The end of a long winter
‘Winter for the livestock farmer is something to be survived, a time of relentless work needing to be done, and of equally relentless expenditure’
The above passage from Roger Morgan-Grenville’s Taking Stock; A journey among cows sums up well how I’m feeling at the moment. It’s the end of May, Spring is here, the trees and hedgerows are bursting with life and the birds are nesting. The relief of finally turning out the cattle is palpable. As I reflect upon what winter does to the heart and bank balance, I’m left wondering, is it really worth going through another one?
In an ideal world we would graze the cattle on pasture year round and they’d be all the better for it but until the day my lottery numbers come up and we can buy a farm within a ring fence, then we continue to practice a form of transhumance, that is seasonally moving animals between their summer grazing areas and winter grazing/housing. Traditionally these seasonal movements would have been performed on foot - along the old green lane that comes right up to the farm and finds its way, eventually, to the floodplain meadows of the River Derwent, some two miles away.
History has not been kind to these historic communal green lanes or droveways, as they are otherwise known, despite having existed since at least the Bronze Age the past 200 years or so has seen them intersected by roads, railways, and incorporated into private property. Technically you can still run cattle (and other livestock) down public roads, but with modern transport, and the need to maintain neighbourly relations, it is neither safe nor practical to do this in most cases so we usually transport them by road between grazing sites.
If I had my way they’d never need to come in for long, if at all, over the winter. Our hardy cattle are quite capable of living outdoors all year round and indeed it puts them under greater stress to be confined in a relatively small area compared to feeding hay outdoors. We saw the effect of this after we took the decision to stop grazing sheep in fields alongside a public footpath over winter and grazed it with the beef cattle instead. The change enabled us to continue to finish animals throughout winter, which had never happened indoors on hay, despite the feeding being exactly the same, the extra space available made them generally calmer & they continued to grow. Unfortunately this isn’t possible for the breeding herd as their grazing first submerged in a matter of hours back in November after the beck overtopped a breach in the floodbank and water covered what grass there was.
Moving cattle around by road is an expensive business; haulage contractors are neither cost effective nor flexible enough for our needs. We rely upon our tractor, with a purpose built cattle trailer, to transport the herd. Even then the time involved in transporting equipment and animals far exceeds the cost of any fuel we use so it’s better all round if it can be avoided. Where possible, moving the whole herd on foot will take days of planning and preparation to ensure that they are in the right paddock, at the right time, to facilitate a calm and easy move. It causes much less damage to the ground than penning and loading the animals onto a trailer. Although the journey itself is not particularly stressful for them, the more time spent corralled and waiting to be moved, the less time they can spend grazing and chewing the cud.
Unfortunately, we don’t have enough of our own land to make a living from raising beef cattle so we offer our services to land owners who require their land to be grazed in a wildlife friendly way. Around two-thirds of our grazing land this year is within the Lower Derwent Valley NNR (National Nature Reserve) in the Yorkshire Ings and 98% of all the land we manage forms part of several SSSIs (Sites of Specific Scientific Interest). These are grasslands for which conservation grazing is paramount to the wildlife and fauna of the land and where, without grazing, many endangered species would be unable to flourish.
Designation as a SSSI places certain responsibilities upon landowners to prevent them from carrying out activities that may damage the habitat from acute damage such as overgrazing or drainage. The management of the Ings is, like all SSSIs in England, regulated by Natural England, including those owned by Natural England, NGOs and private individuals, with the objective of achieving a ‘favourable condition’ status for all sites.
‘Appropriate management’ for the Ings requires us to achieve a sward height of between 5 & 15cm at the close of the season, and while the date that marks the end of the season is a constant, the weather rarely falls into line so, particularly with climate change, we are experiencing increased seasonal variation. The grass, last year, continued growing, where it wasn’t under water, right into December.
We graze the Ings under an annual grazing license so have to remove the cattle from the land by 31st October every year and move them elsewhere to comply with the conditions of the agreement. This has changed over the years, when we took on our first grazing license the season ran from 1st July to 31st December, but was cut down to prevent potential poaching of the ground in wet seasons. With most of our sites in the valley designated as wildflower hay meadows, the licenses require grazing to start from 1st August, following a hay cut, giving us a maximum of 3 months in which to achieve favourable condition. The hay cut may need to be delayed, either by the weather or late ground nesting birds such as the corncrake, into August or September, offering no guarantee that we will get any fodder at all.
