're going to find that out, aren't we! It would be good if I could lower my working week to under 100 hours.
Afternoons are spent making sure the farm as a whole is working. Typically, in autumn, there'll be jobs such as be wood-cutting for winter firewood. There are a lot of trees on the farm - too many ash, sadly - and everyone has problems with ash dieback [a chronic fungal disease]; 80% of the trees in the Cotswolds are ash. In the next five to 10 years, they'll all be gone. One big problem is larger trees overhanging roads; branches might suddenly sheer off so I'll have to go and sort those.
Another job might involve a lame cow that needs looking at. We have an implement called a cow-catcher, which goes on the front of a tractor, with jaws that open up. I have to use a guile method to get a cow in there - usually a [salt] lick!
I'll also look at the orchard to see when the fruit is ready to pick. Generally, in early October, we get friends and family round for a fantastic six or seven hours of picking, finishing with a barbecue and a nice glass of wine. We juice the apples and pears together, though pears are a bit hit and miss: Hens' Turd; Ashmead's Kernel; Bramley; Arlingham Schoolboys - the latter is a cider apple but we put it into our juice because it gives a bite. We do about two or three tons, which goes to Hayles Fruit Farm where it's processed and returned to us to sell.
In the evenings, we do sometimes all get together for a meal; Cathy tends to get the food and I'll do the cooking. I'm more of a vegetarian cook - perhaps butternut squash with blue cheese, sundried tomatoes and pine nuts: meat is something special. We should all eat less but better meat - and certainly not with every meal. Our customers understand the value of what we produce, though we're no more expensive than supermarkets, because we've cut the middle men out.
After supper, Cathy and Steph will often sort beef sales, take care of B&B guests, or discuss colours and designs of the latest Bhoid product.
I flag a bit but still tend to keep going until late. A rare treat would be having time to sort out my photographs. I sometimes feel that farming gets in the way of my photography!"
Pasture for Life, organic and pedigree Hereford beef is sold under the banner 'Cotswold Beef', tel: 07515 911762/ 07976 691589.
For more, visit whittingtonlodgefarm.com.
See more of Ian Boyd's photography here.