This is one of the busiest times of year for us. But for a few stragglers, the calves have all arrived, and the bulls are running with the ladies. The long days means the chickens are heading towards peak egg production, and we’re keeping a close eye on the weather so we can get the best conditions for making hay and silage from our grass and herbal ley fields. As a multi-generational family we’re also juggling having the children at home all the time, along with two ongoing barn conversions and a new puppy. Gluttons and punishment spring to mind!
We’re beginning to see great environmental benefits of the bumblebird and wild bird seed mixes that we drilled last autumn, as part of our Countryside Stewardship commitment. This gives the soil a rest from the compaction and nutrient removal of grazing and haycrops. It also provides a stable source of food for bees, birds and butterflies. After five years, the whole crop will be cut and baled and then used for bedding, so eventually all the goodness will go back to the soil.
Ultimately the soil is front and centre of all that we do here. The modern combination of intensive tilling, lack of cover crops, synthetic fertilizers and pesticide use has left farmland stripped of the nutrients, minerals and microbes that support healthy plant life. Recent research suggests that conventional farming is using topsoil at around ten times the rate that it is being replaced. This means we could only have around 60 years of top soil left. Without it, the earth’s ability to filter water, absorb carbon, and feed people plunges. Not only that, but the food we do grow will probably be lower in vital nutrients.
“Regenerative Agriculture” describes farming and grazing practices that aims to reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle. In our case, this involves planting deep-rooted plants like Chicory, Timothy and Yarrow, to prevent loss of soil through erosion and run-off. We have to be very disciplined and not overgraze our fields. We work on the premise that the cattle should be eating a third, leaving a third and wasting a third as it is trodden in to the soil. This, along with the manure that is also trodden in and the organic compost we apply, gives nutrients back and increases the levels of organic matter in the soil, improving both its quality and quantity. At this time of year, when the weather can be so variable, this grazing pattern does require us to hold our nerve a bit and make sure we’re managing it effectively. Ensuring we have enough grass, hay and silage to last the year is a constant background worry.
However, the benefits, not just to the quality of the beef and eggs we produce, but also environmentally are clear. Just in the last few weeks we have seen two hares on the farm, along with Goldfinches, Meadow Brown butterflies, and the recent return of the bumblebees. My children were recently fascinated watching the transformation of the caterpillars we found on some nettles to beautiful Peacock butterflies. Ultimately we are just custodians of this little corner of Somerset and it strikes me that this method of agriculture is what farming is truly about – preserving the land in the best heart that you can for generations to come.