January 2021

A frosted cow parsley head reaches for the blue sky of another crisp cold winter morning

So here we are in 2021. I wrote last month about the uncertainties facing us before the deal with the EU was agreed by the government.  At least we don’t have tariffs or serious limits to trade with the EU so far, but who has read the agreement from start to finish, and knows what lies in the small print ? 

Oh dear, lockdown again.  One might have dared to think that various departments in the government would have spent some time over the last year preparing a plan B for when things don’t go as well as they had been hoping, but events seem to prove that they were not.  And now we are in lockdown 3. Why not have alternate months of lockdown, until the population has been largely vaccinated ?  Just until we know the vaccine actually works.  Then all the schools and businesses, and everyone else, would be able to plan ahead properly.

Farmers are amongst the lucky ones, we have open spaces, and a job that requires us to carry on working, producing food, no matter what happens.  Most people are  again subject to restrictions to try to slow the spread of the virus, which will make life very hard over the next few weeks.  However the countryside is still very much open, footpaths, bridleways, forests and national trust land, beaches and so on, the great outdoors is the best healer in such a time as this.

How to moo loudly: “Where’s my breakfast?”

Our cows are indoors eating hay, and bedded on spring barley straw. Their recently weaned offspring are mob-grazing turnips on the Knoll, and our older beasts are being treated to a silage chaser to accompany the best crop of turnips, this time strip fed, in the Park.  We plan to fatten them off grass in the river meadows over the road in early summer.  The silage was made from an opportunistic cover crop sown after 9 hectares of failed poppy crop in June.  I only wish we had been bolder and pulled the plug on more of the poppies, they were a droughted disaster last year, whereas the 2019 crop was a cracker.   Fortunately averaging the two still made a half decent margin, for a break crop.

Steers and heifers strip grazing turnips in the Park, with a side of silage.

Some farmers are grumbling because of a new Tesco / ABP (Anglo beef processors) beef contract.  They have changed the pricing structure for finished animals, which reduces the age of the animals that are eligible for the best prices.  Our fattened animals usually go to an ABP abattoir at Langport, about 40 miles by lorry.

Beef farming is not a very profitable pastime, but we have a lot of permanent pasture (it can’t grow arable crops, too steep or stony), and we make the best of it with a few cows and sheep.  The buyer offers premiums for the animals being Aberdeen Angus, with a named sire (bull parent); for growing them to the right shape at the right age; and for following and sharing the correct procedure for medicine use.  These premiums are important to us as margins are tight.  The change of the age range which will receive the best price is a serious challenge to us.  The new contract requirement of 24 months age limit is, we are told, designed to reduce the effect on the climate.  By reducing the life of the finished animal, the theory is that they will emit less carbon based gas into the atmosphere.

Many farmers will understandably follow the economics, and speed up production of meat animals by feeding things like cereals and imported soya to their animals. However there is evidence that the farts and belches from grain-fed animals contain more CO2 equivalent than grass fed animals.

We farm our livestock extensively, on pasture and brassicas only, no grain, but It is very hard to finish pasture-fed animals by the new contract age limit, so it seems that Tesco want us to feed grain, not the most natural feed for an animal with 4 stomachs carefully evolved to digest green plants.  To quote a wise old sage: “a cow doesn’t have a gizzard”. 

I can hear some readers screaming “are you mad?”,  but there are quite a number of consumers who prefer pasture fed meat.  It looks like we may need to find another outlet for our animals, but then welfare becomes an issue, we don’t want our animals travelling hundreds of miles in a lorry when there is an abattoir in the next county, albeit one that insists we feed grain to our animals to get them to fatten quickly enough. 

