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'It’s not the cow, it’s the how' [WFJ #33]
While conventional farming gets a lot of stick for its environmental repercussions, local dairies are undergoing positive transitions
Over the past 80 years, food production has almost exclusively concerned yield and quantity. Only relatively recently has the (Western) farming world taken a step back and thought, ‘hang on a minute, what repercussions have we wrought?’
Let’s answer that question. An estimated 31% of global GHG emissions humans create are from farming, and agriculture is one of the leading culprits when it comes to habitat and biodiversity loss. Meanwhile, we have a cohort of farmers worked to the bone, and for relatively little reward for their endeavours.
“We work ridiculous hours. The dairy industry is crazy,” Rachel Candy tells The WFJ. With her husband Paul, Rachel manages Pyle Farm and gelato business Palette & Pasture, in Trudoxhill. Given the stress involved, Rachel and Paul are in the process of transitioning their farm to be kinder on their livelihoods, but also kinder on their animals and the environment. “Our herd when we started was 200 [cows],” says Rachel, “and we've been dropping it all the time because the ice cream's been doing really well. We've never been into having cows inside all year round – we just wanted a less intensive system basically, and we've gone right the other way.”
This year, the farm reduced its number of cows down to a total of 10. Furthermore, over the next few years the makeup of the herd will transition from the very commercial Holstein Friesian dairy cow to a smaller and very un-commercial dairy and beef cow, the Somerset Sheeted.
In the 1930s, Somerset Sheeteds – Somerset’s most ‘native’ breed – became virtually extinct in the UK, most likely due to a rapidly industrialising agriculture system that needed to feed a rapidly growing population. Paul puts it into context: “the Holsteins were making around 10,000 litres of milk per annum. The Somerset Sheeteds are going to be about 3,500 litres.”
As well as not needing to milk their cows more than once a day (with Holstein-Friesians, at least twice is standard), being a local breed the Sheeteds are hardier, and far more suited to the local climate, meaning they can spend more of their lives grazing, rather than half the year cooped up in a shed.
“They'll be born in March,” says Paul, “and unless the weather is absolutely vile, they'll go straight out to grass, and they'll eat grass all year hopefully to November. Aside from that, all they would need is a small amount of concentrated feed in the spring months to help them calve better and recover from calving.” As for how that compares with the outgoing herd, “the modern Holstein will first eat out of a trough rather than grass,” Paul says.
Though Paul can’t say for sure whether the new herd will be on 100% pasture, keeping cattle close to a natural diet has the added bonus of not having to grow or buy in much feed. And, depending on what you’re using the milk for (now, in Palette & Pasture’s case, exclusively gelato) various other inputs too. “Usually you have to spend a huge amount of money on concentrated supplements, mineral supplements, and fats to get them to give the higher concentrations of fat and protein in their milk. Whereas with a lower yielding cow like the Sheeted, you naturally get a dilution factor, so they're predisposed to produce more fat and protein,” says Paul. “Which is perfect for ice cream,” adds Rachel.
Here lies the chance to become a more food-enlightened individual
Where once the entirety of the farm’s 400 acres were for grazing dairy cows, Paul and Rachel are switching to a mostly arable model of wheat and barley. “Anything that doesn't grow to that will go into wildflower meadows,” says Rachel. While on the dairy side of things, Paul says these will be to “more or less organic” standards, the arable “will use a normal amount of fertilisers and herbicides.”
So, though promising, Palette & Pasture’s transition isn’t a fully ‘green’ one. But it is indicative of the general way things could head in the next few years, as financial motivations for producing food (read: subsidies) shift from volume-based schemes to rewarding farmers for their efforts in ‘Countryside Stewardship’ and ‘Environmental Land Management.’
Whether in part motivated by these new government packages or not, Westcombe is another local dairy starting to transition towards more nature-friendly farming methods. Cheesemaking at Westcombe goes back 130 years, but only very recently, with the new generation of leadership in Tom Calver, has the philosophy geared towards quality and sustainability.
Planting herbal leys, for example, is one of the major ways the dairy is switching things up. Contrasting the usual clover or ryegrass, which very boringly dominate pasture fields up and down the UK, herbal leys consist of a variety of grasses, herbs, and legumes – Westcombe for example have fescues, timothy, cocksfoot, yarrow, plantain, chicory, parsley, burnet, and white and red alskie.
As Westcombe’s herdsman Nick Millard points out, the better diversity of forage the cows get, the better quality milk and cheese they produce. But diversity is beneficial not just for the end consumer – in the spring and summer, pollinators and other wildlife thrive off the flowering leys, while the deeper root structures of these plants mean better potential for carbon storage, less soil erosion, more water retention, and the ability to bring up more nutrients for the cows to digest.
Adopting Westcombe’s new principle of using grazing in ways that give – rather than take away – from the land is the kind of process that takes years to even begin to realise. And, as it ignores conventional wisdom, is a bit like throwing thousands of bank notes into the air in the hope of a favourable wind.
That says a lot about how farmers want to farm more environmentally – there are huge boundaries and difficulties in doing so, but to varying degrees, some are beginning to realise it’s worth the effort.
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