Pasture for Life – Case Study – Neil Heseltine, Yorkshire Dales

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Neil used to run two systems on the 485ha of severely disadvantaged land he farms, split between Malhamdale and Littondale. There was a low input, low labour suckler beef enterprise, which is profitable, and a high input, high output sheep flock, which was not.

The Belted Galloway beef herd was started in 2003 with 90 heifers and a bull. Now there are 24 breeding cows and their youngstock, making 120 beasts in total.

“When we started the most important attribute we needed from the breed was the ability to winter outside, at anywhere from 243m up to 548m above sea level,” Neil explains. “Highlands have horns so the choice was relatively easy. And the white belts of the Belted Galloways are easy to count when they are up on the hills. They are also really good mothers – they calve easily and gain condition off low quality grass. They have the ability to make the best use of the uplands.”

The cows are served between 15 August and the end of September, so they can start calving at the end of May, once the worst weather has gone and they have had a chance to regain some condition.

Neil has stopped weaning the calves, leaving them with their mothers until they calve.

“We used to separate them at the end of April, but this caused a lot of stress to them and us,” says Neil. “Now, they stay with their mother until she calves again, at which point the cow and new calf are walked to a separate field away from the rest of the herd. This attempts to replicate the natural process and is much less stressful for all involved.”

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Environmental schemes

Neil runs three HLS grazing schemes on the hills. None of the cattle of any age are fed concentrate feeds and they only get silage if there is deep snow.

The cows and their calves – which are between five and eight months of age, are given a large area of ground to roam. The cows graze most of the time, popping back to feed the calves a few times each day. As the calves grow they take less milk and graze more.

They all have to come back down off the hills from May, as this is part of the HLS prescription, which allows the wildflowers to set and drop their seed.

“The upland meadows do look splendid in the summer,” Neil acknowledges. “The conservation scheme certainly works and the flowers and wildlife are flourishing. We have so many birds in the fields and barn owls in the farmyard – seeing it all is almost as pleasurable as farming.”

In September, all the cows and one and two year-old youngstock go back up to the hills, and by the following May, the three year olds are starting to finish off grazing alone. They are currently sold through North of England supermarket chain Booths, but Neil hopes eventually to find a more local outlet that will really value the Pasture for Life brand.

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Simple system

“We try to keep cattle management as simple as possible – in fact tagging and castration are the only routine tasks we carry out,” Neil says. “If they need moving I might have to pay for someone to come and help me walk them – but that’s about it.

“Over the past ten years the Belties have taught us that fattening native cattle on low value grassland is achievable and is profitable. Now we have started to apply some of this thinking to the sheep enterprise,” says Neil.

“Six years ago we had 600 ewes that were intensively managed and losing us money. Now we are down to a flock of 200 Swaledale ewes, and feeding much less cereals too.

“It is sometimes hard to get your head around the fact that having 200 lambing sheep can be more profitable than having 600. But if you take all the costs out, it can definitely be done!”

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