This article by Angus D. Birditt was produced for Pasture Fed Livestock Association
Sam and Becky Newington run Limden Brook Organic located right in the middle of the High Weald in East Sussex, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Angus D. Birditt went to meet Sam at Limden Brook Organic to capture him at work and understand why he is about to become a ‘Pasture For Life’ certified farmer.
Angus D. Birditt: What is Limden Brook Organic, and what do you farm?
Sam Newington: My family, the Newingtons, have been farming in the High Weald area over 500 years – well, as far as the records go anyway! We are an organic, 100% grass-fed farm (and imminently ‘Pasture For Life’ certified) in the Limden Valley. The name ‘Limden Brook Organic’ derives from the Limden Valley where we farm in the High Weald and the farm where Becky and I both worked in Australia called Spencer’s Brook. We thought to name it Limden Brook Organic, as it would be a nice reference to our development in farming.
Limden Brook Organic spans over three farms in the valley (Burgham Farm, New House Farm and Shaw Farm) totalling 220 acres. We farm a small mixed herd of Red Poll, Angus and Hereford crosses, which graze permanent pasture including some low-lying water meadows. We got our Angus bull from Nigel and Penny Franklin at Brightleigh Farm, farmers who we are in constant conversation with about regenerative farming.
When I was 17 and attending college, I visited Knepp Estate around the millennium to see a good example of an arable farm. Well, if you’ve read the book, you know exactly what happened shortly after! But it was only when I was reading the book, when they talked about their oak tree held up by a massive metal chain put there by the Canadian Army that were located there during the war, I was like, ‘Hold on, I've seen that tree with the huge bolt through it, I’ve been to Knepp before!’ Anyway, they were a big inspiration with their rewilding project for us and you’ll definitely see some similarities with the landscape here, allowing hedgerows to grow wild, shrubs to increase and nature encouraged to do its thing.
ADB: Why did you choose to farm Red Poll cattle?
SN: I’m not particularly married to a particular breed. I am actually farming a mixture of breeds at the moment to see which thrive on my system and which don’t do so well. I want to mimic nature as much as possible and to do that I need to observe how the cows are behaving, how the soil and ground are responding, which ultimately leads to what decisions I make for the future, essentially questioning the mainstream narrative.
We are also really lucky to be located in a densely wooded part of the country, so we are incorporating lots of agroforestry practices – otherwise known as silvopasture – within our grazing systems. We are currently working with the Sussex Wildlife Trust, planting trees like willows to provide health benefits to the livestock as well as the wider environment. The willows, for example, keep the structure of the riverbanks intact whilst the cows can easily graze on their leaves. I also think we can make more of the huge amount of trees around us, such as creating a bedding from woodchip for the cattle to sleep on rather than using straw.
ADB: What other farming methods are you implementing at Limden Brook Organic?
SN: On one of the three farms, we use a rotational (or mob) grazing system in the hope to improve livestock and soil health, whilst alongside that we are slowly putting into place a similar grazing system on land rented from a neighbour who shares our interest for organic and regenerative agriculture.
Alongside working with the Sussex Wildlife Trust, we are also working with the High Weald AONB Unit as part of their project to encourage regenerative agriculture in the area and promote the farmers in the Weald to transform their practices from a conventional to a regenerative system. We get many visits from the Sussex Wildlife Trust to our land, specifically the water meadows. On a recent study they have found around 13 different types of dragonflies and damselflies, alongside other wildlife like roe and fallow deer, nightingales and cuckoos, kestrels and barn owls, dormice and hares, and a plethora of invertebrates like interesting species of bees. The bees and insects love to visit our diverse range of plant species growing on the land from our herbal leys and clover mixes and wildflowers including early purple orchids and bluebells in the woodlands.
Improving soil health and encouraging wildlife to our land are two incredibly important aspects when we decide what farming practices to implement; how they will impact the local and greater environment – you know that there are plenty more microorganisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people on this earth!
We are involved with various trials over the next three years with a number of organisations to see whether our regenerative methods are improving the health of the soil and wider environment. In one trial, for example, we are regularly testing how much organic matter we have in our soil on the farm, which will help us monitor how much carbon we are storing. The more carbon we are storing in the soil, the greater the benefit it will have in increasing the amount of water we can store. We believe that by growing our livestock in a sustainable way, we not only have the ability to positively impact the land that we farm but also provide healthier produce to those who consume it.
Another trial we are involved with is the Grass Check study, set up by multi organisations to observe and test the grass swards and how they respond to livestock management.
We are also involved in DEFRA’s 3-year trial on mob grazing practices. This was set up to compare the farming practices of mob grazing and set stocking (non-rotational, traditional block grazing). Over the 3 years, DEFRA will take and compare extensive soil tests, monitor biodiversity above ground and below ground and analyse animal behaviour. For example, why the animals seek shade, why they move to particular areas or why they eat a specific plant first and another second.
