Last week I went to visit Beatrice Krehl, a landscape architect who works as head gardener at Waltham Place in Berkshire.
I first met Beatrice on a Holistic Management (HM) course back in 2012 and was visiting the estate to see how they are implementing Holistic Planned Grazing (HPG) and find out how it has impacted the pastures and the animal husbandry. Although February is hardly the best time of year to observe the effects on biodiversity, Beatrice was happy to talk about their experience and provide photos to supplement what was visible outside.
Waltham Place is a 220 acre biodynamic estate, of which on half is farm land with 65 acres of grassland (permanent pasture and hay meadows) and 45 acres of arable fields and the other half is woodland and gardens. The estate has a dairy herd (mainly traditional Jerseys with some Angus-cross Jersey cattle) - with calves at foot - Jacob and Castlemilk Moorit sheep, Tamworth pigs, chickens and guinea fowl. It operates as a closed system except for buying in new sires to replenish the bloodlines.
The current owners, Nicky and Strilli Oppenheimer are South Africans and their main residence is in Johannesburg. They first came across Alan Savory and Holistic Management back in the ‘90s. As a result of their enthusiasm for the ideas embodied in this approach, they sent some of the staff on courses in South Africa.
Beatrice and some of the other estate workers went on a HM course in South Africa in 2005. Nevertheless, like other HM practitioners in the UK, those managing the estate long dismissed HPG principles as being appropriate only for brittle (arid) climates - so it wasn’t until a dry summer a few years later that they started to consider the potential to use them to improve the grazing at Waltham Place. Beatrice, who has been at the estate since 2005 explained:
Back then the grazing was very poor, and the fields looked more like lawns than permanent pastures. With the effects of the drought, they were running out of grass to adequately support their stock. Since none of the farmers had attended HM courses, implementation of HPG principles has been gradual - and it fell to Beatrice to create plans for the farm.
Initially the shift was simply from normal extensive/set stock grazing systems to more controlled ‘strip grazing’, and there was, as one would expect, a very clear increase in the grass availability as plants were provided a longer recovery period. However, this didn’t support biodiversity, which is also a high priority at Waltham Place (Beatrice describes the cattle as an extension of her gardening team) - or the building of soil.
In 2011 Beatrice started doing the planning for a recently purchased 50 acre field adjacent to the motorway. In the building of the motorway, a significant amount of clay was removed so in those areas the profile was in particular need of restoration. The field also supports a population of breeding skylarks, nesting in the grass banks (sloped area in the middle of the field), so much of it needs to be protected from grazing until after their fledglings have hatched. Being a fair distance from the main farmstead, it is used for dry herd grazing.
The first year (2011), only part of the field was grazed, to protect the skylarks, and the rest was cut for hay. However, in 2012 Beatrice implemented a plan which grazed around the edge of the field first and consisted entirely of grazing, while meeting the nesting requirements of the skylarks.
You could hear the satisfaction and pleasure - perhaps even awe - in her voice as she described watching the grass growing up behind as the grazing herd was moved forward into what was often almost standing hay. She also described how the sward copes much better in drought when the grass and its root systems are longer (Waltham is predominantly a clay soil type). In just a few years, the diversity of plants and grass productivity in this 50 acre field has increased significantly, providing grazing for more animals for a longer period. Although there is still plenty of room for further improvement, it gives an impressive idea of the progress that can be made.
In other fields the system has played a particular role in implementing a degree of non-selective grazing in March, so that the sheep take out the young creeping buttercups and important grass species have more time to recover. Under more typical extensive management, sheep avoid the buttercups and return to grazing grass which does not have time to recover, thus lowering overall productivity. In effect, this extensive management causes an increase in buttercups and a decrease in grass. Also, since grazing after haymaking is so important for fertility due to the closed nature of the system, ensuring an even spread of manure through higher stock densities - another convenient side-effect of HPG - is invaluable at this stage too.
