The return of the ‘Golden Hoof’
When I attended agricultural college, I was not interested in any part of livestock farming. Having grown up with pigs on the farm, the smell, 24/7 attachment to the farm and fear of disease was enough to put me off and we ended pig production soon after, to concentrate purely on arable crops in the early 2000’s.
The pigs were useful during times when the wheat price dropped below £80 per tonne, as it was cheap feed for them but then when the market swung the other way it was hard to watch cheap pig meat eating wheat valued at £190 per tonne! The pigs did, however, give the farm back excellent soil-building manure. These smelly, nutrient-rich, bacteria-brimming, soil-feeding muck heaps did wonders for our soil and our crops, probably the only part of pig farming I now miss.
As my farming knowledge has increased and my farming system has evolved, I am now at a stage where I feel livestock returning to the farm could help develop my system even more.
I don’t have the skill or the interest to own and run a large-scale livestock enterprise but there are people who do. It is great that we have welcomed 250 sheep onto our farm this year, owned and managed by two local young shepherds. We have offered them grazing over our winter cover crops and grass land. A ‘mob grazing’ pattern has been adopted, so that high numbers graze an area hard before moving up the field. This protects the field from being over grazed and the surface poached up by their feet, leaving a soggy, muddy mess.
The benefit of sheep grazing is not new. They are given the title of the ‘Golden Hoof’ throughout history, as farmers used the sheep to increase fertility of poor ground by allowing them to graze rich fertile land then moving them onto the poor land, so they transferred the nutrients over in their gut and deposited them in their droppings. The soil bacteria and fungi utilise the nutrients held in the droppings to build soil that could then support better crops.
I want the sheep to take the cover crops that have absorbed the nutrients left in my soil and transform them into droppings that will feed my soil biota, cycling carbon back into my soil, increasing soil organic matter and reducing the plant matter that I will have to deal with when we plant the spring crops.
It also is great to collaborate with other farmers; both sides of the farming fence being happy. More grazing area will allow them to expand and efficiencies increase with scale, as both invested parties look long term at the uncertain times ahead. Farm to farm collaboration will be one thing that will become more common moving forward, helping to share the risks associated with food production in times of ever increasing costs and uncertainty.