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Crofting Agriculture
Chapter IV. The Conservation of Winter Fodder


23. Haymaking

Another name for haymaking is heartbreaking—at least that is what it is in the West Highlands. One would think it a simple enough operation to make use of the natural forces of sun and wind to reduce the moisture content of grass from 80 per cent. to 16 per cent., but in fact making hay is the most hazardous task of the crofter's year, and on its success or failure depends the number of stock he will be able to keep and whether there will be milk in winter. On the whole, it may be said that haymaking in the West is a losing game. Even with the best of conditions, there is a loss of about a quarter of the nutritive value of the grass cut, and in ordinary years in the West, quite 50 per cent. of the crop is lost. The time will come in this part of the world when haymaking will be about as common as cattle reiving, and just about as up-to-date.

I said there were considerable losses even under the best conditions. These are caused by the grass continuing to breathe for a good while after it is cut, by the small leafy portions (especially of the clovers) breaking off, and by the oxidizing or bleaching action of the sun on that important, health-giving constituent of green grass called carotene. There is no doubt that good haymaking means handling the crop as little as possible, and as this course happens to coincide with our natural inclination, let us see how it can be done, or at least attempted.

First of all, the hay crop should not be left to become over-ripe before it is cut. Hay is ready when the pollen is falling. June hay is the best hay we can get, and we can cut in June if we keep the ewes and lambs off the meadow ground, grow good seeds mixtures and help the grass along in spring with the right manuring.

The sooner the grass can be got into quoils the better, for not only does the quoil stage give temporary protection but hay makes a good deal in quoil. Usually our quoils are made on the ground, but if we take the big forward step of making it possible for the quoils to be built with a foot of air beneath them, we find we can put the grass in quoil much sooner than when they are on the ground, and that the hay will make much more completely in quoil.

There could be no easier time to make wooden pyramidal structures than now, when slabs from the timber felling can be got for 5s. a ton. This idea is not original : I got it from a farmer near Stromeferry who has used the system successfully for several years. He uses four 6-foot lengths of wood, knocks a staple in one end of each and threads a bit of rope through the staples to join the lengths together. When the pyramid is set up, rings of rope are thrown over the top to fall about 9 inches apart ; these prevent the grass falling through. A peg is set at right angles into each upright and jutting outwards to form a support for the bottom forkfuls of grass as it is being built on to the pyramid. Each quoil is tied across the top with two bits of coir rope.

After that, my friend waits for a good day to open out the quoils, after which he is able to carry them into his slatted barn. The amount of handling has been very slight. This excellent method will not do so well on the most exposed crofts where the strength of wind is beyond the understanding of folk in more sheltered places; but where it can be done, try it.

The losses in haymaking, as I have said, are inevitable, but the hollow pyramid method described above causes much less loss than the old method of constant swath-turning and tedding.

The system of haymaking in which there is least loss is the Norwegian one of drying the hay on fences. Several crofters are following this already, but the method is nowhere as common as it should be in the West. A writer who signs himself "The Doster" has recently described the method in detail in Farming News and North British Agriculturist, and I am taking the liberty of repeating some of the points he makes.

He says that the tackle needed for an acre of a crop averaging 2 tons of hay (our western crops of soft hay are probably about 1 ton) is as follows: 35 light stobs or sheep-net stakes about 5 feet long, 2 heavy strainers and about 400 yards of sisal or St Helena hemp rope, 6-thread, weighing 16 lb per coil of 120 fathoms. Rope is preferable to wire for speedy erection. The strainers are set up 100 yards apart and the light stobs every 3 yards in between. A stob is set at an angle outside each strainer, to which the top ropes can be tied back. The first rope or wire is set 15 inches above the ground and well strained. If rope is used, clove hitches or shepherd's knots can be used at each stob. Now rake in the cut grass from both sides of the fence and lay it lightly over the line with the fork. Do not overload the first line, as it will not carry as much as the upper ones.

The next line is set 1 foot above the first and that is filled in the same way before the next line is put on. There should be four lines in all. The grass should be "fenced" the same day as it is cut; indeed, care must be taken not to cut more than can be fenced that day.

