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By Rosewood Farm, Aug 21 2018 12:57AM

Overgrazing is one of those words I’m hearing more & more as time goes on, and it’s begun to make me cringe every time I hear it. It’s a popular criticism of livestock farming but it’s overuse seems to have changed the meaning of the word towards any land management that is less than optimal for wildlife. In recent months I’ve seen ‘overgrazing’ used to refer to everything from severely undergrazed pastures to land that wasn’t grazed at all.

Of course the obvious solution would appear to be to graze fewer and fewer animals on the land. While this may achieve some objectives, such as succession to scrub and then eventually woodland, it doesn’t necessarily help us to conserve a variety of habitats, like the species-rich grasslands of the Yorkshire Ings, in good condition. In fact it creates the need for increased human involvement with tractors and pesticides replacing the animals to create a poor imitation of the grazed landscape that many wild plants, birds and mammals have come to depend upon.

'Sheepwrecked'; undergrazing by sheep resulted in growth suppression
'Sheepwrecked'; undergrazing by sheep resulted in growth suppression

When I say that we need more animals grazing the Ings to better manage the grasslands it often invokes lengthy justification of why animals are destroying the planet, starting with the notion of ‘overgrazing’. Usually it is not over-grazing so much as inappropriate-grazing management that cause problems. Focussing on numbers or stocking-rates really takes the onus off the management of those animals, making it possible to describe grazing practises in an easy, formulaic, but ultimately counterproductive, way.

Reducing grazing to a simple numbers-game ignores the many different variables relating to the land, seasons, climate and the animals themselves. The scientific method is useful in so much as it informs and influences our decisions, but on a day-to-day basis there are many thousands of tiny observations being made regarding the effect grazing animals are having upon the land, vegetation and wildlife that using science in isolation becomes cumbersome and overly focussed on certain aspects, such as numbers of livestock.

Naturally, as a grazier I would say that though, it’s in my best interests to keep animals on the land and not have my job outsourced to a central database. In truth, riding around the Ings in a tractor cab, out of the elements with a ‘machine’ that can be turned off at the end of the day and put away overnight/for winter is actually very appealing. Given the current trends in income from livestock farming there is little financial incentive left in grazing livestock at all, hence the declines seen in recent years.

However, it wasn’t always this way, 160 years ago the Ings were described as;

By contrast, the thin, chalky soils of the nearby Yorkshire Wolds were considered too poor for continuous cropping and sheep were employed to build fertility on an ‘outfield’ pasture for 5 - 7 years before being ploughed to plant a crop under the pre-enclosure open field farming system. Meanwhile the manure from domestic stock was used to fertilise & farm more intensively on the ‘infield’. Hay meadows in the Wolds were in short supply so some of the excess hay crop of the Ings would have found it’s way to the Wolds for feeding the beast that pulled the ploughs.

Today those fortunes appear to have reversed with vast tracts of the Wolds never seeing livestock but coming under the plough continuously. At the same time the fertile Ings lay under used and under appreciated by many modern farmers. So what’s changed?

Without doubt the most notable change has been the transition from Oxen, via Horses, to Tractors, which had a two-fold effect. Firstly, relying upon animals to till the land, meadows literally powered cultivation. By harvesting energy from the sun, grasslands were essential to turn solar power into traction to pull the plough but the move to tractors released many acres of meadow for other uses.

Ploughing on the Yorkshire Wolds
Ploughing on the Yorkshire Wolds

Photo credit

Secondly, the outfields of the Wolds built fertility with livestock until such time as it was worth going to the effort of planting a crop. Turning over the earth is a high energy ordeal and demands a high-output to justify it. Lacking the fertility provided by flooding, these were the original marginal lands but with the advent of synthetic fertilisers Wold farmers could regularly and predictably make it worth cropping the chalky hills.

These two factors seriously reduced the amount of grazing land required and increased the croppable area too. The transition of the Wolds largely from pasture to cultivation also had a devastating effect upon it’s wildlife. Birds and mammals that had previously enjoyed up to six years of undisturbed pasture found themselves competing with crops on an annual basis.

The common thread running through this agricultural revolution was Oil. The discovery of fossil fuels had kick started an increase in demand for food with industrial towns growing on the back of coal but fossil fuels were slow to power similar increases in the supply of food. It wasn’t until we worked out how to use Oil & Natural Gas that we could power the advance of agriculture to become (almost) completely non-dependent upon livestock.

This was achieved after German chemists Fritz Haber & Carl Bosch developed the high-energy Haber-Bosch Process in the early 20th century to ‘fix’ nitrogen from the air into a form useable as fertiliser. While this replaced animal manures & legumes as a source of fertility the development of the internal combustion engine and mass production of tractors by both Henry Ford and Harry Ferguson paved the way for the modern farming as we know it today. Together these two innovations, along with a multitude of others, have speeded up the pace of agriculture, allowing us to ‘borrow’ fertility from the past, via the carbon stores locked up millions of year ago in oil & gas to increase output over such a short space of time. This has mirrored the decline of both grazing and wildlife in the UK, as each has lost their value in a world that grows too fast.

The Yorkshire Ings - flooded with fertility
The Yorkshire Ings - flooded with fertility

Photo credit

The irony of the notion that we overgraze in a bid to produce more food is that it results in the exact opposite. A heavily grazed pasture lacks the means for a productive crop - even if you do fertilise it, it lacks the leaf area to harvest the sun’s energy and the organic matter to preserve precious water. Undergrazing is no more productive either as the pasture reaches a point where the taller, untrodden grasses shade out any chances of fresh, new growth.

