50 for the Future – Organic farming

Our recent publication, 50 for the Future, lists 50 things that we believe should happen in Scotland over the next 50 years to benefit both people and wildlife. In this week's 50 for the Future article, organic farmer Robert Brewster explains what is meant by organic farming and describes a new style of grassland management that he has adopted on his farm.

 

Number 17: More than quadruple the current area of lowland farming under certified organic status

 

Soil, without a doubt, is our most important yet most abused asset. Given that all life on Earth depends on soil, mankind must significantly change the way it manages its mainstream agriculture if it is going to continue to prosper. It is widely believed that for every tonne of food produced, ten tonnes of soil is eroded, and because of this continued degradation of soils, it is suggested that most arable land in the UK has only 100 harvests left until it is un-farmable.

With a growing list of human health allergies and ailments associated with the western diet, people are starting to point the finger of blame at food production techniques, whether it’s the fact that mineral deficient soils are producing mineral deficient foods, or the possibility that agrichemical residues are present in the foods we eat. For too long, agriculture seems to be stuck in the post-war mind-set of treating food production as an industrial process with a set list of inputs applied and predicted crop yields expected. The drive to increase food production at all costs may have been essential in the 1940s and 50s, but today I feel it is more relevant to produce quality as opposed to quantity, while also farming in an ecologically responsible manner.  

Organic farming is a term that the vast majority of the Scottish population will be familiar with, but how many people actually know what the difference is between organic and non-organic farming?

Around the world, organic farming is built on a standard set of four principles which apply to the whole agricultural system:

  • Principle of Ecology – organic agriculture should be based on ecological systems and cycles, work with them, emulate them and help sustain them.
  • Principle of Care – organic agriculture should embrace the precautionary principle and practitioners should behave in a responsible manner to protect the health and well-being of current and future generations and the environment.
  • Principle of Health – organic agriculture should seek to promote the health of soils, plants, animals, humans and the overall planet.
  • Principle of Fairness – organic agriculture should promote fairness with regard to the common environment.

Organic farming is a production method that involves avoiding artificial fertilisers and pesticides, and embodies an all-inclusive approach that is designed to optimise not just food production, but also the delivery of biodiversity objectives, soil quality, water quality, carbon sequestration, welfare and human health. Its principle goal is to be sustainable and harmonious within its environment.

As an organic farmer, I am always looking for new farming practices that do not require artificial chemicals and fertilisers. Inevitably, the most robust farming techniques tend to be those that most closely mimic nature, and this is very true for a new style of grassland management we have adopted on the farm in recent years known as ‘Mob grazing’.

A herd of cattle mob grazing. © Robert Brewster

This new technique was first promoted by the Zimbabwean Biologist, Allan Savory, when he realised that soil and the health of grassland was dependant on large herds of migrating herbivores. Savory suggested that domestic animals, instead of being lightly scattered over large areas and plants being grazed continuously, should be grouped together in one large ‘mob’ and moved slowly over a farm or ranch.

The problem with the conventional style of grazing domestic animals is that they have access to the same area of land for weeks or even months at a time. Because of this, the animals will selectively graze and re-graze the same plants, depleting the root reserves until the whole sward is made up of short plant species with shallow roots that can withstand continuous grazing.

Nowadays, with the development of modern temporary electric fencing and portable livestock watering, it is possible to group domestic animals and move them to fresh un-grazed paddocks whenever is necessary. By restricting animals to a small area of the farm each day, the vast majority of the pasture is allowed to grow to its full potential, which can often be as high as shoulder height. With so much forage on offer, cattle tend to consume only the top third of each grass plant when moved to a new area, the rest being trampled into the soil. Not only does this result in an increase in the amount of organic matter in the soil, but also an increase in its water holding capacity.

A hovering kestrel. © Steve Waterhouse

The wildlife on my farm also seems to be enjoying the results of mob grazing; swifts, swallows and flocks of starlings often follow the cattle as they migrate around the farm. With the increase of organic matter in the soil, we are seeing more worms, dung beetles and other soil invertebrates. Perhaps the most exciting wildlife display is in the autumn and winter when there is an abundance of grass seed heads on the ground supporting field mice and short tailed voles which in turn supports the local birds of prey. In fact, last winter a kestrel would appear for his breakfast at the same time every day when I moved the cattle to a fresh block of grass, as the cattle would disturb the mice. 

With mob grazing, I feel we can use livestock as part of the solution to solve many of our soil and land use problems. For too long, livestock have been seen as the culprit of diffuse pollution, soil degradation and overgrazing, when really it’s less to do with the livestock and more to do with how they are managed. I strongly believe that proper management of livestock, especially cattle, can promote and encourage wildlife and soil health and as such I am a strong advocate for mob grazing.

Let us know your thoughts by emailing thefuture@scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk or Tweet @ScotWildlife using #50fortheFuture.

Robert Brewster is an organic farmer in Angus.

Preface

In this week's 50 for the Future article, organic farmer Robert Brewster explains what is meant by organic farming and describes a new style of grassland management that he has adopted on his farm.

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