A couple of weeks ago I headed off from Cambridge on Monday morning and travelled to the far South West, making it back home on Friday.
During the week I visited three fantastic farmers and attended a conference, where the discussions were all about grass!
My first farm visit was to Splattenridden Farm just outside St Ives in Cornwall. Paul Richards is an inspirational dairy farmer who has bravely made a U-turn in the type of system he runs.
His light-bulb moment came when he realised his grass-based neighbour had finished work for the day, after turning his cows out after morning milking. Paul still had four hours of hard work dealing with slurry and feeding the high yielding Holstein cows.
Determined to recoup time and money, Paul invested in a new parlour in 2008 and electric fencing and put in tracks out to all the fields. He introduced New Zealand breeding to turn his cows into grazers.
Silage was made and placed into three wide pits – one for the cows, one for the heifers and one for the baby calves, who spend practically all their lives outdoors, despite being autumn-born.
The self-feed silage system has been revolutionary in reducing the time and cost of feeding conserved forage during the short 90-day winter.
This system has been taken and adapted from one devised and championed by West Sussex consultant Kay Carslaw – where dry summers mean cows have to calve in autumn. But even in the wetter west, it is certainly working – a simple way of getting the cows to do the work of feeding themselves, without a man on a tractor towing a forage wagon!
That night I spent with Paul’s brother John and his wife Flick, who run a green waste business from the Splattenridden farmyard. They have just moved to the most amazing farmhouse on the coast at Marazion – overlooking St Michael’s Mount. What a privilege to go to sleep with the sound of the sea in my ears.
Jersey cows make clotted cream
The next farm visit was to Michael and Claire Colwell, who run 300 beautiful Jersey cows on a Cornwall County Council tenancy farm near Redruth.
The cows love grazing and while Michael does not rotationally graze formally – he offers the cows high quality fresh feed every 12 hours. At the end of May he starts to pre-mow three to four feeds ahead, which resets the grazing quality in time for when seasonality payments start to rise in July.
His high fat and protein milk goes locally to make delicious Cornish clotted cream.
How cows digest their feed
The next day I was at Rothamsted Research’s grassland research site outside Okehampton in Devon, home to the Farm Platform, which, amongst other things, provides three farming systems in 21 hectare farmlets. These are managed and compared having alternative approaches to livestock production from grassland – with measurements of water, air and soil recorded. An impressive national operation.
I was there to hear DLF’s views on grass breeding in the future – and their focus on, as well as yield and nutritional components, how digestible the cell walls of their grasses are. After all, it’s no good having high sugars and proteins in the cells, if the rumen microbes cannot access them because they are contained within an indestructible cell wall.
The breeders are confident that there is enough variation in cell wall degradability to be able to breed new varieties with easier cell walls to digest in the next few years.
Pasture for Life Beef
Friday morning saw me arrive at Bailey Hill Farm at Chalfont St Giles, home to Jonathan and Laura Chapman. They are members of the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association and proudly produce what they call ‘Proper pasture fed beef from British native breed cattle.’
The excitement that morning was that Noam Bar and Michael Pichon from Ottolenghi, the famous London deli and restaurant business, were coming to see the Chapman’s wonderful cattle and eat some of the beautiful beef. This was beef shin pie cooked with local ale with homegrown vegetables (thanks to Laura’s mum for the growing and cooking!)
Noam and Michael seemed bowled over to see the Red Ruby Devon cattle – of all ages munching contentedly on their hay, in light and airy, deeply straw-bedded yards. The pie was delicious too!
So that was a normal week for me at the moment. Most of the magazines I write for want grass stories in March and April – so there is a lot of travelling and meeting people, as well as writing it all down afterwards. Not a bad life though eh?