Wow. May has really turned into a jam-packed month! One with plenty of issues to contend with, but some truly inspiring farm visits to make up for that.
The month began with ‘UK Grain Lab’. This is the third time this event has occurred at Small Food Bakery in Nottingham, and is the brainchild of baker Kim Bell. The first time was in 2017, then 2018 (when I first attended), and the third occurrence then spent a couple of years in covid- limbo. So it was super for it to be able to finally go ahead again.
UK Grain Lab is a gathering of farmers, millers, bakers & food producers which has been a major driver in the changes I have made to how I farm. It led to the purchase of my New American Stone Mill, which will begin turning in earnest in September with this coming harvest. And it, along with the newly founded Grain Networks across the UK, has given me a wealth of fantastic contacts who are attempting to change the way the entire food system functions: to one which values a healthy farming system and healthy food, along with fair pricing for all.
I was really excited to attend and catchup with some of the incredible people I have met over the past few years. I was also very pleased when Isabel Kelly (co-organiser with Kim) rang, asking me to contribute to a panel on how to successfully make ‘big noise’ and communicate our stories in the best way. Co-panellists were Edd Lees of WildFarmed (more on that later), Chris Young from the Real Bread Campaign, and Kim Bell, with the session chaired by Karen O’Donoghue, a superb Irish nutritional expert and baker from Happy Tummy Co (working with special grains to help alleviate issues such as IBS).
The big point I was wishing to make with regards ‘making noise’ was to ensure that what we push never becomes (or feels) exclusive. The biggest change I have noticed in how I communicate over the past few years is to always attempt to understand other people’s contexts, be that locational, economic, etc. And to always ensure that I emphasise the fact that the way I choose to farm is just that – how I choose to farm. It is definitely a way which encourages ecology and biodiversity, but it is by no means the only way.
On the farming side, things have been rather frenetic of late. After a couple of years of attempting to get my crop-sprayer booked in for a full overhaul, a slot finally came available in March with an expected turn-around of two-to-three weeks: totally manageable. With the conversion to organic working its way across the farm, we are doing less and less spraying, and so losing the machine for a time in the Spring is no longer the problem it would have been a few years back (when it felt like it was out working most days).
Unfortunately, there were more issues than expected (mostly silly electronic-y computer-y ones). And so it took a bit longer than expected… In fact, it was off-farm for two months. I was ecstatic to finally have that machine back on the farm to knock out the jobs that were getting somewhat late! I can’t wait for a few years’ time when we are organic across the board and my Bateman sprayer can go on the market to be sold.
On May 4th I was visited by a bunch of Masters students from Writtle University. It was quite a squeeze finding the time in my diary, but I always find their trips worthwhile with the calibre of students they have had lately. As we were halfway through the tour, visiting the cows, I had a bit of a shock to the system though. One of the cows was out of their paddock and lying down with legs stuck out. Dread instantly filled me, and I left lecturer Henry Matthews and the students to jog over to the fallen animal. I was 30 yards away when my fears were confirmed. Hubert, a one-year-old castrated steer, had died. He was bloated and stiff and covered in flies.
There was little I could do at the time, and in some regards I was pleased to have the farm walk to distract me from this event. These things happen and you simply have to get over it, but it is rather heart-rending.
Once the students departed, I jumped on the loader to get the corpse and bring it back to the yard before calling Martins (the knackerman who is licenced to dispose of fallen stock) to come and collect Hubert. Tim from Westpoint Farm Vets did Mia and me a favour by going to Martins and performing a basic post-mortem to see if there was any obvious cause of the sudden death. But there was nothing – not bloat (which can occur with the rich new grass at this time of year), nor any obstruction or anything else.
Mia and I discussed the death at length, and believe that the likely reason would be a heart attack. At this age (a year old), animals are growing rapidly, often outpacing the growth of their heart. Ordinarily this isn’t a problem, but if the animal gets a fright, it can be enough to overwork the heart and kill them. Something must have frightened Hubert in order for him to jump out of his paddock, so this is the most logical conclusion. And at least it is something which shouldn’t be rampaging through the rest of the herd.