Many people say that we can’t possibly ‘feed the world’ with meat from grazing animals, but right now I’m just trying to feed my family and preserve some of the last & best remaining floodplain meadow habitat in the country. Grazing more cows on these grasslands isn’t competing for prime farmland so it can only help to feed the world if more of us eat grassfed beef from the Ings. It also feeds a wealth of wildflowers and birds too, which looks (and sounds) pretty awesome to me!

By Rosewood Farm, May 30 2018 03:02AM

The Guardian revealed yesterday that 'industrial-scale beef farming comes to the UK', and it's likely that this kind of reporting will lead to some people reducing their consumption of beef - but is that really the best solution?

Scenes like these will no doubt elicit strong feelings from the public about the welfare of animals contained within these 'feedlot' style rearing systems, but I tend to think that everyone is missing a trick. It may be that animals prefer to be in grass fields with hedgerows and trees for shelter, or they may actually enjoy having their food delivered to them in concentrated, grain form. Proponents of more industrial systems like to point to the fact that management can be better on a large farm that is able to monitor animals more closely and even partake in regular veterinary checks to ensure high welfare. As we cannot ask the animals which system they prefer, that argument is likely to run & run.

However, whilst we waste our time debating whether a cow prefer grass or corn, there is another factor that we cannot ignore - the effect that more industrial farming systems have upon our wildlife. Now, I'm a big fan of everyone eating more beef in order to save our wildlife, but I also stress that we need to be sure that the beef we eat does actually help to preserve declining wildflower meadows, and doesn't speed up their decline.

Recently I wrote about the plight of the Curlew, and if you have read the book that I recommended in the blog, Curlew Moon, you will already know about the effect that rapidly intensifying farming is having on birds such as the Curlew & Corncrake over in Ireland. The country the main source of UK beef imports & much of this beef supplies supermarkets & fast food outlets. Figures from the AHDB show that in 2016 the UK imported 263,500 tonnes of beef & veal, a massive 22% of our total consumption!

It's often suggested that increased industrial farming is driven by a greater demand for meat, but when we take a look at the long term figures for the UK we see that each of us are now eating 24% less beef than we were in 1961. Even accounting for the increased population we are still eating 11% less beef as a country. So if we are being told to eat less meat, is this actually contributing to more industrial farming? I think so.

The problem with eating less is that, with lower demand, the price of meat drops and farmers have to produce it ever more cheaply. As identified by The Guardian report, this indutsrialisation is driven by cost, not volume, and the less we eat, the more intensive farming must become to survive, with even less money leftover to make provision for wildlife.

People say to me that farms like Rosewood simply can't produce enough grassfed beef sustainably to feed the world at current levels. My response is always - not if we don't try to! I think that to encourage farmers to produce beef the Rosewood way we need to demand more, not less, grassfed beef. If we can produce it then everyone, including our wildlife, is happy. But what happens if we can't produce that much? Well, the demand would then exceed the supply so the market price is forced up and people eat less as a consequence - it's a real win-win scenario.

Eating less beef may be a consequence of a move to more sustainable production systems, but it is certainly not a prerequisit and buying less does nothing to encourage farmers to change. I also believe it is highly damaging to tell people to eat less because those most receptive to that message are already supporting farms like ours - a double blow on the back of low prices.

Rosewood Farm; when we say 'grassfed' we mean from birth to beef!
Rosewood Farm; when we say 'grassfed' we mean from birth to beef!

As a small farm selling all our own produce we do receive a higher price than if we took our animals to the local livestock market, however we lack the economies of scale that large retailers enjoy. Our customers, too, receive more individual attention, which all comes at an extra cost. I'm pleased to report that our sales are up by 27% year-on-year in 2018 BUT we're also serving more customers with the average spend decreasing which pushes up the cost of selling by one fifth!

I understand that not everyone can afford to eat Rosewood beef every day, but there are a few things you can do to help us out & keep industrial farming at bay;

1. Buy in bulk; the more you spend at once time, the lower our costs

2. Do more home cooking; buying a joint to slice up for sandwiches througout the week - you'll save money and avoid industrially produced meat

3. Return the packaging; not only does reusing our shipping boxes reduce waste, it also saves us money!

4. Share this blog with your friends - word of mouth is our best endorsement, and is our cheapest way to advertise!

Thank you.

By Rosewood Farm, Jul 16 2017 05:49PM

Why aren’t there more farms like Rosewood? is a question I often hear, which does have a very short and simple answer, but more of that later. Unless you’ve been following us for sometime, you are unlikely to know what it is that makes us different, and for that we need to go back in time to talk about how Rosewood Farm came to be.

We grew up as part of a large extended farming-family, in the 1970’s and 80’s, so farming was always in the blood. Both families were mixed arable and dairy farms, very traditional with about 50-60 cows each, grazing on summer pastures and rearing the calves for beef. In farming the ‘farm’ was an entity in itself, a being around which life revolved. Both holidays and weddings were timed around hay making or harvest, and the daily routine was heavily influenced by milking twice a day, every single day.

The family dairy herd grazing in the Ings Photo credit: K Laverack
The family dairy herd grazing in the Ings Photo credit: K Laverack

The 1990’s were a time of great change for agriculture, the cracks were beginning to appear in the post-war drive for intensification. Europe’s farms were more productive than ever before, boosted by subsidies from the EU that encouraged us to produce more food but which, ironically, had made food cheaper and less able to support the people who produce it. This effectively spelled the end of farming for our family, the writing was on the wall, the family business was approaching the end of the line.

