The landscape around Home Farm is changing dramatically. Along with the wide arable fields – designed to suit big farm machines like combine harvesters – there’s a newish block of tall grassland splashed with the blues and reds of flowering herbs. Trampling through these herbal leys is a big herd of cattle, around 150 in all, their breeds almost as diverse as the pastures they graze. The sudden appearance of a big bunch of cattle has left the walkers of Ambridge scratching their heads.
But for farmer Adam Macy it’s a no brainer. As in many of Britain’s arable areas the soils at Home Farm have taken a heavy pasting over the years. Chemical fertilizers and heavy machinery have taken their toll, damaging their microbial life and severely reducing their fertility. Without drastic action many were likely to become unproductive. So Adam has embarked on a pioneering experiment to see if grazing and grassland can return life and fertility to hard-pressed soils, just as they used to in the days of mixed farming.
However, this isn’t grazing as Dan Archer would have known it. This is mob grazing, or to give it its more technical title, management intensive grazing. The idea is to replicate the grazing behaviour of the vast wild grazing herds such as the north American bison or the wilderbeest of the Serengeti.
As a protection against predators these wild herds stayed bunched tightly together and were constantly on the move. Under the world’s great natural grasslands such as the American prairies this grazing behaviour built up huge reserves of carbon-rich organic material in the soil, making it highly productive. It also represented a massive store of carbon.
Mirroring wild herds
A handful of forward-thinking farmers, in the United States and elsewhere in the world, reason that if they use beef cattle to copy this grazing behaviour they should be able to rebuild the fertility of their soils, while at the same time returning large amounts of atmospheric carbon to safe storage below ground.
To mirror the tight bunching of the wild herds, cattle are moved frequently around a series of temporary paddocks constructed from electric fences. After each paddock is grazed it’s allowed a long rest interval before the cattle return. In many parts of the world farmers have found that this natural style of grazing not only rebuilds soil fertility, but keeps the animals healthy too.
Adam’s hoping he can get similar results at Home Farm. Farm owner Brian Aldridge is yet to be convinced. But if Adam’s right and mob grazing makes the land more productive and farming more sustainable, Brian will be the first to pat him on the back.