How We Farm – Barr Farm at The Doodales

Our farming life is dominated by our animals. We raise and manage our animals compassionately, to the highest welfare standards and as naturally as possible in a “farming” environment.

It is also important for us to regenerate the productivity of our soil and to increase the natural biodiversity across the land we manage by putting back more than we take out.

Our key inputs are solar energy and natural rainfall that power the growth of grasses, herbs (weeds), wildflowers, hedgerows and trees. This provides the rich and varied natural diet for our cattle and creates the environment for the diversity of the natural plants and animals to flourish.

We do not use man made fertilisers, fungicides, insecticides or herbicides.

We minimise the use of tractors and large machinery, and where possible, use the lowest powered tool for the job. This saves on fuel and reduces the impact to the soil. As a preference we use the cows to do most of the work.

The 4 key elements of our farm are

  • Land Management
  • Managing the Highland Cattle
  • Ecology and environmental Management
  • Care Farming

Land Management

Grassland Management

Our cattle, along with worms and soil microbes work in harmony to manage the grass. Our job is to move the cattle from field to field or area to area to ensure the nutritional value is optimised and the grass can recover without being damaged.

By leaving the grass at a greater length in the fields we have seen a significant increase in frogs and voles. The first having a cool habit with more food and the second having ground cover in which to nest along with a good supply of seed as the different grasses mature. In time the herons and barn owls / kestrels will hopefully recognise this as a regular and frequent supply of food and will choose to rear their young on our farm.

From time to time we may need to introduce new seed.

In 2018 we converted arable fields to grass. In one field we sowed a permanent grass seed mixture incorporating clover, with a mix of early and late maturing grasses. The intention is to leave this field as grass for many years.

In a second field we used a herbal ley. Most of the herbs are for the cattle, providing vitamins and medicinal benefits, on top of a variety of forage. The chicory also is a deep rooting herb which breaks up the ground and improves the drainage. There is also a mixture of grasses to ensure a consistent supply of grass across the growing season.

Highland Cow in Herbal Ley

Wildflower Meadow

In agreement with Natural England we entered into a Higher-Level Stewardship agreement in 2012. This was a follow on from the Country Stewardship agreement from the previous 10 years. In 2012 we committed to re-establishing a wildflower meadow across 16 acres of the flood plain. After a few years of waiting patiently we were able to report sightings of all the target flowers after 4 years. We now have an abundance of flowers. To name a few, lady’s bedstraw, black knapweed, common sorrel, meadow vetching, ragged robin, meadow sweet, birds foot trefoil, selfheal and cuckoo flower.

We graze the field in early spring to reduce the grass growth and give the flowers access to light to encourage their growth. We then cut this for hay in late July (or even later) after the flowers have seeded and the ground nesting birds have all fledged.

By removing the hay, we take away some nutrients from this land which helps to suppress the grass growth and enable the flowers to flourish.

The quality of the hay could be assessed as poor, but for our Highland Cattle this is considered to be rich pickings when they get this to eat in the depths of a cold winter. By feeding this in the other fields we are hoping to spread the seed around.

Later in the Autumn the cattle will return to graze the field again to reduce the grass growth and trample in much of the seed that was dropped.

During the late spring and early summer this meadow provides a mass of flowers for bees, butterflies, moths, bugs and insects of all kinds to flourish. This brings in insect loving birds and bats and provides some perfect habit for ground nesting birds and small mammals. The Roe deer also use this area to produce their fawns as they don’t get disturbed by the cows.

Hedgerow Management

Our hedges consist mainly of hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel and ash. Here and there we have mature oak, ash and crab apple trees in the hedge line.

We allow our hedges to grow to provide a wildlife sanctuary for small mammals and birds. The hedges provide safety from predators, shelter, shade, valuable nesting sites, a plentiful supply of caterpillars eating the leaves in the spring, and a supply of berries, haws, and fruits in the autumn. Most of our hedges are 4 to 5m high and 2m wide. This also provides shade and shelter for our cattle which helps to reduce the need for them to eat to stay warm in the winter. In spring the hedges also provide nectar for bees, butterflies and moths as the blackthorn blossoms, followed by the hawthorn.

Ultimately the leaves fall onto the fields and the worms pull them into the soil adding different nutrients which are then assisting the growth of the grass.

