Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Spring in the northern hemisphere

The last week or so has been a perfect storm of nice weather, lots of work, and a bit of viral illness. Which is the excuse I'm using for thoughtlessly abandoning this place to its own devices. Which are apparently few, because the blog has published nothing on it's own. Bad blog! Lazy blog!

Another thing that happened over the last week or so is that spring arrived. Click on the pictures for a larger image.
Cows gobble greening grass on late winter (spring, really) pasture Tuesday morning, March 10.
Of course it’s not really spring just yet. By the calendar and by the heavens, the Vernal Equinox is still a week away. But it’s close. And out in the real world, nature has put winter behind her and embarked on spring. You can tell. There'll be more cold and snow. That's a given. But it's now spring and there's no looking back.
What the cattle were doing a year ago on March 10, 2014.
Spring is a rebirth, of course, the time when nature wakes from her long winter slumber. The days get longer, the sun climbs higher in the sky, the air and soil warm and the green of photosynthesis begins to add color to the drab, monochromatic landscape. The wind loses it’s bite, ground squirrels come out, insects begin to buzz and crawl, birds begin to nest, and calves begin to dot the pastures.

The best springtime conditions are idyllic. Spring has another face, of course. Howling north winds driving heavy snow and smashing the nascent rebirth to a standstill for a few hours or a few days.

When I begin looking for spring I’m looking for the idyllic variety, of course.

We had a nice warm period in January and February, and while it was enjoyable, it wasn’t spring. A cold snap ended that abruptly. On March 4 the temperature was about 1 degree and the ice was eight inches thick on the stock tanks.
Thick stock tank ice on March 4. Eight inches? Who are you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?
I broke my ice axe that morning. I also sent a video of the wintery scene-- including thick tank ice and a broken axe, to my friend in Herefordshire, England.
Broken ice choppin' axe.
I met Elwyn and Julie last July when they visited our ranch during their vacation trip to the states.
Elwyn and Julie on the EJE last July.
We really hit it off. There are a lot of differences between England and the U.S. and between Herefordshire and Nebraska, but production agriculture is a universal language, and when we’d each puzzled through each other’s strange accent, we’d found that our lives, experiences, and practices are often quite similar.

In responding to my icy video, Elwyn said, “I wish you’d give me warning before you show me cold pictures like that! It’s 12 degrees (celsius, 54 Fahrenheit) over here, I’ve thrown my coat off and am getting the fertiliser spreader out. Spring has arrived two weeks early!”

Elwyn and Julie are “mixed” farmers from near the tiny village of Dilwyn. They raise cattle and sheep and grow hay, small grains, and apples. Their son Jack has recently “finished university” and joined the family operation. A daughter, Beth, is still in school.

We keep in touch via a smartphone application called “WhatsApp.” To an old guy like me, it’s pretty amazing to be able to chat and share videos and pictures in near-real time from 4,500 miles distance. Herefordshire is not only distant in space, it’s seven (six with the recent time change) hours ahead of us.

Elwyn and Julie are fourth generation farmers, working the same land that Elwyn’s great-grandfather farmed. In many ways their operation is similar to a diversified operation here in Nebraska. In other ways it’s very different. For instance, they have a 100 cow herd and a flock of 275 ewes. They raise hay silage and corn for feed. But in England corn actually means small grains, wheat and barley for the most part. What we call corn they call maize.

Astonishingly, they do all of this on about 150 acres!

Another big difference is that they “house” their livestock throughout the winter, keeping them in large barns. This puzzled me at first, because the winters in Herefordshire are mild compared to Nebraska.
A frosty winter morn in Herefordshire, seen from Elwyn and Julie's back porch.
It gets cold there of course, but the temperature seldom drops below 20 degrees.
Herefordshire in the depths of winter. The temperature had fallen to 21 F on the coldest day of the year.
It stays so warm (relatively, of course) that they actually have to shave the backs of their cattle before they go indoors so that they don't overheat!
Son Jack shaving a cow for winter. You've no idea how strange that seems to a Nebraska cattleman.
When it gets cold they get a bit of snow, but it’s generally warm enough that most of their winter precipitation comes as rain. Plant growth slows in the winter in Herefordshire, and the soils become saturated from the winter rain. You can imagine what would happen if 100 cows and 275 ewes were wintered on 50 sodden acres. It would be the world’s largest mud bog!

As you might imagine, with the barns being so central to livestock production, they are very well thought out, set up and equipped.
Panorama view of one of Elwyn's barns.
Elwyn’s barns have concrete floors. They put down a thick layer of straw bedding in the individual pens. The pens are modular and they spend a lot of time shifting livestock, “mucking out,” and replenishing bedding. It’s quite labor intensive and also a significant expense.
Panorama of the second barn.
Elwyn’s cow herd calves in February, and while it’s an important time, calving is almost a sideshow compared to lambing. They’ve got good cows, he said, and pay close attention to breeding for calving ease. They’re set up and ready to assist when needed, but they rarely have to pull a calf.

Lambing is an entirely different thing.
Brand new Herefordshire twin lambs, only moments old.
The lambing begins in late February and hits full speed in early March. This year of 275 ewes, they scanned 175 twins, 42 triplets and 58 singles.
Elwyn has dubbed this one "Lamb Ranger."
Ewes require more attention during lambing because multiple births mean more complications.
A modern lambing aid is Lamb TV. What a country!
So Elwyn’s family stay busy 24/7 during lambing, each taking a six-hour daily “watch.”
A set of new triplets working out the pecking order.
Now that the calving’s done and the lambing is drawing to a close, Elwyn and Jack are busy spreading the winter’s accumulation of “muck” on their crop fields in anticipation of, as the English say, “ploughing.”

It’s been a great deal of fun sharing stories, pictures and videos across the Atlantic. In the cold of late February and early March I got to catch a taste of spring in Herefordshire, and got to share the trials and tribulations of thick ice and broken axes.

This week has been near-idyllic across the southwest Panhandle. The sun has been warm and the breeze mild. Overnight temperatures are still dropping into the 20’s, but of course it’s still winter. Daytime temperatures have been climbing into the 60’s and even touching 70 on occasion. As I walked out across the pastures this morning (Wednesday morning) I noted that the grass had really taken off over the last 24 hours. Yesterday there were thin patches of green; today the carpet is beginning to fill and the individual plants have gained a good inch in stature.

Hope you enjoyed this peek into farming in England.

A couple of videos from Herefordshire:


  1. Colder than blue blazes (at least for Texas) the first week of March, Raining, below freezing and 15-20K. Early part of this week, raining but above freezing, last couple of days highs in the upper 60s and trending warmer. So, yeah, concur Spring is on its way. Thank Goodness.

    1. That period between the start of spring training and the real arrival of spring can take forever. Sure nice when it gets here.

  2. I was prepared for bitter cold upon my return from the warmer climes of southern California.

    I was not disappointed to be greeted by temperatures in the fifties and sunshine upon awakening this morning.

    1. Some surprises are quite welcome, eh? Glad you made it home safe and sound,

  3. Very interesting to learn about other operations, and how they handle things. Always something new to learn, which keeps it interesting.
    Too warm here with no rain, we are going to be hurting if it doesn't catch up SOON.

    1. Too warm here as well, and we're already falling behind on moisture. Gonna need rain for grass, and if there's no grass I'm probably not gonna get rich on the stockers I just bought. Good thing I take most of my pay in nature's non-monetary benefits. Story of my life...