Here at Coombe Farm being organic means we’re very careful about how we manage the land. Real science goes into what we feed our livestock, so that means we use soil analysis to determine what each individual field needs to make it healthy and fertile. To earn our Soil Association accreditation, our animal feed is organic, free from additives and containing no genetically modified ingredients. Because we believe Mother Nature knows what she’s doing, we don’t use chemicals or pesticides on our fields. This ensures the grass our animals eat is clean and pure and it also makes our farm an excellent wildlife haven.
It’s important to us that we know exactly what’s gone into all of our animal feed, so we grow as much of our own forage as possible. A crop rotation system ensures the land is used effectively, and within that rotation we use manure from our cows as fertilizer. A special machine separates the manure into its solid and liquid forms. The solids become compost that’s ploughed back in to improve soil quality. And the liquids are sprayed on as a top dressing after we’ve mowed, making our grass as nutritious and luscious as possible.
We graze our cattle on pastures close to the farm, which are reached via specially made tracks. As they’re free from stones, these tracks are comfortable for the cattle’s hooves. The fields they lead to are mainly ‘permanent pasture’. That means they’re well established and the grass here is mixed with white clover (amongst which we frequently find four-leaved specimens). As it grows, clover nourishes the grass by releasing nitrogen back into the soil through its roots.
The cattle live and graze outdoors as much as possible (West Country weather permitting) from April to November. During this period the grass is at its busiest growing, and more grows than the cattle can eat. To avoid wastage, we harvest the excess growth. It’s stored to feed the animals over winter while they’re indoors, in barns deeply bedded with straw.
The grass we use for mowing is mixed with red clover and, if we have a good balance of rain and sunshine, can be harvested up to three times a season. It’s mowed and then collected by a forage harvester (a big machine that sucks up the cut grass and blows it into a trailer). Back at the farm, the grass is tipped into a heap where it’s rolled and compacted before being covered with a plastic sheet and weighed down with old car tyres. This is called a ‘clamp’ – by making it airtight we can preserve the grass without it going mouldy. Alternatively, the freshly cut grass can be baled in the field and wrapped in plastic sheeting, which does the same job as the clamp. Both ways make delicious, nutritious ‘silage’. By retaining moisture, silaging allows the grass to gently ferment as it’s stored. This fermentation means it’s full of beneficial bacteria and enzymes that are excellent for the health of the animals’ guts.
If we mow the grass and leave it to dry in the beautiful Somerset sunshine, we can bale it and turn it into hay. Though it’s slightly less nutritious than silage, hay is tasty and easily digested by our younger stock.
We also include cereal crops such as barley in our rotation. When barley is harvested, the seed is separated from the stalk and used as animal feed. The stalk is dried and becomes the straw we use for bedding for our cattle over winter. As we use 2,300 big straw bales a year, this is a vital resource.
‘Whole cropping’ is another clever technique we use. Rather than separating the stalk and the seed, the whole plant is harvested and stored in airtight clamps, exactly as we do with silage. Because of the seed content, it’s not possible to bale it, however. A whole crop most commonly contains cereals and legumes such as wheat, peas and barley. To minimise mechanical operations on the land, the whole crop is ‘under sown’ with a mix of grasses and red clover. Once the peas and barley have been harvested in the summer, the grass and clover grows through without the need for the field to be ploughed and replanted. The following spring, this grass will be ready for silaging.
An important part of an organic crop rotation is the use of ‘green manure’. This is made up of legumes (plants from the pea family) that add value to the soil in the form of the nitrogen released through their roots. Mustard is an excellent crop for this. Once grown, it’s ploughed into the ground to return even more goodness into the soil.
To ensure our sheep and pigs have enough to eat over winter, we grow stubble turnips for them to graze. The pigs particularly enjoy digging up the roots with their inquisitive snouts.
As you’ll appreciate getting the crops right is a complicated matter. We need them all to provide the best diets for our livestock, so we work with a nutritionist to get the perfect balance. The grass provides protein and the cereals deliver energy in the form of starch. As well as these, the animals need a good balance of fibre, vitamins and minerals too. It’s also important to us that we encourage microbial activity that gives us a healthy soil structure. For this, we rely on the minibeasts and earthworms living in our soil. If we were to spray chemicals on our crops there’d be far fewer of these helpful creatures. But in our system they thrive. Which is just one of the reasons we love being organic.