Posts Tagged ‘on-the-farm’

October on the farm (2022)

Monday, October 17th, 2022

Black Bryony on Moreton Road

Richard Fonge writes:

What a wonderful Autumn we are having, with the colours of the season showing up in our hedges and woodlands. The hedgerow fruits are bountiful this year along with the apple crop, although the sloes do not seem so plentiful, for those of you wanting to make the sloe gin. The field mushroom has been scarce, as the weather conditions have not been conducive. Field mushrooms picked early morning and eaten for breakfast with bacon and egg cannot be beaten, especially after a morning milking.

Farmers are now sowing their winter corn. Barley off Park lane, and wheat up the Moreton road, and after the beans on the Stuchbury path. How do I know? Crops need to be grown in rotation ideally. Whilst you can grow barley and to a lesser extent wheat continuously, to maximise yield and reduce disease it is better to rotate. 

An update on the Zwartable ewe mentioned in last months notes. She was bought for the owners’ baby boy. An easily identifiable present!

As a child of the fifties, being brought up on a farm, I have seen agriculture and therefore the country way of life change greatly, perhaps none more so than in any other comparable era. Farms were then mainly mixed farms, with most having a dairy herd, with thirty cows a sizeable herd. Farming was a very physical occupation then, with limited mechanisation. Today it is often portrayed by the romantics as this idyllic way of life. Granted the pace of life was slower but not for the faint hearted . It was hard but rewarding with companionship as you worked, whereas as today it’s a very lonely occupation for many.

As a child I grew up with new life, death and mating,as part of every day life, making you appreciate the wonder of nature and it’s power. Cows in those days had names, and so I as a seven year old when asked by my teacher to write what the main event of the weekend was, I wrote “The bull went for a ride on Mary”.

Villages such as Sulgrave had a population most of whom worked or had a connection to the land. The names of villagers of that time were of interest, with two or three names dominating each community. This has been highlighted to me in reading Martin Sirrot Smith’s excellent cricket history of Marston st Lawrence and Greatworth, where the teams of that time and earlier were made up of only two or three names in many cases.

Much has changed in the interim but Sulgrave remains a rural village, steeped in its past history.

Richard Fonge

September on the farm (2022)

Sunday, September 18th, 2022

Swallows photographed by John Sheppard

Richard Fonge writes:

September has brought some welcome rain. Our lawns like the grass fields around us are greening up. Grass at this time of the year, has little nutritional value to livestock, compared to the spring when it is high in protein. It satisfies the appetite hence the farming term for it of (fill belly). Cattle and sheep still grow and mature on it but not to the same extent as on spring grass. The most notable example is in the dairy cow’s production of milk. In spring grass she would produce up to 25 litres of milk a day from grass whereas in the autumn it would only maintain the cow with supplementary feed needed to produce the same amount of milk.

The arable fields on the Barrow hill walk have been sown back to grass, as part of a new government conservation scheme. It is also worth noting how quickly the hedge along the Banbury lane to Weston has re-grown in one summer, along with the new planting. Hard cutbacks look vicious at the time, but nature soon re-establishes itself.

On the Stuchbury footpath the rams have gone in to mate with the mule ewes on the 15th September, making the first lambs due on the 7th of February, but there is one interloper amongst them. A Zwartable ewe. These sheep with their distinctive black body, white blaze down the face and four white socks and white tail tip originate from Friesland in Northern Holland, and have become increasingly more popular in recent years as breeding sheep, and can also be farmed for milk production. A friend of mine’s late wife built up a flock some ten years ago with great success. It is always good to see another breed or option to your enterprise being tried out. This may be just a single ewe, with others in another flock, but Farmers are generally open to new ideas of production and management to take their business forward. As my old owner used to say to me, never be afraid to try something new after costing and research, but if it fails, don’t go a second time.