Paul and myself had both wanted to carry on the family dairy farm, working before & after school, and throughout the holidays to gain experience. The inevitability of it not being possible, however, was always there, so we both had to accept that it wasn’t going to happen. We set out to continue a path in farming, and went to agricultural college alongside working on farms to gain a wide variety of experience in the world of farming. This coincided with the establishment of the pedigree Dexter cattle herd, which began what we know as Rosewood today.

Despite being a mixed farmer at heart, during and after college Paul found himself working on a conventional arable farm, albeit it one that enabled him to follow his passion for tinkering with old machinery. Meanwhile I was studying for a diploma in agriculture and working on a variety of farms from intensive pig and arable farms in East Yorkshire to an upland sheep farm in Wales. Always taking an interest in animals and biology, my own passion became clear when I began my second-year assignment on forage crops. The result was a document that was five times longer than any other assignment I had written and fully illustrated, in colour!

Cultivating land in prairie-like fields used to be my 'day job'
Cultivating land in prairie-like fields used to be my 'day job'

Agriculture is an important sector in the UK, but it is dwarfed by the ancillary industries that provide farming with a plethora of products and services from tractors to software, and it is these which eventually employ the majority of agricultural students today. With an interest in livestock and biology, I decided to follow the diploma with a course in animal science, still unsure where I would end up.

During my final year at college I was somewhat rail roaded into studying the effects of comparing homegrown and milled feed with commercially formulated rations in lamb production, both absolutely grain fed, far removed from my passion. I had wanted to study more interesting subjects that were closer to my heart, such as the fascinating genetics of my own breed, the Dexter, or the behaviour of the ‘wild’ cattle of Chillingham. Unfortunately for me these subjects were too far removed from anything that happens as part of ‘commercial’ modern agriculture and my tutors were not keen.

The public perception of lamb production is one of lambs skipping around in fields, but I found myself weighing lambs each week to compare the two rations. These lambs never left the shed they were born in during January until the end of their lives three or four months later, providing for the comparatively high prices of the ‘new season’ spring lamb market. It didn’t sit right with me, compared to my own grassfed cattle at home which were grazed on pastures for two seasons (part of the fallout from the BSE-crisis was that cattle at the time were only allowed to be eaten if were they slaughtered at 30 months of age or younger) and never received a sniff of grain.

To my surprise, the home grown ration out performed the purchased feed, with the lambs fed on grains grown and milled on the farm. It got me thinking about how farmers are ‘fed’ the formulated rations by outsiders who have a product to sell, rather than making use of the farmers own knowledge and experience (and feed!).

Farmers, being on the frontline of the countryside, are often the first to be criticised for changes that lead to problems with animal welfare or wildlife. The best way I can describe ‘agriculture’ is like a combine harvester - farmers are like the header, seen to be gathering in the crop at the front. Internally there is lots going on which very few people see, the engine [supermarkets] is in the middle, pushing farmers along, controlling the rate and speed of all the other processes, including how much is wasted. Out of the back, out comes the processed product, looking quite different from what went in. It is that way because not everyone *needs* to know how a combine works in order to benefit from the food it produces.

The food industry; like a giant combine with mysterious internal machanisms
The food industry; like a giant combine with mysterious internal machanisms

By the early 2000’s there seemed to be a growing public interest in the process of food production. The internet was just beginning to become popular and we decided that a website was the perfect way for the consumer to learn more about exactly where their food comes from. It provided a window into farming, giving unprecedented access between the farm and the consumer. I started to use the internet to talk to others, both farmers and consumers, about how and why food was produced in the way it was.

Paul and I had both independently come to the same conclusion that we simply didn’t want to continue work with the chemicals that conventional agriculture had come to rely upon. They were unpleasant to apply and we didn’t think they were having a positive effect on the land or wildlife. Our main contact with these chemicals was in arable farming, but they are also involved in more intensive grazed livestock systems too. We decided that our own farm would be different and we set out to offer the consumer a genuine choice.

We found that farming without chemicals was tough - not because things didn’t grow without them but because the support network for farmers was so heavily-ingrained in the chemical culture. Most solutions include a bottle on the shelf that can be applied for best results and we got more than a few funny looks when we said that we don’t use chemicals. “Oh, so you’re organic?” “Well, no, not organic, we just don’t use chemicals”. We can see why other farmers take the advice - it’s hard going being a rebel.

This became easier when I met a kindred spirit in Natalie in 2009 and together we have been able to continue experimenting and improving, working with other farmers and conservationists to really push forward and build upon our success.

It was equally hard going with our choice of cattle too - Dexters. They suit our system because they are tough, sometimes stubborn, and massively independent (just like us, you might say). Few farmers see Dexters as a commercial breed though, and rightly so because the system is not set up to make best use of small, grassfed cattle. As such we’ve had to buck the trend of selling livestock at market and go direct to you, the customer, instead.

Dexters are much smaller than most cattle - not what the supermarkets want
Dexters are much smaller than most cattle - not what the supermarkets want

Instead of being the header of the combine, harvesting the crop and passing it on to the next stage, Rosewood has had to take on all the roles within the machine. We produce, process, package, sell and distribute our product. This has given us almost total control over how we do things and as a result we have been able to ensure that our farming methods produce good food that has a positive effect upon the wonderful wildlife we have here in the Yorkshire Ings.

The conventional markets take the animal and divide it into individual components with steaks supplying pubs & restaurants, joints made into ‘steak’ pies, mince into burgers and offal sent all the way to China. The quantities of each required by the restaurants or fast food places mean that they are selling meat from many many different animals.

