Watching snow fall on Sunday and comparing it with the almost-balmy sunshine of 15 degrees earlier last week when fertiliser spreaders were zipping across fields and grain drills were in action on lighter land, I thought of a Footrot Flats cartoon strip.
Footrot Flats, some might recall, was a newspaper strip that ran mainly during the 1980s, based on the bachelor farmer, Wal, and his sheepdog known only as Dog. It was set in New Zealand, but the farming truths were universal, including the strip I had in mind on Sunday.
Dog in his kennel – an old water tank on its side – looked out on a grey day, thinking: “ Boy, the spell of good weather has broken. What a wild night! Rain, wind, lightning, thunder, hail!”
“Well, that can mean only one thing.”
Outside, there’s a pitiful “Meh..eh!” “Yep,” says Dog, looking out through the murk and rain at a lamb dropped by its mother in mud. “Lambing has started.”
Most British lowland lambing is now in big sheds, but the principle is the same, posing the question why nature, and many farmers, stick with lambing in one of the most fickle months of the year.
I’d like to hope the weather improves, but the forecast for the rest of March isn’t good. Welcome to the real spring after the false dawn of late February and best of luck to all shepherds and sheep.
Listening to William Grimsdale speaking at a Kelso agricultural discussion society recently, I was reminded of Peter Hepworth when he spoke at Kelso a few years ago.
Both were straightforward and interesting speakers about their large-scale arable farming; both had the certainty that they are doing all the right things that seems to come more naturally to arable than livestock farmers.
That could be because, for all the vagaries of the weather, there is more predictability about what crops will do if established in a certain way, then sprayed and fertilised with attention to detail and timing than there is about how livestock will perform.
Mr Hepworth is also from Yorkshire, which, in my experience, gives everyone from that fine county the conviction that they’re right even if they happen to be wrong. His attention to detail and invariable crop-growing successes, as he used to report regularly in the magazine Arable Farmer, sometimes to the near apoplexy of those of us trying hard to do the same with poorer results, verged on the fanatical.
Mr Grimsdale, who came to Mountfair, Berwickshire, in 1988, aged 28, is from Hampshire and slightly more relaxed about an operation where he, two sons and a trainee using big machinery, with extra staff at harvest time, grow crops on about 4,000 acres in the Borders within contract-farming and profit-sharing agreements.
But he was as convinced as Mr Hepworth that he had developed a keep-it-simple system that not only made profits, but had improved soils, encouraged worm populations, and did not need the 24/7 approach that most arable farms take to the autumn rush that starts with oilseed rape cutting in late July and can go on until well into November when the last of the winter wheat might be drilled.
He told an audience of about 70, noticeably many of them younger farmers, that a “no Sunday working” decision was taken about 18 months ago because “if we couldn’t do the job in six days a week, we should give up.” Being able to plan family and leisure activities with certainty had made “a fantastic difference.”
Many farming families brought up on the principle that only bad weather might allow them a few hours away from the farm would agree with that. Also that, for most, a chance would be a fine thing.
The Grimsdale operation with a 450hp tractor, a simple rotation of oilseed rape, first wheat, and second wheat, work rates that can reach 800 acres a day for fertiliser spreading and more than 200 acres a day combining, is not the biggest in the Borders.
But it is a single-minded type of farming that has been criticised for its effect on land and people. Mr Grimsdale’s view is that he and his sons run a family-focused business efficiently and profitably and that changing from ploughing to discs for crop establishment has not only saved time and money, but has greatly improved soils and worm population.
Some of the fields they contract-farm have not been ploughed for 14 years “and the soils are alive,” he said. There is no limit to how far that improvement can go.
The same is true of economies of scale. Costs have been steadily reduced for years, but that must continue for the next ten years, he said, and questions must be asked continually: Would it be possible to run the business with one 250 hp tractor and 1.5 men? What would changes to Europe’s common agricultural policy subsidies mean to contract farming agreements? What will happen to crop prices?
It’s tempting to say of both Mr Grimsdale and Mr Hepworth, as of any large-scale operation, that “It’s farming, Jim, but not as we know it.” But it is farming as we’re increasingly getting to know it.