This article by Angus D. Birditt was produced for Pasture Fed Livestock Association
Olly Martin runs Danefold Farms located in the stunning Low Weald of Sussex. Olly is a ‘Pasture For Life’ certified farmer, farming rare breed White Park cattle alongside his pedigree herd of Aberdeen Angus and Shorthorn cattle. Angus D. Birditt visited Olly at Danefold Farms to hear more about his farming practices and why after years away from farming he came back to farm alongside his father.
Angus D. Birditt: Tell us about Danefold Farm?
Olly Martin: Danefold Farm is a family-run livestock farm located in the Low Weald of Sussex, selling ‘Pasture for Life’ certified beef. We specialise in rearing traditional native breeds like our pedigree Aberdeen Angus, Shorthorn and White Park cattle that graze a species-rich 100% pasture-fed diet.
ADB: And how did you get involved in farming?
OM: I have been born and bred in farming, now the fourth generation to farm in the family. But I have only been back on the farm for about two years, having thought about coming back to farm a long while before. I suppose on the back of mad cow disease about 20-odd years ago and having a young family back then, we left the industry altogether, leaving it to my father.
Having come back two years ago, I think what’s been really positive is that I have come back to farming with a completely objective view. So rather than being stuck doing the same thing for the last 25 years in farming – I’m not saying everyone is, of course, but you know, you can quite easily get stuck in your ways and not bother to explore any other avenues – I came back with a completely fresh perspective.
I also did a lot of research before coming back properly and that’s where I found the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association. At first, I became a PFLA member to gain knowledge about regenerative agriculture before becoming certified later on. Their forum is a place where you can learn lots and share your own knowledge with farmers all wanting to improve what they are doing. For what we are trying to do here at Danefold Farms, the PFLA has certainly opened up loads of ideas; they keep you on your toes with new and developing farming practices.
ADB: How was it coming back to the farm and working alongside your father who has been farming with a different, more conventional system?
OM: When I came back to the farm – equipped with what I had learnt from places like the PFLA – I knew immediately that what the old man was doing wasn’t going to be sustainable for the long run. His particular farming system wasn’t going to look after itself. And I don’t mean that to be a criticism at all, it’s just that we needed to change the system to build it all back up again – by that I mean the health and fertility of the soil.
It’s been really hard work. Sometimes the old man doesn’t get why I want to do this practice or do that practice – most often contradicting his own farming knowledge – because he has been farming for a much longer time than I have, so why change it now, he asks?
But to be fair to him, the old man has really gone along with my new ideas, saying that they have opened up his eyes to a new potential of farming, so that’s nice. But I must add that I learn plenty from him as well. A lot of what he's saying is completely right. So, it's not like one of us is completely wrong and the other is completely right, it’s all about working together and looking towards a new light. I think it’s great to be two different generations working side-by-side. I am gaining his knowledge of the land and he is working with my new practices. We are now working together, not only to be sustainable, but actually regenerative as well. And so that's the sort of blueprint, I suppose, here at Danefold Farms; aiming towards regeneration of the soil and the environment, rearing rare breed species of livestock to try and achieve that.
ADB: Tell us a little more about the cattle you farm and why those breeds?
OM: We rear our Aberdeen Angus and Shorthorn cattle at Danefold Farm and our White Park cattle down in the nearby water meadows near a tributary of the River Adur. The water meadows are only a couple of miles from our farm and have been left to rewild for the last several years. The White Parks help to manage part of the meadows.
Both herds are 100% grass-fed, so that means they are finished on grass, of course. Being finished on grass and pasture– rather than grain, which happens in more conventional herds – the cows are much slower to finish, forcing us to lower our inputs as much as possible, which is a good thing!
One of the reasons for farming White Park cattle was because we wanted native breeds that suited our climate and terrain. I suppose this species hasn’t really changed for the last 2000 years. They are lovely, docile creatures and produce fantastic tasting meat that has a real, wholesome flavour to it. The meat is becoming increasingly popular for chefs who want it in their restaurants.