We need to sell every bit of the animal, not just the steaks!
We need to sell every bit of the animal, not just the steaks!

At our scale if we supply a restaurant with 4 sirloins a week that not only means that our customers miss out on steaks (already one of our most popular cuts!) but we also have two animals-worth of joints, mince & dice that all needs to find a suitable home. We can’t kill an animal for the steaks alone and China isn’t interested in a single liver each week either. The restaurant too can change their menu at a moments notice - not something we can quickly respond to for an animal that is many years in the making.

So, back to our initial question - why aren’t there many more farms like Rosewood? The answer, as I said before, is simple; the one thing that remains outside of our control is what you, the consumer, chooses to buy & eat each day. Our passion may be the grasslands and the vast array of wildlife that they support but passion alone can only achieve so much and as much as we’d like to, it’s not possible for us to work for free. Rosewood Farm may now be full of wildlife but if the bank account is empty it’s not a model that many can afford to copy.

By Rosewood Farm, Jun 4 2017 09:54PM

You may remember my blog back in January, detailing my concerns about David Attenborough’s excellent series, Planet Earth II. I also mentioned how we didn’t catch the whole series when aired and I particularly wanted another chance to see my favourite habitat and episode from the whole series; Grasslands. The opportunity came when I selflessly invested in the DVD along with a subscription to BBC Wildlife magazine for my wife’s Christmas present.

Despite working alongside it day in, day out, I much prefer reading all about the wildlife I see right here on my doorstep. The Lower Derwent Valley is home to such a rich diversity of mammal, bird, and insect life as a result of being managed continuously in a very traditional way for more than 1000 years. All of these animals depend upon the flood meadows, pastures and woodlands that make up the most complete example of a semi-natural floodplain ecosystem left in the UK, and I feel that it continues to be a much under-appreciated landscape.

The Yorkshire Ings have some of the finest examples of wildflower meadows
The Yorkshire Ings have some of the finest examples of wildflower meadows

The June edition of Wildlife magazine didn’t disappoint me, with an article by BBC Springwatch presenter Chris Packham dedicated to wildflower meadows. As Chris says, up to 98% of our natural grasslands have already gone in the space of just 50 years. I highlighted this in my last blog, about how these High Nature Value grasslands are very special. What makes Rosewood Farm extra special is that 95% of the 450 acres we farm are traditional, species-rich meadows.

Meadows are currently missing their champion - both veganism & reduced meat consumption are on trend with many celebrities at the moment and this is bad news for our wildflower meadows and grazing livestock. As a result, with fewer animals on farms, meadows have lost their reason for being and are instead being turned over by the plough to grow the foods that people demand more of.

But why have other farmers given them up?

In tough economic times, farmers have to weigh up the value of the grass produced from these meadows against the cost of time and fuel turning them into hay and grazing them. In better times for farming, more intensive cropping elsewhere may have subsidised, to a degree, the work but now it’s much harder to justify continuing to do something that you know represents an added cost to your business.

A couple of things changed for farmers in the post war years that made mono-cropping easier and altered the fortunes of traditional meadows. The first was the availability of selective herbicides in 1945. You are probably familiar with the most notorious of herbicides - Monsanto’s RoundUp, which kills any plant it touches (unless the plant is genetically modified to withstand it). Instead selective herbicides work by allowing certain plants to be killed whilst leaving the crop unharmed. By eliminating competition from other plants, the crop thrives and any fertilisers applied feed only the crop and not the ‘weeds’.

The plastic perforated drainage pipe killed many a meadow
The plastic perforated drainage pipe killed many a meadow

The second change was the invention of the perforated plastic drainage pipe in the late 1950’s. This made drainage of farmland far cheaper and easier than ever before and as a result land that was once only good for damp-tolerant perennial plants such as grasses can now grow a whole variety of annual cultivated crops.

Continuing with the article, my hopes were built up when I read the line ‘the only way we can hope to preserve these species-rich places is…’. However, hope turned to dismay at an opportunity lost as he continued ‘ visiting and celebrating them’. I’m all for spreading the word about how important grasslands are to wildlife and to us all, but the only way, seriously? I think not. The best way we can preserve meadows in the long term is to maintain their value and continue the traditional use that created them in the first place - with grazing animals.

Breaking with my habit of only reading about our local wildlife, I moved next to another article in the same magazine titled ‘Of Bison & Burgers’, which was all about how the demise of the both the wild bison of North America and the Great Plains on which they grazed. This resonated with me as it sounded very much like the loss of traditional grasslands from the previous article. However, the author of this piece proposed a very different solution for the preservation of wild bison - eating them!

The Ings are Yorkshire’s Great Plains
The Ings are Yorkshire’s Great Plains

I didn’t realise until the very end that I had been reading an article by Philip Lymbery of Compassion in World Farming, but I felt that he had grasped the crux of the problem far better than Chris Packham had. If we are to preserve a landscape, and the wildlife within it, influenced by man for millennia, it is wishful thinking to expect a totally hands-off approach to achieve the same results. This is what they have found in America’s Yellowstone National Park, one of the few remaining places you can still find wild bison, which culls the bison to avoid them becoming over populated and suffering due to lack of grazing.

Philip also highlighted another crucial issue - the fact that whenever a solution like eating wild bison becomes popular, a whole host of cheaper pseudo-versions spring up to take advantage of the ethical reputation of the name without going to the bother of supplying the genuine article. This has happened too in the UK, when ‘grassfed’ beef became the latest ethical cuisine. The problem for the consumer is that 100% grassfed can mean anything from our 1000-year old hay meadows to the latest varieties of mono-cultured ryegrasses sprayed with liquid nitrogen fertiliser and various herbicides to ensure that ‘weeds’ (or wildflowers, as we know them) don’t take hold.

