Pasture-fed farmer hosts BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today This Week programme which focussed on grass

BBC Radio 4 Farming Today Whittington Lodge Farm

Transcript of Farming Today This Week: Grass – Broadcast on Saturday 3 May, 2014

To unearth the importance of grass for UK farmers, Charlotte Smith visits a beef farmer in Gloucestershire who feeds his livestock purely on grass and hay. Ian Boyd grazes his Hereford cows on permanent grassland during the summer months and on wildflower meadows over the winter.

Farming Today This Week also speaks to the Pasture Fed Livestock Association about why they believe grass-fed livestock helps enrich both UK grasslands and the end product.

Farming Today This Week also hears from the British Grassland Society and why the Wildlife Trusts will present a petition to the Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, asking for more protection of our meadows. Marie Lennon meets a farmer on the Somerset Levels who is restoring his grassland after the floods and Caz Graham speaks to a dairy farmer in Cumbria who is fanatical about grassland management.

Presented by Charlotte Smith and produced by Lucy Bickerton.

Good morning. I’m halfway up a huge hill in Gloucestershire and, of course, taking advantage of the fact that you can’t see just how steep this hill is. But we have walked up to take advantage of the view. And it is a lovely spring morning. A little bit of cold in the air, but honestly, even though I have whinged every step of this hill, it is glorious. A valley falling away at our feet and in the distance is the bright yellow of the rape fields. We have come here actually, not to talk about the view, but to talk about what we are standing on: grass.

It is not really that exciting, is it? But it is arguably the most important crop in the UK. Grass covers about 60% of all the agricultural land in this country. It is a vital ingredient of course for milk, for lamb and for beef. So we’ve come to Whittington Lodge Farm, here in Gloucestershire, and standing with me is Ian Boyd.

“If we look down, and just get down here – how does this differ from the grass that we might have in a lawn?”

“We have far more biodiversity here. You can see the clovers, the buttercups and daisies.”

“So what’s this? Clover?”

“That is white clover.”

“And then this one?”

“That’s a buttercup.”

Now, just explain how this works with your farming, because you’ve got what, about 700 acres here?”

“Yes. Half our land is arable and half is now grassland.”

“And so does that work out – pretty much – the flat bits are arable and the valley sides, if you like, are where you put the grassland because you can’t do much else?”

“That is certainly the case in the past. When we joined higher level stewardship, a lot of the thinner land that wasn’t very productive for arable, we put into wildflower meadows, or ‘species-rich calcareous grassland’ is the buzzword, and because of the lack of fertility up there, that’s got a wonderful display of wildflowers there.”

We’ll talk more about the stewardship schemes and also the grasslands here on the farm later. But, as we’ve already discovered, there is more to grassland than grass.

Dr George Fisher from the British Grassland Society told me it’s difficult to over-estimate the importance of this crop.

“It is fundamentally important to UK agriculture. For most dairy cows, about 60% of their diet is made up of grass in the grazed form or as conserved silage. And for beef animals that goes up to about 80% and for sheep up to 90% so it really is fundamentally important.”

“When you talk about grass what are you talking about because you’re not really talking about what most of us think of as grass, which is a lawn?”

“No, and the main productive species in the UK is perennial ryegrass, but there are around about 20 species out there which are of production relevance. We are talking about very highly productive lowland grasslands through to more permanent grasslands in the uplands, and then some of the semi-natural grasslands in the mountains. So when we are talking about grassland it is not just grass as well, there are clovers in there which can fix nitrogen and there are also herbs in there, so grass is not just important for production it’s also environmentally very important.”

“Now not all grass is equal. Is there a tension between sowing new, highly-productive grass and maintaining old wildlife-rich meadows, for example?”

“There has historically been that tension and we’ve lost the vast majority of our semi-natural grasslands and particularly the lowlands of the UK and since Ploughing for Victory in the ‘40s, we’ve lost around 95% of our semi-natural grasslands. So there has historically been that tension. I suppose there still is some tension there, although environmental schemes more recently, under the CAP, have begun to protect our semi-natural grasslands in the lowlands.”

“But for agriculture, are we now looking at more productive grasses, and perhaps taking a more scientific approach towards growing them?”