When it comes to the rest of the cows I’d had a few finicky problems to tackle. First was some lameness. With the Spring having been so dry, the land has been exceptionally hard and easy for cows to twist their ankles. Even more so on the rough Essex Wildlife Trust conservation grazing marshes. Any time an animal is lame, I take note and check whether or not it appears to be getting better on its own. Usually this is enough…
I had noticed that Dahlia was a touch lame, and since she was coming through the handling system I chose to give her some meloxicom pain relief (basically long-acting ibuprofen). However, after this, as she was milling about the handling system, I noticed that her hoof was bleeding between the claws. Given that she was already worked up from going through the crush and being jabbed once, I thought it best to just leave her and keep more of an eye on her (especially since Mia was taking some bloods a week or so later, and so professional eyes could look then). Unfortunately, the marshes do have odds and sods of old metal fencing, with metal stumps occasionally protruding from the ground, so it is not unheard of for a hoof to be punctured. Normally they will heal just fine. Over the coming days Dahlia’s limp lessened before becoming non-existent, so I was satisfied.
Additional to Dahlia, Saucer (a heifer I purchased at the end of last year – I’m not a massive fan of the name, but I didn’t name her!) had developed a serious lameness with a very swollen ankle. She had a wound above the outer claw on the flesh which we assumed was an adder bite, so she was yet another to keep an eye on. Over the coming week to ten days, all the skin fell off the area but the swelling dissipated, and she began bearing weight on the affected hoof again.
With Mia out to grab some final bloods from my breeding herd, I added the hoof checks to her list along with a castrate for calf-Norbert (who had had ‘tricky bollocks’ at three days old – i.e. one hadn’t descended, so rubber-ring castration would not work). The last blood tests were just to double check the animals that had previously tested clear of disease twice, but I wanted to be triply sure (some diseases wax and wane, and can only be detected when you get lucky with timing).
On lifting Saucer’s foot, using a looped ratchet-strap as a make-shift hoof-hoist, Mia was very pleased with the healing on the adder bite and determined that she was fine. It wasn’t quite the same with Dahlia though. Even though any sign of lameness had vanished, on lifting the hoof, it was clear that this heifer had been infected by ‘digital dermatitis’. Likely the puncture wound had enabled the infection to get in, and it can be contagious so I am very pleased we double- checked these hooves!
Dahlia is currently still on the flighty side (she will likely calm down once she has her first calf). Applying daily blue antibiotic spray was easy in the crush, manageable on day one in the paddock, but then increasingly harder to do! On day five we got her back in the crush but it was clear that the infection wasn’t clearing. I grabbed the trailer and carted her back to Kestrel-the- bull’s pen in the yard. This meant there was a chance that she would get served by the bull earlier than intended, but only by a couple of weeks so not the end of the world.
With some closer attention and blue spray applied with the foot fully lifted in the crush, followed by a bandage with some copper & zinc sulphate goop liberally applied for a weekend, the infection was thankfully gone. I was very pleased to return Dahlia to the herd, fully healthy again.
On returning from a weekend away in Norfolk for a friend’s Wedding, Dad commented that Norbert’s scrotum looked a little inflamed (Norbert being the calf who had been surgically castrated). I went to the field to take a look, and the phase ‘a little inflamed’ didn’t really seem to do it justice. The scrotum was about the size of Kestrel’s!
This necessitated some swift action to deal with the infection, which involved a lot of moving temporary handling systems, making a good go at putting my back out, and finishing at 8:30pm on a number of consecutive days. When those long days are entirely manual labour, it is seriously exhausting!
With Norbert in the yard, he could be crushed for Mia to take a proper look. I felt so bad for the little chap who had already had to go through the castration itself. Worst of all, his scrotum was so swollen that Mia was unable to pinch the skin in order to give some local anaesthetic. Instead, she simply pierced each side with a fresh scalpel blade to let out the infection. It was gross! Massive streams of pinkish-white pus ejected from the incision, with the smell unsurprisingly foul. Despite the lack of anaesthetic, surely the release of all that pressure must have made Norbert feel considerably better!
