Scratching in the maize

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On a lazy Sunday afternoon during crop planting season a farmer’s mind is never quite at rest. Will the rain forecast for the week ahead materialise? Have the seeds planted in the last week germinated properly? Should certain contours be replanted? When the mind is busy there’s no better antidote than to pile pregnant wife and dogs into the bakkie to go and walk the fields and scratch in the soil. Simply looking from afar is not good enough you have to actually dig to find the seeds germinating under the soil. So far, it seems that the stuff planted in the past week will be fine because there’s been some sporadic rain, but the contours that were planted early before we had proper rain are not doing so well and are very patchy – one should see a nice solid line of green when you look down the line of a contour. These will probably need to be replanted to maximise yield, but it’s a tough decision involving extra time and cost. The veld has made a remarkable recovery in the past two weeks which is great for cattle, but the dams are still very low so we’re holding thumbs for some generous showers soon.

As usual, the dogs absolutely love a good run and little Hope is integrating so beautifully in the pack. She’s four months old now and has long lanky legs which help her to keep up the pace with Patch and Coco, but she’s still petrified of cows and other dogs, which sometimes gets her into trouble. There’s always the risk that she’ll run off into the mountains with Coco when they catch a scent, but I’ve taken to carrying treats with me to make it more tempting for her to come when we call rather than follow her mother. Beagles will be Beagles though so it’s not a guaranteed strategy and we’re still keeping a very close eye on her to make sure she’s safe.

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What a difference some rain makes!

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The past few weeks have been unbearably hot, windy and dry on the farm. The little bit of rain we had at the end of October quickly dried up and things started to look pretty desperate again. The sky all around us was thick with dust churned up by the wind and tractors hard at work preparing fields for the summer planting season. My heart really went out to all the tractor drivers sitting on open vehicles covered in clouds of dust. Being a tractor driver holds a certain amount of status and prestige amongst farm workers, but at times like this it really cannot be a nice job!

2013-11-17_0001The rain finally came on Friday and carried on all through Saturday. Soft, beautiful, drenching rain! Many other parts of the country experienced heavy flooding, but we had just enough to be satisfied. As luck would have it, we had important work to do on Friday with the start of our first IVF programme for our Boran cattle. Fortunately our new cattle facilities provided enough shelter for the vets to carry on with their work and everything went off smoothly. Many cattle breeders rely on embryo technology to reproduce top quality cows at a faster rate than would normally be possible using donor cows and surrogates. One way to produce and retrieve embryos is to stimulate the donor cow to produce more than one egg and then to artificially inseminate her so that the eggs are fertilised internally before being “flushed” out. Another way is to extract the unfertilised eggs or oocytes directly from the cow’s ovaries and to fertilise them externally in a semen culture. The resulting embryos are left to incubate for seven days before being implanted back into the receiver cows. This latter method is a new development in cattle reproductive technology and we are very excited to see the results. It should be less invasive to the cows since they don’t have to receive extensive hormone stimulation and it’s easier to synchronise the programme with our normal breeding season so that calves aren’t born at odd times throughout the year.

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2013-11-17_0004After two days of gorgeous rain, the sky was crisp and clear today and everything looked brighter and fresher. We took the dogs for a long run this afternoon and along the way checked some of the newly planted maize fields to see whether the seeds have germinated. Some of the fields look very patchy in places, but hopefully this rain will help to get things going nicely. Once the lands have dried up a bit the planting season will begin in earnest. In our area, we can only really plant maize until the first week of December so there is still much work to do! Fortunately the cattle won’t be as labour intensive now that there’s some water in the dams and newly growing grass. How quickly the mood can change after a beautiful gift of rain!

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Parched earth

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It is incredibly dry on the farm right now. We haven’t had a drop of rain since April and that after an unusually dry summer. Farmers never seem to be happy with the amount of rain they get, but this really is a drought. One which could have devastating consequences if it doesn’t rain soon. What is normally considered a quiet time on the farm has now become a daily struggle to make sure our animals have enough food and water. Many of our dams have been depleted to pools of mud so water has to be brought in by tractor twice a day – a very laborious and time consuming process. Fully functioning boreholes and windmills are precious commodities right now. Sadly not all of ours are working, which limits grazing options especially in the tracts of land on top of the mountain. There are spots of green where wheat is growing, but the crop is definitely a failure since the germination rate was only about 30%. The landscape would be pretty monotone brown if it wasn’t for the willow, poplar and oak trees! Nevertheless, life goes on and Quentin is making the best of a depressing situation carefully eyeing the weather forecast each day for rain. Hopefully it will come next week or at least before the end of October.

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Calving season has been in full swing since August, which is usually a joyful experience. We have many different groups of cattle sorted according to age and type (Boran, Angus and cross-bred animals). This year, our heifers (cows calving for the first time) have been very labour intensive because they are still quite young so many of them are having trouble giving birth. The heifer group is checked twice a day so that problems can be picked up quickly. I can’t count how many times Quentin has been called out to go an “pull” a calf or rescue a weak mother stuck in the mud. Sometimes it feels like he is a gynaecologist rather than a farmer! The calves are eternally cute especially when they have just been born and stand up on wobbly legs in search of their mother’s teats. One often has to look carefully to find the calves because their mothers hide them away from predators during the day. Most of our cows should calve by mid-November and then if it has rained, attention will turn to the planting of summer crops. It is amazing how the same cycle of activity can feel so different each year depending on the weather. In the three years I have lived at Vastrap I’ve experienced both extremes of too much rain and too little… is it too much to hope this time for a Goldilocks season that’s just right? Only time will tell.

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