“Absolutely, and I think that the grass breeders would have us believe that they put on about 2% yield in their grass breeding programs year-on-year. So if you think about that, over a 20-year period the argument would go that grasses now are producing 40% more yield than they were even 20 years ago, and that’s an amazing scientific development. And there are also other very interesting scientific things going on. For example we have high-sugar grasses now for lowland productive grasslands and that leads to an increase in intake so more efficient production, and also leads to more efficient use of nitrogen that is in the system.”

Dr George Fisher there from the British Grassland Society.

Now, that’s the sound of a cow being reunited with the herd. What we have just done, here on the farm in Gloucestershire, is brought one of the cows, who has had a calf two days ago, with her calf back into the field. It was really lovely because as we came into the field the rest of the herd stood sentinel and watched as she mosied – there is no other word – back in. And the calf, which was in a pen, has now been let go, and they are both – well he, frankly is looking a bit surprised and having a bit of a sniff and wobbling around a bit. Whereas she, choosing between motherhood and food, has gone for food and is just browsing the grass here.

“Ian, this is more of your permanent pasture here. So how many animals do you graze on it? How do you use it?”

“As part of my High Level Stewardship Agreement, I am meant to have a stocking rate of point four of a livestock unit per hectare and that relates to about 20 cows, their calves, the yearlings and the two year olds.”

“Now, let’s just explain High Level Stewardship. This is one of the agri-environment schemes which is in the process at the moment of being reformed, but you are on the old style agri-environment scheme. High level stewardship pays you extra money on top of your subsidy for doing things in a very environmentally friendly way.”

“I think the principle is that I’m paid on a profit forgone basis. So in other words, instead of growing a crop of wheat, I’m growing a crop of wildflowers. And there is not meant to be an element of profit in it, it is just that the profit that I would’ve had for the wheat crop, I get instead as an environmental payment.”

“So these animals are only fed on grass – that’s it.”

“They get grass and hay. They get no concentrates whatsoever, and you commented on the cattle coming towards me.

“In many systems the cattle will come towards you when they see either you or the vehicle, because they will associate that with being given extra food – they are given rations, they’re given soya-based food, to get them fatter basically, to get better beef, some might argue, certainly more beef – you don’t do any of that.”

“No. These cattle have no feed whatsoever. This is really a very low input system so I have no expenses on any feed. Similarly they are out-wintered, so I have no housing costs, no straw costs, no muck costs, no fertiliser costs because this is organic. – You’ve got a friend here.”

“I’m trying to pay attention to what you’re saying, but I have at my foot the cutest little calf. Now, you are organic here. What does that change in the way you treat this grass?”

“Well we were organic anyway, because having left university I came up with the principle that I have to buy a bag of fertiliser per acre every month and it soon became apparent that if it was wet, we had grass, and if it was dry, we didn’t. I don’t fertilise, I don’t chain harrow, I don’t roll. I do a bit of topping if the thistles are getting out of control.”

Well, for other farmers it is slightly more complex, and Louisa Dynes from Harper Adams University explained how they make the decision of what to put where, and when.

“The starting point is really the fertiliser manual – to work out a requirement. The other complexity is that you are not just managing to achieve yield at one point in time, you are trying to match supply and demand throughout the season and there will be factors that impact on that, such as drought at various points in the season. So once they have worked out a requirement they have then got to take into account those other sources, such as organic manures, which may be spread or may be directly positioned from grazing livestock. And they have got to also work out the contribution from clover if that’s part of their grassland.”

Louisa Dynes from Harper Adams University.

Well, we are here in Gloucestershire this morning and we’ve just returned a cow to the herd with her new calf, and there is a little bit of ‘lead cow’ argument going on here.  Ian Boyd, the farmer, is with me.

“Ian, the lead cow is just making sure that everyone knows she is still the lead cow. As well as having a lead cow, when the cows and calves are all out here together, much of the time all the calves will be with one animal, and all of the rest of the herd will go out grazing.”

“And also joining us here this morning is Russ Carrington. He is the executive secretary of the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association. Russ, just explain what that is.”

“The Pasture-Fed Livestock Association is a Community Interest Company of now, just over 100 farmers and we are about  50% organic and 50% non-organic,  and we are all championing the virtues of pasture through the development of a brand which recognises grass-fed or 100% grass-fed beef and lamb, or as we call it: pasture-fed for life.”