The swallows have now gone to South Africa, and what an amazing migratory bird they are. They arrive around the 10th of April, nest in the same barns (providing they haven’t been converted into houses), and then in late August they start to gather on the telephone lines before flying off to South Africa. This year on my morning walk a dozen or so gathered on the lines up the Moreton rd, to begin with and by the 9th of September they had increased to over eighty. They were there at 8.15 on my way out, and had flown off when I came back twenty minutes later. Who gave the call to go?

Now here’s a likely story. In the fifties a Greatworth man of doubtful integrity was called the “Bird Man”. It was said he caught small birds, coloured them yellow and sold them as canaries!

Richard Fonge

August on the farm (2022)

Monday, August 15th, 2022

Maize at Stuchbury

Richard Fonge writes:

We are now officially in a drought, with harvest complete all around us. The harvest this year has been by all accounts a very satisfactory one, with the biggest concern being the fear of a fire. With the ground so dry and rock hard, no cultivations will be taking place until we have had some substantial rain. Oilseed rape needs to be planted by the end of August to get it established by winter, so a major concern.

The Agriculture industry (because that’s what farming is), is very fortunate in that it is visible to all as we go about our daily lives, and it is also able through local and National shows to open out and showcase our stock and machinery. Blakesley show earlier this month was a great example of this. I have been for nearly forty years a committee member and officer of an agricultural show, where getting across to the general public the countryside message has been one of our core aims and in September a good friend of mine whom I have worked with at the show and on other voluntary initiatives will be preaching at Sulgrave harvest festival. Dr Gordon Gatward O.B.E. is not only a priest but a true practical countryman with an understanding second to none of the countryside and its rural people. Well worth a listen, when we celebrate our harvest.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder as they say, and whilst the countryside that surrounds us is not spectacular in any way, it has a beauty all of its own, especially to those who have grown up in this area. The view from Barrow Hill is a good example.

Maize or corn as it is known in the rest of the world, has three varietal types. The cobs grown for human consumption and known as sweetcorn, need sunnier climes than ours (in more normal years) to be a success commercially. The types grown here are for stock feed or as can be seen at Stuchbury for energy generation through an anaerobic digester. Here the whole plant is chopped, whereas for human use just the cobs are picked. Badger damage in the crop at Stuchbury is extensive and can be seen where they have flattened the crop with their big paws to get at the cobs. There must be an army of them feeding at night!

Finally viewing nature and wildlife in action can be both inspiring and realistic in the way of things. An example: A young leveret was seen last month on Barrow Hill in the grass but on a second glance a buzzard had swooped and taken him.

Richard Fonge.

July on the farm (2022)

Friday, July 22nd, 2022

Harvest in Full Swing (Photo: Graham Roberts)

Richard Fonge writes:

The present weather takes me back to 1976 when we had three months of sun and high temperatures, the only difference being that we just got on with life. A drought was declared and a Minister appointed called Dennis Howell M.P, a former first class football referee. Soon after his appointment it started to rain in September and he was dealing with floods! The severe hot weather brought swarms of ladybirds looking for food as the aphids their main supply had perished in the heat.

Back to the present and harvest has started on Barrow hill with the barley. The grain here will be fed to livestock. The straw (the stalks) is a valuable commodity. It is used for bedding, but barley straw is also a good feed and especially in a year such as this as a substitute to grass as it burns up under the sun. Pour some molasses over it and you have a nutritious feed for cattle or sheep.

On the Stuchbury footpath the beans like all crops are dying off rather than ripening. The pod numbers are good but due to the lack of rain over the last month, like all other crops the seeds are small.

All the lambs in the first field have now been marketed, leaving the ewes to their own devices. 

The oilseed rape on the Moreton or gated rd has extra value this year with the shortage of sunflower oil coming from Ukraine.

Grain when stored has to be at a certain dry matter. 16% for short term. 14% for long term storage. Oilseed rape. 8%. This year all grain should be harvested at these levels if these weather conditions continue, saving money on drying costs.

Especially welcome this year with fuel at its present price.

Farms get bigger as does the machinery to run them. This is inevitable with the shortage of people wanting to work on the land. In this part of the country we have family farms, large estates and contracted farms and they all share a problem of finding staff. A concern for the future.

