Did you rush out this morning and wish your horse a happy birthday? No? Shame on you. Mind you, it doesn't take much to have an excuse for a celebration around here and I make the 1st of August the time to turn everybody's annual age clock one more round. Everyone gets a treat. Last Thyme and Luke get carrots poked into a cake tin filled with Sweet Feed. All of the cows get a carrot sandwich and an extra big cuddle. Buppy Dog has a large bowl of cat biscuits with a sausage stuck in the middle and Albert, of course, has fish!
The beginning of August is a strange time in the farming year. It's the lull before the storm, so to speak. It's a short time of hopping from one rock to the other as the winter wet slides under your toes and into the promise of Spring. Bulbs are pushing their heads up everywhere, the early lambs that haven't drowned are bouncing around as bold as brass, and the occasional sack covered lump we pass on the way into town reminds us that within a month it will be all go.
My August 1st list includes the maintenance of all farm equipment (that means oiling the wheel on the wheelbarrow, buying more hand cream, checking the heels in my socks, and sharpening the scythe); taking stock of my freezer (what has been gobbled up, what don't I need to plant this year, did I put the right amount of meat away last season, and what has crouched there for too long and needs to be thawed out for Mrs Pig); and dealing with any safety issues (nailing a block of wood beside the gate catch to stop the gate being pushed into my fingers as I clip it up, and having the electrician put extra lighting out the back so I don't belt my head on the overhanging tree in the pig paddock). All in a days work really!
Timing is all-important for any farmer. I don't like my cows calving in the winter but by the time the weather and grass are suitable there are very few four-day-old calves left to choose from. This year I am buying a small group of early calves, which I will feed with milk powder until the natural stuff comes on tap. I am determined to raise two complete groups this season with some odds and sods later if I can buy them. I had the girls pregnancy tested in March and the Vet's calculations were consistently one month earlier than mine. Little-Out-of-Africa was supposed to have her very first calf in July, according to the Vet. She doesn't even look pregnant but then heifers can fool you. Their udder pops up and then pops down. Their midriffs bloat out and look imminent and then drop away and appear like something from an SPCA case file. Older cows are easy. Their stomachs drop, their pin bones point, their udder fills and widens, and they waddle distinctively. To heifers, motherhood is an unknown entity, and they don't abide by the rules. Even looking for the milk veins running under the tummy is a bit impossible with such woolly coats. Africa is giving me no clues. I guess her calf will arrive when it's cooked and no sooner. Keen observation is the only armoury I have at the moment and I am exercising it twice a day. Little Miss Poppy looks closer to calving than Africa and she is meant to calve in August (Vet time), September (my time). We shall see.
Bossy Boots is a different story. I was sure Mr Bull had done the deed with her - the ruffled hair on the back, the dirty hoof marks down her sides, her pre-deed behaviour etc. etc. She may have slipped perhaps but six weeks later she was positively off after a man. In fact she tarted herself up and down the fence so well that a group of twenty odd young bulls from next door arrived and followed (or chased - I'm not sure which) her all the way back to the cowshed paddock. It took fifteen minutes with the lunging whip to rescue her by which time I had a definite calving date!! She is not due until the middle of November. Hence, I am going to keep milking her until the end of August at least. It's a bit of a nuisance not being able to have a complete break from milking at some stage this year but that's the way it is.
I like to spread my calving and lambing. The motherhood nonsense may drag out a bit but at least the dramas, which eventuate, are staggered giving me a chance to recover in between. I also feel that to time your babies for one particular moment invites a horrendous storm and I'd rather lose 5% of my flock over a longer period than 50% in one night.
On the subject of sheep...I hate them. As an instrument of pasture management they are absolutely essential but, for someone without proper facilities, they are a headache. Two ewes create as much hassle as twenty (or two hundred for that matter). But I have, over the years, devised an "easy plan". In April, I buy however many ewes I need from a friend who has a Coopworth Stud. He sorts out the best of his cull ewes (the ones off to the works for the manufacturing meat market) and tosses in an old ram for nothing. The girls are shorn before I pick them up and a drench is added into the price. A couple of months later, when the ram has lost all interest in rammy things, he is dispatched swiftly and returned to my friend as dog tucker.
The girls then spend a Life of Riley doing a magnificent job cleaning up the rough stuff and smartening up the orchard with their rather toothless gums. With plenty of shelter and a no-stress existence they keep well conditioned and will usually produce two to three lambs each. Being old and experienced, lambing is a breeze. Young stock tend to drop their lambs and keep on walking but these girls know what to do and do it with little or no assistance.
Weaning consists of the home kill truck arriving with mutton hams for Xmas and a huge pile of tasty sausages being returned a couple of weeks later. The lambs (minus a couple for the freezer) are then sold unshorn before fly strike time, providing the means by which to pay for the continuing process next year. Everyone is happy. The girls get an extra season lounging about, the paddocks benefit immensely from a thorough cross grazing, and I feel very rich with a bit of money in the bank.
I lost the Pepino bush on Tuesday. I didn't cover the bush and there was a solid frost, which instantly turned it black. It's my own fault - I hadn't checked the barometer. If I had, I would have noticed it rocket skyward, indicating a clear morning, despite the steady rain falling before I went to bed. I even ignored the obvious when Albert wanted to crawl into my bed instead of Buppy's! I cursed myself, I can tell you, as I brought the last remaining fruit inside for my tea tonight. Although the skin had gone quite brown the inside was fine and I added it, diced, to my salad, garlic steak and chips. Today I pruned the poor little withered remaining bits back to ground level and covered the spot with straw. Hopefully a warm spring sun might coax it back.