Pasture Perfect

4th August 2017

A herd of cows feeding naturally on a species-rich meadow is an all-too-rare sight in 21st century Britain. Jill Glenn meets local farmers Jonathan and Laura Chapman, who are reversing the trend.

The cows are cross. Affronted, in fact. Their owner, farmer Jonathan Chapman, has turned up with a stranger (me) in tow, walked amongst them, demonstrated how healthy and gorgeous and good-natured they are… and now he’s heading out of the field – and leaving them behind. How dare he? They’re indicating their displeasure by bellowing insistently, and lining up at the gate to emphasise their point. “Listen to them shout,” says Jonathan’s wife and business partner, Laura, laughing.

These are – make no mistake – actually very happy cows. The source of their indignation is the fact that they’re due to be transferred the following day to their next paddock, and Jonathan’s arrival has given them false hope. The pasture in their current enclosure is coming to the end of its useful life (although it’s not yet down to the bare soil; there’s plenty of red and white clover and bird’s-foot trefoil for them to nibble on) and they’re keen to explore new gourmet possibilities. As well as grass, the cows are partial to elder and ivy, even young bramble; frequently they’ll eat from the hedges, picking out their favourite flavours, before turning to the species-rich sward beneath their feet.

The Chapmans operate a mob-grazing system, which replicates the way wild herds (think buffalo, think wildebeest) bunch tightly together for a short-duration/high-intensity occupation of any given area before moving on to new ground. It’s a tool of ‘holistic planned grazing’, and is, Jonathan says, as much about the needs of wildlife and the land as it is about the cattle themselves. “It’s about regenerating the soil,” he explains. “The cows eat… they fertilise… it decomposes and enriches the earth…”

“So what you mean is…” I begin, but before I can articulate my embryonic understanding of the process, Jonathan is off; I can barely take notes fast enough. He’s passionate about pasture-based farming and its importance for the planet: “The ancestors of our domestic cattle lived off leaves and grasses, herbs and scrub… it was always my instinctive belief that cattle should be outside, grassland-based, living off pasture… the more I learn, the more Laura and I learn, the more we realise that it’s vital for the environment as well as for the animal… there’s too much carbon in the air, and not enough in the soil, and well-managed pasture can have a positive impact on this… short grass is distresssed, above and below the soil… here we leave 50% of the sward when we move the cattle on, and that feeds the biology of the soil… makes minerals available… if you overgraze the land it dies off or becomes dormant… buying pasture-fed meat is a real positive for the environment…”

The time in each paddock is carefully calculated, but roughly, for a herd of 50 cows and calves, is about a day per acre. Here they don’t return to an enclosure for about 60 days, which ensures that the pasture is thoroughly regenerated.

Laura speaks of the cattle – Red Ruby Devons – with a mixture of affection and pragmatism. “We were keen to have a native breed,” she explains. “The Red Rubies are small, and light on their feet… they’re docile, and easy to handle, and they calve easily, too. They finish off grass, so they don’t need cereal. And they’re beautiful.”

Jonathan agrees. “They do what you want [as a beef farmer], and they do it well. They’re not over genetically manipulated, and have lots of intermuscular fat, so the flavour is wonderful.”

I just about keep up with the science, grateful for my Archers habit; fellow listeners to BBC Radio 4’s ‘contemporary drama in a rural setting’ will be familiar with the terminology that articulates the Chapmans’ vision. In the series, farmer Adam Macy advocates a pasture-based approach, recognising that overuse of chemical fertilisers has – ironically – drastically reduced soil fertilitity and damaged microbial life; in response he has set land aside for herbal leys, grazed by cattle, in what his agribusinessman stepfather considers to be a ridiculous experiment. Jonathan, I venture, is something of a Macy disciple – and it’s no surprise to learn that he’s a fan of the programme’s Agricultural Story Editor, Graham Harvey; indeed, he recommends Harvey’s book, Grass-Fed Nation: Getting Back The Food We Deserve to me, and it’s a powerful read.

The common sense approach – cows need pasture, pasture needs cows – on which the Chapmans based their philosophy is supported by plenty of research (much of it suppressed and discredited by the global corporations who dictate farming policy in the industrial west) and has become the foundation of an intelligent and thriving business.

Jonathan and Laura say ‘pasture-fed’ rather than ‘grass-fed’ because good pasture is full of herbs, clovers and other plants. It’s good for the cattle, for the flavour of the beef, and for the environment. “Diversity in the sward encourages diversity in the soil, insect, bird and animal life associated with it”… and above the farm fly buzzards and sparrowhawks, kites and kestrels, owls – both little and tawny – and innumerable species of songbird.