He was put on daily antibiotics with long-acting pain relief every other day, and we took another good look at him in the crush on day four. There still seemed a fair amount of infection, so Mia re-opened the wounds, squeezed out yet more infection, then flushed the scrotum with several syringes of diluted iodine which would hopefully help to kill the infection from within.
Final antibiotics were given on the morning of Mia and I leaving for a week away in Cornwall. Norbert seemed pretty good at this stage, so I felt confident that he would not need any further investigation (although he is likely to sport an enlarged scrotum for the rest of his life).
At the same time as dealing with Norbert, I got the blood results back on the four breeding cows that were being triple-checked for clear disease status. Frustratingly there was more bad news on this front. Gut-wrenching news that Cow-624, Camembert and Engelbert’s mum, has Johne’s. Johne’s is a very contagious wasting disease, and absolutely cannot be kept in the herd. It is also hard to detect (hence why it took three attempts on this cow). And it categorically means that Camembert can’t be kept as a breeding bull (he would have the chance to spread it to very susceptible young calves). So Camembert was castrated and has joined the cull herd with his mum. A super sad day for two reasons. When Cow-624 first came to the farm she was one of the flightiest – she hated being handled and always had a wild look in her eyes. However, over the past eighteen months of my hands-one management style she has grown into a super friendly cow, always happy to have a fuss (from me at least). The second reason is quite simply the quality of the calves that she produces. She is quite a small cow, but her calves are stupendous! Growing really well with a very pleasing shape. In fact, it was her calf last year, Engelbert, who encouraged me to decide to start rearing bull calves to sell for breeding. All the more gutting to castrate Camembert.
This result was the final straw for me, and I have somewhat backtracked on my cut-and-dry approach to disease control on the farm that I described last month. When it comes to diseases such as IBR, BVD and Johne’s, all positives will immediately join the cull herd and their lines will go from the farm (hopefully taking the disease with it). Leptospirosis I will control with a vaccine. But for neosporosis I am taking a more balanced approach. I am fencing the farm in such a way that new infections spread by dog faeces can’t affect my cows, and the cows’ infected birth materials similarly can’t infect dogs. It can’t spread cow to cow, and research shows that foxes are a dead-end host (i.e. they can be infected, but can’t pass that infection on to other cows via their faeces in the way dogs can). So by managing for dogs, I am controlling the spread. The issues with neospora come in the form of abortion, poor fertility and dummy calves (those that won’t suckle) – these are all issues I have faced. So for now, provided a neospora-positive cow doesn’t have an active issue with the disease, it will stay in the herd. But as soon as a cow aborts, struggles with fertility, or has a dummy calf, it will join the cull herd and that line will leave the breeding herd.
Whilst this approach is by no means ideal, at least it means that I will be putting a decent number of cows to the bull this Summer. My realisation has been that, much as though my impatience would like me to eliminate disease from my farm as soon as possible, many of these diseases are so difficult to conclusively detect that it will be a number of years anyway before I end up 100% ‘clean’. This decision has meant additional blood work being performed on ten additional neospora-positive cows. I was fully expecting some additional curve balls from these results, but in an upturn in fortune they have all come back clear from BVD, IBR, Johnes and lepto, and have consequently now joined the breeding herd where Kestrel is currently performing his magic (fingers crossed!).
Most of this busy cow work occurred in the week before Mia and I went away, and was made more busy by an exciting visit to WildFarmed’s farm on the Wednesday. WildFarmed is the brand of Andy Cato (DJ of Groove Armada fame, who also happens to be a pretty rock and roll farmer), Edd Lees (co-panellist with me at Grain Lab), and George Lamb (radio & television presenter, and son of actor Larry Lamb). Andy developed a style of farming in France over the past decade and decided to bring it over to the UK with a big PR & marketing budget and the intention of making change on a larger scale than is possible from a single farm base. Instead, they have been enlisting farmers with similar growing values to them, and providing a guaranteed purchase price for the grain those farmers produce. This grain can then be amalgamated to give a consistent product which can be stone ground (they partnered with F P Matthews mill in the Cotswolds for this).
