Rob Havard was awarded the 2023 RASE Excellence in Practical Farming Award in recognition of how he has applied his ecological training to farming decisions, as well as his achievements in developing genetics to suit low input grazing systems.
Rob and his partner Lizzie farm in Worcestershire and Shropshire, on parcels of land split across their home farms, tenancies and a contract farming agreement with Croome Court. In total they have 150 pedigree cows, kept on 1,500 acres. They use holistic management as a framework for all farming decisions, which enables them to make decisions that consistently benefit the whole business, including the finances, environment and people.
As a trained ecologist, Rob previously managed a lot of conservation grazing, where cattle were grazed with the purpose of benefiting wildlife and ecology. In these systems, the cattle themselves did not make any money, as the income came from being contracted in to graze sites in a specific way for the wildlife. For this reason, Rob explains that he always perceived there to be a vulnerability with conservation grazing systems.
“If we didn’t have livestock systems that could both benefit wildlife and pay for themselves, then if environmental subsidies were to disappear there would be a big risk in terms of management of pasture for wildlife,” he says.
Rob found holistic management in 2012, and was attracted to it because it incorporates environmental, financial and social elements into all decision making, which enables farm businesses to move forwards in a sustainable way.
“Following the holistic management process allowed us to see a profitable way to manage the land and cash flow,” says Rob. “That gave us the confidence to expand, because by using the holistic management process we know it is possible to make a profit.”
Grazing management as part of a holistic system
Across the 1,500 acres, Rob and Lizzie move the cattle as often as is needed, working with natural processes but also balancing with the time and labour costs associated with moving livestock.
“Sometimes in regenerative grazing systems people get a bit carried away with the daily moves,” says Rob, “Which are an onerous commitment to have that in your schedule, particularly over weekends.”
Moving all livestock once a day would be a lot of work across their sites, which would impact quality of life. Rob explains that as a rule of thumb, they avoid re-grazing a growing plant.
“Plants have evolved with herbivores, so when a plant is grazed off, it already has a store of energy in its roots and crown, so it’s ready to regrow after grazing. Once a leaf has been sheared off it starts regrowing almost immediately, but it only becomes re-grazeable after four days.
“We want to make sure the cattle have moved on by the time it becomes re-grazeable, so we allow enough rest period for the plant to regrow back to the point where it’s fully recovered and all the energy stores in the roots and crown of the plant are replenished.
“If we were to graze it again earlier, before the energy is restored, then it wouldn’t grow back as strongly and would affect our forage production,” says Rob.
By moving by the fourth day, cattle can be moved twice a week. On the whole this is done on weekdays, which makes it work from a quality of life perspective too.
“In summer, we also want to leave enough of a rest period to allow plants to flower and seed, for the grasses and wildflowers,” Rob adds. He explains that they drop a vast quantity of seed across the pasture, which helps to maintain plant diversity in their swards, which include wildflowers and orchids.
As well as allowing the diversity to persist, this adds a huge amount of seed to the seedbank. There’s a saying that ‘One year’s seeding is seven years weeding’, but Rob highlights that the same is true for plants you want. “The seed drop from our pastures is probably about ten times the quantity of seed that would be added if you were ploughing and reseeding that field,” he says. “That’s really powerful, as if there’s some soil disturbance from winter grazing, or ground disturbance for whatever reason, that pasture will renew itself really quickly and will have all the components that we like in it.”
It’s also a good way to maximise use of free energy from the sun. “We have extra solar energy than we need in the summer, and each seed is like a solar battery that stores the energy of the sun in the form of carbon,” says Rob. “When that seed germinates, all the energy stored in the seed is transferred into the soil, so it’s an energy input in the spring that you wouldn’t otherwise get.”
Monitoring progress is an integral part of holistic management, as regular monitoring can allow early identification that something is heading in the wrong direction and can also provide evidence of what is working well. This includes monitoring of financial, social and environmental elements in the business.
Rob and Lizzie both do regular monitoring, such as when the cows are moved, and more formal monitoring to understand the long term impacts on the land and soil. For example, at Pollardine, the upland farm in Shropshire, an ecological outcome verification done by external consultancy has been carried out three times. The survey gives a score for each of the four ecosystem services - the water cycle, mineral cycle, energy flow and community dynamics – then combines them into an overall score which can range from -140 to +120.
“It’s been interesting to see the change in scores over time,” says Lizzie. “The first survey was done at a time when everything was set stocked with grazing licenses, and was scored at 14. The second was done after 18 months of rest, with no livestock grazing the land, which brought it up to 36.
“The most recent survey was carried out after introducing cattle, and came out at 43. Scores over 35 are categorised as systems which are improving the soil, so we are really pleased to have maintained the improvement following the introduction of cattle,” she adds.
