This article by Angus D. Birditt was produced for Pasture for Life (PfL)
Johnnie Balfour manages Balbirnie Home Farms, a Pasture for Life (PfL) Certified business. He is also Chair of Pasture for Life. Read the following article, when Angus D. Birditt visits Johnnie and his team working at the farm in Fife. Johnnie explains the benefits of turning towards regenerative farming methods and being certified with Pasture for Life.
If you stand in one of Balbirnie Home Farms’ highest fields, atop the Kingdom of Fife’s south-facing hills, you will be able to see across the Firth of Forth to Edinburgh and Arthur’s Seat on a fine day. High up on the hill was where I met Johnnie, a Pasture for Life Certified farmer, working with his team of herdsmen to move their mixed herd of cattle from one field to the next. The Balfour family have been farming here on Fife for generations, and now with Johnnie at the helm, David the farms manager, and their livestock team – Will and Joe – are taking significant steps towards becoming more sustainable and regenerative.
Under a symphony of husbandry whistles and affectionate shouts, I followed the herdsmen and their cattle across the sloping fields onto new pastures. Once the electric fence was rolled up and the cattle happily grazing away, I asked Johnnie about his transition into a more regenerative way of farming. “Around six-to-seven years ago, we began to rethink the way we farmed. Our fixed costs were too high and we weren’t helping the environment as much as we’d wanted to. Agroecology is a mindset and it takes years to understand the process of being able to farm and help the environment at the same time.” Johnnie now focuses on growing a variety of cover crops and forage crops like buckwheat, phacelia (of the borage family), rye and beans, and grows some as companion crops to rejuvenate soil health.
“Mob grazing can improve diversity and soil health, and also increase grazing periods – we have been able to extend our grazing period by 7-8 weeks this year..."
As we wade through the long grass, Johnnie kneels and gathers a handful of grass beneath our feet, “Mob grazing is something we’ve really focused on these past few years (exactly what we are doing now), simply moving the cattle from one field to the next. We normally place around 70 cows and calves on one paddock to allow all the other paddocks to start their ‘rest periods’ to grow as much grass as they can and re-energise their root systems.” By resting the fields, not only does the grass grow, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the seed bank in the soil is able to show itself, which increases the diversity of the grasses growing in the soil to give it the greatest chance of rejuvenation. Each species of grass in the seed bank will have its own role to play with their different root systems and nutrient levels. It also, Johnnie tells me, “increases the microbes and insects in the soil, which leads to a healthier ecosystem.”
Johnnie believes there are plenty of benefits to this type of regenerative farming: “Mob grazing can improve the soil health and diversity, increase grazing periods – we have been able to extend our grazing period by 7-8 weeks this year – and increase carbon sequestration.” He also mentions that they have been able to reduce their fixed costs and labour, for example, the amount of silage they cut for winter feed, straw to bail, supplement ingredients to buy in for winter feed, and selling equipment like the feed wagon, bruiser (to burse barley) and shear grab (grabbing silage). “We’ve seen that for every 4 pounds it costs to put our cattle indoors, it costs 1 pound to keep them outdoors. That’s a huge gap in costs.”
Once the cows were safely herded into the new luscious grassy field, Johnnie and I waded back to the previous field, now free of cows but flushed in corn buntings and stonechats that sprayed in and out of the nearby hawthorn and holly hedges. As we scaled down the hill and back towards the gate, I asked Johnnie about the difference between being a PfL member and being a Pasture for Life Certified farmer. “Well, being a PfL member you can get on board with regenerative agriculture and easily exchange information on pasture and grass-fed farming. But being Pasture for Life Certified allows us to have a premium for our meat. If you put our more efficient 100% grass-fed farming methods together with our certification, it’s simply a win-win situation; we are able to get more pence for each kilogram we sell, whilst helping the environment.”
Balbirnie Home Farms sell their beef to Andrew Duff, who runs an abattoir called Wishaw Abattoir alongside the cutting plant called MacDuff, the latter Pasture for Life Certified. Johnnie says, “We have established a really good relationship with Andrew, who gives us a premium for our meat. Working with him also enables our supply chain to be as short as possible.”
Johnnie says, “Andrew is able to access a great market for our carcasses and the buyers are then able to know the traceability and quality of their meat. He can tell me where my meat is going and to which butcher. The buyers can then contact me to know more about the meat. I can even tell them which field they were grazing in and when…that’s provenance for you!” Another bonus working with Andrew locally is that Johnnie can ask to get his meat back, cut and prepared, to then sell to his local community.
“I’ve learnt that agriculture is a three-legged stool; the people, the environment, and the economy, each one a leg on the stool. If any of those legs gets cut or grows faster than any of the other legs, it will fall. So, what we need to do is to grow each leg at the same rate, therefore strengthening the stool; getting more people to work in agriculture, use more farming methods that are better for the environment, and help families have more money in their pockets.”
As we scaled the fences and went back to the down the lane towards the farmgate, Johnnie finally noted before we said our goodbyes, “Agroecology (sustainable farming with nature in mind) is all about using farming methods that enhance the natural environment whilst also creating a crop, and what the Pasture for Life does is to encourage this. Using such regenerative farming methods like mob grazing and diversifying into companion crops, we will slowly but surely increase the soil infiltration rate, and by reducing our tillage as well, stop the destruction of fungal networks in the soil. We need more farmers to turn towards regenerative agriculture, it will allow more time for farmers to look after their cattle, and give the environment the much needed chance to regenerate.”