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September 13, 2007

Farming Life: The dairy farmer's annual forty-eight hour silage-making marathon

Posted by Jorocs

As I look at the large heap of grass silage in the clamp, covered with black plastic sheet and weighted down with tyres, I feel reassured that amidst all the problems which beset the dairy farmer today, at least I have my supply of winter feed for my dairy herd safely gathered in.

For years the valley in which I live remained the last bastion of traditionally made small bale hay. Many weeks during the summertime were spent trying to make hay of very varying quality for winter feed for the dairy herd. The hay made in May and early June would be very good, producing fodder capable of maintenance and fifteen litres of milk production per cow, but the early season's start always put the hay at risk of inclement weather. Later made hay in July and August would be more easily made, generally due to more sun and settled weather; however the crop was older and therefore of less quality providing probably maintenance only and the cows needing extra expensive concentrate feed to produce milk.

As dairy herds grew larger, there were not enough days' sunshine to make enough hay in the old fashioned way. I well remember writing to Graham Harvey, Ambridge's agricultural adviser, after he wrote an article on the demise of the smell of new mown hay. I queried if he had really spent long hours trying to retrieve a rain blackened crop of hay knowing its feed value was little better than straw?

This farm has always had a tradition of not changing at all for many years but then making an enormous step forward. So one momentous spring we used farm labour to build a silage clamp to put all the grass in. No sooner had we started work, than milk quotas were introduced requiring milk production to be cut by ten per cent. After much soul searching we carried on.

Every year since, early in May, the contractor arrives on the farm with approximately one million pounds worth of shiny new equipment to accomplish the silage making in forty-eight hours which happens with varying degrees of success. Sometimes it goes very right, sometimes it goes very wrong, but most often the quality of the silage ends up in the middle.

In the first year my neighbours took one look at all this shiny new equipment and said "How on earth can you afford this?", but within three years they all copied me. My biggest critic and the last one to change, did have the decency, in a very unsettled year, in desperation to write on the wall of his barn in letters a yard high for all to see, "I will never ever, ever do my own silage making again." Every year tells a different story and this year was true to form. I rang the contractor in March and booked him to come on the fifteenth of May or possibly two days earlier, depending on the weather. With the glorious start to May, I thought "We've got this right".

By the seventh of May, the crops were nearly there and we could have gone in brilliant sunshine but I decided to wait a week. Then the heavens opened and it rained for twenty one days. Each morning I woke to the patter of rain and looked out of the window on a sodden landscape. The crops were starting to go to head and fall over and the quality of the grass starting to decline.

Luckily, I was first on the list when the rain stopped. However I would have to go and risk a bit of mud and cutting some ruts or lose my place in the queue.
No-one can ever understand unless they've been there, the stresses and strains a dairy household goes through in those forty eight hours. The enormous mower arrived on the Friday and proceeded to cut a hundred acres in less than a day. When I started farming we would be lucky to cut an acre an hour with the old cutter bar mower. Now we just needed the weather to hold for thirty six hours.

The whole family walked on eggshells not daring to ask each other, least of all me, what they thought the weather was going to do. The forage harvester (which loads the grass into the five trailers ) and the two loading shovels (which put the grass into the clamp) arrived at six o'clock on Friday night and started in fine style. Then once round the field and they ground to a halt. I was in the kitchen trying to force down some tea and rushed out fearing the forage harvester had found and tried to digest the sledge hammer I had lost last winter. This could be very expensive since when forage harvesters and lumps of metal meet it creates very expensive repairs and a lot of down time. Fortunately the sledge hammer was not the cause but the breakdown was quite major and would cause considerable delay.

The team manager was on his mobile when I arrived, arranging for a lorry to leave the yard at four o'clock next morning and drive two hours to Devon to collect a demonstrator machine which would work through the night to complete its current job. Collect at six o'clock, back here at eight, working by nine and finish about eight hours later at tea time on Saturday.

The next day dawned bright and sunny. I completed the milking and finished breakfast by eight thirty. By nine forty five no sign of the machine. I ring Mike, the team leader "He's on his way, he's on the M4". By ten thirty no machine and I try to sound calm and reasonable with one eye on the impending rain as I ring Mike again.

"How's the lorry getting on?" I ask, displaying more calm and patience than I could ever imagine.

"He's stuck in traffic", came the reply. With seven men all sprawled out in the field drinking coffee from a thermos for the last two hours, my nerve is beginning to crack, with the wife continually asking not only what is happening but why?

I keep telling her tersely, through clenched teeth, "Knowing why will not change anything". By eleven o'clock Saturday morning my nerve has cracked. I remember one year it rained for three weeks and we had half the crop on the floor. We brought it in silage trailers and took it out again next winter in dung spreaders without putting it through the cows.

By eleven fifteen the machine has arrived and the sun is shining. All seems to be going well - record crops and they work through till six thirty in the evening without a hitch, by which time one hundred acres are safely gathered in, just as it starts to rain again. Friends arrive and with the help of the silage gang we lay out the plastic sheets and spend the next hour doing the worst job on the farm, throwing dirty wet tyres from one to the other to hold the sheet down and force the air out.

In the gathering dusk the team leave up the lane and I see their rear lights twinkling. From my vantage point on top of the heap, I survey my valley farm with its fields of shorn acres contrasting with the lush grazing paddocks and feel happy. I feel that I must be a reasonable custodian of my little bit of land.

Jorocs writes about hunting life for the Social Affairs Unit. To read more by Jorocs, see Hunting.

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