Getting the silage safely in is always a big day, and nowhere is this more apparent than at Octomore Farm. James Brown has around 300 head of cattle to feed through the coming winter and the size and quality of the crop is vitally important. The long cold wet spring held the grass back much longer than usual this year, but the excellent growing conditions since the end of May has meant that the final cut has been good.
The cut is taken in as an environmentally friendly way as possible to minimise the effect on the rich wildlife of the farm. James has a management agreement with Scottish Natural Heritage which delays the cutting until the 1st of August, allowing rare birds such as the Corncrake time to breed. The tractors also cut to a scheme which does not drive animals such as Brown hares to the centre of the field where they get cut up by the final pass, but instead shepherds them to the sides so that they have plenty of opportunities to escape.
Silage is essentially fermented grass that has been preserved by excluding air. The process is broadly similar to that used to create sauerkraut, or yoghurt, or cheese. It is made at Octomore by piling up the freshly cut grass in a large pit. It is then compressed (by driving tractors on it!) and covered to exclude the rain. It is an excellent way of retaining the nutrients of the fresh crop through the winter when new growth is not available.
At Octomore, the winter silage diet of the beef herd is supplemented by using both draff (spent barley) and malting barley straw that has been used at Bruichladdich distillery to make the whisky. This is all chopped up together in a huge food processing machine into a tasty semi-dry porridge which the cattle enjoy.
Contractor Iain MacPherson and his team from the old crofting township of Conisby above Bruichladdich cut the silage at Octomore in an intense burst of activity during which they work from dawn to dusk. This is both to ensure the quality of the crop (it has to be compressed quickly for optimum results), and to beat the ever present threat of Islay’s weather closing in.