During mild spells of winter weather we remove some of the Yorkshire boarding that forms the top half of the back wall of the main foldyard to ensure it has effective ventilation.
It is a delicate balance between creating a healthy flow of air that will diminish the chance of respiratory infections among the newborn calves, and making it too draughty and cold.
Ideally, John administers an oral paste to the calves within a few hours of their birth, containing antibodies against rotavirus, coronavirus, salmonella and e.coli. The protective instinct of the new mums can play a major part in the timing of this dose. Our suckler cows do not seem to appreciate that John is trying to supplement the maternal antibodies in colostrum and prevent their calves scouring.
Why should they? As far as they are concerned, he is interfering with their precious babies. It is a matter of checking constantly to see if mum has gone to feed at the silage face and then nipping in and getting the paste down the calf’s throat before, still supercharged with post-natal hormones, she returns to have a go at him.
Outside, away from the duvet bliss of the strawed foldyard, muck and blather impacts on other farm tasks. “Why does anyone fancy being a sheep farmer?” John asked, as for the umpteenth time we failed to bully a group of reluctant fat lambs through a muddy gate hole. The entire group had raced past us back to the comparative safety of the other end of the field, completely oblivious to our sheepdog Fizz and John’s expletives.
Plan B was brought into play. This consisted of the technical approach and involved ripping down a section of newly-erected fence along the next field of tender young wheat plants. The lambs were there in a flash. After all, for several weeks they had dreamed of gorging themselves on this particular delicacy.
Taking the path of least resistance John decided to leave it at that for the day. The wheat was getting winter proud and it would not do it any harm to be grazed and take off any lush growth and mildew on the leaves. After all, he persuaded himself, he intended to put some sheep in there anyway and this would negate any immediate requirement for fungicide and add a sprinkling of ovine fertiliser.
The morning’s exercise had illustrated beautifully that great mystery of agricultural life. “Why do they always put gateways in the muddiest part of the field?” And we have a lot of muddy gate holes that emphasise the difficult and frustrating task of driving sheep through quagmires.
Both ewes and lambs teeter about on the edge of the mud and water like ballet dancers on points. Even with a pair of whooping humans and a persuasive sheepdog, they turn in a convincing impression of suicidal lemmings with a change of heart.
When pressure from behind eventually forces the flock to go through the morass, you can guarantee that at least one of the them will need a mud wrestler’s rescue.
Sodden fields are not favoured by the underground saboteurs on our land either – moles. The overnight appearance of a fresh set of molehills in a grass field reminded me of a parents’ evening at Bubwith school, when our younger daughter Jo was about six or seven.
At her classroom door I was greeted hesitantly by her class teacher and shown an example of Jo’s artwork. A poignant picture of a barbed wire fence with a row of black blobs hanging off the wire. Underneath, Jo’s misspelt title read, “My Dad caches the moles and hangs them by thur noses.” Ever after, that teacher always looked nervous when I came into school.
Once more, however, a grim gibbet is filling up with “the little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat.” He may have been the toast of the Jacobites after William III’s horse tripped over a mole hill and threw William to his death, but he certainly isn’t John’s.
Apparently the British mole population has reached record numbers as the poison previously used to kill them, strychnine, is now banned. For this reason, one of John’s Christmas requests was for a new collection of mole traps to deal with the large number of moles that seem to view our fields as a popular holiday destination in February. The field they are favouring is destined for hay, and molehills will create havoc when the baler comes along.
My humanitarian suggestion and alternative to wholesale mole slaughter, treated with great contempt I may add, was to put a card received through the post a while ago advertising a calf milk replacement powder, down the mole runs.
This card springs an electronic serenade of Bonanza when left open. I had heard, from dubious and ill-informed sources John intimated, that the delivery of this highly appropriate, albeit tinny-sounding song would drive the moles mad. Or at least out of the run they are in. And field too hopefully.
But nature is supporting some of our efforts in halting the mole exodus from neighbouring fields. There may have been a large number of new molehills, but there are also a large number of dead moles on the surface. So they have either drowned, starved or just expired from a surfeit of cowboy songs.