So, here at Limden Brook Organic, we are doing both mob grazing and set stocking in stages on the same fields to analyse the effects of both systems. It’s brilliant to see DEFRA doing these sorts of trials. It will really see if mob grazing is beneficial to our soils and livestock.
ADB: The most prevalent word I’m hearing from the South East ‘Pasture For Life’ farmers is ‘observation’. Tell us how important that is to your farming practices?
SN: I’m not surprised! Observation is the leading factor when it comes to making decisions on the farm, questioning the mainstream narrative, as I have said before.
Say the narrative is to do ‘A’, but the cows are naturally doing ‘B’. So, why go against their natural behaviour and keep farming ‘A’? ‘B’ is what they are doing so go with it – go with the natural progression of it! I see regenerative agriculture as allowing nature to do its thing as much as possible with appropriate, sensitive management that is based on observation. That means you need to be out in the fields, husbanding your animals well enough to know what they want.
An example of how important observation is – something I have encouraged Nigel and Penny Franklin to do at Brightleigh Farm – is to use the natural pressure of the cows to remove ‘unwanted’ plant species like weeds or thistles, by simply trampling them. Many farmers would use chemicals to remove weeds or thistles that cows don’t like to graze, but what I’ve found is that there is a growth pattern with the weeds and thistles.
Initially, we mapped out where the thistles were in the various fields and thought they were quite bad. But we thought to just watch them to see how they would react to the cows year-on-year. Interestingly, we found out that every year the thistles were naturally changing position and away from where the cows were grazing. It was truly fascinating! By simply leaving them, the thistles would eventually die off in the area and grow somewhere else. Observation was the key; watching the progression of the landscape, by allowing it to do its thing and farm around it.
ADB: And is it a permanent pasture you graze the cows on?
SN: Yes, we farm on a permanent pasture system, so nothing reseeded, no new planting. We’re not so keen on bringing in new species to the land. We just want to make sure that the cows have reasonable access to browse and forage on good pasture and the surrounding trees and hedgerows that gives them their much-needed micronutrients. We are very aware of allowing nature to make its own course, leaving hedgerows to thrive and oaks to self-seed and grow where jays and squirrels have planted them.
This is a long-term project, of course. But in the short time we have been mob grazing and resting the fields, we have seen multiple benefits. I mean there is already a thick layer of organic matter on the fields, long grasses with long roots that can be natural cover for the soil, trampled down to improve soil fertility and reduce the amount of flooding on the land, especially as much of our land is on a floodplain, it has helped enormously already.
Also, by leaving the trees to grow naturally, they make our grazing system far more manageable by providing shade and creating a more complex root system. One of the key aspects on our land is to try and hold as much water as possible in the soil, hopefully preventing flooding in the villages further down the stream – you know regenerative agriculture doesn’t just benefit the farm, it has much wider benefits for the community surrounding the farm as well.
ADB: What does it mean to be part of the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association community?
SN: It’s brilliant. The farmers and the PFLA community as a whole is the biggest part of it for us wanting to be certified. The farmer-to-farmer discussions especially, outstrip anything else you can do – they are invaluable! We visit lots of PFLA farmers for inspiration, seeing first-hand the farming practices that work and ones that don’t. Exchanging ideas is constant. Penny and Nigel Franklin from Brightleigh Farm are a great example. We got plenty of advice on breeding cattle and rearing chickens from them, whilst I helped them about their weed and thistle issue. It’s always great to have that safety net of having someone already doing it successfully.
Another example was visiting Rob Havard’s farm in Worcestershire, where we saw his system of bale grazing. That has been a game changer for us in lowering costs. By leaving the bales out during winter, we have less tractor work to do, we can keep the animals out longer, buy-in less inputs, and there is no need to clean out manure from the barns, which is very fuel and time intensive, plus the manure is already out on the fields, so again, you are mimicking nature and supporting early spring insect life that can help the food chain.
We have learnt a lot from being in the PFLA community and talking to farmers that are going through the same process as us or have already done it. We have learnt grazing management, where to move the cows, when to move the cows, how often to move the cows and how to move the cows. It’s important to note that without the grazing management, you can't keep the cows outside on the fields. It’s all about trying to be as holistic as possible.
ADB: Where do you sell your meat?
SN: We sell a lot of our meat to Simon Maynard at Macknade Food Hall. The guys at Macknade are so enthusiastic, Simon, the head butcher, especially. They are great at getting our story over, our farming methods and where we are trying to go to their customers. Plus, they are really good at promoting the PFLA principles. It’s always nice to hear the positive feedback from both the butchers like Simon at Macknade and the customers trying our meat.
It’s so important to have people like Simon at Macknade who are customer facing, promoting the hard work we are doing here at Limden Brook Organic. That’s what it’s all about isn’t it? Promoting nutritious meat that has benefited the environment, what’s not to love!