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Words from the farm – by Hugh Richards, Kent

Date Published: 11/04/2024

I returned to the family dairy farm in the Weald of Kent in 1979. We got up to milking 130 Friesian / Holsteins by 1990 through an 8-point Fullwood rotary parlour, all home bred pedigree and followers on 150 acres.

At that time, we were reseeding on average every three to five years, ploughing, subsoiling and bashing Weald clay to pieces. We did try maize and Westerwolds ryegrass to increase production, but Weald clay was not great for the maize varieties at the time.

At that point we were using an average of 250 kgs nitrogen at 34.5% per acre, producing three cuts of silage and feeding all stock on home grown feed, plus concentrates through out of parlour feeders, and buying in straw for cubicle bedding  cows and yarded young stock. Slurry was a problem with a huge 350,000 gallon lagoon. Cows were averaging 12,000 litres when we stopped.

In 1995 we sold the dairy cows and the quota (thank goodness at 63ppl). I then bought 40 acres and the farm buildings. My father retained 110 acres and I rented 100 acres of that from him, I then contract reared 3 or 4 other local farmers dairy youngstock, as well as working off the farm, ground works and lorry driving. During this time, I started rearing beef cattle of my own.

I have not ploughed the farm since 2002, having purchased my first NZ Seden Aitchinson direct grass seed drill. Over the years I bought more land off my father and now farm 150 acres owned, 40 acres on a 5 year FBT (I lost 30 acres a year ago with the same landlord to housing) and I also have 200 acres of stewardship land on an annual agreement.

I changed to all Sussex mother cattle in about 2006. This was because I wanted quieter cattle as I was also rearing three children from the ages of five, seven and nine years old since my wife died in 2004, who wanted to be out with me as much as they could. I now have 100 pure Sussex mother cattle going to three bulls, two Limousin and one Sussex, so I can rear all my own replacements. I sell stores at about 11 months to a customer who comes back year after year, so I am now averaging 220 head year round on home produced feed, split between silage and hay.

One major problem I have encountered since Covid is dog walkers disease - Neospora.  I have had – in the vet’s words – a perfect storm last year, with 25 abortions, all positive to Neospora. We blood tested the whole herd and a further 80 of 100 cows tested positive. We have been testing all our youngstock for BVD for 12 years and Neospora for the last four years, and we only ever found an odd one. So last autumn I put 20 clean cows and 18 yearling heifers to the Sussex bull and 55 of the positive cows that had had live calves, back to the Limousin bulls. At Pd’ing 12 % were empty when we are usually below 5%, 12 have calved so far with one suspected Neospora (the test is not back yet but the calf was born at eight months like jelly and did not survive.) 

I have now not used artificial fertiliser for three years, having been experimenting with water lowering techniques in the clay soils. Production I would calculate is at nearly 60% of what it was when using bagged N. Subsoiling is a bit like any other mechanical intervention on Weald ground, only truly effective on ‘days’ a year, much like rolling, slitting or harrowing. Sub soiling more often than not ruins surface conditions and breaks roots, I have found mole ploughing, not always to a ditch far better, using / promoting deeper rooting grass, this has been enhanced with a moving to rotational grazing from set stocking. Mob grazing is of no use on Weald Clay whatever the fanatics of the system will tell you. It has it place, but only in the correct soil and climatic conditions. Other countries are far better suited, whereas only small area of the UK are truly suited.

I have now also been using an AllStrong spade roller, I tried a Watson type but it was not aggressive enough in wet conditions. This lowers the water, helps the roots get deeper, and by keeping better grass cover extended my grazing season by at least a month even in the wettest of years. Even this year, the sheep which come into winter keep have stayed on top and I can get anywhere on the farm with a Kawasaki Mule, which I used to have to give up with in most winters a few years ago. The farm has an average field size of nine acres with 21 ponds on the 150 acres, about 12 have been cleaned out and restored over the last 20 years, some with over 15 feet depth of water.        

I now do a muck exchange for my straw, as I house all stock on deep litter yards. I also purchased my own muck spreader a few years ago, so as instead of hiring two in and spreading all of about 2,000 tons of muck in two days each autumn, I can spread little and often as the grazing rotates, even doing some in the spring when weather permits.

The organic levels on the farm are now an average of 7%. Some of the ground my father and I took over in the 80’s was ex arable and totally corn sick at about 1.5%, this is now at over 6% organic matter.

I have to say I hate the term ‘Regen’, I have been working for 25 years to get the farm in better ‘Heart’ for the long term. We are on this earth for such a minute amount of time in our own life spans, by comparison to that of all the earth’s geological time scale. So, we should all be trying to leave it better than when we took over.

Hugh will be speaking at the ‘Farm of the Future: Putting regenerative livestock production into practice’ event taking place at Plumpton College on Thursday 30th May, 2024. Interested in hearing more from Hugh? Book your free place here.