Free-range hens join cattle farm's 'exciting' regenerative revolution
- Credit: Denise Bradley
Free-range chickens have become the latest pieces of the regenerative agriculture "jigsaw" at a Norfolk farm - where they will work with grazing cows to revitalise the soil.
About 200 Goldline hens have arrived at Eves Hill Farm in Booton, near Reepham, adding a new income stream to a livestock business which already runs a herd of pedigree Hereford cattle.
But farmer Jeremy Buxton said they are not only here to supply tasty free-range eggs.
The chickens will be rotated around small enclosures of pasture behind the "mob grazing" cattle, sanitising and fertilising the ground as part of a natural nutrient cycle aimed at feeding the soil, boosting animal health and improving food quality, while reducing the need for artificial chemicals.
Mr Buxton is convinced that this circular system of regenerative farming, focused on nurturing vital soils, could help the industry meet its climate change challenges.
"Our priorities have changed completely," he said. "On the regenerative transition journey that we are on, the bigger picture is our priority on soil health. We farm the soil now. The plants that come out of the ground are totally secondary.
"The hens play a huge part in improving the soil health, going in 98 hours behind the cattle to sanitise that pasture, picking through cow pats, and fertilising the pasture themselves at the same time.
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"The timing is quite important because a thriving population of dung beetles is vital for soil health. In that 98 hours, it is calculated that the dung beetles will have had time to go through and move on, so the hens don't destroy that during beetle population.
"But the hens are coming through and feeding off fly larvae and any other invertebrates. That is extra nutrition, it keeps the feed bills down, and it all adds to the quality of the eggs they are producing.
"So we have got good soil health and we are producing really good high-quality free-range eggs. The cattle and the hens really complement each other in this regenerative soil health jigsaw."
Mr Buxton hopes the approach could also reduce fly problems for his cattle, as the insect eggs are eaten by the chickens.
The hens are currently in a temporary shed awaiting the construction of their home-made "egg-mobile", built on an old caravan chassis, which will take them out in the field next week and give them shelter when not out on the range.
After the high-intensity grazing by cattle and chickens generates a high density of varied muck and microbes to feed the soil, the animals move on, leaving the pasture to rest and regenerate for at least 60 days afterwards.
The grazing animals also bring benefits into the arable fields. In the winter months, the cows graze on cover crops of ryegrass, clovers, vetches, turnips, kale and forage rape, which are planted to protect the ground and improve soil structure between commercial crops.
The effects of grazing and natural fertilisers on the arable and pasture soils are being monitored using GPS-mapped soil sampling apps, measuring factors such as worm counts and water infiltration.
Mr Buxton said this data will provide a baseline for future decisions on natural soil nutrition, guided by interpretations by regenerative farming consultants and a specialist agronomist in Canada.
As part of its zero-waste philosophy, the 250-acre farm is also "upcycling" farmyard manure, waste animal bedding and woodchips to make its own bokashi, a fermented organic nutrient which can be used as a compost, or extracted as a natural seed dressing.
Mr Buxton added that his chicken flock could grow to 1,000 birds as the farm's regenerative journey continues.
"I really feel we are at the start of an agricultural revolution and it is making people excited about farming again," he said.
"The more you study regenerative farming, the more it makes sense. I don't want to antagonise commercial farmers, everyone is doing a great job, but we have interfered with that natural cycle, that nutrient cycle, to the detriment of soil health and food quality.
"We are trying to mimic nature, not to interfere. We are trying to step away and let nature do its thing."