Balance Revisited

Balancing farming & conservation

It’s been interesting to look back through feedback on my recent article about hay meadows (Striking a Balance 22nd Jan).

If you missed the article, I was chewing over the relative pros and cons of reverting a productive silage field into a more natural and diverse state. I had some great comments by email and on social media, and these came at my quandary from several different angles.

The situation was compounded yesterday in conversation with a neighbouring farmer who was politely appalled by the prospect of “ruining” a good field with a mix of traditional wildflowers and native grasses. Balance this with advice I received via email which claimed I would be a fool not to go ahead with “project meadow” – the interest and conservation value would be vast.

This is a balancing act and something like a catch 22. I can’t support my conservation goals unless I have a viable farm business, and I can’t have a viable farm business without compromising my conservation goals. Perhaps this is an over-simplification, but it’s a nice reminder of the old expression: “it’s hard to be green when you’re in the red”.

Part of my project is to work on traditional, low intensity methods. Some readers suggested that I could have my conservation cake and eat it by de-stocking – I wouldn’t need the field to be so productive if I had fewer cows. This makes sense, but my project needs to be viable. If I reduce my livestock, my cattle become a little folly and I would merely be “playing farmers” in the fringes. Financially and for credibility’s sake, my herd needs a critical mass, and I should really be focussing on expansion.

At the same time, I need to maximise grass production. I can’t afford to keep buying in forage from my neighbours, either in haylage, silage or small bales of hay. A “real” farmer would be focussed on reseeding the field with an even more productive ryegrass mix – it’s my best field and I should be using it as a productive powerhouse. This would represent a real step backwards for my conservation goals, but it would allow me to keep feed costs down at a reasonable level in future winters. My cash would be freed up to work on other conservation issues elsewhere.

This idea makes perfect sense, but I can’t help thinking that this theory leads to a disjointed, disintegrated countryside where some places are for agriculture and others are for wildlife. It hardly applies to me on such a small scale, but it’s a dangerous precedent on a larger scale. I had aspired to blend farming with conservation so that all my ground was for both – perhaps this was naively optimistic, but it’s a tantalising goal.

It’s also relevant that these cows are taking me to the financial brink – small “hobby” farmers are often sufficiently well-heeled to smooth over cracks like these, but I can’t ignore the fact that every bale I buy comes out of a dwindling personal bank account. Plus, I’m coming at this project from an unusual angle. I love my galloways and I look forward to all that comes next, but I would be sorry if this was simply an exercise in producing beef.

These are teething troubles, and my livestock have simply expanded faster than my capacity to feed them. I’m sure that I will reach an equilibrium in future years, and there is always the option of taking on more land.

In the event, the new field has made some key decisions for me. Muck was spread by the previous tenant in December, and the soil has been enriched for many years by artificial fertilisers. Initial research has shown that traditional hay meadows prosper in poorer soils, and the impact of this recent improvement may take years to be reversed. Even if I did choose to proceed with reverting the ground now, there would be a long, slow road ahead.

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