“So, in a sense, instead of what many farmers will do, if they are fattening an animal for beef, they will feed it extra rations so it becomes bigger and more quickly, what you’re saying is it is much better just simply leave them on grass and leave them to it. You need three things: you need space, you need grass, and presumably you need more time.”

“Yes, you could argue all of those things, but I think some of the pioneer farmers in our group now are developing the genetics in their animals. They are getting really good with their grassland management and really good with their soil management as well. Soil health is really key and then even then they can fatten animals really quite quickly and in very commercial timescales and to commercial grades as well.”

“This is very much a niche market for people with deep pockets, isn’t it?”

“I wouldn’t say so, no. The kind of consumers that are reaching out for this kind of product are not particularly worried about the cost because they really value what it is, and we are niche at the moment but we are rapidly growing and as demand in the marketplace is growing as well.”

“Realistically though, looking at the growing world’s population – is this the way that meat production should be going? Is this going to be able to feed people in the future?”

“Absolutely, we often forget the sort of hidden acres, or the ghost acres that we buy-in from abroad for soya, for grain or what have you, and it’s difficult to take a proper calculation when we are importing the feed stuffs. But pasture-fed beef and lamb is very much produced on that area and as to what the land can carry, and if we all improve our grassland management and make the best of what we’ve got, then we are being as productive as we can with what we’ve got.”

“Well Russ, thank you for joining us here this morning.”

It isn’t just beef farmers who rely on grassland in this way as the only source of feed for livestock. Some dairy farmers around the UK are also relying on grass-based milk production.

Now, Robert Craig keeps a herd of 350 dairy cows high up on the edge of the Pennines in northeast Cumbria, and he works his grass hard as he is showing our report, Caz Graham.

“We are just into our second grazing round here, so you can see, right at the end of April, looking at grass that is absolutely perfect – just ready for grazing. We measure the grass every week. We monitor the farm religiously really every seven days or so. We know how much grass was here last week. We know how much grass is here now. From a series of equations we can work out the growth rate and the average cover per hectare on the farm. So we can work out the feed that is available in every single hectare so we can then allocate the grass accordingly depending on the demand of the herd.”

“The grass here, where we are crouching at the moment, it’s maybe around 8 inches long, actually. It’s quite long some of this grass. There is some clover over there, a little bit of dock over there.”

We’re farming, really, on a system that is typically a New Zealand system. It’s a rotational grazing system, and our aim is to get high-quality leafy dense grass in front of the cows for as many days in the year as possible.”

“And you feed them in different paddocks – have you got the whole farm divided into paddocks?”

“It is for the management of the grass really, it dictates that we have got to have a system whereby we have rotational grazing, so they’re not going into the same paddock more than two or three feet. It is all to do with getting the most out of the grass plant.”

“And this is quite a big field, but divided here, we can see there is a temporary fence down the middle of it and the cows are all grazing on that paddock. And this paddock here with this long grass that we are in now, this is presumably waiting to be grazed?”

“It is. This is almost exactly four hectares and this is doing three feeds, so it is doing two night feeds and a day feed, but we’re giving them it in 12 hour blocks, they are coming in and getting a prescribed amount of grass.”

“So you are putting the cows on here for 12 hours? Is it as detailed as that?”

“Yes. It is. I mean, this paddock does three, 12 hour breaks. We know how much grass is here and they’ll get fully fed. They will, during that 12 hour period, take the cover that is approximately 3000kg per hectare now, down to about half of that, which is 1500kg and we are then down to about seven or eight cm of stubble left really, then that paddock will be left. We will reapply fertilizer to it and potentially we can be back in this in three weeks’ time.”

“Well, we have rather unscientifically ripped this grass out and looked at it to assess the state of it, but you are actually going to measure it in a slightly more technical manner as well. Let’s walk across to this instrument which you have left on the grass here.”

“This is a rising plate meter. What it actually does is it measures both the sward height and sward density of the grass.  You basically drop the stem from the centre, it goes down through the grass and touches the ground.  The density of the grass actually holds a plate up.”

“It looks a bit like a pogo stick actually!”

“Basically, you walk the paddock, dropping it 40 or 50 times. The little computer on the side works out the average height and density of every time you drop it. You get to the other side of the paddock and it has worked out an average that tells you the average cover that is on this paddock. Then we get a really accurate picture of how much grass is both here and actually how much has grown since we last measured it.”

