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How an upland farm is adapting to survive without subsidies

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When Sam and Claire Beaumont first hired Gowbarrow Hall Farm, the only profit – of just Β£ 600 a year – came from the sheep business.

Fast forward four years and the farm, in Watermillock, Cumbria, is making a net profit of up to Β£ 1,600 per head from its herd of oxen.

The herd of 600 Swaledales is gone and the focus is on raising the traditional herd of Shorthorn oxen, which now number 51 heads.

The couple also chose to start practicing regenerative agriculture and add value to their products by selling directly.

See also: Regenerative agriculture: what to avoid and how to start

Farm facts

  • 156 ha (385 acres) of permanent grassland, all classified as either severely deprived area (SDA) or SDA heathland. This includes 32 ha (80 acres) of felled moss, 82 ha (200 acres) of coarse pasture and 42 ha (105 acres) of grassland.
  • 51 heads of Shorthorn beef
  • Four Kunekune pigs and four Fell ponies
  • 81 ha (200 acre) commercial forestry facility providing cash injection every 35 years

Revaluation

When they took over the farm from Ms. Beaumont’s family, half of the meadows were leased to local farmers. This left 49 ha (120 acres) of prairie pasture and the rest as coarse pasture for the herd.

Sheep and cattle would graze in the upper fields, and the meadows would be used for hay and silage, with fertilizers applied regularly.

The sheep would then graze the sequelae in winter, and the cattle would be housed.

The couple, who both have engineering backgrounds, initially raised Mules, but found that the system required a lot of inputs such as animal feed and fertilizer, which were getting more and more expensive.

β€œWe call the purchase of feed and fertilizer the purchase of phantom acres. We felt that if we continued on this path, we would not survive, ”says Beaumont.

β€œPlus, there are so many established farmers in the valley that we knew we had to try to create a niche. So we decided to re-evaluate our way of cultivating.

A turning point came when the couple met Caroline Grindrod, expert in regenerative agriculture at Wilderculture.

This general interest company, of which Mr. Beaumont is now a director, was created by Ms. Grindrod to help farmers produce food from mountain areas while restoring ecosystems.

Together, they devised a new grazing plan to reduce reliance on subsidies.

Sam and Claire Beaumont

Β© Sarah Alderton

Grazing changes

The land has now been divided into a spring / summer pasture block and an 82 ha (200 acre) winter pasture block.

In spring and summer, the meadows are grazed en masse by the whole herd. Cattle graze in the meadows from April / May, just before calving, until December, when the calves are weaned.

After weaning, the young stock remains on the lower meadows and the dry cows and storage cattle move to the upper winter block.

Here they are wintered with minimal hay from weaning in December until April / May, when they are brought back to the summer block for calving. The winter grass will be spared by the livestock all summer.

Electric fences, powered by a solar energizer, are used to create enclosures of 0.4 to 0.8 ha (1 to 2 acres). Depending on the time of year, grass growth and the size of the pen, cows are moved every one to three days.

Each paddock is rested for 45 to 120 days, with the length of rest days increasing later in the summer to over 90 days.

Water is supplied by a mobile waterer, gravity fed through a network of pipes installed when the couple converted a barn on the farm.

Land benefits

The benefits of the changes are already being felt in the soil and the profits of the farm.

In 2019, an ecologist surveyed the farm and classified most of the fields as “improved grassland”, with at least two to three species of grass in every mΒ².

When the same fields were assessed this year, they averaged between eight and nine species / mΒ², and in one field there were 14 species, which almost classified the land as “species rich grasslands.”

β€œWe did this without reseeding by simply letting the cows graze,” says Beaumont.

Water infiltration rates have also improved considerably. Before any modification, it took five minutes for 200 ml of water to enter the soil.

This year, the same area took only 14 seconds for 1000 ml of water to infiltrate.

Mr. Beaumont adds, β€œWe have deeper rooting varieties like the cocksfoot, and these help reduce compaction. They also helped during the drought this summer as the cattle still had grass to eat.

Opening up the soil to the rough meadow by grazing with a mixture of species, including four Kunekdune pigs, also helps establish saplings.

β€œWe see a lot of natural regeneration on this land with trees like alder. This is because the area is not grazed in summer.

“The trees will help ensure natural flood management by stabilizing the banks of our waterways,” adds Mr. Beaumont.

Ultimately, the plan is for the rugged grassland area to become wood pasture.

there are pigs

Β© Sarah Alderton

Advantages of production

Cattle also thrive. All cattle are grass fed and the farm is Pasture for Life certified.

The only product the Beaumonts buy is a seaweed mineral to correct an iodine deficiency that has been detected in a blood test. This is given to cattle from February.

Veterinarian and drug costs also go down with less deworming and antibiotics used.

β€œDue to the crowds grazing and the pastures resting, the worm load is lower, so we don’t have to systematically treat adult cattle.

β€œHowever, we do a faecal egg count to check and deworm the young if necessary. Fluke is still a challenge so we are dealing with the stock in the fall.

β€œHowever, we hope that by resting the winter block we will minimize fluke eggs. We also plan to introduce poultry that eat the fluke host, the mud snail,” he says.

Profit improvements

Beef is sold through a local butcher in Kendal or through the farm’s meat crate program. Each processed animal generates a gross income of around Β£ 2,500 and a net profit of Β£ 1,200 to Β£ 1,600.

Mr Beaumont said: β€œWith the phasing out of the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) and the uncertainty as to exactly how the environmental land management scheme is [ELM] will apply to a mountain farm, it was essential for us to have a profitable business regardless of any scheme. Only beef cattle succeed.

The farm receives Β£ 40,000 from BPS and Β£ 16,000 from agri-environmental programs.

All land is entry-level management, with the exception of the top, grazed by Fell ponies, which is upper level management.

The Beaumonts are calling for more of the farm to be included in a new, higher level countryside stewardship program.

β€œWe want a system to fit the farm rather than a farm to fit a system,” says Beaumont.

Key figures

  • Β£ 1,200 to Β£ 1,600
    Net profit from a finished slaughter animal
  • 0.4 large livestock units (UGB) / ha
    Stocking rate which should drop to 0.6 UGB / ha in a few years
  • 1.2-1.5 kg per head per day
    Cattle growth rate, with animals weighed every two to three months
  • 40 lbs / kg
    Prize received for pork cold cuts

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