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Rotating and regenerative farming

We’re quite new to veg, having recently diversified our farm from just rearing organic beef, lamb, and a small herd of goats. This year, we more than doubled our acreage of courgettes, leeks and purple sprouting broccoli, so we’re at about 18 acres of vegetables now.

It’s good to see so much of the farm’s land doing well enough to grow veg. Because you’ve got to put back before you can take out. We do that by rotating livestock through the fields and building up soil fertility, which is becoming known as ‘regenerative farming’. If you haven’t got enough livestock moving across the farm, you’re not circulating enough nutrients fast enough. When cows roam through the fields (called ‘mobile’ or ‘mob’ grazing) rather than just grazing down one field, they actually accelerate the growth of plants.

Essentially, what we’re doing is harvesting sunlight, and turning it into nutrients that we can eat. And in order to do that, we convert it through an animal. If you just grew crop after crop of vegetables, you would keep pulling nutrients from the soil without putting anything back. That’s why they’ve got big dust bowls in America, where they’ve tilled an arable crop for years and there’s no organic matter left in the soil; it just blows away.

Cows grazing
Rotating livestock means fields are grazed, fertilised and regenerated to build up fertility.

The cold first half of the year really made things difficult. We should have had more rain in April, and then when we did get some it was time to start planting. When the heavens open, you can’t plant because you can’t get on the land. We were lucky to get our courgettes in just before the rain came, though their protective fleece took a bit of a battering with the wind.

It’s definitely challenging, and there’s days where you wonder why you decided to do anything to do with vegetables at all – but then you get a decent crop ready to harvest, and it’s so rewarding. We were convinced the purple sprouting broccoli was an absolute disaster because the weather was so cold, but it was actually really good. When the finished product is right, it makes it all worth it.

    Comments

    Marion

    2 Weeks 1 Day

    The concept of using animals to fertilise the land and then provide us with food products, to put it delicately, is an appealing one. Pictures of happy cattle in lush grazing land are more attractive to me than internet cats. But here's a cat to put among the pigeons: there must be a way to make use of the massive amounts of humanity's waste that is currently flushed away, in large part, eventually, to sea. I know about reedbed sanitation, septic tanks and other ways of using, not just dealing with "humanure"; I was born on a farm with no mains drainage,and no septic tank. Our waste went into the milking herd's midden, to end up spread on the fields.

    With the current, massive, orchestrated wave of support for veganism I see little acknowledgement of its logical conclusion: that we should help to create the fertility we need to grow plants. The problem is, I suppose, our intake of various drugs and possibly the exotic foodstuffs which we take for granted, which could well have harmful effects on soil organisms: but surely simple composting would break down most of them? I am not vegan or even vegetarian and I think if you don't want to slaughter animals you should be campaigning for a rational approach to food production for the human race.

    0 Reply

    anthony roper

    2 Weeks 1 Day

    Interesting comments on the question of food production. I am enthusiastically vegan. I am aware that some growers have eliminated all animal inputs, and yet maintained soil fertility with green manures etc. so it can be done. I also realise people want to eat animals and wishing people to have free will, am fairly happy to let them do so. My initial reason for eating plant based was for health, and we simply do not seem to have the anatomy for consuming meat, besides people in the know tell me we can get all the nutrients we need from plants. You only have to look at a silver back to understand the power of eating mainly plants! People in hospital on heart wards ( I am told are often fed the very food that got them there in the first place ) When I now think of the terrible animal suffering and situations like the one referred to and others I well appreciate why many vegans want to get their voices heard.
    Rearing animals on a predominantly or fully grass fed system goes a long way to solve one of the problems, but we do not have enough land on our beloved earth to produce the quantity of carcasses most people are eating.
    So eating animals once a week or month may be a possibility, and using humanure, (I don't know, will we be exposing ourselves to chemical pollutants in our waste, it gets complicated) with all the other chemicals in farming. It truly would need our food system to be revolutionised, with farmers producing animals and having a growing system like David and Helen.

    1 Reply

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    Jack Thompson

    1 Week

    Hi Anthony and Marion,

    Stay tuned for a mini feature on Veganic Farming pioneered by Iain Tolhurst in Oxfordshire. He's one of the few farmers who manage to farm organically with no animal inputs. Fascinating guy, and he seems to make it work to great success admittedly. My question is though; with UK land in organic production sitting at a measly 2.8%, is the step to veganic, stock free agriculture a step too far for many?

    Regarding humanure, in the UK we already take advantage of human waste to use as agricultural fertiliser. According to the Sustainable Food Trust, the UK recycles up to 77 per cent of human waste into fertiliser: https://sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/human-manure-closing-the-nutrient-loop/

    It seems though that human waste is not allowed in organic farming under EU regulations. Whether this applies to the private organic standards in the UK such as the Soil Association is unclear.

    While there are rigorous standards and checks that the waste does not contain any metals that might be harmful to the soil and the food produced on it, there are concerns that we don't understand fully the interaction between the soil and the contents of such waste. According to a BBC feature on the topic last year, the rules around waste management in farming, the rules established in 1989 are out of date and in need of urgent updating.

    Clearly there's a benefit to using human manure if it reduces artificial fertiliser but it is unclear if it is damaging the environment, soil and land in ways we don't quite comprehend.


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