'Five years ago everyone was talking about the fertiliser price - it was nothing compared to now' young farmer focuses on environment

clock • 8 min read
'Five years ago everyone was talking about the fertiliser price - it was nothing compared to now' young farmer focuses on environment

Farming in partnership with the environment is something which young farmer Geoff Williams has made his aim with his beef suckler herd on the Lizard Peninsula, Cornwall. So what practices has he introduced and what has he learnt so far? Ruth Wills finds out.

Spanning the generations at Tretharrup Farm, the Williams family have been farming near Helford since 1896.

And in 2005, when Geoff Williams came back to the farm after finishing his studies, he had a keen interest in farming with the environment.

Ive always been interested in making space for the environment alongside food production I think thats important, he says.

Greener agriculture has always been steered by policy and legislation. Even if you go back 10 to 20 years, the foundations were there for a heavier focus on the environment, stricter controls on what and how we farm it shouldnt be a surprise to anyone.

And becoming involved in schemes like Countryside Stewardship has proved to be another worthwhile income stream.

It kind of insulates us; if we have a down year or two on the beef price it balances the income, he says.

The herd of 100 Aberdeen-Angus cross and Limousin cross cows are paddock grazed throughout the summer then outwintered on herbal leys, which they strip graze, with silage bales to boost the dry matter.

Reducing costs

The family have been outwintering in various incarnations for 15 years, with the idea that it would help to reduce costs and produce healthier cows.

He says: At the start there wasnt really any information to go on, because not a lot of people were doing it; at the time it was a big experiment for us. Social media has really opened up the sharing of ideas.

Geoff used to outwinter on kale with silage bales but moved to herbal leys to improve soil structure, finding that during wet periods it was terrible for the soil structure.

We used to rotate the kale with spring barley but now we just outwinter on herbal leys on the driest part of the farm, he says.

He also started paddock grazing the youngstock in 2017, with cows and calves following suit four years later. He began with the youngstock, thinking, he says, that they would be the easiest group.Last year there was the real change, admitting he had only dabbled in it but I decided to do it seriously.

And because he was already strip grazing over winter, he did not find it a hard move to paddock grazing in the summer.

I was used to electric fencing and so were the cattle, so it wasnt much of a leap, he says.

Utilisation was my focus I wanted to do more with less. Letting the grass recover means better regrowth using less inputs. Even five years ago everyone was talking about the fertiliser price, and it was nothing compared to now.

It feels like Im getting the grazing correct now and its the right time with inputs shooting up too; were able to use less of them thats a big thing.

Soil

Now his focus has shifted to building soil health. Regrowth is certainly achievable, and the biodiversity has also improved.

I really like the idea of building and improving soil health extending the number of regrowth days between grazings to 45-50 days is one way to achieve this. Im still learning a lot but its fascinating, he says.

In some of the outwintering paddocks the chicory is seven to eight feet tall in July its taller than the cows.

The fields are just alive with wildlife. Its also true what they say about whats above is also below.

Deeper roots allow for more of the soil profile to be active and there are lots of knock on benefits; improved water management, higher nutrient capture, greater drought resilience, increased carbon storage and more. Its something we should all focus more on.

The stronger the plant before grazing, the more strength it has to regrow post grazing.

Looking ahead, the herbal effect on the livestock is something Geoff is interested in looking at, he says, whether herbal leys could replace the need for mineral supplements and if there are particular plants which could unlock different vitamins and minerals in the soil.

The farm was in dairying until 2004, around the same time Geoff finished secondary school.The milk prices at the time were very low and the set up was, he admits, nearing the end of its life.

He says: I didnt have a passion for dairy; my mums family had pedigree Herefords and Limousins.

She was involved in showing them as well as running about 20 suckler cows alongside the dairy.

We did quite well at a local level and that rubbed off on me.

So, we decided to expand the suckler herd to 100 and go from there. We already had experience with Limousins, which are suited the EUROP grading, and I liked the Aberdeen-Angus because they have good growth from forage, are milky and easy calving.

Stock

Calving 100 cows and bringing through about 12 replacement heifers a year is right for him and the farm.

It still gives us options for other things, he says.

When choosing replacements, he is looking for the right temperament, to reach a target weight of 400kg at bulling, and be ready for calving at two years old.He either finishes the youngstock or sells them as stores.

We tend to finish 60 per cent of the calves that are born, the rest are sold at Truro market, he says.

Geoff aims to finish Limousin steers at 650-700kg and heifers at over 600kg, but evaluates each Aberdeen-Angus individually.

I keep a close eye on fat cover rather than weights. The Aberdeen-Angus can be anything from 500kg to 680kg but 625kg liveweight gives a desirable carcass weight. I think 680kg is a really nice, balanced cow weight Im not a fan of extremes, he says.

All fattening cattle leave the farm before two years old, selling either through St Merryn Meats at Bodmin or the Aberdeen-Angus Premium Scheme for Tesco and M&S.

Geoff runs an Aberdeen-Angus bull with all the heifers for easier calving, then two mobs of 40 cows with calves at foot through the summer.

Last year we put two bulls in each mob, one Limousin and one Aberdeen-Angus the idea being that if the calf is polled we know it is Aberdeen-Angus sired, he says.

Im using two bulls on a small mob to really drive fertility and in-calf rates Im really trying to tighten up the service period to just 12 weeks so this year the bulls will go out in late May for 12 weeks.

Last autumn the cows and heifers scanned at 92 per cent in-calf, with empty stock culled or fattened, respectively.

This leaves us with a nice tight calving block, starting on March 1, he says.

Geoff shares the ups and downs of farming on Instagram (@farm_food_life) and is passionate about demonstrating the reality of British farming.

I started my account two and a half years ago, because I got so annoyed at the anti-farmer messages in the media. I thought, I need to put out what I believe is a more accurate representation of British farming, he says.

And to my pleasant surprise there were loads of other people already doing it.

Bizarrely, you get to know these people on your phone, and I think social media, for all its ills, gives the farming industry a free voice to speak to the public.

Weve never had that before it has always been via traditional media, print, tv or radio. And its something that is completely self-curated. I think its a game changer when it comes to public perception because it shows us as people and thats so much more relatable.

Once you understand that farmers are people, you can reason with that and make informed decisions on their produce. I have had thousands of positive exchanges with people who are very supportive.

Diversity

Diversity is another of Geoffs passions in both farming and life.

At the heart of how I farm is a growing appreciation and understanding around diversity in all its forms.

Whether thats increased diversity of species in a seed mix or breeds of cattle the power of diversity when its encouraged in a system that allows room for it, is amazing.

I think we need agriculture to be a sector that anyone can see themselves being a part of. Theres so much good that can come from diversity in people, be it someones race, sexuality, gender, age, culture or background. Agriculture needs to be more attractive to a wider number of people if its to not just survive, but thrive.

"This will take time and a collective effort to make farming as welcoming as possible.

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Farm facts

  • 121 hectares (300 acres), all owned
  • Mid-tier Countryside Stewardship, GS4 low input grassland
  • 100 Aberdeen-Angus and Limousin suckler cows
  • Paddock grazing and outwintering
  • Holiday let diversification
  • Herbal ley comprising: Festulolium, cocksfoot, timothy, meadow fescue, sheeps fescue, meadow grass, chicory, sheeps parsley, ribbed plantain, burnet, sainfoin, red clover, alsike clover and birdsfoot trefoil

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