Set in the rolling hills of South Somerset, Coombe Farm nestles in a valley between the towns of Chard and Crewkerne. In recognition of its weather extremes and dire lack of phone signal, I’ve heard a few locals refer to it as ‘Doom Farm’. But we haven’t got time for doom and gloom around here – with 2,000 acres to farm we’re never short of jobs to keep us busy. I wanted to help you understand what we do, why we do it and how we’ve become the farm we are today. We’ll get into the nitty gritty of the farm’s history some other time, for now let’s talk about mixed farming and what this means to us.
Sheep, Pigs and Cows
The term ‘mixed farm’ is used to describe a farm that rears livestock as well as growing arable crops. Which is exactly what we do. A flock of 50 Dorset and 200 Lleyn ewes roam our fields all year around. You’ve possibly heard of sheep referred to as lawn mowers – and brilliant ones at that. They’re hardy, adaptable and not at all fussy. Wherever there’s grass, you’ll find our sheep. If you’ve ever driven past Coombe farm you’ll have noticed a few solar fields containing the panels that provide the farm with its power. Wandering amongst and below these panels are the sheep, who’ve been more than a little bit grateful for the shade in the recent spell of hot weather.
Our main focus as a modern dairy farm is our cows: 1,000 head of Holstein Friesians, milked across three dairy units. They enjoy a peaceful life, sauntering to the shed in the early hours for milking, heading back out to grass, then returning for their second milking in the late afternoon. To keep our dairy herd producing milk they have to be put to a bull every year. After a long 283 days gestation either a little heifer or bull calf greets us. The heifers will be weaned and allowed to mature naturally until they’re ready to start their careers in the main milking herd. Our bull calves get a couple of seasons out in the fields to grow big and heavy, after which they’re slaughtered for meat. This is the main difference between Coombe Farm and traditional dairy systems, where bull calves are culled shortly after birth. We farm like this to make the most out of every opportunity, ensuring every animal has the best life we can offer.
The latest addition to the livestock family at Coombe Farm is our pigs. They have a sunny, green and spacious hilltop to call home. Our Saddleback x Welsh and pure-bred Oxford Sandy and Blacks rotate frequently onto fresh ground where they can rootle and they always have plenty of mud to wallow in. Once our piggies are up to weight and go off to slaughter, we carefully manage our grassland rotation before more piglets arrive. Each plot is rested for a minimum of 4 years to protect the fertility and cleanliness of the soil. As organic farmers our fields and ecosystems are as important to us as our animals. Which ties us nicely into the arable department on the farm.
Tending the Soil
The arable side of Coombe Farm is, I think, pretty clever. We cut 800 acres of grass four times a season for forage. This gets clamped into a big pit back in the farmyard and is used to feed the hungry and hard-working dairy herd throughout winter. We then grow 500 acres of peas, barley and wheat which we ‘whole crop’ (something to explain another time) and clamp into another big pit on the farm. This provides even more food for the hard winter months.
You’re probably wondering how we get everything to grow without the use of chemicals. This is the clever part. We use methods such as under sowing and crop rotation, and we grow different plant varieties such as red clover and mustard seed that act as natural weed suppressors and help to promote nitrogen levels in the soils. There’s a lot of science behind it and it’s pretty complicated but it works so well!
In Harmony with Nature
Mixed farming, then, is quite an operation. But everything works in perfect harmony. Our cows and sheep keep the grass nice and short, saving us lots of time and money. The sheep also do most of the field preparation before we drill any crops. These crops then help to feed the livestock in the winter, as well as providing the soil with everything it needs to be as naturally fertile as possible. To further ensure we’re in balance with nature, the rest of our acreage is made up of woodlands and untouched pastures where wildlife, including small mammals and diverse insects, thrives.
This is why we’re an organic mixed farm. Economic and ecological circumstance is forcing the farming community to look hard at how they manage their enterprises. We think we’ve got an excellent setup and we’re all extremely proud of it.