Days 41 & 42

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Google wouldn’t let me draw a line from Hong Kong to Sydney, which was sad: you will have to imagine that bit. Hong Kong airport is great because if you take the very quick train from the centre of the city to the airport, you can actually check your bags in at the station and then not have to worry about carting them on and off the train. At least it would have been good if my pea-sized brain had not forgotten after half an hour that I had done this: when the train arrived at the airport I spent 10 seconds getting panicked as I genuinely thought someone had stolen my bag.

I have known Cam McKellar since I was 9, as he spent a lot of time at my parents’ house when he was doing a Nuffield Scholarship. Until recently he was an intensive arable farmer with a few cattle, but 2 years ago he made a big switch, and became a big cattle farmer with a bit of arable.

Cam still has some irrigated land, which has to have the pipes moved manually twice a day. I think I would prefer a pivot

Cam still has some irrigated land, which has to have the pipes moved manually twice a day. I think I would prefer a pivot

On his last farm Cam was heavily into home made compost. It was such a big operation that he actually had a full time employee just to make it. The ingredients were simple; straw, manure (cattle and chicken) and water. Within 24 hours the mixture, laid out in strips, will reach 70C. From here on the moisture and CO2 emissions were measured daily, and it was managed to certain tolerances by either adding water or turning it over. After 3 weeks a special blend of microbes is added, and then by 10-12 weeks it is done. Simple.

The finished compost

The finished compost

Although the traditional chemical analysis won’t show a lot of nutrients in here, Cam is convinced that as it is all in a plant available form, then it produces a disproportionately large effect. By spreading 4t/ha he could cut bagged nitrogen inputs by 30%, whilst maintaining or increasing yields. Of course, there is a lot more than just NPK in this sort of thing, and these micronutrients could be what is making the difference. I didn’t see any trial data, but it is still an interesting idea, especially if you have access to cheap straw and muck. After moving farms Cam has stopped producing compost, but he did bring 2,500t with him, which is going on to his new land, mixed with chicken muck, to kickstart the soil biology.

As I alluded to earlier, there has been a big change in mentality, and the core farm business. Although Cam still farms about 750ha of arable land (400 dry, 350 irrigated), the main business now revolves around cattle. There are actually two farms, separated by a 30 minute drive. Both are on what they call black ground, which is some of the best farmland in the country. It is a very heavy, 80% clay, high magnesium soil. This means that although it is very moisture retentive, the plants can have a hard time actually getting hold of the water. This was pretty clear by how brown and dry the landscape is, but then you do not have to dig deep to find moist soil. It’s a little counter intuitive.

These high magnesium clays set very hard when they get dry

These high magnesium clays set very hard when they get dry

Cam has decided that he is going to graze in small cells, with long rest periods. This may sound familiar. The big problem with this, as anyone who has considered it will say, is water infrastructure. They are working hard to put in enough extra troughs to allow cells small enough for daily moves, but it’s a multi-year project to get the entire acreage up and running like that.

Not a pedigree herd

Not a pedigree herd

This herd is not going to win any beauty prizes, and I doubt the meat that comes out of it will be too exciting either. But the system must be about as good as you can get for grazing management and soil improvement. There is no breeding herd, everything is bought from the local market, normally from an east coast farmer who has run into drought problems (“It’s always dry somewhere on the east coast”). They tend to be old cull cows, which then stay on the farm for 60-90 days to put on a bit of weight, before being shipped off to the abattoir.

This has two major advantages. Firstly, because they are there for such a short time, it is possible to say with certainty that they will not run out of food. Cam is not afraid to have an empty farm if either the market isn’t right, or the weather means he does not have forage. Secondly, it retains ultimate flexibility. Pastures can be hit hard, with high grazing intensity, when there is a lot of food, but without any risk of over grazing because de-stocking is an easy and acceptable thing to do. If you subscribe to Gabe Brown’s idea that “cows are a tool” then this must be the gold standard.

I can’t imagine many big arable farmers in the UK switching to the dark side and becoming graziers, but according to a quick-and-dirty calculation Cam did, he is better off now that he was before. That’s in cash terms too, and does not take into account how he is now regenerating rather than degrading his soil. It’s an exciting project.