Home & Shop Companion #0010
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
It’s been another hot week here again, more like late May or June than April, but no more rain yet. After some concerted work outside from mid-March, most of this week I have been inside in the workshop, though I have done bits and pieces in the garden.
The tomato plants I started in pots in the house and moved to the greenhouse a fortnight ago are now a few inches tall and planted in the soil in the greenhouse, and the quick growing leafy vegetables, also in the greenhouse, are now big enough to eat. But with the peas I made a mistake this year. Before I sow broad beans and French beans, I often soak them on a paper towel on a plate for a day or two, especially if I am running a bit late, because it gives them a couple of days head start and it makes me get on with preparing the ground. I thought I’d do the same with peas this year, but left them soaking for three or four days, adding water occasionally, before sowing them. Usually I would expect them to come through after a few days, but when there was no sign of any shoots, I had a little delve in the soil and except for three little plants, there was nothing; I had obviously left them too long and too wet, so the seed had started to rot. Luckily, I had bought two packets of seed so sowed the replacements a couple of days ago, still under the fleece to keep the soil warm and to hide the shoots from the pigeons which like to eat them.
Last time I wrote I still had Lucy, my younger mare, in at nights, but now she is out in the field. Nowadays, the transition between winter and summer regimes is very gradual, because the horses have access to a track round the outside of the field for at least part of the day all year round. Some of the track is stone, some is soil which turns to mud in winter, and some on the free-draining sand keeps some grass. When the grass starts to grow, they start eating it, so it is not like changing from an all hay to an all grass diet. I am still careful though, and only turn Lucy out on a tiny patch of grass for an hour to start with. So far, she has only been grazing odd patches near the barn and the tiny paddock at the bottom of the garden, always behind a single strand of electric fence. In these small areas for a short period of time, I don’t usually connect it to the fencer unit. Being able to graze awkward corners is one of the fringe benefits of having a calm draught horse or two.
This unseasonably warm weather in March and April has started to be a regular thing in recent years, sometimes followed by a cold May, so I have started to rethink my management of the grass. Usually we would expect spring showers throughout April as the temperature slowly rises, and continual growth through to hay making time. Traditionally, most farmers would graze the grass down tightly with sheep over winter, dairy farmers around here often getting sheep down from the hills to ‘tidy up’ the fields. In the spring this very short grass takes some time to get going, partly because there is little protection to the soil, though of course, many farmers spread artificial nitrogen to get it moving. A couple of years ago, after it had been too wet to graze part of the field in late autumn so the grass was longer going into winter, I noticed how much quicker the grass came back in spring, and that it was ready to cut for hay earlier than the rest. Given the new pattern of little rain in spring and early summer, I am now trying to keep more height as we go into winter, so the spring grass can make the best advantage of the moisture still left in the soil from winter.
Another thing that led me to rethink the grassland was a story a friend told me. He milks cows for local farmers, and a few years ago one of these farmers, who has about 200 cows, put down a track made of old concrete railway sleepers [railroad ties] placed upside down, and installed electric fences to graze the cows in paddocks, one paddock per day. This system is widespread elsewhere, perhaps where you live, but not common here. But the startling thing for me was that after the second year, the farm’s bottom line was up by the equivalent of the wages for two full time cowmen. The direct reason was a decrease in the amount of fertiliser used and a fall in the amount of concentrated feed they needed to purchase for the cows.
The more subtle reasons, however, are probably more interesting. Because the cows are in any one paddock for just a day, the grass is not grazed so hard, so it recovers more quickly, and because there is less trampling of the soil, the ground remains better aerated. The grass, free to grow, puts down deeper roots because it is not being stopped in its tracks by being grazed so often, the deeper roots having greater access to moisture and nutrients. So if there is a dry time, the deep roots can still reach moisture more easily than continually grazed grass with a shallow root structure. In autumn the improved soil structure, better drainage and increased humus allows the cattle to be grazed longer without damaging the soil, and for the same reasons, the soil warms up more quickly in spring, so the cattle can be turned out earlier too.
With horses, of course, grazing management is a bit different; you can’t safely turn them into long lush grass because their digestive system is really built for a desert animal. Still, I am sure there are some lessons to be learnt from the Regenerative Agriculture brigade for horse keepers too.
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.