The couple (or perhaps it’s the cattle…) are members of the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association, which has high standards for everything from diet and welfare to wildlife-friendlinesss; the Pasture For Life Certification Mark on a packet of meat guarantees those standards, and also, when scanned, gives details of the supplying farmer, the abattoir, the date and age of the cow, and information about the herd.

If you were to scan a label on Chapman meat, you’d learn that their cows are outside for most of the year. They overwinter, eating haylage from their own fields, in light airy barns – partly for the sake of the land, partly to facilitate calving (“it’s good for the farmer’s welfare, too…” says Jonathan) – before being turned out at the start of March, or thereabouts. They’re grazed all over the local area: some at Micklefield Hall, Sarratt, where the Chapmans rent 50 acres; some – the yearlings – on acidic grassland at Bentley Priory, Stanmore, where they are part of a conservation grazing scheme aiming to recreate a unique species-rich environment; some in Chipperfield; and some here at Bailey Hill Farm in Chalfont St Giles, where Jonathan and Laura live, currently in a temporary log cabin home, with their two daughters, Elizabeth, 20 months, and Isabella, 11 weeks. In due course, the couple hope to be permitted to build a permanent farmhouse on the site.

They’ve been working these acres since 2011, renting at first, and purchasing in 2013. They began with just six cows. Now they have nearly 200, including the calves, and a couple of bulls. Everything was in pretty poor condition when they took it on – lots of builders’ rubble, for example, and 19 lorryloads of scrap – but seriously hard work (by the Chapmans and the cattle) has paid off, and it’s now in excellent shape. Walking up the lane – where dogrose, hawthorn, blackthorn, oak, hazel, ivy, holly and alder all flourish in the hedge – to the cows on a sunny summer’s afternoon, with the farm dogs (one of which is named Ruby, naturally) lolloping ahead, the lifestyle looks idyllic. In many respects, it is – but it’s demanding, too, and Jonathan is a busy man. He currently spends as much time on his equestrian business as he does on the cows. He was a keen rider as a child, growing up on his father’s pig farm in Sarratt, and worked with horses on a sheep station in New Zealand as a teenager. After agricultural college he worked as an agronomist for ICI and then as a construction manager at Canary Wharf… but the equestrian world, eventing in particular, pulled him back. For twenty years, he produced and trained horses, competed internationally and served the sport in a variety of roles, including as a selector for the Great Britain Senior Eventing Team. He still coaches horses and riders across all disciplines and runs a livery stables in Sarratt… but farming and family are where his heart lies now.

Laura, who was brought up in Devon, has no agricultural background, but has long wanted to farm; she is truly happy and at home with the cattle and the farming lifestyle, although she still works part-time as a pension fund manager.

Farming is, as Jonathan reminds me, “a precarious business”, dependent on what the world needs – or thinks it wants – at any given moment. In the past, as he explains, almost all farms sold direct – food was grown or raised locally, killed locally and eaten locally – and that’s a much more sustainable model. But after World War II, everything began to change, with a drive for cheap food, and an over-reliance on technology instead of looking to nature. The resultant rise in agro-chemical businesses has been detrimental to farming and food production across the globe.

Professor Hans Herren, co-chair of a 2008 World Bank-funded study which reported that ‘far from solving world food problems, high-input western methods were the major threat to food supplies’, is adamant that there’s a need to de-intensify agriculture in developed countries. Herren wants, reports Harvey, farms that maintain bio-diversity, that protect watercourses from pollution, that grow less food of higher quality using fewer chemical inputs. He’d like the Chapmans’ set-up. Moreover, he’s keen on shorter supply chains, so he’d approve of their method of selling directly to the customer.

Beef has a bad press. When you look at the meat that results from factory-farmed, chemically-controlled, grain-fed cattle, it’s not surprising. Cows are not designed to eat grain or soya; when they do, they put on weight quickly (hence the atttraction) but they’re prone to acidosis and bloat. Food writer Michael Pollan reports how cattle on big American feedlots have to be trained to eat corn. “You start giving them antibiotics, because… you’ve disturbed their digestion, and they’re apt to get sick, so you then have to give them drugs.” It stands to reason that the food chain is contaminated as a result.

But chemical-free, pasture-fed beef, such as the Chapmans’, is a different deal: lower in both its total and saturated fat content, and higher in omega-3 fatty acids (‘good fats’); higher, too, in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA, a powerful omega-6 fatty acid, shown to protect against heart disease, diabetes and obesity, and to fight cancer); in B vitamins and in vitamin E, in beta-carotene and in calcium, magnesium and potassium. And it does taste amazing. If we eat a little less of it, and pay a little more for it, it’s a real win/win.

Better for us; better for the environment. As Richard Young, policy director at the Sustainable Food Trust, put it, in an opinion piece for The Guardian in 2014, ‘If today’s children are to eat at all in the future, their food will have to be grounded in pasture-based farming.’

• www.native-beef.co.uk

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