At a time when some are starting to believe that the end of life on our planet as we know it is not a matter of if, but of when, a new hope has risen from eliminating technological advances and simply going back to the old ways of doing things – in this case farming.
Regenerative farming is defined as agriculture and grazing practices that help reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle. The ramifications of these actions extend to the alleviation of poverty and the
The first and second Industrial Revolutions left their indelible mark in patterns of demographic growth. In the 19th century, the population doubled and in the 20th century, thanks to medical, scientific and economic advances, it tripled, reaching six billion in the year 2000. Today, we are almost eight billion souls walking the surface of this tiny blue dot in the galaxy.
In order to feed an ever-growing population, the 20th century saw the development of intensive farming methods that led to a decline in the quality of life of rural communities, as well as of the land and livestock. The consequences of overexploitation revealed themselves in due course: deforestation, soil degradation, destruction of wildlife natural habitats, proliferation of pests and weeds resistant to chemicals, water pollution, climate change… the list goes on and on.
“I wanted to work with nature: to help protect the soil and its fertility rather than reap every last bit of productivity from it.”
– Carole Bamford
Some farming endeavours though, were conceived from the very beginning to follow the principles of organic, sustainable and regenerative agriculture. Not too far from the rural estate of King Charles III is one of them, Daylesford Organic Farm, in the heart of the Cotswolds. Acquired by Carole Bamford in 1988, at the time the farm was being exploited as a standard efficient agribusiness enterprise with a dairy herd of Holstein cows. Carole says, “We switched Daylesford [Wootton] over to organic principles in the late seventies, at a time when intensive farming was taking over the British countryside. The desire to rebel against that was instinctive – I looked around at all the pesticides and chemicals being sprayed on the land and knew there had to be another way.”
There is growing momentum behind a shift to regenerative farming in the UK. A recent survey revealed that 75 percent of British farmers believe it is important to transition to regenerative techniques. Their motivation is not altruistic, it is simply a good business decision to work in harmony with nature rather than against it. Regenerative practises improve the soil health and drainage, which produce better crop yields and reduce input costs as healthier soil needs fewer fertilisers and fuel. The fact that the environment benefits from it is an added bonus. Carol comments, “It’s inspiring to see how far things have come and to watch the uptake in regenerative farming – it gives me hope that farming and food production can be part of a solution to the environmental crisis.”
In winter, dairy calves stay in with their mums and feed from them for up to 12 weeks.
PR and Marketing Farms Director at Daylesford, Matt Gorman, showed around the farm. From September to February is calving time in the dairy. The cows that normally graze in the valley are brought in to protect them from the cold. The barns are ample and airy, definitely not a bad place to spend the winter and raise babies. Daylesford has a variety of native breeds, from the traditional black and white Friesian and the Gloucester – the eldest breed of British dairy cow, which is as at risk of extinction as polar bears – to Aberdeen Angus and South Devon. Matt is particularly fond of the Gloucester cows they’ve bred here. “We have over 60 between the dairy and the beef herd. They are very good at turning grass into fat. That’s why they were so popular in the old times in small dwellings. One animal would give enough milk for a family’s own needs and to make single Gloucester cheese to sell some on, wouldn’t require extra feed, would pull the plough and the cart… definitely a very cost-efficient animal.”
Newborn dairy calves stay with their mums, feeding from them for up to 12 weeks, getting the antibodies that will help them have the best possible start in life. They remain in barns until they are old and big enough to go out onto the organic pastures of Daylesford, where they stay until the following winter, when they come back in. Their second year is the equivalent to a gap year, spent frolicking around with the bulls and in the next, they have their first calf and start giving milk. This is a big contrast with Holsteins, which “by the time they are five, they are normally in their third lactation and struggling,” Matt explains, “because long-term they can’t really digest the high-protein feed they are given.”
South Devon cattle are the largest of the British Native breeds. They are believed to have been brought into the country during the Norman invasion of England.