Many farmers have either removed hedges entirely or cut them down regularly to less than 2m high and half a metre wide to ensure they have an even crop across their fields. The reduction of biodiversity forgone using this method is high.

We will look to lay the hedges as needed to help invigorate their growth.

Trees

We have a small band of mature trees that run along the track in the middle of our farm for about 1km. It consists mainly of mature oaks ranging from 150 to 300 years old, along with a section of horse chestnut, ash, large leaf lime, alder, willow, beech and field maple. There are very few trees between 50 and 150 years old as they have not been allowed to mature.

In 2020 we received approval to plant 2.5 acres of woodland. We will plant with a variety of mixed broadleaf native saplings from November onwards. This will ultimately help with water management and provide more shade and shelter for the cattle and assist us to increase the biodiversity as we create more balance between woodland and grassland.

We leave fallen trees to decay and provide habits for invertebrates, small mammals, or birds. Sometimes we may relocate a fallen tree into a field to act as a natural grooming area for the cattle during its decay phase. We also make smaller piles of branches within the woodland areas to provide habits for hedgehogs and smaller mammals.

Wildish Areas

Across the farm we have a few “wildish areas”. These are generally small areas that are often  just left to do their own thing, or sometimes they may get some seed added (for example a winter bird seed mix) or we may just let a few cattle in to trample some areas and graze it back a little to help it regenerate.

We are often asked why we chose Highland Cattle. Back in 2014 we were looking for animals to graze our wildflower meadows. A key concern for us as novices at the time was to minimise the human intervention and look for a breed that could happily graze our fields and look after themselves. Although we did not realise it at the time, we had already decided that we wanted our animals to be able to exhibit their natural behaviours and to be allowed to just get on with animal life.

We were looking for a breed that is native to the British Isles. The quality of half of our grassland is poor due to regular extensive flooding that kills off most grass. The flooding also introduces various seed that establish herbs, flowers and weeds. This so-called poor-quality forage is ideal for the Highland Cattle. With the exception of the docks, the Coos will eat it all at some point during the year.

The Coos love to be outside and are designed for the worst of British weather. With their fleecy undercoat and long hair overcoat we knew we did not need any winter housing. Highlands are relatively small cows, but with large feet, which spreads their weight and does less damage to the pasture. This is better for our land that floods which has a tendency to be softer.

Another key characteristic of the Coos is their docile temperament For novices this proved invaluable in the early years, to help us with the handling and care, particularly as we were looking to rear animals with compassion and not with a stick!!.

Their easy calving and great mothering skills added to the ease in the early days.

Highlands are slow growing and slow maturing which provides a rich taste to the well marbled beef that they produce. Combined with just a natural diet of grass, herbs, flowers, shrubs and trees this ensures a truly delicious and nutritious meat.

Last, but not least, they are “picture postcard” animals. Who doesn’t love a Highland Cow?

Breeding

“You can’t breed rats from mice”

Our first 5 cows all came with calves at foot. The calf was key in the selection process. At 4 months old they were strong, sturdy and lively. We took more of a chance with our yearling heifers, again at 16 months they were pushing to be chosen from the rest of the herd in the field. Three of them are now our best cows.

At an early stage we decided we wanted to provide a safe environment for our cattle, one aspect of which is biosecurity and therefore we decided to keep our herd as closed as possible. After a couple of years of renting a bull we decided to purchase our own. We also decided that we would grow our herd from within and select the best heifers for breeding with the remainder following the beef route.

Through the selection process we now have a promising group of home bred mothers and a strong selection of young heifers coming through the ranks. The quality is improving.

We are rapidly approaching the point where we may reluctantly need to sell some of our heifers.

Diet

“We are what we eat eats”

Grass-fed is a term that is often used regarding ruminant animals. Often farmers refer to 100% grass fed. We provide a broad spectrum of vegetation and this makes up more than 99% of what the coos eat.  From time to time they are allowed a small handful of cereal as encouragement or reward. Some choose to eat it and some choose to leave it. We will never force feed cereal, and even if we believe an animal could benefit from some extra protein due to illness or lack of condition, they will always have sufficient grass-based fodder to fully meet their needs.

To ensure the Coos have a balanced diet we move them regularly from field to field and from area to area within the fields. All our larger fields are divided up into smaller areas using portable fencing. The Coos normally move once a week during the growing season (May though to October). This enables them to get the most nutritious growing point of the grass. We aim to keep our grass long as this then ensures a good root system to promote regrowth and an adequate amount of greenery to absorb the sunlight.

