Our Light Sussex hens on a snowy day

Spring Grazing

The awakening of spring may seem like a gentle period, but much is afoot on our farm at Louma. The animals are busy bringing new life into the world and our farmers, sewing new seeds for the season ahead.
Drew hand-feeding our Poll-Dorset ewes

In the Earth

March may seem a quiet time in West Dorset. However, whilst the countryside might appear like its sleeping, many things are happening out of sight. In the soil, life is stirring. Bacteria are busy breaking down organic matter into substances usable by plants. Bulbs, corms and tubers are starting to grow, daffodils are emerging in Guppy and the last of the snowdrops are fading back. But it’s not just plants showing signs of activity. Our animals are becoming active too.

Our Farm Animals

Our wonderful Poll Dorset sheep spent the winter in our vineyards, grazing on a broad variety of plants, which not only provide food for them but also help to keep them healthy. They will often make a bee-line straight to broad leaved plantain (Plantago major, a common plant of pasture and arable land), which brings up minerals from deep in the soil, giving the sheep the trace elements they need. Plantain is also valuable to the sheep as a natural wormer. Allowing animals to self-medicate like this is an important part of our regenerative approach to food production. It reduces our need for drugs, particularly wormers, which in turn has a positive effect on the soil. When animals are routinely given wormers, their droppings will still contain small amounts of the chemical which may then kill important soil-living insects such as dung flies and dung beetles. These insects are important parts of the food web and our soils and wildlife cannot thrive when an element is removed. As the vines come back to life in early spring the sheep will be moved to their summer pastures.

 

Our approach will help to ensure that our ewes are healthy and well fed when the next batch come to lamb in May. Before that though was, perhaps, our most exciting event! Our beautiful Red Ruby Devon cows calved in early March and are now tending to their young in the fields. Even though the winter was horribly wet, our cows have thrived outside. They grow thick coats and their grazing is supplement by our home grown hay. Made in our rich meadows over the summer, the hay is evocative of those warm days – indeed, as one older local farmer says ‘you have to wrap a bit of sunshine up in it’, which I think is a beautiful sentiment. Something we are also doing in the summer is making tree hay. Tree hay was a common practice in times gone by and you will often see the stumpy remains of pollarded trees in the countryside. Pollarding means to cut back the upper branches of a tree which will then grow back and provide young leafy branches which can be used as livestock fodder. The practice is quite labour intensive so has rather fallen out of favour in today’s mechanised world. Our tree hay is rather more incidental to keeping our hedgerows tidy, we take the branches we don’t want, bind them tightly and hang them in a shed to dry. It is a valuable source of minerals for the cows and they certainly seem to relish these dried, leafy branches of ash and willow.

Our Red Ruby Devon heifers grazing in Upper Clappers

The pigs have continued to thrive through the winter and with the warmer days will begin to put weight on rapidly. The Large Black is a breed suited to and, indeed, originating from the Westcountry. They are an uncommon variety of pig, and by buying in excess boars, we are helping to support breeders of this wonderful creature. Large Black pigs thrive on feed that other breeds might turn their snouts up at, so they do very well here, rotating through a series of paddocks, into which is sown a mixture of delicious plants such as kale, turnips and vetches. They love to root and the paddocks can look messy, but they soon green over with a little care. Supplemented with squishy apples from our orchards and, in time, other fruits and vegetables from the gardens, our pigs are great utilisers of highly nutritious but sub-par produce, otherwise unsuitable for human consumption.

With the lengthening days our Light Sussex hens are showing what absolute stars they are. Every day we have a wonderful bounty of the freshest and best quality eggs one can imagine. This is due, in no small part, to the fact that we graze our hens on fresh ground, sown with grains and seeds for them eat straight from the plant. This ensures they get a full complement of the minerals and vitamins they need. As well as being able to express natural foraging behaviour.

In the Fields

New seed mixes will be going in shortly, so we are starting to prepare the ground by opening the soil structure with a machine called a subsoiler. This will allow roots to penetrate deeply and help to bring up those important minerals. We will also be making stale seedbeds – creating a seedbed which will allow the seed bank to germinate, which we will then cultivate again, thus helping us to control the burden of plants we don’t really want in the crops. As we do not use any herbicides, this is an important part of our regenerative regime. Our soils were conventionally managed for many years, which has resulted in compaction and poor fertility. It is our duty, as custodians of the farm, is to get these soils back to good heart and productivity through sympathetic management.

Spring is the formative time on the farm; the time when things are starting to grow and we set out our intentions for the coming year. Some things however, are constant – how we care for our animals, our dedication to sustainable food production and above all, our love for this small patch of earth.

By Drew Love-Jones

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