Will Mann, Oxleaze Farm 3/3
What are the benefits to the farm and is it increasing its climate and business resilience? If so, in what way?
The farm is managed organically with no use of pesticides nor manufactured fertilisers. This not only generates considerable cost savings but also increases the farm’s general resilience and ensures that cleaner water flows through and off the farm.
The cattle are certified Pasture for Life, which means that no cereals are fed, using an extensive grazing system. This, together with the introduction of mob grazing, reduces the risk of soil compaction as does the greater vegetative cover which in turn enhances climatic resilience during the increasingly frequent drought and wet winters.
The cattle are out-wintered, so in addition to having no costs of housing we have increased the diversity of grasses and herbs for them to graze. This in turn helps their immune system and builds up soil organic matter which in turn takes carbon out of the atmosphere.
All heating and hot water for the farm comes from our biomass boiler, with locally sourced wood chip (50% from our own woodland). Electricity is generated from a solar PV array of 270 Kilowatts, this electricity supplies 24 properties on the farm.
Barns converted into eleven workshop units.
Converted C18th threshing barn for weddings, parties – even funerals!
There are now over 50 people earning their living off the farm, mostly local and enjoying the benefits of the ‘bike-to-work’ scheme.
How do you monitor it?
The whole farm is now alive with wildlife, birds, bees, butterflies, and insects alongside a thriving population of over 15 broods of thriving English Grey partridge. The need to reduce our energy consumption whilst at the same time providing healthy tasty food, sequestering carbon, and providing clean air, water and healthy soil is becoming ever more apparent.
We have annual bird and butterfly counts across the farm. An RSPB survey found that there was the highest density of linnets recorded in the UK and Red list Revival carry out two bird surveys a year - fascinating to join because this is done by ear rather than eye. What a skill.
British Trust for Ornithology also carries out a survey along the riverbank which identifies some completely different residents.
In the future we would love to carry out some work on butterflies and moths, there is so much more to the land than we see by just ‘farming’ the surface.
Are there any benefits to the farm that are directly attributable to the Pasture for Life approach and/or would be lost if there were no ruminant animals on the farm? In brief, what are the benefits from having ruminant animals on the farm?
As a direct result of having the cattle mob grazing around the farm throughout the year it is a hive of wildlife activity with 14 hectares of wild bird mixture and a further 60 hectares of plants that provide pollen and nectar to pollinators such as bees and butterflies.
The cattle are remarkably self-sufficient, only requiring handling for tagging, TB testing and loading for slaughter. Calving is a joy with remarkably consistent results, the cows benefitting from not being over-fat and many having had over 8 calves - reducing the replacement ratio and thus reducing our carbon footprint. There is a keen focus on conservation and the livestock are, without doubt, fundamental to this. We have been practicing with different mob grazing techniques and are already seeing our forage production increase as a direct result of advice and information from other Pasture for Life farmers.
Our tree planting in 2017, which we plan to continue, has seen an increase in birds, insects, voles and rabbits providing habitats and food as well as improving our carbon efficiency.
The ancient water meadows along the River Leach and the ridge and furrow fields are managed by grazing which without cattle on the farm would return to scrub. The water levels can be controlled by a sluice from the river enabling the water meadows to be flooded in the summer months so that the soil remains soft enough for the snipe and red shank to feed. Such wet grasslands appropriately managed are good carbon sinks and home to mallard, teal and wigeon as well as numerous bats living in the old oak trees but the only grazing animal that can cope is an indigenous cattle breed.
Overall, the management of the farm considers the health of the soil and the practices used will be fixing carbon in the soil and in biomass. Soil compaction is carefully considered in all management practices and travelling on wet soils in winter is avoided. Soil organic matter levels are relatively high and are monitored to make sure they are going in the right direction.
What lessons have you learnt and would like to share with others?
Work with nature. Take your time. Leave the tractor in the shed. Give nature time. Creating species rich grasslands takes time and requires soils low in fertility. Hopefully the new schemes will enable us to drive the schemes to suit our farming rather than vice versa! Always carry out a baseline survey before embarking on this sort of conservation journey. It is helpful to be able to look back and both monitor and see what you have achieved.