This is exactly the sort of thing which really excites me: creating demand for a product grown to very high standards in a way which incentivises other farmers to change such that they can also grow for them. In order to guarantee a good price for farmers, the flour still ends up a little expensive. That is naturally the case in lower yield systems which prioritise nature. But it is an exciting start to making change on a grand scale across the UK’s farmed landscape with really positive impacts for climate and biodiversity.
The visit was organised by the Organic Research Centre with the final bit of funding from EU funded DiverIMPACTS (which helped get me to France looking at buckwheat and to Sweden looking at pioneering organic farms in 2019). The farm itself which we visited was stunning, and Andy is showing off his exceptional inventiveness! He is trialling a lot of ‘pasture cropping’, where crops are sown into long-term diverse-species leys. This means that lots of different types of plant families are always present, leading to a healthier soil and plants (potentially with better nutrition in the harvested crops, although that needs conclusively researching). However, the plants growing in the gaps between the crop rows still need controlling, for which Andy has designed two types of inter-row mowers. A really fascinating idea. Without controlling the plants in between the rows of wheat, the perennial plants would dominate and the wheat would likely entirely fail and be unharvestable.
On top of the pasture cropping, we also saw intercrops, with wheat and beans sown in rows next to each other, alternating across the field (each row just a few of inches wide), and a poly-crop of peas, oilseed rape and barley. The aim with these is that they can be harvested together and then separated out in the shed. Separation is a tricky and skilled task, utilising sieves (to sort by size), gravity machines to sort by weight, optical machines to sort by shape and colour, plus a few more fancy possibilities!
Andy’s honesty about the issues he was facing and what had gone wrong was so refreshing, but his farm looked just fabulous. Such an exciting project, and I am meeting the team at the start of June to see how I can work with them moving forward.
The last week of May saw Mia and I getting off the farm for a week. As is always the case, I hadn’t so much managed to clear the week from work, but had just about got enough done and could ignore other jobs for a week! However, how could you go all the way to Cornwall without popping in on a couple of the stellar farmers that the county has to offer (Mia and I can’t go a whole week without cows!).
First on the visit list was Geoff Williams, who I have spoken of a few times previously. Geoff and I have struck up a good friendship over the past eighteen months via Instagram, with him giving me some excellent pointers on various aspects of cow management. We briefly met in person last June at Groundswell when we were both worse for wear, so I was very much looking forward to meeting him properly and getting to see his beautiful farm which he documents so vibrantly online under his Instagram handle @farm_food_life.
It was super to see the calving setup that Geoff has with some really well designed flexible sheds. And it was interesting to hear about Cornish hedges. I find the different styles of hedgerow management across the UK fascinating. In Cornwall the fields contained a lot of rock, so historically they gathered that to the sides of the fields to make walls. However, rather than leaving them as dry stone walls, they built two walls either side with earth in the middle, and a hedge planted on the top! This does lead to some tremendously diverse and beautiful hedges, with wildflowers growing out of the sides of the walls. But apparently they are not fantastic from a management perspective, requiring a lot of maintenance since cows love to rub on them knocking the stones out, and sheep are quite adept at scaling them and getting out of their intended field!
Geoff’s management with herbal leys, moving cows regularly, outwintering, and other trials has led to some really superb quality soil. Rotationally he grows Spring barley as a ration for his cows, and I saw some that he had very simply established this April. It had just been ploughed and power-harrowed (a machine which breaks up the ploughed ground leaving a level fine seed- bed). Then the seed was just spun out on the top, and finally rolled in with a flat roll (like the one I bought recently). They do get more rain in Cornwall which helps with this method of establishment, but the crop looked excellent. Geoff is very close to organic, and the crop will simply be harvested when the time comes.