For the animals there is the advantage of not having to graze around cowpats, but Beatrice was nevertheless concerned about the lack of insect-life breaking the manure down. Waltham Place is stationed like an island in the middle of conventionally farmed land, with very little in the way of even livestock around. It seems that the creatures who thrive in their role of breaking down animal wastes into fertilizer haven’t yet made it across the abyss of sterile land around the estate. In this regard it’s good that there is plenty of time for the worms and other microfauna, etc. to get to work before the land is grazed again.
Of course there are still challenges and there are some regrets. If starting again, Beatrice would have liked to put in place baseline surveys to monitor the changes in biodiversity so there was documented ‘hard evidence’ of the improvements made. Although the herd size has increased, particularly in this last winter, the stock have had to spend a lot of time inside, and winter housing is now a greater limiting factor than forage. However, Beatrice and three colleagues are about to embark on a trip to Switzerland, investigating different options to address this situation (perhaps they will bring back some concepts which are useful to the rest of us as well). Also, as the health of the sward improves in the future, the root mat should become stronger, thus making it possible to keep the animals out for longer.
There have been various experiments with combining animals too. At the beginning, the sheep followed the cows after they had left the field completely, and with no fence because they wouldn’t stay behind one. The damage done by grazing so short and repeat grazing whilst the grass was recovering was obvious. Since last year the two flocks of sheep have been combined and have learnt to respect the electric fence, so now they run the livestock in three herds: the dairy cows run with their calves and the bull; the dry cows and young stock run together, and there is a ‘flerd’ consisting of the working oxen, the weaned calves and the sheep. This worked very well and resulted in improved pastures and made the planning easier.
Although the fields are still ‘in recovery’ from the previous management, they are all definitely getting much healthier and more productive (also helped by the application of compost teas), and once he could observe them in the fields at Waltham the positive effects convinced the farmer that he was dealing with more than just theories from another climate. Beatrice would like to go further and implement twice daily moves, at least of the dairy herd - and that should leverage health improvements of the sward even more.
Being Swiss, Beatrice was particularly happy to discover how cattle can be used to improve the health of ecosystems and create biodiversity rather than just being perceived as the cause of many environmental problems. In a matter of just a couple of years she has observed a significant increase in floral diversity as a result of the change in management and that is good for the butterflies and other insects too. In particular bird’s foot trefoil, knapweed, yarrow, and (especially in the 50 acre field), ox-eye daisies are now flourishing where previously they were rarely seen. For Beatrice, this makes absolute sense; it reminds her of the diverse Swiss alpine meadows, and ‘the best milk’ that they produce.
She is also happy that the cows have the opportunity to self-medicate, watching them pick ash and ivy from the hedges as they add diversity to their diet. Looking forward, Beatrice would like to see the hedgerows used more actively and to produce wood chips for bedding and compost too - and perhaps to create a system of swales which would also improve moisture management.
Summing up her perspectives on Holistic Management she commented about how important not just the grazing principles are but also the entire decision making framework. This framework promotes the use of unconventional solutions via the testing procedures - which often highlight the failures of conventional approaches when considered with respect to the Holistic Goal.
It looks like they are going to have to come up with some unconventional solutions of their own again soon too, since next year they hope to get the chickens out following the grazing - and there’s a bit of a fox problem…!
Waltham Place Gardens and Farm are both open to the public and the estate places high priority on sharing knowledge and skills connected with rural life and ways of living more closely integrated with nature, including organic and biodynamic plant husbandry. More details can be found at: www.walthamplace.com
Natasha Giddings works for RegenAG UK (www.regenerativeagriculture.co.uk), which amongst other activities co-ordinates courses taught by international experts covering unusual subjects like Holistic Management.
Learning Holistic Management
The next chance to take a Holistic Management course in the UK will be in Hampshire on Kingsclere Estate from 29-31st March. The course will be taught by Kirk Gadzia of Resource Management Services, LLC. More details including booking forms can be found at: www.regenerativeagriculture.co.uk/index.php/course-calendar/69-hm-farming-grazing
(All images of Waltham Place courtesy of Beatrice Krehl.)
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