Most marketeers of grassfed meat will wax lyrical about the value of traditional wildflower meadows, but how many actually feed their cattle on them?

Rosewood is all about supplying the genuine article. We have built everything around preserving our local Yorkshire landscape of wildflower meadows by turning back the clock on cattle farming. This starts with breeding cattle of the right size that can traverse the damp ground damaging neither the soils nor the plants. Careful management also ensures that our pastures provide the ideal habitat for insect and birdlife that once existed in abundance, before the advent of pesticides. Our cattle feed only on grasses & wildflowers grown without any artificial fertilisers or pesticides, including our own hay made right here on the farm.

You can celebrate our wildflower meadows and help to keep them alive. Throw a party or go for a picnic but don’t forget that the food on your plate has the biggest impact upon the landscape around you. We’ll happily keep preserving the meadows here at Rosewood for as long as you keep buying the beef.

By Rosewood Farm, May 15 2017 10:43PM

The week started on an enormous nature-high for us here at Rosewood. The biggest breakthrough yet in our entire time here; an unexpected vindication that we were correct in our hunch that ditching the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, which in theory paid us to do better things for nature, was the right decision.

Elsewhere, things aren’t going so well as two pieces of news show. The first story made The Times when People Need Nature founder Miles King flagged up the destruction of a piece of precious chalk downland grass - the stuff that’s famous for its rare and delicate butterflies and flowers. It was sprayed and reseeded with a far less diverse grass mixture that will feed livestock better, but can’t ever hope to play host to said butterflies.

The news has reached the national press!
The news has reached the national press!

This isn’t unusual of course, as the second story showed - the much less widely reported output from the Organic Research Centre which spoke of the abandonment by farmers of High Nature Value (HNV) grasslands [pdf] over the next five years. I almost spat my tea out when I read that, as I have been witnessing and talking about this exodus for the last five years! We’ve already lost 97% of our unimproved grasslands but it’s just not as newsworthy to neglect them as to spray and grub them up, so few notice the loss.

High Nature Value grasslands are pretty self explanatory, they provide a lot of nature bang for your buck….the trouble is, they don’t provide much buck for your bang! They’ve been around for a few thousand years though, what’s changed? My answer would be that there’s a piece of the puzzle missing - you guys! In the past, these grasslands fed us, they produced our beef, cheese, woollens and mutton, making a good stab at providing a good portion of our diet and clothing. They were important to all of us.

Moving away from these old fashioned products made a lot of money for importers, oil companies and so forth, but the loss of the old grasslands was noticed, you can rest assured. The government and conservation bodies have tried to plug the gap left by consumers by subsidising these grasslands, giving farmers money to keep them going - so long as we stuck to the rules, we could have some money. I think after about 20yrs of that though we’re finally realising it hasn’t worked. We can come up with complex reasoning about it but basically, we’ve run out of money. The taxpayer can’t afford to buy food AND keep throwing money at keeping all these habitats going, not with the NHS buckling under pressure and economies slowing down and so on aswell.

So why not put them back together? Food and conservation? Our grasslands are lost without you!

In 2013, we didn’t renew our Countryside Stewardship Scheme when it ended, and we didn’t replace it with any other subsidy. Our home land at Rosewood is not under any protection and is now not subsidised either, we’re totally reliant on you. Under the scheme, we had to stick to a hard and fast rule of not grazing before a certain date in the year. We had been chafing against this for a few years but still, we were hesitant to graze any earlier even after it ended - we’re supposed to be nature farmers and it felt naughty, even though we know our grazing system is gentle on the land. This year, we finally plucked up the courage and grazed the land concerned unprecedentedly early, and due to the size of our herd, we were able to graze it quickly, 100 Dexter cows getting 20 acres trimmed, fertilised by dung and moistened by pee in a matter of days.

1% of the UK population of Whimbrels on a single field
1% of the UK population of Whimbrels on a single field

And what happened? That nature high I was talking about. The whimbrels came. Whimbrels are a red list species, they’re like a smaller version of the curlew and pass through on their way to Iceland from Africa every year. We know they visit the nature reserve we graze and that they are extremely fussy about where they eat and frankly, it wasn’t even on our radar that they would come to us - we have never even laid eyes on one on the reserve - so we were bowled over to spot 31, a full 1% of the passage population, poking about among the cowpats on our land.

Or should that be your land? Because let’s face it, one day, no matter how rich we might be, our grip on the land will loosen and we’ll be gone forever. The land will remain, and if it keeps its value to the public the incentive will be there for some other human to come along and keep doing what we did, and the whimbrels can keep coming. When a farmer sprays off some HNV grassland, he’s not acting alone.

By Rosewood Farm, Apr 1 2017 11:40PM

It's not so long ago that I blogged about Sainsbury’s and how if they really want people to eat less meat, they should stop selling it. Well, this week I decided to compare our prices with Tesco, as we’ve always strived to keep in line with the cost of the supermarket mid-range level. However, I stumbled in the low-end section and was utterly shocked by what I saw!

Rosewood Price - 100% traceable
Rosewood Price - 100% traceable

Here at Rosewood our prices are maintained at a level that is fair - we don’t want to charge too much and exclude people on a low income from eating good food. Nor do we want to charge too little so that we have to cut corners and let down our animals or destroy the environment in the process. Our Grassfed Dexter beef mince costs £9.20 per kg, and for that price we make a lot of promises. Our prices also include the cost of delivery so they are bound to be a little more but I don’t just want to compare Tesco with Rosewood, as when it comes to tasty beef, there is no comparison.