We expect our Coos to trample a lot of grass to provide food for the worms which enables the soil to regenerate. The result is more grass next time around. The regular moooves ensure the Coos are moving away from their dung leaving it for the dung beetles to clear up and put it back into the soil. The Coos are part of our soil generating workforce. This is often referred to as mob grazing. We are still learning the process and have some way to go which means still much soil to generate.

Winter Feeding

The aim is to improve the soil to such an extent that we can feed the Coos all year round without supplemental feeding and without ruining the pasture and soil. In 2018 we converted 30 acres of arable to grass/herbal ley with a view to achieving this. So far, we have had to sacrifice a small acreage each year to maintain the outdoor regime, although this has usually recovered even more strongly by June.  This approach will minimise the amount of hay we need in the winter. Currently we are feeding our home-produced hay from our wildflower meadows. In the past we have used feeders which can become a mess and need regular movement in the field.

This winter we will be rolling out bales of hay on the ground. The benefit here is that it is easy to move to a new feeding area. This spreads the dung around in the field which acts as fertiliser. There will inevitably be some hay that doesn’t get eaten but again this will just be returned to the soil and any seeds will also be part of the regeneration as they grow in the following spring (herbs, flowers, weeds and all !). Most cows also choose to lay on the hay, or as they say they want to have their “bed and eat it”. This is better for their welfare and anything spoilt just goes back into the soil and fertilises the grass the following year.

We are also comfortable with the natural cycle of animals where they put on fat/body condition (the Coos would just say they are in show condition) during the grass growing season and then use it up over the winter. As a native breed we believe this also improves their fertility at the right time of year for natural breeding. They are effectively conserving their food in fat, rather than us conserving the same food in bales of hay that consume resources.

Health Plan

In 2017 with encouragement from our vet we decided to get our cattle tested for BVD to assist in eradicating BVD. After some discussion with our vet Helen, we rapidly reached the conclusion that testing for other potential diseases could be of benefit, both from preventing a build-up of unknown disease in the herd but also to position us well for selling our cattle in the future.

We now annually undertake blood tests on our herd to assist us to identify and deal with any potential future issues.

At the time of writing we are BVD certified and we are Johnes risk level 2. We vaccinate for Leptospirosa so we cannot be certified but we still test the yearlings and so far, we have been clear.

We would like to be certified for IBR but we have one cow that was likely vaccinated without a marker vaccine early in life and we therefore cannot be sure that she is clear. So far, all the other cows tested each year for IBR have been negative, so we are reasonably confident with our position.

Balanced Diet

Medication and supplements

We only medicate our cows under the supervision of our vet, on an as needed basis.

We do vaccinate for BVD and Leptospirosis and may occasionally vaccinate for IBR if a cow needs to go off the farm.

As we have low lying land we attract a lot of flies, we do currently use a fly treatment during the summer for the breeding cattle that use the fields near the river. This is primarily to ensure we can avoid mastitis transmitted by flies within the cows.

We also currently provide minerals through salt licks, although over time as we continue to regenerate the soils the need for this will diminish. We are also happy to tolerate deep rooting weeds like dandelion and thistle that pull nutrients up from much deeper in the soil as this helps with the overall nutrient balance and are happily eaten by the Coos.

In some of our fields we have sown a Herbal Ley. The herbs within the ley naturally supplement the diet, and many of then provide resistance to intestinal worms. We routinely check our cattle with a faecal egg count looking for worm eggs. For the past 5 years we have not had to administer any wormers, and this is also critical to ensure the natural worms and microbes in the soil are not killed as collateral damage of a worming procedure.

We have a visit from the foot trimmer approximately every 9 months. After initially having a few issues with cracked hooves, we now rarely have any issues. We like to believe this is through the improvement in the mineral content of the soils, the variety of the diet and a larger area to use in the winter for grazing

Moving animals around

We use the carrot rather than the stick. We use a small amount of pelleted feed, normally cereal based. Whilst this may prevent us from stating we are 100% grass fed, we believe that a few grams of cereal now and then to ensure we can move our Coos around easily is worth the sacrifice. We believe happy and contented animals are critical. However we recently discovered that leafy branches of willow, elder and ash are also a good incentive for forward motion (technically we are then using the stick as a carrot!!)