“We’re just walking over to the cows in this field. They’re not eating much at the moment Robert, are they?”

“They are all full. Stuffed full of the grass and are just having a rest now.”

“So do you get a bit obsessive about this grass then?”

“Hugely – I think probably I am more a fanatical grassland farmer than a dairy farmer I think, because this is what makes it tick. We have got to get this absolutely right. If we get this right these girls turn it into money for us.”

That was Robert Craig in Cumbria.

We are in Gloucestershire this morning with Ian Boyd on his farm, and we have left the cattle and the permanent pasture, and made our way up, yet another hill, and you can probably tell we have come higher as the wind is whistling around us. We are in a wildflower meadow. The sun has just come out. We have got cowslips as far as the eye can see. On the way up here we saw three hares. It is just beautiful.

“And this is where your cattle, Ian, spent their winter.”

“We are at 900 feet above sea level up here and there’s very little soil up here so when the cattle spend here all winter here the ground doesn’t poach so we don’t get much mud. Years ago, prior to 2007, this was a wheat field and we used to crop it fairly intensively with oil seed rape, wheat spring barley and crops like that, but these fields never yielded very much.”

“So you started then with an arable field. Did you just plant a wildflower meadow like a new crop?”

“If only it were that simple. We ploughed it and we prepared it and I still had an awful lot to learn. We scattered the grass seed and the wildflower seed on the top. Six months later there was nothing here and I was tearing my hair out: ‘This is a disaster’. We had some hay from another wildflower meadow and we spread it up and down , and if you look down here you can actually see the lines of the of cowslips. [Oh yes!] That’s where I spread the hay and that just shows you, spreading hay on a meadow does actually work.”

“I just want to stop you to listen for a minute. Is that a skylark? Isn’t that lovely? ”

“Let’s talk about grass. This is a different from the permanent pasture grass here, that it is obviously grass here and cowslips I can see with the lovely yellow just wafting gently in the wind here. What else have you got?”

“Yellow rattle here ­­- this is yellow rattle plant. That’s an interesting plant in that it inhibits the growth of grass and it’s interesting that my father and grandfather tried to get rid of this plant.”

“Well, why would you want to inhibit the growth of grass when you’re using this to graze?”

“As part of the environmental stewardship scheme and trying to encourage wildflowers, if you have a really dense sward the flowers will not come through. Because of the yellow rattle plant here, that means the grass is less dense and then you get more flowers, more flowers means more insect life, more biodiversity. There is a plantain here.”

“This tall one, with a sort of burr on the top?”

“That’s right, and you’re standing on one of the sainfoin. Now, sainfoin, that’s a very old plant. It used to use be called ‘holy hay’ in the Middle Ages. It has medicinal properties in that it inhibits the growth of worms in the gut, so your cattle won’t get so many worms. It fixes its own nitrogen and has a wonderful pink flower which really attracts insects.”

“I have taken my foot of it having realised just how good it is.”

“It also has very high feed value. Certainly the racehorse trainers will seek out sainfoin hay from the south of France because it’s one of the most nutritious sort of hay you can have.”

“Do you think that there is enough incentive for people like you to go to the trouble of creating a wildflower meadow?”

“In that, on the top of the Cotswolds, this is not a hugely productive area for producing masses of grain, I think the incentive is enough for me to do it but I appreciate that if you are down on the lowlands on far more productive soil, that’s where you want to be producing the intensive yields.”

“The reason I ask, is that later today [3rd May 2014] the Wildlife Trusts are going to hand a petition to the Secretary of State, Owen Paterson. They say there needs to be more action to be taken within the common agricultural policy to create and then protect areas just like this. Stephen Trotter is the director for England for the Wildlife Trusts. He told me why wildlife rich grasslands are in decline. “

“There is no one single issue – there’s a range of things. It can range from intensification and direct loss through ploughing and improvement. Fertilizer, for example is very poisonous to these wildflower pastures. And it could be development, or it could be simple neglect. We are seeing a lot of grasslands not being valued and being lost through not bring grazed or not being actively managed, so a whole range of different reasons for it.”

“Now you want more protection for these areas, how?”