You will likely have heard all about Tesco and the controversy over their fake farms scandal, branding generic produce as if it came from a single, identifiable source has increased their profits. Well, they got away with it and are still selling products such as Boswell Farms “beef” mince (pictured below). The price looks amazing at just £3.38 per kg, and if you know anything about cattle pricing it’s even more unbelievable.

'Boswell Farms' - produced somewhere, by someone
'Boswell Farms' - produced somewhere, by someone

In days gone by supermarkets, wholesalers and butchers all had to compete for the best animals available at live auction markets. The cattle taken to market could be sold on the day or brought home if they didn’t make enough money, then returned the following week. Numerous factors changed this, a big one being ‘biosecurity’ - there were concerns over disease being spread between animals from different farms when they met at market, with unsold animals returning to the farm.

The supermarkets seized upon this and ‘sold’ it as an advantage to the farmer if his/her cattle could only move onto to an abattoir and avoid the risk of bringing back disease. Of course it also meant that the farmer has lost market discretion - you must accept the price, whatever it may be, and therefore the decision to sell must be made based upon the market prices from the previous week, which made selling even more of a gamble.

To take the gamble out of selling the supermarkets offered an olive branch - sell direct to them, delivering the animals to the supermarkets own abattoirs and you will receive a pre-determined price, providing the animals were of the right ‘specification’ (see below). The trouble was that the price offered was based upon the ‘market price’ and with direct contracts supermarkets no longer had to bid at the auctions. With fewer buyers available at the market, the price reduced further as at the same time supermarkets were outcompeting traditional butchers who couldn’t offer the cling-wrapped all-under-one-roof convenient shopping experience that shoppers now demanded.

Pricing for cattle that were no longer bought and sold while still alive had to be by the ‘deadweight’. That is the price for the carcass only, minus the head, feet, skin and insides, etc. which represents 45 - 50% of the live bodyweight. The carcass specification is determined by its on its conformation (shape) and fatness, with higher prices paid for animals that better match the buyer's demands. The deadweight system eliminates risk for the buyers as they are no longer have to pay for the bits they don’t want, although the price is usually higher than the ‘liveweight’ price to compensate.

Deadweight Cattle Price - something doesn't add up
Deadweight Cattle Price - something doesn't add up

As you can see from the current average cattle pricing, taken from Farmers Weekly today (02/04/2017) the highest price paid (the one for carcasses that will yield the most saleable weight for the supermarket) is 324p per kg, or in other words just 14p less than ‘Boswell Farms’ beef mince. That’s not to say that Tesco has made 14p per kg, as they will have to pay to run the abattoir, package and transport the product. Also, a carcass still contains a lot of extra weight in the form of bone and excess fat, which can represent a third of the deadweight giving an actual cost of 486p per kg of saleable meat.

At that price what Tesco, or ‘Boswell Farms’, are selling must be, essentially, a waste product of meat processing. The online information states that the animal was slaughtered in United Kingdom, Ireland (one of the two, I guess) and by investigating the UK code (5416) it turns out that the Hilton Food Group plc in Cambridgeshire was responsible for mincing it. We have no idea where exactly the animal was born or raised, where it was slaughtered or how far it travelled. All we do know is that the meat has travelled at least 530 miles before it reaches the York Tesco store. Even if you live in Penzance and order from Rosewood you still save at least 342 food miles!

Pricing is a little more complicated, as some cuts are more expensive than others, but mince is also the cut that requires the most work to produce, de-boning, cutting and mincing. It is the most convenient way to cook and eat grassfed beef though, and remains one of our most popular choicess. The advantage of eating beef from Rosewood Farm is that you know that it was grown in the Lower Derwent Valley in Yorkshire. If you check out the slaughter/cutting code on every pack we sell, you can also trace it back to the abattoir, which you will find is also located in the LDV. We include the individual animal ID code too, so you can get in touch with us for the full life history of the animal, including which fields it grazed in, for total peace of mind.

By Rosewood Farm, Jan 28 2017 10:50PM

This week it was revealed that scientists have teamed up with supermarket bosses to ‘encourage’ us all to replace red meat with more vegetables and fruit. That’s right, supermarkets have only taken about 70 years to start caring about our health and that of our environment - but do they really?

Now, some farmers rely entirely on supermarkets to sell their produce for them and they have to be rather careful about what they say for fear of losing their contracts. Here at Rosewood our only contract is with you, the consumer, so we don’t need to skirt around the issues. The only thing we have to fear is a court case but to be honest, the publicity of the supermarkets stamping on a small ethical producer would be a gift!

Firstly, let’s look at some stats. By 1961 there were already 572 supermarkets established in the UK, and they continued to grow, with the biggest four, Tesco, Sainsburys, Morrisons & ASDA accounting for 76.4% of the UK grocery market by 2011. At the same time the amount consumers spend on food has declined from just under £1 in every 3 in 1961 [pdf] to just over £1 in every 10 by 2011 [pdf].

It’s not only the way we buy food and how much we pay for it that has changed; over the same 50 year timespan what we eat has also been transformed. The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) keeps track of global food consumption levels and the figures make for some interesting reading.

Changing patterns of UK food consumption over half a century
Changing patterns of UK food consumption over half a century

As we can see, fruit & veg has seen huge increases in consumption of 52%, almost five times that of meat. And they want us to eat even more despite the UK already importing some 65% of our fruit & veg. There is nothing in the announcement about stocking more British or sustainably grown food so we can only assume that the plan is to ship in even more produce from water-stressed regions of the world, despite the obvious issues.

