Andy Robinson, Working Animals Supervisor at the Museum explains how we are revisiting forgotten farming methods by removing heavy machinery and letting the horses earn their keep.
We are always looking forward to the next season, considering which crops to plant and how to ensure the land is not over worked and that the soil has time to rest, revitalise and reproduce for the seasons to come. That’s the point of the process of mixed farming, rather than using chemical fertilisers and heavy machinery we work with our livestock to feed the fields and aid the crop production for use around the Museum.
In October, our horses plough the fields with winter wheat. The main role of the horses, Leon, Ollie, Kash and Thor, is to plough, till, graze and drill the land in between harvests, ensuring that they work efficiently but have time to rest and recover when the workload is heavy.
One of our biggest challenges, as with all farming, is the unpredictability of the weather. It can be a gamble, having experienced such a dry summer last year and long freezing conditions over the winter. The introduction of animal dung to the fields as well as using animals to work the land through ploughing and rolling aids all areas of the soils’ health. Reducing soil compaction caused by heavy machinery maintains the integrity of the growing medium. In turn, this creates fantastic soil for high and healthy yields, creates great drainage, allowing the soil to keep its structure, and reduces water loss through runoff.
As spring approaches, the winter wheat crop begins to thrive. Once the February ploughing is finished, we drill in the oats for our summer crop. We’ve chosen a high yielding fast growing grass in our remaining fields which the horses and sheep will enjoy over the summer.
We sow field beans and traditional crops such as mangelwurzel instead of fodder beet, used in mainstream farming. Finding heritage seeds can be tricky but we find new suppliers every year so hope to have enough this season.
Our lambs arrive in early March and will graze the fields when they are old enough. We start by grazing the horses on the taller crops. Once the plants are eaten down, we move the sheep down to continue eating as they will devour the crops lower to the ground.
We’re really interested in expanding our livestock and becoming home to a couple of cows next year. Back in the Victorian era, all farms would have had cows, even if it was just for dairy. We feel like we’re missing that from our working farm. Cow dung is the best fertiliser for soil, nothing works better.
As if horses and sheep weren’t enough, we also keep Sussex Saddleback pigs and chickens on the farm. Each pair of pigs we receive are always nicknamed Ping and Pong. No one knows which is which! The pigs stay with us for the summer months, living off farm grown crops.
Our role at the Museum is to demonstrate historical practices in all walks of life. Having the ability to showcase a working farm using traditional methods is never more relevant in current times and there is a lot more we can continue to learn about working with animals and arable farming to ensure healthy reliable crops year on year.