Lush pastures and dairy cows are driving Norfolk farm’s ‘regeneration’
- Credit: Old Hall Farm
A “regenerative agriculture” revolution is paying dividends at a Norfolk dairy farm whose transformation has benefited the environment, animal health and produce quality – without compromising profitability.
Four years ago, Old Hall Farm in Woodton, near Bungay, was running an intensive pig breeding operation as well as more than 500 acres of conventionally-farmed arable land.
But owners Rebecca and Stuart Mayhew were determined to find a new way of farming which was less exposed to climate and disease risks, and could provide a more sustainable income from the land.
Central to the transformation has been replacing the pigs with a grass-fed Jersey cattle herd as part of a high-welfare “cow with calf” dairy, where the calves stay with their mothers for at least the first six months of their lives, sharing her milk with the business which specialises in raw Jersey milk, milkshakes, cream and butter.
Meanwhile most of the arable land has been converted to pasture. But rather than a typical ryegrass, the cows have been given a densely-vegetated pasture including red and white clovers, lucerne, blue-flowered chicory and eight types of grass – giving them a more varied and healthy diet to improve the nutrient density of their produce, and reduce their need for antibiotics or veterinary drugs.
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The diverse foliage also improves the soil structure and biology, making it more tolerant to droughts and heatwaves without using expensive sprays, fertiliser or ploughing.
Mrs Mayhew said it is all part of a “holistic” system which starts with the need for profitability, and was guided by the demands of customers who were asking how the cows were being fed and cared for.
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“None of this is complicated,” she said. “If you are feeding the cows a better diet you get better milk with higher nutrient density – and that is where the regenerative agriculture and holistic management came in. We thought: OK, people need a balanced diet, you can’t just eat bread, you need vegetables, you need proteins, you need lots of vitamins and minerals. But if you look at what the cattle have, for the most part, it is really boring.
“On a conventional scale, if a cow is presented with a purely ryegrass diet they love it – but is it actually good for them? Is it what we want to get the best milk? Probably not.
“The other problem with a monocrop of ryegrass it starts to shrivel up when it gets really hot and it wants to have bagged fertiliser. Having started to produce a food that we sell direct to people, I found that people didn’t want that.
“So now we have got lots of different plants in there like chicory, which has got a fantastic deep tap root, an we’ve got clovers – their roots will go own to 80cm while grass stops at 10-15cm, unless its really old prairie grass. If grass has no age the roots are really shallow so, under stress with no moisture, the plant won’t survive. It sounds so obvious.”
Old Hall Farm has also diversified its income by building a farm shop and cafe, while a vineyard of 10,500 vines planted three summers ago is expected to produce its first grapes next year.
All the changes are part of a “holistic management” strategy which means every decision is made by weighing up factors across the whole farm – everything from ecosystem processes, sunlight, water and mineral cycles, to the community dynamics of the dairy herd, the sustainability of the soil, and – critically – the demands of customers and the profitability of the business.
Mrs Mayhew said she hopes other farmers will be inspired to explore this approach.
“Holistic management has helped us from a financial point of view because you are planning for profit, not pouring money in, expecting money to come out of the bottom,” she said.
“If you look at the cost of what we put on the land, if you can find a way to work with the soil and buy less chemicals, then you don’t need to grow as much because you are getting a better return because you have not poured thousands of pounds down the drain.
“Farmers have forgotten how to garden. All you want is your one plant in that field, whether it is wheat or oilseed rape, barley, oats, whatever it is. So quite often people will use glyphosate [weedkiller] in front, kill everything else off, and that then kills the soil microbiome so there’s nothing there to help the plant grow. There’s no companion planting. For example, clovers fix nitrogen so they take all this free nitrogen out of the atmosphere and put it in the ground and feed it to the other plants around them.
“That is where regenerative agriculture has got to work really hard to prove itself because there are a lot of people who make money off farmers’ backs, selling them stuff that they have ‘got to have’, but if you’ve got no goodness in the soil, no organic matter, nothing to hold the water when it rains, you are trapped into this cycle of tillage, sprays, and nitrogen [fertiliser].
“But if you are getting a product that is cheaper to produce, that is feeding the soil and feeding people better food with better nutrient density, then why wouldn’t you do it?”