Day-to-day monitoring is also carried out. At Pollardine, Lizzie used a GPS device to map paddock boundaries, to record exactly where the cattle have been grazing and for how long. She also completes a routine monitoring worksheet every time the cows are moved. This is a holistic management tool which enables the recording of observations such as how much the cattle have eaten, how much is left behind, any observations of the wildlife present, what their dung looks like and what that indicates about their nutrition. She also takes before and after videos when moving the cows, as a form of visual monitoring of the environmental impacts of the grazing system.
Thorough financial monitoring is an essential part of holistic management. Both Rob and Lizzie calculate the financial actuals every month, to check they are on track with cash flow for the business. This allows effective planning and can enable them to make informed decisions for the business, such as whether or not to take on more land.
Social monitoring can often be the thing that receives less focus, however Rob and Lizzie have developed a strategy to monitor their quality of life.
“We’ve come up with a simple list of what quality of life means for us. Every week we check the list using a traffic light system, so if it is green that means we have enjoyed those things and it is going well,” says Lizzie. “If anything is orange or red, it flags up that we haven’t had time for something, for example stopping for lunch.
“The system gives us an early warning signal that something isn’t working, and we can adjust how we do things, to prevent us falling into a pattern of that happening regularly.”
Genetics for holistic management systems
Rob has developed the business by breeding cattle that can thrive in low input systems. “Through consultancy work with some people who were determined to keep their high input/high output animals, I observed that these animals simply do not thrive in regenerative systems, leading to some poor results,” he says.
“I realised there was a need for people to be able to source the right genetics for their herds, otherwise there was potential for regenerative movement to go very wrong.”
Holistic management also influenced this decision, as selling breeding stock enabled him to sell an animal for the same price or more than if selling in beef boxes, but instead of having 20 to 40 customers to deal with for one animal, this would be one customer, or even one customer buying four or five bulls at once. “Concentrating on breeding stock was more efficient, and I knew we would be doing something of value to the industry,” he says.
Rob shares that it took from 2013 to around 2018 to develop the genetics to the point where there was the right mix for animals to thrive in low input, regenerative systems. “We used a lot of old native Angus genetics, that haven’t had the Canadian Angus input, which is where the high output genetics come from,” he says.
He explains that the aim was to have an animal that can breed every year, maintain its body condition and that is problem-free, so its structure on its legs, feet and udder is all correct.
“We operate a very low input system, where we use almost no antibiotics and don’t worm anything either. We need to have animals that have very low input in terms of labour and veterinary medicines, and that’s obviously higher welfare as well,” he says.
“We need them to calve quickly and easily without help, and to have a calf up on its feet and suckling quickly, so they pair bond properly. Cows’ mothering instincts and temperament are crucial, so if the pair bond isn’t there because you’ve had a stressful calving or there’s been too much interference at calving, then they won’t clean their calf, which has an impact on calf health,” he adds.
Rob explains that breeding for all these traits that reduce work has resulted in the cattle producing a good marketable calf each year without any problems. “It was a fair bit of work, but we feel like we’ve got there now,” he says. “We’re selling out of bulls each year, as more and more people come to regenerative agriculture there’s greater demand, and I think also people in higher input systems are starting to look at them too, as they’re having problems in extreme wet weather or extreme dry weather and looking to reduce their input costs to improve financial resilience of their herds.
“Family farms in rural communities really need to be resilient businesses that look after the environment and are profitable, to enable these communities to thrive from a social perspective too. The right cattle genetics comes into this whole picture,” Rob adds.
Selling of straws from Kaiser, the foundation sire of the herd, is to be an ongoing part of the breeding business. He is line bred from a bull called Evesund of Dupplin, which had the impressive nickname, ‘the fixer of udders’.
“Because he has been a good sire of females, and very fertile, we got Kaiser collected,” says Rob. “We’d expected to get two to three thousand straws from him, but when he’d been at the collection centre for about three weeks, I received a phone call to let me know that he’s been doing over 1,100 straws per jump, far exceeding expectations.”
Rob explains that they are continuing to add value for customers by bringing in genetics that will thrive in low input systems. This includes bringing embryos in from Canada, and potentially with a new government, bringing in embryos from Argentina too. “Cattle in Argentina are used to harsh conditions and seem to thrive under environmental pressure, so they’ll be some interesting genetics to bring in,” he says.
At Pollardine, Lizzie has recently accepted an offer for a higher tier Countryside Stewardship agreement. “We’ve done a bit of wood pasture creation which has gone really well, so we’re going to convert 90% of the farm to wood pasture, which will create such a beautiful habitat over the next 10 to 20 years,” she says.
Holistic management has enabled Rob and Lizzie to grow the business with confidence, while benefiting the environment and maintaining a good quality of life for themselves and their family.
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