View from the Hill 20th July 2021
One of our shiny Angus steers, grass-fattened on our stretch of the locally renowned for cattle finishing, Dorset Stour river meadows, have been making their way to ABP at Sturminster Newton, until this week, when the plant had to close for covid reasons. So the last batch had to go further west, to Langport, any more delay and they would have been too fat. There comes a point when, after a maintenance diet over winter of turnips and silage, the new fresh grass diet kicks in and these fellows can end up at 850kg apiece, putting on as much as 2kg per day. How much grass must they consume to put on that much meat? The meadows can’t be used to grow crops, they usually flood at least once a year, so turning the soil over could result in huge amounts of it entering the river, which is bad on so many counts. If cattle can turn permanent grassland into high quality protein for human consumption at such a rate, is this the best use for the land, or should we be planting flowers and trees, and instead eat protein produced by bacteria in a factory somewhere? Or worse, import beef from overseas, where the rules for keeping animals are very different to here in the UK?
A different pasture management system we are trying to perfect is that of mob grazing. Our cows are grazing 2 year herbal ley, which consists of a diverse sward of many species, including several nitrogen fixers like clover, sainfoin, Lucerne, and vetch, plus other species such as plantain and chicory, as well as a sprinkling of different grass species. The cows get to choose the plants they like best, some even have anthelmintic properties (they act as a natural wormer).
A trip to the Groundswell event, which promotes regenerative farming practices and soil health, a couple of weeks ago, was an opportunity to investigate many new ideas for soil, crop and animal management, and one of the host farmers, John Cherry, took a group of us with him to move his mob grazing herd onto new pasture. He does this every morning, moving his animals onto fresh ground every day, judging how much to give them by observing how much they consumed the day before. The idea is not to graze it all right down to the ground. For maximum soil and animal benefit, the animals will eat one third of the available fodder, they will trample another third which will benefit the soil, leaving the last third standing, which will continue to photosynthesise and grow back again quickly. John uses temporary electric fence, and has enough ground available to allow the pasture to recover for around 40 days before the cattle will spend another day on the same piece of ground. We have not managed to achieve such a precise level of management as Mr Cherry, our cows spend longer in each paddock. Maybe next year, when we establish a new round of leys, we will get a bit closer. The plan is to sow 20 hectares of new ley straight after cutting the wheat in 3 fields destined for it, and later in the autumn we intend to direct sow wheat into the outgoing ley fields.
Another attraction at Groundswell was the dung beetle safari, where guests were taken into the cattle field to investigate cowpats. Healthy cowpats support a vast array of beneficial organisms, and we learnt that some modern wormers which are regularly used on livestock, are so efficient that they also have the unintended consequence of killing the larvae of many of the beasties which feast on cowpats, thereby dismantling an ecosystem which is supposed to be beneficial to soil health when functioning correctly. Some insect larvae burrow deep into the soil below the cowpats, creating routes for air and water, as well as for other organisms to move through the soil, and add crucial links to the soil food web.
June is traditionally the month when farmers go off to shows and demonstrations across the country, which, as well as being important social occasions, are an opportunity to learn new stuff, to observe potential new items of machinery in action, to chew the fat with fellow farmers and industry specialists, and to investigate beers brewed in counties other than one’s own. As in so many other walks of life, the 2020 lock down put paid to all of these events, however the loosening up this year has allowed many to proceed, admittedly in a smaller and more socially distanced fashion than previously.
A day-trip last month took us to the Hendred estate in Oxfordshire, to take part in a meeting revolving around the ASSIST project run by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. (ASSIST is a six-year £12 million research programme that, with support from the farming industry, will meet the challenge of feeding growing populations without causing unacceptable environmental damage). Our own role in this project, although not scientifically verified, because we joined the project 2 years late, has been to establish flowery strips through the middle of some of our larger fields, (see picture above) with the hope that within time, they will act as reservoirs of potential predators of crop pests. A short film explaining the project can be found here: https://youtu.be/xIEd_u98kEs
During the visit, we learnt about some of the many experiments being run, one of the simplest and most entertaining was the one where the presence of slug predators is measured by making fake slugs with plasticine, leaving them in the field at various distances from the predator habitat, and then returning after a few days, to examine the plasticine slugs for tooth marks. The style of tooth mark tells the scientists what kind of beetle or other predator is present, and likely to be a good natural controller of slugs, which can be very damaging to emerging crops, especially during wet weather. This could in time lead to a reduction in the use of slug pellets.
CEH are also experimenting with equipment to measure the amount of carbon given off or absorbed by soils depending on what crops are growing in them, with profound implications for climate change and the effect that land management can have on atmospheric carbon.
It’s been a fantastic year for orchids, just the right amount of sunshine and rain to produce a wonderful show of pyramid and common spotted orchids on the downland.
I’m the king of the castle
A crop circle appeared last week at an undisclosed location on the farm. This is the first time we have played host to one of these. Annoyance at the flattening of some of our crop, making it hard to harvest, is tempered by respect for the perpetrators who have made an admittedly pretty good job of this attractive geometric pattern. The only way worth seeing it is from the air, it is not visible from anywhere on the ground, and close up gives you no clue of the design.
Since starting to write this a few days ago, the hot weather has hit us with a bang, and harvest has begun. The maris Otter winter barley is now nearly all safely gathered in, and the straw mostly baled. We are very keen to finish tomorrow as rain is forecast for the weekend.
Not only the barley, but the hay, where Gary has been flat out all week as a one man haymaking gang. No sooner had he mown it, than he was back in the field tedding and raking, and then when it’s ready and dry, back he goes again with the trusty old Claas Rotocut round baler and wraps it up, it all looks great, and smells lovely, having been made without a drop of rain on it, unlike in Essex so I understand. We have also cut, baled and wrapped some lush new growth in our experimental field, where we have sown a number of different mixtures.
The mixture containing westerwolds grass, clovers, vetch and phacelia, has grown very well in the wet-dry-wet spring that we had. In other plots we have sown various combinations as companion crops, involving spring oats, peas, peans, vetches and sunflowers, as well as a few spuds. Partly because we can, with our clever new Sky drill, and partly because we simply want to see whether it is true that different species sown together have a synergistic effect on each other. This year I think it is more to do with the 160mm record rainfall which fell in May, which may have led to higher levels of disease in the wheat elsewhere, but it has certainly made these late sown mixtures grow like crazy. It has also rescued the poppies from oblivion, they have rallied late and are right now flowering surprisingly vigorously, seemingly all the way to Hod Hill by the look of this picture. The old water tank is there for entirely aesthetic reasons…..
75 years ago on the Hill (well not this hill admittedly).
Most of this 17 minute film was filmed on the farm which is now Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire, in the 1930s and 40s, where my father’s family used to go every holiday, and where he and his siblings caught the farming bug. The youngsters in the film are now 93, 88 and 82 respectively, and have spent their whole lives in farming, their father having been a London GP until he retired to Dorset, just as the new-fangled NHS was rolled out in 1952. It was filmed by my grandfather, then edited and the commentary added by my uncle a few years ago.