Grazing licenses are allocated by way of a competitive tendering process. Farmers put forward a price they are willing to pay in a blind-bid style application and find out later in Spring if they are successful. The overriding factor in licensing decisions seems to come down to the dates and timings as detailed in the agreements. When making hay they stipulate the removal of the hay ‘within two weeks of the date of baling/cutting’ (it’s not clear which, baling or cutting, as the two may be several weeks apart when the weather is less than ideal to make hay) ‘and without damaging the land’. In wet seasons the contradiction in this requirement makes it impossible to avoid breaching the agreement either by entering the land when it is too wet or leaving the bales for more than two weeks. This approach tacitly encourages farmers to use larger and faster mowing machinery, which itself is a known contributor to the decline of ground nesting birds.
The license requires us to vary the number of animals according to the availability of grass so as not to under or overgraze, requiring us to buy or sell animals accordingly. Although there is a lot of extra work involved in selling the beef it is the only way we can be sure of receiving a level of income that will pay our bills. In addition to the immediate loss of income, selling live animals in one year may reduce our viability for years to come. When we breed the animals we are planning far ahead as it takes 3-4 years for the calves to be born and grow before the beef will be ready to sell. It has taken many years for us to breed a herd of cattle with the right combination of genetics to enable them to thrive on the Ings, that can’t be readily found on the open market.
In recent years NE have been granting licenses to more distant tenants who come in simply to cut the meadows and take the hay away. So, for the first time in 2021, we reluctantly entered into a new shared license agreement to graze the aftermath after a hay cut was sold to another licensor. Whilst this didn’t solve our longer term overwintering issues my thinking was that it would help to save hay by delaying the point at which we would have to start feeding it.
The agreement was that our license began on 2nd September and after two weeks it had grown sufficiently for the cattle to be moved on. We spent days preparing until, on the day of the move, I walked the route to make a final check that everything was in order. When I reached the field my jaw dropped; only days before there had been a lush green sward of four to six inches in length. I found that the entire site, 90 acres in total, had been mown for a second time that season! With a herd of hungry cattle to feed I was tempted to just turn them onto it anyway but I decided it would be better to contact both the land agent and site manager to find out what had happened. The previous year, during the covid lockdown, they had completely forgotten to grant a license over two thirds of the site so I thought perhaps there had been another misunderstanding as to who was taking the aftermath that season.
I was told that they had been unable to reach us on the telephone and the site manager ‘had to act quickly’. They were worried that we were not going to graze the fields at all that year so instructed the licensee to take a second cut. I checked my missed calls and messages to find nothing. I was being lied to. I was offered an adjacent area of 13 acres as compensation and even today I am still perplexed as to how they thought this would provide the same amount of feed for the animals.
Any legal contract can only work with mutual trust and understanding, and what I realised about the short term licenses was that they are entirely designed to put all of the risk onto the farmer’s shoulders. Their short term nature discourages tenants from investing in the land and it was clear that NE wished to retain the right to do as they wish. The whole experience led me to question the value of collaborative working relationships and it made me want to give up conservation grazing and concentrate on our own, albeit small, patch.In a normal year we look to make at least 1000 large round bales to see us through the winter. The trouble is, with no extra land available to graze, we are forced into making even more hay to feed the cows adequately over the now extra long winters. Not only does this represent a significant dent in our aspirations to cut fossil fuel use but raises our costs considerably. This is not a new issue for conservation graziers, each year we are offered more grazing in the summer simply because there aren’t enough livestock able to fulfill that role. Achieving the desired level of grazing in a shorter space of time requires us to keep more animals, but more animals to overwinter then takes more hay along with a higher stocking density on the ground that we are allowed to overwinter on - a real life catch-22.
As I mentioned in my previous blog Sustainable Farming - where is the incentive? Natural England do recognise the importance of livestock grazing for wildlife conservation but perversely [grazier] licensees are excluded from all farm support payments in England that might help to encourage conservation grazing. Land owned by public bodies such as Natural England is also ineligible for the schemes as the funding for appropriate management should be available directly from the Government. Due to severe cuts to Natural England’s budgets over the last decade there is little left for basic maintenance like fencing and other farming infrastructure.
Costs have also been transferred onto graziers so that we have to carry all water onto site for the cows and do our own fencing repairs if we want to continue grazing. This has represented an ongoing problem for us as the herd has grown over the years - the further the grazing site is away from the main farm, the more time we spend just moving water around. When it rains and the grass is wet the cattle drink less but as their greatest demand for water coincides with the best hay making weather, it makes for long days on our tractor. The priority is always to ensure that the animals have water so the hay making & moving has to take second place.
