Pastures in the mist: Orkney farmers gather to hear about Pasture for Life

Fifty local livestock farmers came from across Orkney, and one from Shetland, to hear about the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association on the most northerly certified Pasture for Life farm in the UK.

Tony and Elizabeth Bown, together with their children, kindly hosted the farm walk and talk at New Holland Farm.  They wanted to show what they have achieved on their farm with a different approach to grazing and to share their learnings with other farmers alongside a talk from PFLA General Manager Russ Carrington.

Orkney boasts the highest concentration of beef cattle per hectare in Europe.  The collection of islands that sit between the Scottish mainland and the Shetland Isles are almost entirely pasture, most of which is extensively grazed.  The winters are long and nearly all cattle are housed during this period, but in the summer it is wet and warm enough for grass to grow very well.  Most of the land has also never been tilled in recent times meaning soil organic matter levels are very high.

Due to unprecedented interest the evening talk took place in a spacious barn on the farm, with a screen perched in Tony’s livestock trailer to shield from the lighter evenings that far north.  A range of farmers attended including a core group from the Orkney Agricultural Discussion group which is one of the oldest farming discussion groups in the UK.

Russ Carrington explained how and why the PFLA had come to be, and the opportunities for other farmers to get involved.  He also touched on changing consumer trends and how farmers will need to better evidence their wider environmental contributions to society in the future.

Last year Orkney also lost its last remaining abattoir meaning that all cattle and sheep are now shipped off the island to as far away as Aberdeen for slaughter.  Russ spoke about the initiative being led by a small group of PFLA members who are looking at the feasibility of mobile slaughter units, which could be especially relevant for Orkney and any small-scale supply chains that might be developed for Pasture for Life certified animals.

Next it was onto tractors and trailers and into the lingering sea mist to see the farm…

Tony Bown originally moved up from Devon and met his now wife Elizabeth, originally from Yorkshire, whilst she was working as a vet on Orkney.  Together they have developed and grown the farm business, gained organic certification and more recently Pasture for Life certification.

Tony cited the PFLA as being fundamental to helping him achieve changes on their farm and stated how useful it was to be connected to a bunch of like-minded farmers.  Tony and Elizabeth are also avid readers and have taken much inspiration from pioneering pasture farmers in the USA such as Joel Salatin and Gabe Brown.

Having practised rotational/paddock grazing for many years they have now moved to a system of mob grazing with 4 mobs totalling 350 cattle: 3 calving groups, and then another larger mob of fattening cattle.  The sheep are run as a single flock and also rotated around different areas of the 400 hectare farm.  The motivation to adopt mob grazing has been to increase forage utilisation, improve animal performance and soil health, and reduce costs of production.

The Bowns are also part of the Innovative Farmers mob grazing group in Scotland run by Clem Sandison which facilitates visits to different mob grazers throughout Scotland to share best practise and better understand the benefits of taking this approach.

Tony admits that their mob grazing system is still in formation, but the farm has been split into roughly 1 hectare blocks and they are experimenting with balancing leaving enough residual and ensuring the animals’ nutritional requirements are satisfied with daily moves.

Breeding cows are a mixture of breeds stemming back from when the herd was first established, but more recently Stabilizer bulls have been used to produce offspring with good confirmation, good growth rates but also suitability to the local landscape.

Animals leaving the farm are either sold as stores to other farms, or as fat animals straight onto the boat to Aberdeen.  In the past the Bowns have marketed direct, and even supplied London butchers, but this proved a challenge and is now even more difficult without a local abattoir.

The farm is able to supply steady numbers of certified Pasture for Life animals to a particular contract that will recognise the provenance and quality of the meat, and conversations are underway to try and open up a supply chain to do so.  If a successful route to market can be established then other farmers in Orkney could benefit and would be well placed to adopt pasture-fed farming methods.

Orkney is a very unique environment in many respects and throughout the evening there was positive hope for opportunities ahead for Orkney farmers – just around the corner, much like the evening sun that was trying to poke through the sea mist as we moved the last mob of cattle across the diverse pastures that evening.

Thank you to Tony and Elizabeth Bown for their kind support to the PFLA to make this trip happen.

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