2020 On The Farm

I’ve been part way through this post for a few weeks now, trying to work out how to wave goodbye to another year on the farm when that year was 2020…

It’s certainly not one to be forgotten in a hurry, is it!?

I haven’t mentioned much on here about the Giant Elephant that arrived in all of our lives last year. Partly, because I know there’s plenty of information out there already and I haven’t wanted to add any more to the fear many of us feel. I decided to keep this space as an escape from it all, for my benefit as well as yours.

I know how incredibly privileged I am to have a farm outside my window, and my goal has always been to give others a piece of that through sharing the goings-on and photos, so they get to enjoy being a part of it too; even if they’ve only ever seen the countryside from behind a car window. And in a time where so many more of you have experienced what it’s like to spend more time at home, it felt even more important to keep sharing farm life with you; a walk of life fortunate to be left almost unscathed, on the whole. Something I wish could be said for everyone else too, especially those who’ve been working tirelessly in health care, and those who have lost livelihoods or loved ones.

My life didn’t physically change much with the arrival of the pandemic (though it goes without saying it still had a profound effect). ‘Lockdown’ is very similar to the housebound life I, along with many other Disabled and Chronically Ill people, are already accustomed to; it’s like we’ve been in training for this for years! A fact I know also brought along its own difficulties for many of us.

Close up of snowdrops flowering.

I know one of the things that helped me cope in the early years of adjusting to my new and much more restricted normal was connecting with nature and the farm through any means possible.

I learnt that when your world is four walls, you can still be connected to nature. You don’t need to be outside or in contact with them for nature and animals to feed your soul.

I learnt nature lives in your imagination. It comes alive when you listen to sounds of the outside world, whether through headphones or an open window, and you’re fully immersed in it when you get transported to it through a screen in photos or videos, or watch a tree change colour with the seasons from behind a window.

The power of escaping to another’s reality through screens is something I’m guessing many others have discovered over the last year, and as that was my driving force behind this blog, two years ago, I hoped (and still do) providing an escape to life on our farm would give anybody who needs it a moment of peace or a reason to smile.

White blossom covering the branches of a plum tree.

Farm Life

2020 farm-wise was much like any other year, with its own brand of chaos, which always seems to tag along.

My dad’s hands were cleaner than they have ever been, although that originally happened in February, before hand-sanitiser on every doorway was a ‘thing’, thanks to his finger’s argument with a set of heavy, metal pallet forks… It’s amazing how clean hospital grade disinfectant got them! Calving beginning with his squished finger bandaged up wasn’t an ideal situation, but luckily, not many needed his help, so he didn’t find himself on the receiving end of a telling-off for turning up for a dressing change with a placenta-stained bandage, and it was soon healed and fully-functioning again.

As new calves began to arrive, it was all smiles, with the usual pang of “one day we’ll finish them ourselves”, as almost all the previous year’s calves were sold to two local farms to be carried on being reared for beef. It’s always hard saying goodbye, especially when this batch included a bullock who would give you a kiss for a piece of fodder beet.

A dark red 12 month old calf reaching through a feed barrier to be nose to nose with a male farmer wearing overalls.

A rocky start to calving, with a dead set of twins, was quickly forgotten about as the foster calf we’d replaced them with, named Bluebell, began to thrive. Quickly finding her powerful feet and continually forgetting she was older than all the other calves; turning all their mothers against her when she played too rough or began bounding around at 11pm.

As you know, two more healthy sets of twins soon arrived, and the four little pocket rockets proved more than a match for big Bluebell.

We started the calved cows on some Brewers’ grains, a high protein by-product of beer brewing, alongside their silage, to help them keep their weight on while feeding their little gannets before spring grass became available, and they quickly became addicted. I’m sure their deafening choruses for more could be heard by the whole village. They were extremely unimpressed when all beer production halted during the first lockdown so their source of golden crumbs dried up.

A brown Lincoln red cow reaching her nose out to the camera with brewers' grains all around her mouth, she's inside a shed with her head through a feed barrier.

Calves arrived quicker than ever before and by the time April rolled around we were only waiting for the final 7 to arrive. I told you all about calving time, and our brush with corona’s cousin, in this blog post, so I won’t go into that here, I’ll just show you some of the arrivals because you can never see enough calf photos, right?

A brown, newborn calf peeping over a mound of hay.

Turnout Time

One of the soggiest winters turned into one of the driest springs, and we turned the cows and calves out earlier than ever before in mid-April. The sight of calves feeling grass under their feet for the first time never gets old, and this time, I was absolutely elated to be able to witness it in person, for the first time in many years.

While the cows glued their noses to the floor, inhaling the lush grass, the calves revelled in the extra space for their daily races, with no gates or walls to collide with, or irritable mothers.

Cows and calves careering away across a dirt track to a grass field.

After dabbling with it the year before, this grazing season we committed ourselves to properly utilising rotational grazing- a grazing technique that involves splitting up the fields with electric fencing and grazing smaller parcels for up to a week at a time, before moving to the next one and leaving the previous to rest and regrow.

Other than some cheeky calves figuring out how to unplug the electric fence battery on the first day, it went incredibly well. One surprising lesson was that our cows respect 1 strand of electric fence a lot more than they do 3 strands of barbed wire! We also learnt they can count, and by day 4 they’ll be found lining up at the fence line for their next move, even if there’s still grass left…

Brown cows lined up behind a gate in a grass field, with two of them mooing.

