Bring Back The Cow!

Written by Tom Chapman – Mob Grazing Specialist at EnviRumen Ltd

The value that grazing ruminants bring to soil is, once again, starting to be appreciated by farmers. The combination of their dung, urine, saliva and hoof action, plus the effect of the forage plants, all help to bring dramatic and welcome improvements in soil health.

The true benefits of cattle were highlighted to me when I visited Jay Fuhrer at Menoken Farms in North Dakota several years ago. He spelled out the five key practices for soil health. The first four were: Keep the soil covered; keep a living root in the ground at all times; do not disrupt the soil, chemically or physically; and have lots of diversity, avoiding monocultures. When he came to the fifth, his eyes lit up: Bring cattle into the rotation. He became excited, animated as he spoke. He grabbed his spade and started digging into the strange, grey-coloured sand at Menoken. He grabbed two sods from different patches, triumphantly pointing out that one was much darker, much more enriched with carbon, than the other. “Three years!”, he exclaimed, “Only three years and we can already see a marked difference”

It was true, the cattle had been moved onto the arable fields only three years earlier, as part of a changed rotation and the differences were both stark and encouraging. It gives hope that we can restore our soils in a relatively short time, through careful and considered management practices which include all of those five principles Jay outlined to me back then.

Ways to get livestock on arable farms

The challenge is how we do it? How does the average arable farmer get into the livestock game when he or she may have no interest, no skills, no infrastructure, no capital and no support? What does it take to bring cattle back on to your farm? If you are seriously considering reintroducing cattle or sheep, now is the time to start planning. The things you need to consider are:

• What type of livestock would you prefer? 

• Who will own and manage the livestock? If a 3rd party is involved, then: o What terms of tenure will the land be occupied under or would you prefer to enter into a partnership or joint venture? o What fencing will be needed and who will be responsible for erecting and maintaining it? 

• How will the livestock be watered? 

• Will the livestock be there all year round and, if so, what are the winter plans? 

• What forage crops will be grown? 

• What are the income and cost implications of bringing back livestock? 

• What is your end goal regarding soil health and the regeneration of your land?

There isn’t space in this article to look at all the options and different permutations, so I will just touch on the main alternatives available to you.

Most people think of either cattle or sheep, but don’t forget poultry and pigs as alternatives that could help improve your soils. Ideally you would find a way of combining two or more species, as the soil health rule of avoiding monocultures applies as much to livestock as it does to crops. Cattle and chickens work especially well together, with the latter spreading the cattle dung and eating a lot of the fly larvae, if they follow on behind the cattle in a mobile chicken run.

When it comes to ownership and management, there are a lot of alternatives. Simplest is some form of rental: Let the land to a neighbouring farmer on a licence agreement and he is responsible for erecting temporary fencing and grazing the land. Tack sheep is a good example of this in practice, used widely in the UK. Cattle can be slightly harder to control with temporary fencing though, with trained animals and a decent energiser (to power the electric fence), I and a number of farmers are doing just this.

It may be that you decide to enter into a partnership, share-farming agreement or joint venture with a livestock farmer. This can be a great way to give a young farmer a helping hand up the farming ladder. Often such people have bags of enthusiasm, a desire to work hard for long hours but a lack of access to land and capital. Or you may have a neighbour or nearby farmer who would benefit from the opportunity to expand too. If anyone is in the Hertfordshire / Bedfordshire area and would like to discuss this, I am always keen to expand my cattle operations and will be happy to meet with you to talk it through. If you’re further afield then I also provide a consultancy service, to guide you through the different options and pitfalls!

Fencing and forage

Moving back to things you will need to consider, a properly fenced field, with running water should command a better rent than an unfenced block of land. However, many arable farmers won’t be able to justify the investment when the forage crop is only going to be in the ground for, typically, four or five years. You may prefer the tenant to sort out the fencing. I often use high tensile wire, insulators and removable fence posts as a semi-permanent barrier around the perimeter of a block of land. As already mentioned, if cattle are trained and you have a good (preferably mains) energiser, and you manage the grazing correctly, cattle are very unlikely to escape from such a set-up. The beauty of this is that, with a little work, everything is removable and reusable so, although the initial costs are high, I can spread this over many years and several blocks of land. 

A potentially more difficult issue to solve, on many arable farms, is that of providing water. Cattle in particular can drink large quantities every day, especially in hot weather, and some form of pressurised supply – mains or pumped – is preferable to a bowser, though the latter can suffice. There are some decent solar pumping systems on the market nowadays too, which will pump water for considerable distances (as well as powering an electric fence energiser), if you have a river or open water source nearby.

Not all livestock need to be housed during winter, especially on lighterland farms. If you get the stocking rate right and manage the grazing carefully (typically under a mob grazing regime) then it is possible to keep both cattle and sheep outside all year round. However, there is a significant amount of skill required for this and I would always recommend it is undertaken by people with good experience of managing cattle under such systems. I have kept cattle outside all year round for the past six years, including through the “Beast from the East” and have found they are actually healthier, overall, when outside than when they are indoors.

To get the most from the system, a good diversity of forage crops should be grown. This is your opportunity to have deep-rooting perennial plants bringing minerals and nutrients up from deep into the soil profile. These deep roots will also add valuable organic matter to your soil and should help with reducing and removing blackgrass from your fields. However, you should consider a couple of things, particularly whether any of the chosen species could act as a disease bridge for the following arable crops (unlikely) and how easy they will be to terminate at the end of the forage period of the rotation, especially if they have set seed in the interim.

Figuring the finances

When it comes to the financial implication, there are easy calculations and much more complex ones! It is simple to calculate the cost of the seed and establishment, the cost of the crop income foregone and the cost of water and fencing, and to match it against rental income or from livestock sales. There will also be savings in future years compared to cropping it, as you don’t have to incur establishment costs annually.

Less quantifiable is the long-term value of having livestock on the holding. We know the benefits – your organicmatter-rich soils will hold more water so yields in a dry year will be better; your soils will be more fertile so will need less artificial fertiliser; a forage break should see a decrease in annual weeds such as blackgrass which will lead to savings in herbicides; crops are healthier following livestock so fungicide costs fall. These are all benefits we see through the reintroduction of grazing herbivores, but quantifying it and building it into a budget is difficult. It does need a leap of faith, though I have yet to speak to a farmer who has brought back cattle and sheep who has any regrets on this score.

Getting the right end goal

Tied into this is my last bullet point, above, namely what is your end goal regarding soil health and the regeneration of your land? If you have reached the point where you are seriously considering bringing livestock back onto your land then you are likely to be well down the road of regenerative farming. A friend summed it up to me a while ago when he said conventional farming is all about killing things (weeds, pests, fungal diseases) and is a constant, and ultimately fruitless endeavour. However, regenerative farming is all about helping things to survive, working hand-in-hand with nature, rather than battling it. I understand why Jay Fuhrer’s eyes lit up when he spoke about the power of the cow and the health of his soil. It’s a good place to be and I encourage you all to join Jay, and me, in introducing cattle back onto our arable fields.