The trial I was most interested in were some grass-less leys. Grass is so commonplace in mixtures sown for cow grazing, so Geoff had wanted to mix it up a bit. I had only seen the pre- grazing look on Instagram, but post-grazing was fascinating. He had sown an herbal / legume mix in with mustard, which grows tall and flowers yellow like oilseed rape. The cows had stripped the tall mustard plants, leaving just the stalks. Those plants would now die, leaving the legumes and herbs to come through, along with grasses that just happen to be in the soil seed bank.
It was a lovely visit to a farmer I greatly admire, and topped off with a pub dinner and a few pints along with good advice as to where to go whilst in Cornwall!
The second farmer we visited was Chris Jones. Chris has been a tremendous inspiration to me over the past couple of years since I got to know him through my ambassadorship with the Beaver Trust. I have been hoping to visit him for a long while now because he has beavers on his farm, Woodland Valley Farm. And the trip was just amazing.
I only realised Chris was so close the day before and messaged him to see if we could visit. He was super accommodating. We started a farm tour looking at some recently established agroforestry on a hill in the distance. There were newly planted trees all over the place on his farm. His outlook on agriculture is very aligned to mine, and he feels like a genuine kindred spirit. Someone I hope to be able to have a few drams with and put the world to rights sometime soon.
Then came the main event: the beaver enclosure. As we entered the fenced area we were greeted by three especially friendly sheep who then accompanied us on the tour. I’ve never met a tame sheep, so that in itself was quite a novelty! The first thing Chris showed us was where the small stream on his farm outflowed. It was about a meter wide at most with a gravelly bottom, and very shallow. Rather picturesque but nothing of any note. That is what his entire stream looked like five years previous… pre-beaver!
Then we turned around and saw the first dam, and the pond behind it. The difference was astounding. Hundreds of flies whirled above the pool where it was clear a huge amount of silt had deposited due to the slowed flow of water. We walked up-steam. Where there had previously been just one stream, there were now five, and we came across a few more dams and ponds, leading to the biggest pool at the top.
Chris has controlled some of the tree felling by painting the trunks of trees he wishes to save with a mix of PVA glue and sand (the beavers don’t like gnawing that!). What is cool is that many of the trees will regrow from coppiced stumps anyway. The tranquillity afforded by the whole area was simply magical, and something which I am struggling to adequately describe. If you get the opportunity to visit I would totally recommend it, especially from a farmer’s perspective. Many farmers only see the reintroduction of beavers as something negative, but the tremendous ecological boost provided by this keystone species cannot be understated. And in such a short amount of time too.
Many of the trees in the enclosure were in lines (obviously not natural), so I enquired to Chris what the field had previously been like. Apparently the trees were planted in the late eighties, before which the stream had been diverted to a drainage ditch along the field edge, and land- drains had been put in the ground to drain the water away, allowing it to be grazable. This rich habitat is a million miles away from that.
I’m slightly gutted I didn’t catch glimpse of a beaver in real life, but just the effect of them was profound. This is a species we can leave to get on with naturally slowing the flow of water, helping to alleviate floods downstream, ensuring that soil doesn’t wash all the way down stream polluting rivers, etc. In my opinion it is something we really need to embrace in England. I am so glad there are such good case studies out there now.
We finished up the farm tour looking at Chris’s cows (naturally) and I gave him a hand moving his electric fence (it’s always fascinating seeing different people’s techniques for this!), before ending up sitting on a log with a cuppa and chatting. A truly revitalising visit.
This month has really demonstrated how critical farm visits are to my mental state. Covid put the kibosh on the ability to travel freely, and that coincided with implementing a lot of labour- intensive projects on the farm, making it even more difficult to go and see other farmers. But I feel so invigorated by the amazing farms that I have seen this month., and am feeling even more positive about the direction of farming I am heading in.
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