"The Doster's" countryside is Aberdeenshire, and he says nothing about the placing of the fence in relation to the prevailing wind. Probably he would say the fence should be across the wind, but had I been using this method on Tanera I should have hesitated to do this, because the whole thing would have blown down in a gale (and there is always a bad one in July), or at least the grass would have blown off the ropes and finished up under the dyke. For exposed and Hebridean conditions, the drying quality of the dry spells is so good that I think we should get quite satisfactory results by pointing the fence parallel to the main wind, that is, south-west and north-east. The great point of this method of haymaking is the little handling the hay gets. The results of analyses show that fence-made hay loses least nutrients compared with the tripod method which is next best and the traditional method, which is least good. The fence method should stimulate us to grow short leys of rye-grass and clover, or to get heavier crops of natural grass, because I can imagine nothing more exasperating than trying to balance grass about 4 inches long over a rope!

Finally, "The Doster" suggests that after use, the tackle be taken up in an orderly fashion ready for the next cut or the next season.

24. Ensilage

Because a man tries to do a job and makes a mistake, we do not damn either the man or the job. Our reasonable attitude is to find out where the mistake lay, and learn how to go ahead without making a mistake next time. That is the spirit of research, which well becomes all of us and not merely a few people dressed in white coats, working in laboratories and remote from everyday life.

The practice of ensilage, that is, preserving fodder crops in the green state for winter use, has been one of those jobs men have tried to do when faced with the problem of saving winter keep in a rainy, uncertain climate. There was a fashion for making silage over half a century ago, and the mistakes made then and the opinions formed by onlookers on the practice of ensilage have died hard. It is the small minority of farmers who make silage, and among crofters it is almost a nonexistent practice.

Let us try to remember that those men who tried to make silage fifty years ago were pioneers working with complicated chemical processes which they did not understand. There is enough chemistry in a silage pit to fill a fat volume. Neither farmers nor chemists have been idle in fifty years, for instead of the haphazard process which resulted in excellent feed one year and so much muck the next, it is now possible to produce first-class winter keep with certainty from meadow grass and the aftermath of seeds hay.

I can remember quite well how, as an agricultural student of nearly twenty-five years ago, the word silage conjured up in my mind the picture of a high tower silo on some rich man's farm. An expensive engine and chaffing machine cut up the crop and a blower raised the crop to the top of the silo ; and I reflected on the cost of raising all those tons of stuff to the height of the tower for it merely to fall down again inside the tower. It is always expensive to overcome the force of gravity. Those days are over also, and we now let gravity help us make the silage.

The practice of ensiling grass saves haymaking, but it does not save hard work. There is no doubt, as I have said, that haymaking in the West Highlands results in a loss of quite half the feeding value of the grass cut. If, however, we lime and slag our arable ground and grow the fine crops of grass and clover mixtures which our climate would allow, we shall be laying ourselves open to lose a good deal more than half the nutriment if we insist always on making it into hay. The heavy, sappy crop would deteriorate much more rapidly than the thin crops of meadow hay we are handling at present.

My way would be as follows : I should keep the sheep off the young grass in spring so that there was a good crop to cut by the second or third week in June. The weather is often good then—low rainfall, long hours of sunlight and a drying breeze. That is haymaking weather and we should go hard at it. If we get our hay then it is one of the best foods we can possibly offer to cattle and the loss in transition from grass to hay has been as low as possible. But supposing the weather goes wrong on us at that time : we should then seriously consider turning the newly mown crop into silage.

The cheapest way of making grass into silage is to fill it into a pit 3 feet deep and 12 feet wide. The length of the pit will depend on the amount of crop to be ensiled, but should not be less than the width. The excavated earth should be neatly piled along the sides, leaving the ends free so that carts may be tipped into the pit and, when the herbage is level with the ground, drawn right across.

The site of the pit must be chosen with some care. Obviously the most convenient place is near the steading, but the decision must rest on the nature of the soil. The best soil conditions are those of a gravel pit which, though providing air-tight conditions, also allow free drainage. A pit in sand would do quite well if the sides were firm enough. The great thing is to be quite sure that the bottom of the pit would never be waterlogged after heavy rain. Personally, I should like to face the sides of my silage pit with concrete, making sure after filling that all rain falling on top of the pit would drain outside the concrete walls, otherwise the pit would be far better to have the porous gravel sides. One farmer I know in one of the wettest parts of the Highlands makes excellent silage year after year in a plain gravel pit.