Believe me there is not a more rewarding job than seeing the fruits of your labours when they are harvested,  whether that be a vat full of milk each morning or a field of corn harvested or prime livestock being marketed.

Richard Fonge

June on the farm. 2022

Thursday, June 16th, 2022

Newly shorn sheep on Castle Hill. Support local farmers by using the fine insulating qualities of their natural wool to keep yourself warm and cut down on heating bills!

Richard Fonge writes:

Last month I said that the crops were in need of rain, and at the months end we had rain, and the difference it has made is very noticeable, especially on the oats along the concrete road, and even more so on the beans on the Stuchbury footpath. Wheat and barley have ears of corn and are both members of the grass family. Oats come out in bell to form their seed. There are two large acreages of oats, on the left as you drive to the Magpie and up the concrete road to the bridge. They will be harvested for animal feed or breakfast cereal such as muesli .

In the years of the binder when sheaves were made and stooked it was always said that the stooks should hear the church bells three Sundays in a row before carried into the barn or made a rick of.

Barley is being grown in the field by Park lane. There are two types of barley, feed and malting, with different management for both. Malting barley after the brewing process has been completed produces a mash, which can be fed back to cattle. A nutritious high energy feed used by milk producers. I used to buy 20 tonnes at a time from Carlsberg. Also when available carrots and potatoes, which could be incorporated into a balanced ration. 

Most of the sheep have been shorn. With wool a much under used product, and heating costs rising, perhaps it is the time to wear woollen sweaters, rather than synthetic fibres and be able to turn the thermostat down.

It has been brought to my notice the precision planting of the maize at Stuchbury. G.P S or Global Positioning System is part of the modern tractor, where a satellite guides the tractor in a straight line and can plant the seed precisely. With G.P.S fertilisers can be applied at the correct rate across a field, after a soil analysis. Precision farming is here for the benefit of all, not least the soil on which we depend to grow our food.

The rain I mentioned at the start of these notes has made the prospect of a good harvest a reality. Something in the present world circumstances we should be grateful for.

Richard Fonge

May on the Farm (2022)

Tuesday, May 24th, 2022

Buttercups in Madam’s Close

Richard Fonge writes:

We are having some welcome rain. Welcome in the fact that the crops and grassland are in dire need of it, as can be seen with the beans on the Stuchbury path, and oats along the concrete road. The situation in the Ukraine has highlighted the need for us, a country with the soils and expertise to grow most crops and rear livestock, to be as self sufficient as possible. The balance between growing food and environmental schemes has never been more important.

The buttercups in Madam’s Close are an attractive sight. Many associate buttercups with contented milking cows grazing amongst them as they did a long time ago. The days of cows being called Buttercup, Daisy or Marigold have long gone. Sixty years back a good Friesian cow would give 4,500 litres in a lactation. A lactation being 305 days. Today due to better genetics and nutrition that yield has more than doubled to 9,000 litres, with most of our milk being produced in the western side of the country where rainfall is higher, and grass can grow better.

The cattle out in the fields near Sulgrave are steers, (If you follow All Creatures Great and Small they are stirks). These are castrated males. Remember cows lactate and then only after giving birth. All very confusing but terminology is important.

Our countryside looks at its best I think in May, with the May blossom out and the fresh greens of the hedgerows and trees. Take a walk on the many footpaths we have around our Parish and savour. The bird song up the gated road in the morning is worth a walk to hear on its own.

The eight sheep on the Castle mound are a rare breed. They are Lonks, a breed native to the Pennines, with a strong body and thick fleece, essential for the climate of the region. Their meat is of good quality and my research tells me it claimed first prize in best hotpot competition. There are many rare breeds of sheep, cattle and pigs and the best way to ensure their survival is to breed them for meat. The rare breeds survival trust stress this in their literature.