Thanks to rotating around the fields instead of grazing the whole area for a longer amount of time, more grass was grown because the cows weren’t constantly eating the fresh new shoots and wasting the older grass. They never ran out, despite the dry start to the season, and seemed to much prefer this system- well, we went the whole year without them staging a mass breakout (the worst they did was move to the next field when the battery ran out of charge) so I’m calling that a win!

Brown cows and calves and a couple of black ones milling around in a grass field.

Bloopers and Belly Laughs

This year, my mum and I added cow herding to the list of things our new wheelchairs could do, and regularly helped out with moving them between fields, temperamental health allowing. The cows are so used to us now they’ve begun to test whether anything we are sat on is edible!

After the previous year’s alpaca-herding-disaster, we left moving those two back outside after winter to my dad. He was certain he could lead them out without a hitch, but ended up on the floor as Douglas, the alpaca, became airborne on the end of the lead and showed off some stunts that could get him a job in the circus! Both dad and Douglas were unscathed, apart from dad’s stomach aching from laughing so much, and the scenario has provided endless laughs for us all thanks to my decision to set the phone up on record ‘just in case anything funny happened’.

The cows also got a bit of camera-time last year, and some of you might have seen them posing in the Farmers Guardian, Yorkshire Post, and Farmers Mart magazine– they were surreal and incredible experiences and I’m still not sure it’s really sunk in! Thank you to everyone involved and to everyone who has got in touch since with lovely words of support and encouragement! The experience wasn’t without it’s humorous moments, and I’m pleased to say I can add ‘getting my wheelchair stuck in the field in front of professional photographers’ to my list of achievements…

Away from the cows, harvest time (which I documented the ups and downs of in this post) gradually shifted to drilling time. Unlike 2019, we (the royal we, meaning my dad, my uncle and my cousins) managed to get all the next crops drilled the right side of Christmas, with only a few wet patches left to touch up when (if) the ground dries up again.

‘Till The Cows Come Home

We were lucky to be able to have a fairly long grazing season last year, but as the mud level rose, the cowshed began to be cleared of the assortment of machines that had found a home in it, and the cows were shut in properly at the beginning of December.

Brown, lincoln red cows and their 8 month old limousin cross calves standing in a muddy field below blue sky.

The cattle could happily stay outside all winter; their impressively insulated coats can handle the very worst the British Weather could throw at them, and their digestive system produces heat like an internal radiator. The fields, on the other hand, would not be very happy about it.

Our land has a very high clay content, which means it’s made of small, tight particles that don’t allow water to drain away very well- basically, at this time year, the surface quickly turns into a foot of sticky, sloppy mud. If we kept the cattle out, they would seriously damage the land, causing a lot of soil erosion and compaction. So, it’s a life of room service and straw beds for them for 5 months- I know, what a hard life they lead!

Holly, a white woman sitting in a powered wheelchair, sat next to the feed barrier of a cattle shed with brown lincoln red cows heads eating through it.

Most of the calves, who were around 9-10 months old, were weaned when we brought them inside, as all their mothers had been scanned as in-calf again and are due from 1st February, so it was time for them to have a break and let their bodies prepare for the next arrivals.

It was a little noisy for a day or so as the calves complained about the lack of milk, despite it only making up less than 30% of their diet at that age, but no mothers answered their protests, so they soon quietened down.

Three weaned calves, two golden coloured with a brown one between them, looking through the bars of a feed barrier from inside a shed.

Unfortunately, after being elated that all the cows were in-calf, a dampener was put on things in December as Gertrude, the cow who always has twins, aborted this year’s set without warning. It was a sad day, but fortunately, she seems to not have anything wrong with her and it’s looking like it was just ‘one of those things’, so she’s having a much-deserved year off. After having 7 healthy calves in the last 4 years, she’s earned it!

We worriedly watched the other cows for the rest of the year, scrutinising them for any signs of the same thing happening again, but thankfully, they all remained pregnant and healthy. And before we knew it, it was January again, and the countdown was once again on for the next lot of calves to arrive and distract us all from the goings on of the world with their cuteness.

The Cycle Begins Again

We sell all the calves before they’re a year old, for someone else to finish for beef, and as I type this, most of last year’s have gone and the final 5 to be sold are leaving soon, so we’ll soon have space for the 20+ who are due in February (although Eeyore has decided to beat everyone to it and have her tiny, bouncing bundle 2 weeks early, so technically, we’ve already begun).

A newborn golden calf laying in the straw.

No doubt, 2021 will hold many of its own stories of laughter and challenges here on the farm, and I hope it holds many moments of hope, rest and laughter amid the inevitable trials and tribulations for you too.

I find it best not to focus too much on the number on the end of a date, each day is just a day; both a continuation of the one before and a clean sheet. So, I’m not going to wish you a happy new year, I know it hasn’t started great for a lot anyway, I’m just going to say take it day by day, and if you’re desperately in need of a smile, my dad is more than happy to provide one with his alpaca-wrangling video below…

Thank you so much for following along over the last year. I’ve got a lot of posts planned for here this year, so hopefully, I’ll be able to gather the energy to actually put things in motion soon!

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