Less is more for Blable Farm
A new approach to farm management at one Cornish farm sees them well on the way to being carbon negative, while significantly reducing input costs and maintaining farm income.
Third generation farmer Mike Roberts runs Blable Farm in Wadebridge with his wife Alison, daughter Clara and son Sam. It’s a 435-acre mixed farm currently supporting a 150-head Stabliser suckler herd, 185 acres of herbal leys and red clover, 40 acres of arable silage (peas, barley and triticale) and 60 acres of mixed species.
As Mike himself said, ‘old habits die hard’, and this was very much the case for how the farm was managed until 2018 when Sam joined the business. He soon instigated a review of the farm’s management and its future direction.
“Sam returned to the business with great enthusiasm and a new perspective on how we could do things, with a specific focus on grazing systems and carbon management,” explains Mike.
In 2019, James Daniel from Precision Grazing carried out a farm review with the Roberts family, which produced some surprising results. “We examined our intention of expanding the herd to 250 cows on a paddock grazing system, which would require investment in buildings and machinery. We compared it to reducing the herd size from the 180 we had at the time to 150, cutting inputs, particularly labour and fertiliser. The smaller herd actually showed an improved bottom line.
Focusing on soil health brings benefits across the farm
“As a farmer, you typically want turnover but this exercise was invaluable for establishing how we viewed our business and the consequent actions we took,” says Mike. Alongside herd size, a new approach to farm management was agreed. A new rotational grazing system would be adopted, paddocks would be reseeded more frequently and the grazing season would be extended by introducing new species.
The business committed to a five-year plan on the Mid Tier Countryside Stewardship scheme, which required a range of practices to provide environmental benefits, and complemented the new farm system. “From zero, we are now up to 155 acres of herbal leys and 30 acres of red clover to improve soil health and animal performance.
“Having the soil as your primary focus is key to performance. We have seen this in a very short time,” he stresses. “Introducing herbs, such as chicory, plantain and yarrow, legumes and diverse species, to enhance the soil and its biology has reduced damage, improved crop yields and extended our grazing season from six months to 12 months, with the exception of the indoor calving period.”
Farm management is now determined by soil organic matter and microbiology with support from Hannah Jones and the team at the Farm Net Zero Project. The payback is already apparent. This year, for the first time, the farm has not bought fertiliser, with the savings being spent on a whole farm audit. “We appointed Terrafarmer to provide a detailed soil analysis of the whole farm including soil microbiology, so we can also consider the living organisms in soil. This gives us an important baseline.
“We are trialling new ways to graze our cattle by adding mixed species to increase the efficiency of our beef production without compromising the quality, taste or nutrient value, which is important for our meat box scheme. We will monitor our results, change when needed and hope to be carbon negative within five years,” concludes Mike.
Image credit - Precision Grazing Ltd & Sian Mercer
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