Richard Fonge

April on the Farm (2022)

Saturday, April 23rd, 2022

Romney sheep on the footpath to Greatworth

Richard Fonge writes:

We are enjoying a warm sunny spell of weather as I write these notes, and with the blackthorn beginning to go over the air should feel warmer. The adage that we are in a blackthorn winter is a very true one, especially when it first comes out as in this year we had very wintry conditions followed by cold easterly winds, although the sun shone. I saw the first two swallows on the 10th April by the stream on the gated road. After their long migration they usually stay around a water course to feed for a week or so before beginning to nest.

The crops around the Parish are starting to grow with the oil seed rape now coming into flower up the gated or Moreton Road. Notice the variable flowering stages, this is because the pigeons have grazed it during the winter, so stunting the plant and therefore it flowers later and ripens later making harvesting time often a compromise. This year it has become a premium crop with the Ukrainian War, as most of our sunflower oil is imported from the Ukraine and Russia, as are our fertilisers. The conflict certainly brings food security to the fore!

A crop looking exceptionally healthy are the oats up the concrete road. Planted in mid November, small areas have suffered from wet, but as a percentage of the total acreage of all the field very insignificant.

The Romney breed of sheep on the footpath behind Weymss Farm are now lambing and are having singles (although I have noticed a set of twins). These sheep are part of a larger flock and were scanned to singles. Scanning at around seventy-five days of the 145 day gestation period enables the shepherd to manage his flock accordingly.

I mentioned in my January notes how important the pig was to the villager’s living until relatively recently. Other regular or seasonal foods from the farm were bislings or cherricurds, the first rich milk from a freshly calved cow. It was cooked and eaten like a baked custard. Sweet meats or calves testicles were another delicacy. Today we are inclined to look in amazement at what was eaten back in the past. However, it was a healthy diet of home grown vegetables and local delicacies of this kind, including pigeon and rabbit. The harder physical work of the time necessitated such food.

The electric fence to control livestock first came about around 1940, I believe and here are two true stories. My father was on Home Guard duty one night when two of the platoon, panicking in true Cpl Jones style, announced that they had heard a bomb ticking behind a certain hedge and that the end was nigh. It was, of course, an electric fence unit ticking. The second occasion happened at Stuchbury Manor where we had moved just after the war and Reg the cowman concluded that this bit of single wire was useless to keep cattle in, so he touched it with hob nailed boots on, leapt in the air and respected the darn thing forever more!

Richard Fonge

March on the Farm (2022)

Thursday, March 17th, 2022

Green Woodpecker. Photo: John Sheppard

Richard Fonge writes:

March the first month of Spring. Bird song, new life and growth are all around us. This year the sound of the woodpecker tapping away has been sadly missing for some reason. The ash trees up the Moreton Rd are a favourite location as are the Manor trees, but quieter this year. Roe deer are to be seen on the farmland adjacent to the village, usually in groups of four, as are the muntjac deer, a much smaller deer who are voracious eaters of vegetation in gardens and woodlands and along with the grey squirrel need to be controlled when planting any size of woodland.

This week I witnessed a special sight of three pairs of hares charging around in a field, with one pair having a boxing match. There were also three more hares in a field of some twenty acres. What a privilege to be in the countryside at this time of year!

The crops are coming out of winter with most of them having had their first application of nitrogen fertiliser. The barley up Barrow hill will soon be turning green from its rather yellow colour, the oil seed rape on the Moreton Rd is beginning to come into flower, the beans on the Stuchbury path and what I think are oats planted up the concrete Rd are all starting to grow.

March is the main lambing month, and soon the fields across to Weston will be filling up with them. It is so important therefore to keep to the countryside code and keep dogs on leads at all times when walking through stock, and do remember dog faeces need bagging up at all time.

Presenters of countryside programmes and others have the annoying habit to those of us who are countrymen of not using the correct terminology and trying to sanitise the reality of nature at work, and using human terms. For example. Cows have calves, birds hatch chicks, dogs have puppies, they do not have babies. Cattle, sheep and horses produce dung or muck, not “poo”!