An argument often used by the vegan lobby is that we shouldn’t be wasting food that can be eaten directly by humans, such as grain, by feeding it to ruminants, which are very inefficient converters of the energy in grain.  I have some sympathy with that view, though in my next breath I would ask if they can be sure that the protein crops they need to eat, which non-vegans acquire from animals, are not causing climate damage by being grown in very vulnerable soils in far flung areas of the world where food and environmental standards are a rarity compared to the UK.  I would further point out that 70% of the UK’s farmland is pasture, and only 30% arable, so it seems sensible to gain some human benefit by using the grassland to provide high quality, nutrient dense food for humans, in animal form.  We could argue for ages about whether adding grain to the ruminant diet is a good idea, the US has ended up with feedlots, where ruminants are fed almost exclusively on grain, producing very poor quality meat for the less discerning American mass market. Do we want this in the UK ?

Spot the sheep, they are out there somewhere, far left.  They have nearly finished grazing this 110 acre field of rape.  The narrow strips longways are wildflower strips to provide habitat for insect predators of oilseed rape.

The sheep have nearly finished grazing the oilseed rape, this has several purposes, to reduce insect damage to the rape, and to reduce the need for both fungicides and weedkillers, the sheep have eaten off the leaves which attract fungal spores, and they have nibbled down the weeds to a manageable size.  We also managed to fatten all but 80 of the lambs, from an original 350, before Christmas, which we have not achieved before.

Readers may remember last year’s experiment with Innovative Farmers, where we were able to measure the effect of winter sheep grazing on the rape crop at harvest time.  The following link will take you to a 2 ½ minute film explaining what we did, and shows the resulting yield map.

In the end, the grazed area yielded a bit less than the ungrazed, but the experience has taught us that we should try it again, because there are ways to grow the crop more cheaply if we know we are going to reduce weed and fungal pressure, so perhaps next time, even if the yield is lower, the margin may be similar, as we will have lower costs.  We were also able to add value by fattening 270 lambs in record time.

Sad death of an oak tree.  This fine old tree started to die at the top many years ago, possibly from a lightning strike.  It finally fell in the first week of January, luckily there were no animals in the field at the time. It was surprising, and not a little scary, to see how little root there was holding it up.
Gary and Brendan look like midgets dismantling this poor old oak tree

Check out these whiskers


A novel gate closer, farmers will recognise it as an essential piece of equipment for hitching a machine to a tractor, known as a top link. I wanted to bring it home with me.
The River Stour, looking north towards Durweston bridge and the renewed causeway. The river is quite full and shows why we call this piece of land the Island.

Extract from: ‘Should we switch to a vegan diet to save the planet and feed the world?’ 

By Caroline Grindrod.

Imagine a wonder crop that has deep roots that tap into hard to reach nutrients underground, it’s drought resistant – when it rains the root system helps the water stay in the soil instead of running off. This crop can resist the highest winds or the wettest spells, it grows well all year round and on any type of soil. This crop could provide food security even in the most erratic rainfall caused by climate change.

Our wonder crop helps to oxidise methane and takes carbon from the atmosphere and locks it out of harm’s way, it builds its own fertility so needs no artificial fertilisers – one of the most carbon-heavy and energy intensive inputs in modern agriculture. This crop requires minimal management; no machines, no pesticides, no irrigation, it does not need to be planted every 

year, and it can grow anywhere – even on mountainsides, arid plains, or wetlands – the places where no other food can grow.

Sounds great, but there is one HUGE problem. We can’t eat it. It’s called GRASS.

But as evolving humans we got around this issue – we ate the animals that ate the grass (along with seasonally available plants).

Ruminants – like buffalo, elk, cows, and sheep – have clever digestive systems that can turn this wonder crop into meat and milk. The meat doesn’t need storage, can be moved from field to field, it doesn’t often spoil or rot, and we can harvest when we need it – regardless of the weather or time of year. Some of these food animals even produce nutritious milk. As a pleasant ‘by-product’ it also tastes AMAZING and you can get nearly all the nutrients you need to thrive from the different parts of an animal.

To read the whole article, follow this link:


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12 thoughts on “January 2021

  1. I have recently taken up cudgels with Greenpeace concerning their promotion of Veganuary. Populist, totalitarian generalisations are a disappointment from such a usually brave and exacting campaign organisation. Far better the Regenury of the Pasture Fed Livestock Association. So delighted, George, that your view chimes with this approach.