One of the main objections crofters may offer to making silage is that they will not have enough grass to fill even a small pit silo. This is true enough, but we must ask ourselves what is the best way out of a difficulty —shall we let the grass spoil trying to make it into hay, or could we possibly co-operate with a neighbour who may be faced with the same problem. If we can run a sheep club stock, and join forces for the communal work of gathering, dipping, potato planting and so on, it should be possible to join in a pit silo, cart-loads being counted in and the finished pit being divided proportionately.

Here is some arithmetic of the silage pit: the weight of silage will be two-thirds or three-quarters of the weight of green crop in the field. You can estimate the quantity of green crop from the weight of hay you would expect. Say you have an acre of seeds which should yield 2 tons of hay: that would mean 6 tons of silage. A cubic foot of silage weighs about 40 lb., so our 6 tons will occupy a space of 336 cubic feet 2240 x 6 / 40. A pit 12 feet wide, 3 feet deep and 15 feet long would give 540 cubic feet if it were finally finished level, but in fact, the grass would be packed as high above the ground in the middle as the depth of the pit, so that the capacity would be about a third greater, or 720 cubic feet in all. It would need, therefore, the full June crop of 2 acres of seeds to fill a small pit silo. If the June crop is made into hay and only the September aftermath is to be ensiled, it will need four acres to fill the silo. Few crofters will have that acreage to cut for themselves, the more's the pity. Ensilage is undoubtedly a job for co-operative enterprise.

I said earlier in this chapter that there was enough chemistry in the process of ensilage to fill a large volume. Chemistry is a ticklish subject for a few simple words on agriculture, but it is no good trying to make silage on the hit-or-miss principle. Knowledge of what is happening inside a silage pit means control, and control means success.

Grass is living tissue which continues to breathe after it is cut. When cut grass is piled into a heap, its continued breathing results in the production of heat. You cannot get heat without something being burnt somewhere, and in the heap of grass it is the starchy and sugary part of its food value which is being burnt. You and I are burning all the time—that is how we maintain our warmth and keep on living. When a man flies very high in an aeroplane it is not only food he needs, but extra air to allow him to keep his body burning, and the part of the air he takes up with him in a pressure cylinder is oxygen. Without oxygen he cannot burn. Similarly, one of the first things we are taught to do if someone's clothes catch fire is to wrap a blanket or rug round them to exclude the air. You cut off the oxygen supply and the fire goes out.

In making silage we want to prevent most of that burning in the heap of grass, so we exclude a large part of the air by having airtight walls to the pit and by treading the grass into the pit as heavily as possible. Grass which gets too hot in the pit may lose half its nutrient value. We want to limit that loss by burning to about 10 per cent. and allow the heap to get no more than warm.

There are more living things in the grass than the plants we see. Many millions of germs or bacteria are present—and let us get it clear in our heads that there are good germs as well as bad ones. One of the most common ones in herbage is that which causes the natural pleasant souring of milk and ripening of cream. It is called the lactic acid organism, its action being to turn the lactose or sugary portion of the milk into sharp-tasting lactic acid. This acid has the power to act as a preservative and prevent other and undesirable fermentations, whether in milk or silage. That is why the butter-maker often buys a pure culture of the germ for putting in her cream.

Now, when we start putting grass into a silage pit, we want those lactic acid germs to get going as soon as possible before the less desirable ones start their unpleasant fermentations. Young grass tends to have such a high protein or meat-like value that there is actually insufficient starchy and sugary matter in the grass for the lactic acid germs. The modern method of making grass silage is to provide readily available sugar in the form of black treacle or molasses at the rate of 30 to 40 lb. per ton of grass. The treacle is diluted with one to two times its weight of water and sprinkled over each layer of grass as it is tipped into the pit.

When you cut your seeds or meadow grass for ensiling, let it wilt for a day before carrying it in. The grass should be trodden well in the pit, especially round the sides. It will take eight to ten days to fill the pit properly, for the grass settles a good deal and one is kept busy cutting for the next day or two's carrying.

Allowing the grass to wilt for twenty-four hours after it is cut prevents too much moisture accumulating in the pit and saves a certain amount of work, for the wilting means so much less water being loaded on to the carts.