Our own small area of SSSI meadow could now be eligible for inclusion as part of a larger countryside stewardship application on the farm but to date there are no grassland options available to support the overwintering of grazing livestock, in fact all the options available specifically prohibit any overwintering on the land while actively encouraging summer grazing. This would mean that putting our farm into a stewardship agreement would actually add to the problems we face. Of course every farmer has the same options available to them so stewardship only adds to the excess of summer grazing followed by a dearth of land available for over winter.
There are several ways to tackle these issues. The most expensive would be to fund the hay, bedding and buildings required to house cattle for the majority of the year. The government could also subsidise the cost of wintering outdoors away from the wet meadows, ensuring that any landowner applying for public funding was obliged to make provision for both winter and summer grazing. Either of these options could solve the problem but they would require significant public backing and would remain vulnerable to changes in political priorities.
I would favour a much cheaper and, ultimately, more sustainable collaborative approach between landowners and graziers. We are constantly working to refine our work to make efficient use of our own time and resources so in the past I have always been keen to feedback with simple, low cost changes to infrastructure and management that might enable us to manage the Ings better. If water supplies were provided to the meadows it would cut down considerably on the amount of time we spend filling water tanks in summer, enabling us to devote more time to managing the grazing and making better hay. Decent fencing and corrals would reduce the amount of time we spend making repairs and securing sites. Internal bridges over ditches could enable us to manage the grazing more efficiently and achieve more in a shorter space of time. Slight changes to access points would make moving animals and hay around more safe & efficient, particularly where these lead directly onto the public highway.
Whenever I’ve raised these concerns with DEFRA & Natural England representatives, outlining the issues we have with stocking rates and grazing infrastructure it has been met with interest, but little desire to actually make improvements. The upshot being that the grazing licenses are there, like the SSSI legislation, to protect the land from acute damage, not to optimise the management or encourage sustainable farming.
Natural England’s current priorities are very much on connecting people with nature and delivering nature recovery at a landscape scale. While I’ve seen plenty of evidence of investment in new & improved visitor facilities in the valley with more public engagement, the wider landscape seems to have been ignored.
In that same year we were offered another significant area of conservation grazing by NE but as it was 30 miles away and we didn’t have enough animals for another summer-grazing only deal we had to turn it down. We were also approached by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust (YWT) to graze one of their nature reserves. While this did nothing to alleviate our overwintering issues the land was well fenced, had its own water supply and with volunteer livestock checkers on hand to look out for any issues it made a much more attractive proposition than taking on any more summer grazing in the Ings.
YWT have been proactive about making improvements too to their sites to facilitate better management. When the cattle escaped after a fallen tree flattened a section of fence the site manager was even on hand to make repairs that same day. Last year they launched the Amazing Grazing campaign to help preserve Yorkshire’s grasslands, which includes utilising new technology to help manage the grazing for the benefit of animals and wildlife alike. We are trialing GPS collars on some of the cattle to make grazing difficult sites easier. The collars enable us to locate the animals quickly and easily using a mobile phone app, meaning that we can significantly reduce the amount of time we spend looking for them in large, tree covered landscapes.
In the Ings we have used electric fences for many years to control when & where the animals may graze, preventing them from polluting water courses and focusing their grazing efforts to improve the benefits for animals and the environment.. The problem with electric fences is that you need to be able to access the fence line at all times - not always possible in bogs and seasonally flooded landscapes. The fences are also difficult to set up and vulnerable to damage by falling branches in woodlands and wood pastures. The collars will also act as a ‘virtual’ electric fence, allowing us to fence lines along existing fences, between and around trees and even across peat bogs and open water. Rather than relying upon the animal seeing the fence the collar emits a warning sound when the animal approaches the fence line, before delivering a short electric shock if they ignore the warning. Unlike a traditional electric fence it tells us in real time if an animal receives a warning and/or a shock and then immediately turns off to allow the animal to return to the correct side of the line.
As long as people have cars we won’t be returning to the traditional ways of driving cattle down the road to move them between grazing sites. By embracing new technology and forming partnerships we can reduce our impact on the environment to make it not only sustainable for nature but also for our farm and ourselves as we all get older allowing us to continue our work for many years to come.
Many people assume that we are paid to carry out conservation grazing but as this is not the case we must sell enough beef year round to keep paying the bills. We rely on our returning customers who believe in our work and enjoy our delicious beef. We could not do this without them.
As a thank you to you and to Yorkshire Wildlife Trust members, we have launched a special offer:
Click here to order now* & we will donate £5 to the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust AND you can enjoy £5 off.
*One use per customer on orders of £60