  2. Got any spare capital? If so perhaps some of your younger, and recently graduated, family members could set up a local business to process and promote extensively produced animal products. Not organic, not feed lot but somewhere in between where consumers could buy provenance proven products online or from the gate. I am looking at you next generation. Hosford Meats and Dairy?

  3. Well done George. You are quite a poet on the quiet! On a more serious note the world of horticulture is dealing on a daily basis with the enormous burden of red tape surrounding plant movements to the EU and Northern Ireland as a result of the Brexit deal. A shortage of Plant Health Inspectors and confusion over interpretation of the regulations is not helping. Consolidated loads of plants on articulated lorries now need a Phytosanitary certificate for every consignment. These lorries take in excess of 40 trollies of plants, often for at least 12 destinations. One error on one consignment can delay the whole load. If this cannot be sorted out by the end of February, when very perishable plants start to move backwards and forwards then there will be real problems. It won’t just be the driver’s ham sandwich that has to go in the skip!

  4. There seems to be a bias in the media too (as well as Greenpeace) towards the non meat eaters.
    Little news has been broadcast of the well researched and huge trial led by Oxford University that concluded that vegetarians (not even vegans) were much more likely to have significantly more trouble with brittle bones than their omniverous contemporaries.

    Little information is available from the manufacturers of meat subsitutes such as Quorn regarding their environmental credentials. Given that some types of Quorn include palm oil presumably the packaging shows the detail – ‘may contain pieces of dead orang utan’

    I too raise grass-fed (not even any brassica-fed) beef and am distressed by the reduction in age (and also body-weight – a grass-fed beast is typically bigger than a force-finished beast) announced by the supermarkets. If it wasn’t for the EU forcing the closure of smaller abattoirs we would all have much more choice about where to send our animals locally.

  5. Dear George,
    As one still hidden away,your missive and clear explanations bring me closer to the lives of committed producers and some of the conundrums they meet and seek to overcome. May the visions continue to spur you on and continue to be shared with the likes of the partial understanders like me!
    Thanks again,Rogxxxxx

  6. Hi George
    In these fundamentalist times it’s very good to read that there are few, if any, easy answers. Maybe the other point to add to crops grown distant from consumer is the issue of food miles – merchant shipping has a poor record on employment rights and pollution levels (given the crude fuel ships use)
    I know there are no prizes but is the gate with the top link closing device by the pond at Ringmoor above Turnworth — favourite biking stop!!


  7. Hi George

    In these fundamentalist times it is refreshing g to read an informed article which recognises that there are issues which are black and white. The other point I would add in to the issue of food / feed grown at distant from consumer is that shipping wins no awards for pollution (given the crude fuel used) nor for employment rights.
    I know there no prizes but is the gate with the high tec closing device to be found at Ringmoor settlement above Turnworth? Favourite spot for food on biking trips!

  8. Hi George. Thgank you for another highly informative, considered and finely honed article. Just thinking about your beef cattle ponderings (copyright Wye 1980) and bearing in mind that I am now extremely distant from farming, is there any post Brexit possibility of regulatory adaptations that would once again make more local, smaller scale or mobile slaughter possible? That could, as in past times, support a useful and probably higher value regional trade. Apologies in advance if this turns out to be the ramblings of a victorian romantic. It all went wrong shortly after I picked up the ladybird book of the farmer.

  9. Very much enjoy reading your articles George and learning a little about life on a farm, and getting an insight into aspects of your work, most illuminating. I must say we are staggered by the amount of work you get through, not only you but our local farmers, we are not far from you close to Spetisbury. We would love to have a look round and walk the bridle paths and footpaths sticking of course to the protocol. Best wishes, S & L

  10. Dear George, again thank uou so much, for your monthly edition, it brings a peace and gentle bit of wonder. I am sorry I haven’t been to visit, but perhaps later in the year I can put that right. Being a silly old duffer, I have had my first ‘jab’ so look out.
    Are there going to be any spuds in the crop plan for 21 season? I hope so and you let your pigs into the 20 year plot to eliminate any ground keepers.
    All the very best and stay safe. From Mike.

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