As a pit silo should take about eight or ten days to fill, a man should find little difficulty in being able to cut enough day by day, even with the scythe, to keep going with the filling. Each day's lot of grass trodden into the pit will heat up to about 100 F., and the aim should be not to exceed this heat or considerable loss in feeding value will take place. There is also a marked sinking in bulk day by day, so that on the last day the grass should not be more than 6 feet above the surface of the ground.

The temperature of 100 F. is not too high to check the working of the bacteria which form the lactic acid which preserves the silage. The change from grass to silage is rapid, and covering the clamp should begin as soon as the pit has been topped up. The earth or gravel excavated from the pit is ready to hand and should be thrown on to the top of the clamp. Two poles slung to each other by wires, so that one hangs horizontally on either side of the pit, will help to hold a good body of soil on the top. The top pressure of a foot of soil is important, and it should be well compacted to form a layer which will shed the rain. As the top gets completely covered the soil which falls down can be packed against the side, so that the clamp is finally covered with a good foot of compacted soil.

When the silage pit is opened in winter, it should be uncovered at one end only and the mass cut vertically with a knife. The top two or three inches may have to be thrown away, for bad silage can be poisonous to cattle. The smell of the yellow-green silage should be pleasant and sweet and most appetizing for the stock. Its feeding value is far ahead of a similar weight of roots, in the ratio of about 10 to 6, and silage can be fed safely to cows at the rate of 30 to 35 lb. a day. Calves may receive 5 lb. a day and stirks 10 to 15 lb.

Silage produces a wonderful bloom in the coat of cattle and is particularly valuable for winter milk production. Horses should receive only moderate quantities of silage; a garron, for example, should not get more than 10 lb. a day.

25. Grass Drying

What I am going to write now will not be practical politics at the present time nor for a few years to come. It will do us no harm, however, to use our imagination, even at a time when all our efforts are strained to a more immediate end. And it so happens that the future of which I am thinking will not be possible unless we get doing now certain tasks of soil and grassland improvement which are urgently needed and immediately necessary anyway.

Crofters throughout the West Highlands are wondering, mostly with some dubiety, whether the Hydro-Electric Board will make electric power available in remote townships. I believe the Board is very much aware of its obligation to society in this direction, but remember that it will be society as a whole rather than the Board which would object to carrying a few shillings' worth of light to an isolated township at a cost of many thousands of pounds. Our best way of ensuring that the power will come is in showing that we can use it in some quantity and that its presence will make possible an increased output from our land and effect a social regeneration in our countryside. In other words, do not let us be content to sit back and cry out for the power to be brought; let us set our crofts in such order that it will come as a matter of course—and quickly.

Throughout all I have written on crofting agriculture has run the theme of the disparity between the quantity of arable ground and hill pasture in the West Highlands, and the necessity of treating that arable ground intensively if it is to provide winter keep which will allow us to maintain a cattle stock nearer the high summer potential. There is no doubt at all about the possibility of growing this winter keep, because the West can be wonderful grass country and agricultural science has now selected strains of grasses and clovers which can yield crops undreamt of forty years ago. Having solved the problem of growing, there remains the equally difficult one of gathering the crop. Haymaking is obsolete and results in an average loss of 50 per cent. of the food grown, a tax on production which will effectively prevent a crofter being much troubled by income tax demands.


THE OLD CORN MILL ON MINGULAY

"The old order changeth, giving place to new," said Lord Tennyson. This is true enough and not always to be deplored. Change is inevitable, and if we are to remain happy in a changing world, we must not allow ourselves to look back over our shoulder and see the country and time from which we have passed with the enchantment of distance. The future commands all our energies. This ruin of a primitive corn mill is a sign of change in that the crofter no longer lives on the meal from oats of his own growing. The cultivation of oats, for feeding in the sheaf to cattle, has remained. We would be better to change in this also and make intensively-grown rotation grass our principal arable crop for cattle feeding, now that the grain of home-grown oats is no longer the main source of our nourishment. They can make a better job of growing oats for meal in the Black Isle than we can in the West. The old mill in the picture should remain as a respected and loved historical relic. The thin-bladed corran or sickle of Gaeldom which we see on top of the wall is another relic of the past which I have found on many a deserted island. Some of them I have rehafted and used for cutting seaweed.