Although they are slower to finish, the White Parks have got a premium for the fact that they are White Parks, a rare breed, but also because they are ‘Pasture For Life’ certified and so farmed to very high standards of animal welfare. It also makes it all the better because we are keeping the species going. Bear in mind back in the 1970s, there were only 60 breeding females left. Now, we have got to around 1500 and that’s because people like us want to farm using native breeds. There are, however, many rare breed species that are still at risk.
Another positive about rearing White Parks is that they can calve outside in the meadows, and then when they are weaned off around eight months or so, we take them to our farm only a mile or two away.
By having the cattle outside all year round, it saves us a great deal of labour, but perhaps more importantly, it's better for their health, mimicking a more natural way of life. We feed them hay over the winter and supplement their feed a little through the really cold months of January-February time, when there are hardly any nutrients in the ground at all – again all pasture-fed feed. In fact, naturally they will lose a little bit of condition over the winter, which is then put back on during the spring. Because of this, I’ve found that the meat in the long run is slightly more tender, much taster. As I have said before, this mimics what would have happened in nature before they were completely controlled, it’s far more wholesome and grazing on a completely pasture-fed diet is what they're supposed to be eating.
ADB: What does it mean to be ‘Pasture For Life’ certified with the PFLA?
OM: Like all of the ‘Pasture For Life’ certified farmers, we are committed to a sustainable method of beef farming, which respects the animals and their environment. We are very proud to be certified by the PFLA, which means that we are part of a movement of British farmers committed to producing animal products in the most ethical and natural way possible.
There is a good collection of people all working together, all learning from each other and pushing each other forward to improve. I’m sure you’ve heard it before from other ‘Pasture For Life’ certified farmers but the PFLA is a brilliant place to share knowledge, and I mean really helpful knowledge. I think PFLA really promotes a feeling of togetherness, which certainly boosts morale and everything that goes along with it. It’s also good because everyone involved with the PFLA shares not only their successes but their mistakes as well.
I always find it funny to hear people saying that we – and by ‘we’ I mean us here at Danefold Farms and other PFLA certified farmers – are farming in a modern way but really what we are doing is going back to how we were farming before all this industrialisation came in, maybe just with new technology OK, but the principles are the same!
ADB: What specifically have you learnt from being involved with the PFLA community?
OM: We have learnt mob grazing; what is it, how to do it and how often you need to do it. You know, we had never done it before here at Danefold Farm and we really wanted to see whether it would help our system. We have been mob grazing for two years now – not long in the grander scale of things – and, let's just say, we have seen a transformation already!
Because we mob graze, I am with the cattle a lot more outside in the fields, over which time, I have become a lot more aware of the natural surroundings and the positive impacts of mob grazing. For example, the productivity of our swards has increased, we have plenty more, longer grass now, which gives protection to the soil in winter and removes surface water due to a deeper root system. We have got way more swallows and other wildlife coming onto our land, living alongside the cows, improving the farm’s biodiversity.
Customers love to hear all of this when we go to market stalls or food fairs. It’s a real pleasure to tell them exactly how the meat was reared and how our farming methods are improving the health of the soil and wider environment. The great thing about it all is that people are really buying into ‘Pasture For Life’ certified meat, using their power of consumption to improve the state of the environment. I think that’s just great!
ADB: What’s next for Danefold Farm?
OM: I am always looking to improve our farming methods here at Danefold Farms. And that means being involved with discussions on the PFLA forum.
We are constantly improving our mob grazing methods, specific to our terrain, of course. We have started a tree-planting scheme, hoping to incorporate silvopasture into our grazing system. In the next 15-20 years, we will have lines of trees, almost like hedges I suppose, for the cattle to graze. So therefore, we cannot only lock carbon in the soil with the planting of new trees, we will hopefully have a multi-layered environment to increase biodiversity on the farm.
We are also in the planning of a new project that will hopefully create a wildlife and grazing corridor from our land here at Danefold Farms right over to the South Downs. It’s just all a matter of getting those local landowners and organisations in between to be on board with the project as well.