“Well we do, and this is the last leg really, the last gasp, of the very long CAP reform process that I am sure you are aware. There is still time for Defra to do the right things and the key things we are looking for is to make sure that some really effective measures in the common agricultural policy greening mechanisms. First of all we must have protection for the few meadows we have left remaining, and then we want to make sure that the government encourages farmers to do the right things by grassland. For example, in the new agri-environment schemes we want them to set payments at realistic levels so that farmers are attracted to look after their meadows and get properly rewarded for it. At the moment it is a real problem, that the payments are so poor, that the farmers are not really interested.”

“Now, without getting too technical and driving people back under the covers this morning, you mentioned greening and agri-environment schemes. Greening is where farmers’ direct subsidy payment will be linked to them doing more for the environment. You are going to present a petition to the Secretary of State, Owen Patterson later today. What are you hoping he’ll do?”

“Well, we are hoping he will take note of the petition and recognise how many of the public actually value and really treasure these grasslands and take some really effective action while we can protect what we have got left and to encourage people to look after what we have.”

Stephen Trotter there from the Wildlife Trusts.

We put those points to Defra and they told us: We’re committed to protecting and restoring our grasslands. Following the recent reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, we are investing some £3.1 billion until 2020 to protect and enhance our natural environment. In addition 12 nature improvement areas are currently restoring significant areas of grassland across England.

Let’s talk a little bit about the effect of flooding on grass. At the height of the flooding in the spring 17,000 acres of farmland on the Somerset levels were submerged. Now much of that land was under water for many weeks, killing off the grasses. Now farmers are trying to restore their pasture to provide feed for cattle and sheep, not only this summer but also over this winter. So Marie Lennon has been to meet John He ditch who is a beef farmer near Taunton.

“So John, you have expertly manoeuvred across some very sticky, very bumpy tracks and we’ve arrived here at one of your fields. Tell me what this field is normally used for?”

“We are here at a 20 acre block of land, right out in the middle of Currie moor. We intend to put our finishing cattle in this particular block of land because it would normally have grown quite decent grass, but because the basic fauna and flora has been destroyed by the floodwater, it’s always the vigorous but unproductive varieties that are coming back.”

“And if we have a look, what’s this?”

“This is a dock. They seem to have floated in. And then we have got low creeping buttercup which is just populating any spare area. And then interspersed with that we’ve got an awful lot of water grass, which is a sort of aquatic couch and totally useless either for silage or for cattle and is so unproductive it’s almost a weed.”

“OK, well let’s walk a bit further into the field. The weeds are coming up thicker and greener. Tell me what you need to do from here.”

“We are going to let it green up as we are doing at the moment and actually, we couldn’t get out here anyway because it is still too wet – and subject to a derogation from Natural England, I hope to desiccate all the green and kill everything, weeds and bad grasses and everything, by then the so-called experts would work out what the right and proper sequence is going to be.”

Because, I suppose, to a certain extent, it’s a bit of a blank canvas and you are looking for the most resilient mix that you can find.”

“Yes we are because in the old days we used to put a cheap old grass mix and allow the natural grasses to take over, because they were always there. We have got a different situation this year because the weather and water has killed it all out completely. We don’t have any decent natural grasses here at all, so we have to look long term with a grass mix and say: What’s going to survive flash flooding for four or five years and how do we manage that once we have got it here? How do we graze it? How do we cut it? We are having quite a rethink. We may end up actually learning things that we didn’t know about the moors. It’s going to be difficult.”

John He ditch in Somerset.

It’s getting a bit breezy up here in the Cotswolds. Ian has just wandered off. He has got out his penknife and he is gently cutting up large clods of earth.

“Ian, what are you doing?”

“I’m just looking for dung beetles, because these cattle never have any wormers, we get a lot of dung beetles – little bright, red beetles in the dung.”

“I can see lots of worms! Look at that huge worm there!”

“No. I can’t see any dung beetles there.”

“A little woodlouse I can see as we get a little bit further in. From the farming viewpoint I suppose, the grass goes in – it comes out – it feeds the grass. In a very simplistic form.”

“Absolutely. We don’t need to spread muck on here. The muck is provided by the cattle.”

“Easy as that, hey? Ian, thank you very much for your time here this morning.”

View all news articles