Such oats as we do grow in the West should be threshed and crushed— or ground in the new hammer mills—for stockfeeding on the basis of a township unit, or an outfit serving a group of townships.

I believe one of our hopes for the future lies in grass drying through the agency of electrically generated heat. The Report of the Agricultural Research Council's Committee on the Preservation of Grass and other Fodder Crops, issued in 1935, gave special attention to the types of machinery then available for grass drying and to the relative costs of the processes compared with haymaking and ensilage. I bought a copy eagerly at that time, thinking the Report might have something applicable to the West, but I had to lay it aside in disappointment. The cost of the smallest plants was over 400, and these were quite uneconomic for a lesser area than 50 acres of grassland in a state of high cultivation. It was not the initial price of the outfit which upset me so much as the quantity of fuel needed. Once more the old expensive problem of human industry had come to the fore—of getting rid of surplus water. Please do not say, "Couldn't we use peat as fuel in these machines?" because winning peats is like haymaking, another job of evaporating a large quantity of unwanted water! Peat is an expensive fuel if you want a lot of it, and its heat potential is not very great. Peat reek and all that is best left to the compilers of romantic stories about the Highlands, and the sooner we get thinking in terms of electricity, the sooner shall we become practical idealists.

The best food for cattle is grass, preferably young grass of the better kinds, in which there is interspersed some few wild plants such as burnet and rib grass or plantain. Some parts of New Zealand are able to maintain a highly efficient dairying industry because their cows are out all the year round and the young grass grows all the year round as well. The West Highlands do not grow much young grass in the first three or four months of the year, but I would say that were our arable ground in the best order into which it could be got, there are few parts of Britain which could grow grass for as long a period of the year as the West Highlands.

Grass drying, as it is specially understood, is one way of conserving the high feeding value and the minerals of young grass for winter use. The loss in conservation is less than 5.0 per cent. of the total nutrients. The technique of drying consists of passing hot furnace gasses over the wilted grass lying in trays in the containers. If the grass is wilted for twenty-four hours a good part of its natural moisture is lost, and that means economy in carting to the dryer and economy in fuel for the furnace—electricity as we hope.

Now if this expensive piece of mechanism and equipment is to run economically, it is obvious that it should not lie idle too long. It would never do to be satisfied with one crop of natural grass coming along to be dried in August. We should need to keep it busy between May and the end of September, drying the grass from parks which are growing leys treated as intensive arable crops. Before grass drying can become fact we must learn the specialized art of grass growing. For example, we shall have patches of Italian rye-grass ready for the first cuts in May, leys of cocksfoot and perennial rye-grass ready for June, well-kept natural grasses and clovers ready for July and August, and the aftermaths of the short leys to follow in September.

The herbage is cut at from 5 to 10 inches high, allowed to wilt and loaded into carts with forks which have three or four prongs. Cutting is best done between eleven and four o'clock in the day, as the moisture content in the grass is least at that time. The grass dryer would be a township enterprise, and if several crofters were carting loads along to it, the best system would be to weigh in each load, twenty-four hours' wilted, and each crofter credited with a weight of dried grass in proportion. The dried grass itself would be baled and stored in a communal warehouse from which crofters would draw their proper shares through the winter.

The dryer itself not only produces high-protein feed from young grass: it can be used for making a superlative quality of hay from the longish stuff which might be cut about midsummer and from such natural grass which could not be expected to yield more than one cut.

All this is very fine. With our grass crops dried in this manner we shall be able to winter three times the cattle stock we can now, and expect them to come out of the winter with coats like silk. But let me repeat : it is not a practical policy until we get our grassland into first-class condition with lime, phosphates and ample cultivation. Then we must give the greatest care to the selection of our grass mixtures and treat the leys in the light of the latest scientific knowledge. That day is far ahead I am afraid. Even if we have the knowledge and desire to make grass an intensive arable crop, we have still to undergo a minor revolution in township management. Where the townships are laid open to grazing hoggs all winter it is impossible to differentiate one's husbandry from that of the rest of one's neighbours, and we are obviously governed by the methods of the least progressive crofter in the township. We shall have to get into the notion of enclosure of the arable land for a man to use as he will for twelve months of the year, so that if he grows a crop of fine grass or a winter forage crop he can expect to reap the benefit of it.


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