Concerned about his farm’s reliance on fossil fuels, Cornish beef producer Chris Jones has turned to herbal leys and mob-grazing to produce high quality beef with minimal cost to the environment and his business. Sara Gregson reports on why it is proving a success.
Conventional pastures are being replaced at Woodland Valley.
The farm had already converted to organic in 2003, and after a run of wet summers, Mr Jones decided in 2009 to stop growing cereal crops.
“It didn’t seem to make sense struggling to produce mediocre quality grain to feed our cattle,” he adds.
“This is an ideal grass growing area, so we decided to concentrate on producing beef from grass instead. We switched to Angus bulls and stopped feeding any cereals.”
The current herd of 40 cross-bred cows calve in March and April, with the calves weaned in December when they are housed. The cows outwinter on permanent pasture if conditions permit.
The only additional feed any stock is offered is hay, which Mr Jones says he prefers to silage. This is because he sees no point in carting water from one part of the farm to another, its feed value rarely deteriorates and the calves love it. There is also no need for plastic wrap. Target date for first cut is the first week of June, and contractors are employed to make up to 400 Heston bales from 18ha (45 acres). Composted farmyard manure is applied at 15t/ha (6t/acre) to the hay fields in February and March.
Yearlings go back out to grass in April to fatten, finishing at about 20 months of age, weighing 600kg liveweight and grading between O and R for conformation, at fat class 3.
They are sold to online meat retailer Eversfield Organic, in Devon, or through St Merryn Meat, Roche, Cornwall.
Mr Jones is one of the founder members of the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association, which champions the production and marketing of beef and lamb from animals which have never eaten grain.
Inspired by fellow members, including grazing pioneer Ben Hollins of Fordhall Farm, Shropshire, and after researching alternative grazing systems in Africa and North America, Mr Jones decided to try some herbal leys and mob-grazing.
He hopes this will increase soil life and organic matter content to provide greater resilience against both drought and downpours and encourage more wildlife, while providing nutritious feed for the cattle.
The herd is given access to a fresh section of field once a day.
March-born steers grow at 1.1kg a day and March-born heifers at 0.8kg a day, with all feed apart from rock salt, coming from the farm. The cows easily put on body condition in summer, which sees them through winter.
Six hectares (15 acres) were ploughed, cultivated and rolled in autumn 2013 before a herbal mix was broadcast. A further 6ha (15 acres) was sown last autumn.
“The first new ley established quickly and has produced dense, diverse pasture,” Mr Jones says. “The second seeding was much more difficult, due to the dry conditions in September and October which led to poorer germination. The bird’s-foot trefoil and chicory are super for pollinators and the clovers fix nitrogen to feed the rest of the plants. The fields are buzzing on sunny days.
“Rye-grasses do not have a place in our system as they are not as palatable or deep rooting as some other species.
“Cocksfoot has worked very well for us in combination with fescues and meadow foxtail, which has good early growth.
“I have given up with Timothy, as it doesn’t persist here. The herbs I rate most are chicory, yarrow, plantain and bird’s-foot trefoil.”
The herd is given access to a fresh section of field once a day and Mr Jones says very little veterinary medicine is needed, as daily movement and the long grazing cycle helps break parasite lifecycles.
It takes two people 40 minutes to move the reel and fence posts forward, leaving six metres (19ft 6in) of yesterday’s grazing as a runback area and access to the water trough. The fence is charged at 6,000+ volts to prevent escapees.
A nutritious base of herbal ley offers plenty of benefit to cattle.
“We have to come and check the cattle daily anyway, so moving the fence is not an additional chore,” Mr Jones adds.
“Leaving the runback is an essential component of mob grazing, as it allows the cattle to trample any plant material not eaten into the ground. The worms and other creatures can then pull it down into the soil.
“The other important element is rest. The cattle will not graze the same section for three months or more, giving the sward chance to recover and thrive. Most areas are only grazed three times in one year.
“I regard reseeding with herbal leys as an investment in the soil. Building organic matter takes time and we are taking measurements to see how much we create over the years.
“We carried out the Climate Friendly Foods carbon audit and this showed we are already sequestering 350 tonnes of carbon in our soil a year. This can only get better with mob-grazing. Gradually we will replace all the conventional pastures with herbal leys.
“I want to produce food which I am proud to put on someone’s plate. The Limousin is an extraordinary beast, but in my mind is not that edible. I personally believe forequarter is tastier than hindquarter. Give me a bit of Angus brisket any day.
“As resources become more limited and the climate crisis causes more environmental uncertainty, pastoral farming is a rational way to produce high quality food at least cost to the environment and my business. My mantra is, we should live as if we’ll die tomorrow, but farm as if we’ll live forever.
“There may be more cost-effective ways of rearing top quality beef, but I haven’t found one yet. Now we are mob-grazing we have more grass than ever before, so I shall be increasing the herd by 50 per cent over the next two or three years, producing more output for very little extra input.”