Beef or What – Part 1?

Without exception, every farm in the Bewcastle and Stapleton parishes raises beef and lamb. This requires the conversion, and the maintenance, of the land to grass.

We have been at Greenholme now for almost a year. The one thing we can say is that this land does not want to be grass! It is continually trying to revert back to woodland via scrub and bog. Our land is covered in thick juncus effusus (soft rush), with saplings of alder springing up at every opportunity around the edges:

Soft rushes as far as the eye can see!

Soft rushes as far as the eye can see!

Only a few years ago there was barely a rush to be seen.

Areal picture of Greenholme in around 2009

Areal picture of Greenholme in around 2009

Why is this?

Our land, typical of that around us, consists of a thin (12-24ins) layer of topsoil over heavy clay, but field drainage was installed across all of it around 15 years ago. Nevertheless, drainage is still a serious issue and the soil becomes waterlogged after a few days of heavy rain – a common occurrence here. Soil conditions then become anaerobic and most life within it struggles to survive.

In addition, heavy rainfall and the ensuing saturation means nutrients are continually being leached out of the soil, which then has great difficulty in growing and retaining fertility.

Without constant input of care, attention, energy and fertility the farmland here degenerates rapidly to the state of our land, which has been neglected for about three years. This care and attention takes several forms, the most  important of which are:

  • grazing by animals
  • installation and continual refurbishment of field drains
  • addition of fertiliser (organic or otherwise)
  • cutting of rushes

In addition, some farmers advocate liming every 5 or 6 years. Many also use herbicide to suppress the growth of rushes and docks. Cutting for silage (or, in good years, like this one, for hay) replaces grazing for meadows.

Most of this requires the use of heavy, and very expensive, machinery to be carried out on a large scale (anything over a couple of acres), particularly the drainage, spreading slurry, ‘topping’ rushes, cutting silage and applying fertilisers and herbicides.

In other words, farmers are waging a continual battle, spending enormous amounts of energy and money, to subdue the land into a prescribed pattern that is alien to its natural ecology.

At Greenholme, we are attempting to minimise our use of imported energy (including fossil fuels) on our small patch of 6 acres. But scything rushes is jolly hard work! It takes around 8-10 man hours to scythe one acre of them, not including gathering up the cuttings. And once cut, they grow back again, faster than grass, unless grazed.

Most farmers take pride in their animal husbandry. They are in continual contact with their creatures and it is rare that one of them has an ailment that goes unnoticed.

Traditionally, an intimate knowledge of the soil was also an integral part of their ken. However, in a conversation earlier this year, a farmer admitted he knew very little about the soil. He didn’t know its type, pH, nutrient levels, mineral or humus content. Nor was he particularly concerned. The reason? It was now part of the service offered by the fertiliser company. A sales ‘rep’ comes round every year who tests for the pH, levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK), and then tells them what they need to put onto the land. In fact, he doesn’t even do that – he just orders whatever he deems necessary for them. When asked if the rep didn’t have a vested interested in making money for his company, the issue came down to trust and the long-standing personal relationship between him and the rep.

The ‘outsourcing’ of this whole dimension of farming and knowledge is a worrying state of affairs. It means that the care of the soil, those vital few inches of topsoil that sustain life on this planet, is actually now in the hands of the multi-national chemical companies. And who would be willing to knowingly trust the petro-chemical industry with the ‘care of creation’, or even with our lives?

For farmers here, the additional problem with raising beef is that cattle cannot stay outside for most of the year. The amount of rainfall we receive means that, once the growing season has slowed down, the cattle have to be moved indoors otherwise they poach the land so badly it will not yield the precious grass next year.

This year, despite the very late start to the growing season, the cattle are only now being brought in (end of October). So they have been out for about 5 months. Last year was awful and they were only out for about 4 months. That means they are indoors for 7-8 months, while the land stands empty, and have to be fed from the silage or hay cut during the year. But both cattle and sheep also require feed from concentrates during the long winter months. This, of course, has to be paid for, as well as shipped in from, and grown on land in some other part of the country. So the actual amount of land used by our farmers to grow their produce is significantly larger than the land they actually farm, even though much of their own land stands devoid at least of ‘beasts’ for most of the year.

Particularly in the case of beef, the question of whether this is the best, or only use of land in these parts is rarely, if ever, asked. But it is a question that needs answering. Few of our farmers are ‘well-off’, in the sense of having significant expendable income, and most only survive because of the Common Agricultural Policy subsidy – the Single Farm Payment. We don’t need to discuss the gross injustice of this payment system to the wealthy at the moment, but it is the only thing standing between many farming families and starvation. If, and when, this subsidy is withdrawn from hill farms on ‘severely disadvantaged land’, which it all is around Bewcastle, most of the families farming here will have to sell up and move out. Of course, if the price of land was to remain as high as it is this would be a very attractive option for those who own their farms. For tenant farmers it would be a disaster. But if the CAP subsidy was removed and raising beef and cattle alone could not provide a living, what would then happen to land prices?

So what are the possible alternatives?

Greenholme - an experiment in permaculture

3 responses to Beef or What – Part 1?


  1. Ruth

    Possibly, beef farmers could change to Highlanders, which are smaller, lighter, forage more for themselves, can stay outside for winter as long as they can find a ‘dry bed’, somewhere they can lie on slightly higher ground. Or Highlanders crossed with a Shorthorn or Maine Anjou (sp?) bull for calves to sell on and bulk up more.

    • Rob

      Thanks, Ruth. Some farmers do keep native breeds that are more robust and can stay out longer. Our local native breeds are the Black Galloway and Belted Galloway. Slightly less local is the Shorthorn (beef and dairy varieties), which is also kept. There are one or two farms that have Highlanders, although these are either hobby farmers or as a sideline for a niche market, mainly due to their very slow rate of growth.

      Stocking density is another issue. So long as this is sparse, the land COULD withstand cattle all winter without becoming too poached. But this requires the availability of large tracts to sustain sufficient numbers of beasts to generate some sort of income, particularly with the slower growing native breeds. But even here, most farmers will bring them in for several months of the year, just to keep their condition.

      The main point, however, is the land just doesn’t want to be grass, so there is going to be a continual struggle, requiring fossil energy, heavy machinery and fertilisers to keep it as such. Certainly grazing will have to be part of any solution, but it is unquestionably the case that, without the farm subsidy, just growing beef or lamb on this land will not provide a living.

      • Ruth

        Is the land permanent ‘pasture’ or are the rushes etc ever ploughed in? And what happened if that has been tried. You often lose as much as you gain if you go for reseeding. Or is there just no arable habit locally?
        Just thinking out loud.

So what do you think?