Another factor not always understood is that when a lamb, calf, foal or whatever is weaned from its mother, they have completely forgotten each other within a two or three days.

A true event involving cattle manure was an instalment of “Keeping up Appearances” filmed near Leamington Spa where the sitcom was set. A near neighbour of mine had to drive his full muck spreader down a lane and as Mrs Bucket approached in a car, start to spread the muck!

Richard Fonge.

February on the farm (2022)

Wednesday, February 16th, 2022

Traditional Hedge Laying

Richard Fonge writes:

Forty days after Christmas is Candlemas day the 2nd of February, and there is a saying in farming, that says a prudent farmer should have ” Half his hay on Candlemas day.”
A reminder that while Spring will soon be with us, it can still be some time before livestock can feed off grass alone.

The effect of winter weather on Autumn sown crops can be seen especially in barley at this time of year. It starts to go yellow which is nothing to worry about if you are the grower, as an application of nitrogen fertiliser as soon as the weather permits, will green the leaves up. Nitrogen is essential for the growth of all crops and has a significant contribution to yield. It has become an expensive input, now 250% more than two years ago, so is used carefully in the crops management.

On the land up Barrow hill and along the Weston Rd, hedges are being laid in the traditional way, before stock fencing is put up. In places along the roadside the hedge has been cut off at ground level . This is for a very good reason, as the hedge was weak and thin. By cutting it back hard, it will now shoot out at base and with the planting of some new plants between the stumps, a much improved boundary hedge will be seen in a few years,

Mechanical hedge trimming finishes on the 28th of February, for the obvious reason of bird nesting and what is noticeable is the high standard to which it is done by local farmers and contractors. Maintaining a hedge takes skill and precision, and the value of hedges and the way they shape our countryside has been emphasised by the destruction by HS2 of great lengths of hedgerow, opening up long vistas and exposing buildings and houses previously hidden from view.

So much to do with the management of the countryside has to be viewed in the long term, an attribute not always apparent in Government policy. We are entering a new phase in agriculture policy after our exit from Europe, with many organisations wanting a say in our land management, and we will see in our own parish the effects of those policy changes in time.

Finally a quote from a past village character. When told of the death of a contemporary he replied.  ” That’s funny, he’s never done that before”.

Richard Fonge


January on the farm. 2022

Monday, January 17th, 2022

Richard Fonge writes:

January is behaving as it should with some frosty nights as I write. The new year brings new beginnings, as well as a look back at the past.

These days we hear a lot about people coming to the countryside to live off the land. This is in most cases a life choice. But growing up as a school boy of the fifties it was still a necessity for most villagers. I think I saw the last of a village way of life, that was to change with the swinging sixties. Back then agriculture was the main industry of villages. In 1954 farm workers wages were £7 a week, so to make ends meet it was essential to have an allotment as well as a garden to grow vegetables, keep some chickens, not only for their eggs, but also for the pot or a roast depending on age. I remember the rearing of the pig  and the ritual of its slaughter and being hung up after salting In outhouses and kitchens. It has to be remembered how important the pig had been up to this time to most villagers as their main source of meat. The meat was usually about 75% fat, not good today, but back then when work was extremely physical and often entailed a bike ride or walk to work to an outlying farm it was soon burnt off. Other meat to be taken from the land were rabbits and pigeons. Potatoes were still grown in most parishes and when spun out of the ground in the autumn women and children would come in gangs to pick and put in boxes. These ladies were often very protective of their village and didn’t take kindly if the farmer recruited from a neighbouring village.

In those days with so little traffic, cattle and sheep were driven through the village and the Grafton hunt met in the village centre.

Life has obviously changed and evolved considerably in the last seventy years, but Sulgrave has retained that village community spirit. The only thing missing from those days were the rural characters, with their droll and dry wit. In Greatworth or Grit’orth as it was and is still called by some, there was a man called Freddie Bullock who, when as a baby was seen in the road with just a cloth nappy on a local called out “hello Gandhi” . From that day on he was called by that name.

Richard Fonge