Meanwhile, levels of red meat consumption, most commonly blamed for both declines in health and climate change, have in fact already dropped by 1657 tonnes or 25% of daily consumption. Bearing in mind that over the same period the UK population has risen by almost 20%, individually we are eating 37% less beef & lamb. Hardly a compelling argument for skyrocketing demand.

Here in the Lower Derwent Valley, we are experiencing the direct consequences of this shift in food patterns. The floodplain meadows have been annually grazed the same way for at least 1,000 years but this traditional practise is coming to an end quicker than you might think as people move away from eating grazed meat. In line with the common trend of falling cattle numbers, our area has seen its own decline, leaving us as the last cattle farmers left standing on the floodplains.

UK cattle numbers continue to decline significantly from the mid-1970's
UK cattle numbers continue to decline significantly from the mid-1970's

Reproduced from; Agriculture; historical statistics [pdf]

It’s not just the decline in red meat consumption driving the change of land use, we have also severed our links with animals as workmates - once upon a time we relied upon animals, cattle and horses, to provide the power to grow all our food and they required large areas of pasture in order to harvest the sun's energy and turn it into work. Since the 1930’s, when fossil fuels started to replace draught animals in earnest, the UK has lost more than 97% of these grasslands to either intensification, drainage and/or the plough.

Some of the measly 3% which remains does have significant protected status but the one thing that legislation can’t protect against is now their biggest threat - neglect.

Whimbrel; rare wading birds depend upon cattle grazing for habitat and food
Whimbrel; rare wading birds depend upon cattle grazing for habitat and food

Farmland birds and small mammals thrived in the patchwork we used to have of short grasslands, wet woodlands, marshes and waterways and so too did migratory winter visitors which rely on cattle grazing these pastures for food and habitat. Grasslands provide resilient crops that can withstand and protect the soil from being washed away in the seasonal floods. The one thing that underpins this diversity of life is the annual removal of the grass crop by mowing and/or grazing, without that the fragile ecosystem becomes much more homogenous, with the more delicate plant species, and the animals that rely upon them for food, outcompeted by coarser, rank vegetation.

Coarse vegetation, lacking in diversity, takes over if left ungrazed
Coarse vegetation, lacking in diversity, takes over if left ungrazed

It’s not that environmentalists and farmers don’t recognise the need for grazing animals to maintain biodiversity, but it’s just that they can no longer [financially] afford to do it because demand has dropped and what demand there is does not want a beef supply that ebbs and flows with the seasons.

We can see this if we revisit our consumption graph - although it shows an almost 40% reduction in red meat consumption, the figures DO show that individual total meat consumption has risen by 11%, largely driven by the almost 5-fold increase in poultry (not red meat) alongside a 6% increase in pork. The scientists & supermarkets didn’t mention that, perhaps because it runs counter to their conclusions or maybe it was because the supermarkets are responsible for the massive increase in chicken consumption in the first place.

Chicken is a wonderful meat for supermarkets. They have grown their market entirely on the back of convenience, and what that means in practise is predictability - you want to walk into a supermarket and know that your 300g packet of chicken breast will be there every week, year round. Throw a load of cheap fossil fuels at chickens and you get quick, predictable results. Because mother chickens don’t need to rear their own young like mammals, we can ramp up egg production, bang those eggs in a machine, move the hatchlings into a climate controlled shed and have them oven ready in just 40 days, when you just scoop them up off the barn floor and pack them in to crates on a lorry.

Imagine trying to sell a supermarket a bunch of wether lambs which had to live out on a mountain for a couple of years before being ready, each reared by mothers of differing abilities and shaped by good or bad weather - lol!

Veg is even easier to manipulate. There are no pesky welfare concerns to bother yourself with and soil erosion is an unedifying thing for consumers to learn and protest about compared to animal cruelty. The production of them rides on the coat tails of the idea that vegetable growing is a wholesome activity and not actually completely reliant on fossil fuels to provide its machinery and chemicals, especially moreso as they involvement of animals in their production recedes. Entire trailerloads that don’t meet the spec can be rejected without a second thought.

It’s great that consumers are now concerned enough about preserving our environment to let it influence their buying habits - this is proven by the fact that supermarkets are using this as the excuse to try making us more reliant on crops. It’s great that consumers want to support small farmers, evidenced by the popularity of supermarkets faking this on their labelling. What is crushingly disappointing for us is that the message designed to encourage us to eat a more sustainable diet is now having the exact opposite effect.

Gone is our varied mosaic of farmland, gone are the cattle grazing the pastures, chicken is king and vegetables can get away with murder.

The Alternative?

If Sainsburys really does want ideas to encourage us to eat less meat, rather than just maximise it’s own profits, I have a suggestion - they should stop selling it! Before the rise of supermarkets our meat came either directly from farmers and/or butchers, we valued it more and we ate slightly less chicken, pork and seafood and more grazed meats which maintained higher levels of wildlife and more variety in the countryside, simultaneously offsetting the damage caused by crop production. Farmers were able to make a living and our traditional meadows were grazed properly. Today the consumer has been separated from the land where their food has been produced and the people who produce it, and both have suffered as a result. Without supermarkets exerting their desperate need for predictability and uniformity we could make better use of our natural resources again.

So c’mon Sainsburys, go the whole hog, ditch the meat altogether and let consumers, the environment, animals and farmers get a better deal.

