Stuart and Rebecca Mayhew, Old Hall Farm 3/3

How do you monitor these benefits?

Monitoring all of the changes and benefits has been difficult so far due to the effects of the pandemic. We started a completely new business 9 months before the first lockdown, so we have had to concentrate on keeping the whole enterprise afloat. This has meant that we have had to divert time and money away from the monitoring exercises that we had planned. However during 2023 we intend to carry out base-line testing of soil organic matter and will then repeat the sampling annually.

We have undertaken some ecological monitoring as part of our Holistic Management practices and this will be scaled up this year. We will be able to call upon volunteers to do this and will incorporate these monitoring exercises into our school tours. Due to our wider connections through Pasture for Life we have had visits from Dung beetle enthusiasts who were able to quantify the number and type of species of beetle on our farm. We have been keeping some notes on the location of these beetles over the last 4 years and are confident in saying that whilst dung beetles were restricted to only a few areas of the farm when we started with ruminants they are now prevalent over 80% of our 500 acres.

Are there any benefits to the farm directly attributable to the PfL approach/would be lost if there were no ruminants on the farm?

Animals are the beating heart of our farm. The historic farming business did include intensive pigs but as they were permanently housed they were not part of the fabric of the landscape and spreading their slurry and manure onto the arable fields did nothing to integrate them with the soil and the flora and fauna across the farm. In fact, their very presence was damaging to it.

Ruminants have a unique ability to be at one with a place. In our case, the dairy cows (affectionately known as the Jersey Goddesses) have become agents for change rather than just being passive and “owned” by us. They have brought life to our land and helped us to create a business from nothing. They have enabled us to connect with people on a level which was not possible with the intensive pigs. They capture imaginations, hearts and minds and continue to inspire us to keep improving the farm every day.

Since having ruminants (one must give the sheep some credit as well) we have been able to turn a sterile dust bowl into something approaching an East Anglian oasis. Even in the height of summer the farm is green and cool – a stark contrast with our pure arable neighbours. None of what we have achieved would be possible without ruminants. They add “fertiliser” and life to the soil.

Our Jersey Goddesses have shared with us their ability to self-medicate using hedgerow plants that they find on our walks to and from the dairy parlour. One such area that they love to stop is at a tree we have called the “Sacred Hawthorn”. This veteran, gnarly hawthorn is on a very old bank which runs along the main track through the heart of the farm. Every morning when coming into the dairy parlour, and when returning to the field, every single cow and calf stops to greet the hawthorn, by rubbing against and playing around it. They stop to lick the soil, dancing underneath the branches and generally refusing to go on until they have paid their respects.

Before we had cows, we paid very little attention to the tree - after all, it was “just” one tree of many and at a glance it is very unassuming. The goddesses have helped to open our eyes and our hearts to the land, and as a result we have a much deeper connection with the farm.

From a less emotive perspective our business would be at risk if we did not have ruminants incorporated into every part of the farm. We would have less income (the dairy is absolutely key to our farm shop), less biodiversity, less carbon sequestration and if we were still in the CSS we would have to increase our use of fossil fuels for management of the various pasture and crop land which would result in increased costs and biodiversity losses.

The Pasture for Life approach has encouraged us to open our minds. It is a non-judgemental group which, if one is trying to transition from the ridiculous to the sublime, is essential. Pasture for Life allows us to leave all baggage and pre-conceptions behind for the benefit of all and encourages more holistic thinking. Their research into the nutritional density of 100% Pasture Fed meat and dairy is also incredibly helpful. We need to start thinking of food as medicine and healthy soil is the conduit through which this becomes possible.

What lessons have you learnt and would like to share with others?

We have learned not to worry about the speed at which we can make changes. If one tries to rush this will almost certainly lead to failure.

Having faith in the basic principles and learning to follow a logical train of thought is essential.

Primary actions are important – do no harm and do the “next right thing”.

Keep it simple! Humans are brilliant at trying to make a complex system more complex. We have learned to stand back from the situation, analyse what is happening and try to find a way to work this into what we are trying to achieve. Knowing what you’re trying to achieve is really really important.

Productivity can be measured in many different ways and what works for one farm/farmer isn’t necessarily the same elsewhere.

Public goods should include food. Working with nature under the Pasture for Life umbrella facilitates this.

We have also learned that we are not alone – the network through Pasture for Life is amazing and the depth of knowledge is outstanding.

When making major structural changes as we did (we went entirely cold turkey with zero inputs) expect the soil to go into “shock”. Gradual withdrawal of chemicals (sending a memo to the soil) might have meant that we would have made our transition a little less bumpy. Failures are a good way to learn though, if you can allow yourself the head space to find something positive!

Finally – remember that your circle of influence is not infinite. You can’t save the world on your own but you can start by saving your corner of it.

Read more about Old Hall Farm or our other Biodiversity Case Studies