This article by Angus D. Birditt was produced for Pasture for Life (PfL)
Doug Christie is an agricologist and Pasture for Life (PfL) member at Durie Farms in Fife. Doug discusses how he farms his native breed of cattle using regenerative methods to improve soil health, and how being a member with PfL has helped his farming system. Interview & photographs by Angus D. Birditt.
Tell us briefly about Durie Farms, and how you got involved in regenerative farming methods.
DC: We have a mixed farm with around 1400 acres, a mixture of organic land (over half of which is permanent pasture and grass rotation, alternating between grass and crops) and conventional arable rotation, which I don’t plough. For a few years now, I have been farming with a regenerative ‘slant’, using methods, such as, direct drilling, cover crops, companion crops, crop rotation, and recently have started mob grazing with my native Aberdeen Angus crosses. It was after a visit to the United States in 2014, where I saw these regenerative farming methods being applied, many of which I then started to use back here at Durie Farms. Yes, the States have a different climate to us here, but the basic principles are the same.
What are the benefits of mob grazing as a regenerative farming method?
DC: With the right knowledge and methods emplaced, mob grazing can improve soil health and fertility, water infiltration, soil structure, hopefully carbon sequestration, and in theory, the productivity of the grass.
Mob grazing is finding the right balance between resting and length of time grazing grassland. By resting the fields, it gives the grass and its roots time to recover. I move the cattle every 1-3 days to different areas of grassland, resting fields from anything from 18 days to over 100 days, depending on the season and weather conditions, of course.
I am led to believe properly grazed grass can sequester more carbon into the soil than ungrazed grass primarily through the roots. Tall grass and correspondingly longer roots can also help with water infiltration and negate high rainfall events with the soil being covered at all times.
But what we also know is that if you don’t destroy the structure of the soil, you don’t release carbon, and that’s why I am keen on reducing tillage. Plus, another spin off is being able to reduce the winter housing period for the cattle, enabling unnecessary costs to be stripped out of the system.
"...by using livestock, such as, with mob grazing that speeds up soil health and biodiversity."
You talk about growing herbal leys in your fields. What’s the reason for planting them, and in such diversity?
DC:I have only sown a small area of native grass species like timothy, cocksworth, fescues, chicory, plantain, buckwheat, and clover varieties. The reason being is that the greater diversity of plant species you have in the fields, the more the soil health can improve.
What does it mean to be regenerative? How important is it to the future of our environment?
DC: I do not know if I am totally comfortable with the word ‘regenerative’ as it essentially ‘pigeon holes’ you somewhat. As a country, we need to stop the degradation of the soil and the environment, and by ‘regenerative’ farming, I am trying to improve other aspects of the farm, not just productivity but also the environment. Many of the methods are not new, but since the 1940’s productivity has been the main driver at the expense of the wider environment, and yes, we needed to feed the country, but we also need to question whether what we are doing now is sustainable – in many cases it’s simply not.
I am trying to keep a living root in the soil at all times, minimising the synthetic inputs, reducing the disturbance, keeping the soil productive, covered from the elements, and by using livestock, such as, with mob grazing that speeds up soil health and biodiversity.
I have become over reliant on hybrid ryegrass species. Ryegrass has its place but more diversity of grass and herb species is the way I want to go. Rye grass alone would be too rich for my native cows, it is also highly dependent on external inputs. Higher levels of roughage grown (species dependent and letting the grass go to seed) can also slow the process of digestion in the animal in the rumen helping retain nutrients.
It takes time to see improvements, and provides scope to save on fixed costs. It will take time to see the benefits of using these regenerative farming methods, but over a period of half a decade or so, I am hoping to see an improvement in my productivity.
How does Pasture for Life help?
DC: I would say for those looking to become a member, Pasture for Life is a great platform for knowledge exchange between farmers and a ‘bouncing block’ for ideas, not only for experienced practitioners but also for farmers wanting to go down more of a forage based system. Much of farming is also about observation; questioning what you are doing and how improvements can be made, PfL can facilitate this.