Summer heat – something we haven’t seen for a while. It seems ungracious to find it too hot and dry when so recently we were yearning for sun and warmth. We hope for some good thunderstorms to give the grass a drink. The leaves hang heavy on the trees, the rank smell of a badger somewhere close mixes with the sweet smell of honeysuckle. The deer disappear into the cool shade of the woods until the evening. We saw a young deer with his mother and another female one evening in the orchard. He was leaping, darting, jumping, then stopping and alluring his mother and her friend to join him in playing. They watched: buck, kick, leap again. He stopped, alert, inviting. They hesitated, then gave in and all played and leapt like lambs. The next morning, we saw the little group in the next field taking mouthfuls of grass while ambling in under the trees to find the cool.
The crops come to ripen, sooner than we would like in the heat. There are fewer plants than we wanted from the difficult winter and spring, although each plant tillered and produced little plantlets which filled out the field. Will each plant have the roots to fill all six or eight ears? We normally want 3 or 4 good tillers, but normally there’s more plants… there will be lots of straw, which will help stretch the grass silage out in the winter, a little down from the late start to the spring. The fodder beet flops its leaves down in the midday sun, we hope sending the sun’s energy as sugar down into the roots to feed cows in the winter. The maize at least enjoys the heat, growing it seems just on the dew it collects in its leaves.
The combine harvester rolls in, later this year, still the hangover from the spring. Now we will see how the hope, the care, the work over the year turns out. It clanks around the field, cutting the proud stalks, consuming the rich ears, discharging the golden straw. How far will he go before the grain tank beeps to say it’s getting full – maybe this year, farther than usual. How is the quality? Will the grains be bold and bright or shrivelled and dull like last year? Is it as dry as we think? Then the golden treasure augers into the trailer, whatever the numbers, we feel the visceral satisfaction of bringing the harvest safely home. It was our ancestors’ security for the winter, still our living, feeding cows and gathering grain for sale.
The grass growth slows. We kept some in hand for the dry time, now the animals are eating into it. Dry grass does them well, they do better than the amounts of grass would suggest. The clover comes to the fore, more deep rooted and drought resistant, flowers sweet smelling as they dry. We eke the grass out, waiting for rain to replenish the fields. We will need to harvest more silage for the winter, but that can wait till next month.
The heifers are grazing around the farm, you can find them tucked into the shade under the trees, or right at the tops of the field, catching the summer breeze. Their coats are shiny: they are growing well.
The autumn cows start calving, out in the field now, the best place. A girl can go and find some peace and quiet, a little corner in sight of the herd but just far enough away and get on with what comes. The cow is restless, moving around, gripped by the natural process. The calf inches its way out, first hooves, then head then shoulders, whoosh and out, flopping in a liquid heap, suck of air replacing the bulk of the calf just gone. The cow registers the change, drawn by the ancient pull of mother to newborn, licks her calf into breath, finding the membranes left on it apparently delicious. She nudges her calf up, who totters on unsteady feet. Calf knows there’s something to do, bunts her way around finally bumping into the udder, firm with ‘nature’. That first suck, so important for calf health, takes the cow tolerating the discomfort of firm udder and teat being inexpertly sucked. Soon everyone knows what they are doing. Calf with full belly, rests while Mum often tucks into her cleansings, the afterbirth that helps nourish that first transition to milk.
Mostly we leave alone, just keep an eye to make sure the natural processes are running right. Our hardy little crossbreed cows calve easily, and the calves are lively, getting their heads in the right place before birth and getting up soon afterwards . Just sometimes they need help, and we check every few hours. Every now and again, a sadness of a stillborn calf, the cow bereft, or a difficult calving, leaving the cow damaged or worse. Not many, but a sorrow each time.
Cheesemaking in the heat leaves few words to spare. The milk is lower, and the storework – turning each cheese once a week - become a welcome change. We cool the curd with a fan before we put it away in the moulds, which seals the cheese better. Put it away too hot and lumps of curd come away with the cloth the following morning, needing repressing, extra heavy work. So we cool the curd, fork it till it’s the right temperature, to make the good seal that will keep it safe for its long maturing. The drier grass and clover give a good flavour to the milk, rich compensation for the hard work.
We picked up three prizes at the International Cheese Awards in Nantwich towards the end of July. Quickes Mature was Highly Commended; Quickes Extra Mature won Silver and Quickes Buttery (Mild) picked up the Gold.