By Rosewood Farm, Dec 3 2016 05:21PM

You may have heard us talk about ‘Conservation Grazing’ in the past and not be exactly sure what it involves. In the simplest terms conservation grazing is the keeping of animals with the primary objective being the management of a wildlife habitat, as opposed to rearing for meat or dairy production.

The process involves raising animals on the land in a way that mimics once common farming methods in order to preserve or recreate biodiverse grassland habitats. These methods have fallen out of favour over the years as farming techniques have changed. With new machinery, chemicals and breeds of livestock we have been able to produce food which better matches the long supply-chain, convenience markets of the modern world. The problem is that the rate of change has been so rapid that evolution hasn’t been able to keep pace and an overall loss of biodiversity (plant, insect and animal life) is inevitable.

One solution to biodiversity loss is to set aside land that can ‘go back to nature’. The problem with this approach is that nature has adapted to cope alongside farming for the past 10,000 years. Some species have been lost completely whilst others have changed their anatomy and behaviour in order to survive. The Lower Derwent Valley contains many important examples of habitats shapd by thousands of years of farming. As we cannot bring back extinct species nor recreate the exact conditions that existed before we, as a species, began to farm, then we can only ever create a new, modified habitat that may have more life than intensive farmland but lacks much by way of diversity of life.

The back to nature approach also has one other major obstacle - us. At the dawn of farming there were just 5 million people on the planet and the first cities were no more than large villages of today. Aside from food production we have greatly changed the landscape in a way that we aren’t willing to sacrifice with housing, drainage, roads and other infrastructure that would also need to be removed to recreate nature as it was.

The Lower Derwent Valley is famed for it's biodiverse grasslands
The Lower Derwent Valley is famed for it's biodiverse grasslands

Conservation efforts therefore tend to focus on preserving and linking up the small pockets of habitats which remain in the modern landscape. The majority of species, although threatened, do still exist and are able to repopulate suitable areas when available. Humans have used animals as a source of food, power and many different materials throughout history so it is no wonder that so many habitats have been shaped by livestock over millennia.

It’s easy to forget that prior to the industrial revolution the only way people could travel or move things over land beyond a walking pace was by animal power. Cultivating the land & moving goods all involved oxen, trained cattle, and later horses to provide the motive power. This was renewable energy but it did require lots of grazing for the many cattle and horses, which had a profound effect on our landscape. The land was also a lot wetter in the days before mass drainage and suitably dry arable land was in short supply. Fortunately grazing animals were able to utilise wetter or seasonally flooded grazing lands that would be unsuitable for cultivated crops.

Grazing; the eating of the leaves by either nibbling or ripping (depending upon species) by the animal allows light to reach the ground. New seedlings and less competitive grasses and wildflowers then stand significantly more chance of thriving. Many ground nesting wild birds such as lapwing require short, open grasses in which to nest and rear their young and hares in particular favour the fresh, nutritious growth to feed on throughout the year.

Grazing; creates nesting sites & increases chick survival for bird species
Grazing; creates nesting sites & increases chick survival for bird species

Trampling; the parts of the plant that aren’t eaten are crushed by the weight of the animals walking over them. This also helps to allow more light to reach the ground surface and ensures that dead and decaying matter is pressed into contact with the ground. Invertebrates and soil microbes can then more easily consume the plant and incorporate the important carbon element into the soil.

Trampling; soil contact is important to lock up carbon in the soils
Trampling; soil contact is important to lock up carbon in the soils

Dunging; the indigestible parts of the plants pass straight through the animal to be deposited on the ground. In addition to recycling nutrients back into the soils for subsequent plant growth, dung piles are also home to over 250 different invertebrate species in the UK. Animals which are not routinely treated with insecticides to control internal parasites produce much healthier dung with more insects that provide food for many birds,bats and larger mammals such as badgers and foxes.

Dung; chemical-free & full of insects, a vital food source for many birds
Dung; chemical-free & full of insects, a vital food source for many birds

A greater variety of different sward heights and types are created by animals than by mechanical cutting and changes in the species, timing and duration of grazing are all used to produce the desired effect for wildlife. Animals which are perfectly adapted to grazing are much more efficient and the sheer scale of the task means that there aren’t enough human volunteers to manage the sites by hand.

At Rosewood we have ponies, goats and sheep used in conservation grazing but the stars of the show are cattle. Due to the way they graze, and their size, cattle are best suited to grazing and trampling some of the roughest, overgrown pasture & turning it back into productive, biodiverse habitat. Ponies and sheep nibble rather than rip the foliage with their tongues so they are better suited to fine tuning the shorter swards after the cattle have passed through.

The LDV is one of the top three sites for Snipe in the British Isles
The LDV is one of the top three sites for Snipe in the British Isles

Grazing animals tend to breed each year and numbers fluctuate on an annual basis through a combination of predation and shortages of fodder in winter. This ensures that only the fittest animals go on to breed the next generation. As farmers we are more protective of our animals than mother nature, managing their grazing and making hay to ensure that they can survive the winter and create a surplus. Unfortunately cattle numbers here in the Lower Derwent Valley have dropped significantly over the past decade as eating habits have changed and farmers have found it more difficult to justify keeping livestock. Unfortunately this has had a knock-on effect on the wildlife value of the meadows.

Increasing biodiversity remains the primary goal for conservation grazing and provides the greatest amount of satisfaction but unfortunately satisfaction alone doesn’t provide for the upkeep for the herd. To enable this to continue wesell meat and other produce to help fund the whole process and the more meat we sell, the more habitat we can maintain. You can do your bit for nature without even leaving your home. It really is that simple!

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