A milk producer who is committed to improving the farm’s environmental credentials is planting 1.5km of new hedgerow and is about to embark on a comprehensive farm audit. Wendy Short reports.
The Grice family, which farms at Yard Farm near Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, has a vision for the environmental direction of its farm, which supports a 180-cow dairy herd.
And part of this vision lies with the planting of some 9,000 hedgerow saplings.
Ruth Grice, who farms in partnership with her parents William and Jane, explains the new plantings will be carried out on a block of land which is mainly used to produce forage for the dairy herd. The project will increase the farm’s 11.6km hedgerows to a total of 13.1km.
Ruth says: “There is no existing woodland, so our focus is on hedgerow planting and improvement. The average field size is 5.1 hectares and most of our hedgerows are in fairly good condition, but there is still work to be done.
“Old maps show there was an abundance of hedgerows in the planned planting area until the 1970s, when many were taken out with the intention of lifting crop yields.”
The new planting is being carried out in partnership with Severn Trent Water, she says.
“The fields border a brook which joins the River Trent, and Severn Trent Water has launched a ‘Great Big Nature Boost’ project. It has pledged to improve conditions for nature across 12,000 acres of land within the region by 2027.
“The organisation is covering the cost of the materials, as well as most of the labour. The idea is to invest in making sure the water is clean at the source, rather than spending large amounts of money on treatments to make it safe to use.”
The farm participated in the Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) scheme until 2017 and will be looking at options for re-joining when the new round of applications is launched.
Ruth says: “ELS membership is a big commitment and any potential new scheme will need to tie in with the measures we are already taking.
“It is important we do not over-promise and projects must ‘wash their face’ financially. That is likely to mean we will be working in partnership with organisations with a shared goal.
“In my own opinion, two of the greatest benefits to wildlife and the environment which can be achieved on this farm are through hedgerow enhancement and looking after soil.
“The reduction of soil erosion, for example, can only benefit the farm business. It should improve crop productivity, especially on the section of the land which is sloping down to the brook, as well as hopefully reducing fertiliser usage.
“The new Environmental Land Management scheme may offer opportunities which suit the farm, but there are no guarantees it will contain measures which will work for us. We are very keen to make a start as soon as possible and that is why we took advantage of the Severn Trent project.”
Other environmental measures taken by the business include participation in a scheme run by Leicestershire County Council. In place for the past decade, it offers landowners up to 25 six-foot trees free of charge each year and the Grice family has eagerly taken advantage of the scheme.
Ruth says: “We are one of many farms which have trees and hedgerows infected by disease. Dutch elm disease in particular has affected the farm landscape.
“More recently, we have lost trees due to ash dieback, with other trees and hedgerows showing signs of infection. Ash makes up a high percentage of our species and therefore the losses are going to be high.
“The fresh planting and gapping up of hedgerows will help redress the balance and we will all pitch in to get the job done. The local nursery has managed to obtain a few elms which have disease resistance and we are delighted to have had one donated. It takes pride of place.
“Despite ash dieback, the species is not included in the range available from the council. It supplies field maple, oak, beech, wild cherry and walnut, and we have planted a selection over the years.”
The average yield for the ‘Willoughby’ Holsteins is 9,900kg at 3.34 per cent protein and 4.4 per cent butterfat. Cows are calved all-year-round, with milk sold on a components contract to Stilton cheesemaker Long Clawson Dairy.
The processor is supporting a carbon audit for the farm and discussions are still being held to determine the best approach. The dairy not only asks for Red Tractor compliance from its suppliers, but also has its own, gold-plated certification standards, Clawson Care 365.
Ruth says: “As a milk co-operative, we recognise the need to have detailed environmental credentials for the farmer suppliers. At Yard Farm we would like to establish figures for our carbon emissions and that will allow us to work towards a programme with the aim of becoming carbon neutral at some point in the future.
“Initial research has indicated there are many different types of calculation which can be used to produce a farm carbon audit. Whatever is decided, the goal is to establish a two- or three-point plan for carbon emissions reduction on the farm.
“It is probable that the figures produced will relate to emissions compared with the figure for the production of milk solids.
“We will begin gathering data this spring, after identifying a workable evaluation system which will involve measuring fertiliser and fuel usage. Another important element is the calving index. It must be minimised, because an empty cow is unproductive, but still contributes to carbon emissions.”
Sexed semen is used to produce herd replacements, while the remainder of cows go to the British Blue or Aberdeen-Angus.
Black and white calves are left with their dams for four days, before being moved to an automated feeder system and weaned at 65-70 days.
Ruth currently works for the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust three days per week and spends the rest of her time on-farm, having returned to the family holding in 2018. The business employs three full-time staff and a relief milker.
She says: “Eventually, I am hoping to manage the farm on a full-time basis. Nevertheless, no timescale has been set out and we will see how things develop.
“I am looking forward to establishing the new hedgerows and they will be monitored using wildlife cameras, to see which species have been welcomed back to the land.
“In the meantime, I think any steps we can take to make the farm more wildlife and environmentally friendly can only have a positive effect on the business and its long-term future.”