Mat Boley’s dairy farm in Somerset seems to be achieving the impossible. Despite the crisis currently facing the dairy industry, with unprecedented low prices forcing many farmers out of business, Batch End Farm’s organic pasture-fed, low-input system is not only coping, but doing remarkably well. A farm walk organised by the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association (PFLA) gave us an insight into Mat’s success.
Unsurprisingly, many people, from farmers to conservationists, journalists and would-be smallholders, are interested in how Mat has managed to milk his 340 Jersey crossbred cows purely on pasture for the past 17 years. At a time when most dairy farms are trying to maximise production, why has he chosen to milk only once a day?
Prioritising the welfare and longer life expectancy of his cows rather than focusing entirely on maximum yield, has resulted in numerous benefits for both him and his animals. Once-a-day milking has significantly lowered his cow replacement rate from 23% to 15%. The number of empty cows (cows that do not become pregnant) has also dropped from 12% to 5%. Interestingly, the ‘powerhouses’ of his once a day milking are the slightly older cows – six or so years old – which offers a greater incentive to keep them healthy and happy for longer. Many of Mat’s cows live from 14–16 years, compared to intensive systems where the standard cull age is around six years old.
With the average UK dairy cow producing 7,870 litres per year, Batch End’s average of 2,941 litres is significantly lower. But the farm still produces 1 million litres of milk per annum, with a 3.7% protein content, slightly higher than the average 3.5%. Studies also show that pasture-fed meat and dairy contains higher levels of important vitamins and beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. Arguably, this lower production level is what the dairy industry should be striving for as a way of counteracting the problem of overproduction and low prices.
In terms of viability, labour and input costs are relatively low in this system. Mat doesn’t need to buy in feed, nor does he have a regular use for large, diesel-guzzling machinery. Veterinary visits are infrequent, keeping costs to a minimum. An interesting discussion about tuberculosis took place during the walk and it was suggested that a reason for the rarity of badgers entering his sheds and fields could be accredited to the absence of the concentrate feed which often entices them.
Milking only once a day provides additional benefits for Mat, his family and farm workers, by relieving the pressure and opening up more time to work on other aspects of the farm business. The low intensity of this way of working means that problems are spotted and dealt with more swiftly, and that the animals get more individual attention.
It’s not all easy, and Mat admits he’s still learning all the time. An apparent lack of species diversity and an abundance of docks in his grassland prompted suggestions from those on the walk that he could improve rotation by planting more nitrogen-fixing crops and introducing sheep to help reduce the impact of selective grazing.
Low-input dairying goes against industry advice and incentives, where increasing production is promoted as the path to prosperity. And the problem with experimenting is that farmers can’t afford to get it wrong. Taking a different approach may be what’s necessary to instigate systemic change, but it also takes hard work, time and willingness to learn new things along with an inevitable increase in risk.
There remain some fundamental problems in dairying that reflect the wider agricultural crisis. One example is dairy bull calves – always a contentious issue – as low beef prices and the development of high yielding milk cows offers little incentive to rear them for meat. Mat’s solution is to give away his bull calves to a nearby farmer who successfully rears them for late stores. It might seem madness to give away calves for free, but based on the current livestock industry it is not economically viable for most farmers to keep them, and the alternative is to slaughter at birth.
This is one example highlighting why our skewed economic system urgently needs addressing, with a move towards rewarding those who farm sustainably rather than allowing them to be driven out by cheap imports and supermarket pricing. If farmers received a price that reflected the true cost that both they and society pay they would have more options, making it possible to prioritise sustainability and higher welfare in their production methods.
The current system still favours intensive approaches, focused on maximising profit. But Mat has shown there are many things farmers can do to add value and lower costs in a way that is good for the animals, the environment, the farmer and the consumer. By rearing animals on pasture, farmers automatically reduce the environmental impact of producing concentrate feed. The pasture itself sequesters and stores carbon and provides a habitat for wildlife. In the space of just half an hour we saw deer, swans and a multitude of bird life on Mat’s farm.
To help farmers opting for the pasture-fed approach, the PFLA has extended its certification standards to include milk as well as meat so that consumers can differentiate between grain-fed and pasture-fed dairy products. With the Pasture for Life meat label successfully launched, the PFLA is now running a pilot project with eight dairy farmers to test the pasture-fed standards when applied to milk production as well as establishing markets and identifying the potential for adding value to the milk.
Aside from the environmental benefits of not feeding grain, the wholly pasture-fed approach is seen as a more resilient system with lower and more predictable input costs. It is a more holistic method, with the feed coming entirely from home-produced pasture, avoiding purchased cereals, soya and fishmeal – whose costs fluctuate on the world market and with much of it being imported at significant carbon cost.
While the PFLA does encourage the adoption of the organic approach as far as possible, it does not require its certified farmers to be formally certified organic. When cattle are raised on pasture produced from within the farm, there is a natural symbioses between the consumption of food and the manure that is returned to the land to feed the soil. In turn, this avoids the issue of slurry – a problematic waste product of intensively farmed cows – as well as the need for artificial fertilisers. Finally, animals are less stressed, eating a natural diet, spending most of their time outdoors and following their natural instinct to graze.
While currently a niche product, pasture-fed meat and dairy is growing in popularity. And as environmental, human health and animal welfare issues become more prominent it makes sense to look towards a nature-first way of farming – a method that pioneering farmers like Mat, are proving can work.
The PFLA is happy to share the findings of the pilot scheme and welcomes anyone who would like to join them. Contact the PFLA here to find out more.