We socialise all our young stock with the livestock trailer. Many of our animals will only go into the trailer once in their life and this needs to be a stress-free time for them. So, aged about 9 months they get to play with the trailer and get used to the sounds and the smells. Again, they need some positive incentives to walk up into the trailer.

Hairy Coos love a brush. We train all our cows to become familiar with the cattle crush. The reward for standing quietly in the crush is that they get a brush. At the same time, we can check them over. Our vets appreciate this investment and it also saves on the vet bill if they are calmly waiting to be looked at. Regular brushing also benefits the fences. Coos love barbed wire fencing and regularly wreck the fencing as they groom their hairy coats. Time spent brushing means less time spent fixing fences and brushing is a lot easier than fencing!

All our heifers are halter trained, to stand quietly on a halter. The reward for this is more brushing. Halter training helps considerably if the heifers need assistance at calving. Although this has been an infrequent occurrence for us, if you can halter a cow in a field and tie her up to the nearest post it makes the vets assessment of the issue so much easier to diagnose.

The Coos may or may not choose to walk on a halter, most do, but some determine their status as being above that of a human and we take our place in the pecking order.

All of our cows are happy to stand quietly in a field and be brushed which means many of the checks we need to do can be made safely in the field without having to herd the Coos to the nearest crush, again making the whole management as natural a possible.

Ecology and Environmental Management

Carbon Capture

We are aware of the negative situation in the world regarding the levels of CO2. We are in the fortunate position that we have the resources to do something about it. The key resources are fields, grass and cows plus a plentiful supply of sunshine and rain.

We believe that we are carbon positive (in other words we are locking away much more carbon than we are releasing into the atmosphere). At some point we will have a true measurement, but here is our take on it.

First of all we don’t use man made fertiliser which is a large cause of CO2 in agriculture.

Secondly we don’t plough our fields or leave them bare which also allows the carbon from the soil to escape.

So we are not making things any worse!!

Building Organic matter in the soil

By using the grazing methods, we have chosen (aka mob grazing) we are adding organic matter (carbon) back into the soil and we are leaving it there. We are not disturbing the ground through ploughing or cultivation and each year the worms drag more of the dead grass underground to feed the microbes.

In addition, as grass roots die and regrow they are also providing a carbon source, and of course the cows are dunging everywhere and the dung beetle are dragging that into the soil.

Building organic matter in the trees and hedges

Our hedges left uncut have 20 times the volume of a hedge that is cut – which roughly speaking is 20 times the carbon locked into the wood of the hedge.  They also have 3 times the surface area which equates to 3 times the amount of leaf dropping onto our fields being incorporated into the soil by the worms and locking in more organic matter.

Bees, butterflies, moths, birds, bats, mammals, reptiles etc.

All of the above are in abundance across our farm. We don’t kill them off with insectides. The food chain is allowed to exist and thrive, which at each stage creates more dung and nutrients. All of this is more carbon that drops on our land and gets incorporated into the soil by the invertebrates at the bottom of the food chain. Free fertiliser for the grass.

The Virtuous Carbon cycle

By allowing nature to do what it does best, by managing the grazing and not taking anything away we are enabling the “virtuous carbon cycle” to just keep on adding to the locked in carbon in the soil.

And yes back to where it all was before the plough came along and let it all out.

Methane

On the negative side of things our cows are ruminants and they do eat grass and from this grass comes methane (carbon) as they digest the grass and this methane is released out into the atmosphere.

However, every time a cow takes a mouthful of grass this stimulates the grass to grow again, most of which gets trampled rather than eaten and this goes back into the soil as carbon. The grass also takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as part of its growing requirements and hence this also balances the methane.

All in all, the amount of carbon locked away in the soil by grazing with ruminants is significantly in excess of the carbon emitted as methane providing the grassland is being managed appropriately.

Care Farming

We have a positive attitude to working with people that can benefit from the concept of Care Farming. We recognise that people who either have learning disabilities or who are disabled or who have other life changing illnesses can benefit from a farming environment, particularly engaging with the animals.

In 2016 we developed a relationship with The Croft Community in Old Malton and we routinely host community members and their support workers, who share in our tasks that are suited to their abilities.

In addition, we regularly host groups of children with special needs from Ryedale Special Families, also based in Old Malton.