Day 49 – Biodynamic cattle

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I really needed a helicopter today, it was a long drive for a short distance. I’m very jealous that these guys can grow such a wide variety of fruits in their garden: apples, apricots, figs, oranges, lemons, limes, quince, mulberries, plums… I guess there are not many climates that would support all of them.

This was another last minute Nuffield phone call, but there was a double chance of success as both people living in the house are past scholars: Cathy Harvey is a trained vet, and Dave come from a farming family. They are farming 2,000ha of non-wetting sandy soils, which supports a herd of purebred Angus which they breed and take all the way to finishing, and also a 250 cow dairy.

A flood irrigated lucerne paddock, before and after grazing by the dairy herd

A flood irrigated lucerne paddock, before and after grazing by the dairy herd

Having spent the first part of his farming career as a high input/high output farmer, Dave tried out some biological farming techniques, and found they worked pretty well. After a few years of doing that, they discovered a demand for Biodynamic milk had opened up near by. The move from biological to certified Organic, and from there to Biodynamic, was not a huge leap, and so they went for it.

Beef production was unaffected, but milk production went down from 7,000l per cow to 5,500l, although at the same time they stopped using pure Holstein animals, and started crossing with Jerseys: the famous “Kiwi Cross”. With around a 30% premium for the Biodynamic meat and milk, it seems like a no-brainer when production levels stay similar.

It's common around here to graze cattle on cereal stubble, with no supplemental feeding either

It’s common around here to graze cattle on this tall cereal stubble, with no supplemental feeding either

Around 10% of the farm is cropped each year, normally with barley, which is then fed to the dairy cows as a supplement. Vetch is often grown before the barley, and then incorporated – they have measured up to 50kg/ha of nitrogen from this in a good year. After barley, it is common to plant a lucerne ley, which will stay in place for a decade, this is used to fatten the Angus steers on.

Dave sees the main benefit of his system as being the lower risk which comes from having much lower inputs. This is something I’ve heard before in Australia, particularly when comparing livestock enterprises with arable. He also claims a quadrupling of profit from the old system to the current one. In addition it makes them both much more content with how they are treating their farm.

Angus steers being fattened on grass and lucerne

Angus steers being fattened on grass and lucerne

We spoke over lunch about Biodynamics, and some of its stranger prescriptions. I’m still of the opinion that the techniques and formulations they use could have sound principles backing them up, but I do not buy the explanations about atoms’ vibrations etc etc. But as Cathy said “just because you don’t understand how something works, doesn’t mean it won’t work”. Just ask Gregor Mendel. We don’t yet fully understand the chemistry of soils and plant nutrition, let alone how microbial life interacts on top of that; so we should not be hasty in rubbishing different ideas.

That then brings up the question of proof. It’s fair enough if something unexplained works, but then it must be able to be measured – I do believe in the scientific principle. I’ve seen no proof here that Biodynamics works. BUT I have been to plenty of other farms (almost everywhere in fact) where at least once I have asked why someone does something, and how they know it is better. The answer is almost always that they have no proof, it’s just a feeling. It could be the type of drill they use, a grazing technique, or anything else; although rarely does it involve cows’ skulls, or stags’ bladders. Or Field Broadcasters.

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