Gloucesters produce about 10 litres of milk a day, and others here at Daylesford around 30, while Holsteins yield up to 90. Cows in “efficient” agribusiness are usually slaughtered by the time they are six years old, despite being able to live until the age of 20. At Daylesford, they keep giving milk well into their teens and they are never slaughtered for the sake of it. The good life they have also shows in the quality of their meat, which, Matt assures me with pride, could rival traditional beef breeds. Looking at the deep, soft straw beds, the fragrant silage they are fed and the lustre of their coats, I can see that animal welfare at Daylesford is maintained at the highest standards. They even get a pedicure once a year to keep their hoofs trimmed and healthy.
As a mixed farm, Daylesford hasn’t just grown an impressive bovine herd in these 35 years, but has also developed Kerry Hill, Ryeland, Cotswold, Merino, Texel and commercial Lleyn sheep; laying hens, turkeys and geese; and 40 hives. In their fields, they grow combinable crops including oats, wheat, barley, beans… Rotational leys are a fundamental part of the exploitation, and consists of sainfoin – which the Friesians love – and red and white clover, a leguminous plant family famous for its nitrogen production, which can help to re-enliven tired soils. They also have 530 hectares of permanent pasture.
At Daylesford farm, animals are fed a GM-free, forage-based diet that allows them to grow at a slower, natural pace.
All this has been achieved with time and love. Food production at Daylesford is about letting the animals thrive in an organic environment. Even the chickens have a great life here, with access to an outdoor range covered with suitable vegetation and only sent to Daylesford’s own abattoir after 70 days, which guarantees the welfare of the animals and saves fuel on unnecessary transport. At Daylesford, they are committed to reducing fossil-fuel usage and carbon emissions and don’t send anything to landfill.
After a short drive around the fields, we went to visit the sheep herd, heavily pregnant and constantly monitored to ensure both mums and babies are safe. They were being sheared, which Matt told me helps them to not overheat in the barns and makes it easier to scan them to check how many lambs each sheep is expecting. Their coat takes around eight weeks to grow back, which is when they’ll be ready to go out again with the young lambs to feed on spring grass.
Daylesford’s high-quality Merino wool is used in Carole Bamford’s clothing and lifestyle brand.
Lleyns are the main breed of sheep on the farm. It is a closed flock, which means Daylesford has control of the male and female genetics and ultimately their high health status. Merino sheep, relatively new to the farm, are a great example. Only kept for their fleece, this high-quality wool is used by Carole Bamford’s clothing and lifestyle brand. Not having to import it from Spain or Australia greatly reduces the carbon footprint of the final product. To give you an idea, the production on your average high-street merino jumper clocks around 1,800 miles. The fleece from rare heritage breeds such the Cotswold, which was the sheep at the heart of England’s medieval economy in the area, is coarser than merino so not as desirable for clothes. Instead, it is used for other types of cloth, mattresses and as insulation in the pubs and cottages on the estate.
Beef calves stay with their mums until the are nine to 10 months, at which point they gain independence.
Before leaving, Matt takes me to visit the beef herd. Daylesford has been particularly successful with its Aberdeen-Angus, so much so that Matt tells me proudly, “The Aberdeen-Angus Cattle Society, based in Perth, has given our beef the highest praise, and in recognition of our achievements, held an annual conference here.”
Every year in the UK approximately 2.6 million cattle, 10 million pigs, 14.5 million sheep and lambs, 80 million fish and 950 million birds are slaughtered for human consumption and many of these animals are not allowed to reach maturity, living in dreadful conditions. Obviously, this is not the case at Daylesford. Here beef cows are given between 24 and 30 months to reach full maturity while in intensive farming, the animals can be slaughtered at a much younger age.
We couldn’t finish our conversation about cattle farming without talking about methane emissions. Rolling his eyes, Matt points out, “There have been billions of ruminants on this planet for millions of years and methane has never been an issue before. These animals are vital to carbon sequestration and regenerative agriculture. By the very act of grazing, carbon from the air is taken by plants and plumped into the soil, providing energy for microbes to build humus and store more carbon. By pooing as they graze and trampling it in, as well as farmers spreading their broken-down muck on the land, they are adding and replacing vital fertility back to the soil to grow healthy crops as nature intended.” The problem is intensive farming. If we all consumed fewer animal products but made sure they were certified organic, we’d be contributing to their welfare and helping reduce carbon emissions. As Matt says, “It’s not so much the ‘cow’, it’s the ‘how’”.
Words: Julia Pasarón
Pictures courtesy of Matt Gorman