This article by Angus D. Birditt was produced for Pasture Fed Livestock Association
Fidelity Weston is a ‘Pasture For Life’ certified farmer and former Chair of the PFLA. Fidelity farms in the idyllic parish of Seal in Kent at Romshed Farm, overlooking the Greensand Ridge and the chalk hills of the North Downs. Fidelity discusses her farming methods at Romshed Farm and the benefits of being a ‘Pasture For Life’ certified farmer.
Angus D. Birditt: Tell us about Romshed Farm, Fidelity, and what livestock you rear?
Fidelity Weston: Romshed Farm is just under 200-acres and we rent about a further 50 or so for seasonal grazing from our neighbours and various people in the area. We've been organic since 2000 and ‘Pasture For Life’ certified for the last six or seven years. We've got a suckler herd of Hereford, which have quite a strong traditional Hereford line, and so they're not too big. Roughly there are around 60 cattle on the farm at any one time and a flock of 150 Lleyn ewes. And again like the cattle, we keep all of the lambs until they're finished ready for eating. So we have roughly 220 lambs on the farm at the moment, just beginning to sell them now. Some of them we will keep over for hogget, which we sell in the spring. We also farm poultry, rearing for large table chickens and we sell a few eggs here and there!
I suppose our ethos for the farm is that we want to farm as close to nature as possible. We are always trying to reduce our input costs and we don't want to use anything that's going to be damaging to nature or wildlife. We would now very much view nature as a partner to our business. The more we've learned about the natural environment, the more we have realised that we can really make so much from it, and specifically to our livestock, finish our cattle and sheep on it which is a really good way to farm that also benefits wildlife, and of course, us as human beings.
ADB: Why did you choose the Hereford breed to farm at Romshed Farm?
FW: Originally, we just farmed sheep at Romshed. We knew that if we wanted to farm cattle it had to be a native breed that could be fed naturally on really good England pasture, not on cereals. It was really a decision between the Hereford and the Sussex breed, a hard choice to make! But in the end we chose Herefords because I was told at the time they were more docile than the Sussex breed. Easy and outdoor-carving was an important element for us, so that's really why we went for them. Plus I absolutely love the colours, their white faces and the variety of markings on them! Our Herefords are brilliant, they suit our system really well, carve outdoors, and they're so easy to handle. I think they're wonderful cattle, and they finished entirely off grass as well.
ADB: What are your farming methods at Romshed Farm?
FW: We like to implement rotational grazing regularly, but not intensively, which is hard, fast and constant rotations each day. I believe it’s all about discovering what works best for your conditions and terrain at your farm. We move the livestock every two days to large plots to allow the cows time to graze and seem like they are not being rushed. It's also a good feeling to know that the cows have got enough space with their calves, get to trees and hedgerows to forage and can enjoy life a bit. A lot of the fields here at Romshed have a lot of different plant species so grazing is always different and is always naturally in stages.
I'm sure that there are people out there who say if you really want to build your soil’s health, if you really want to make change, you've got to do it much more intensely than we're doing. I feel that we've got rich-species in our pastures already – maybe 15 species per metre square. We were lucky enough to have a tenant farmer before us that didn’t use much fertiliser so the diversity of plant species was already high. We have plenty of clovers, trefoils, yarrow and probably up to a dozen species of native grass in each field.
I do see a lot of farmers who do intensive mob grazing start off from a situation where they had very little diversity, perhaps just ryegrass and clover lays but not much else. There is a grading system that is used to see how diverse your pastures are: improved pastures (less than eight species per square metre), semi-improved (between 8-15 species) and unimproved (15 and above species).
I often think that if I was going to mob graze more intensively, I would start to lose some of that diversity, because some of them are very delicate plants that could be lost in hard grazing. I do watch the diversity in the fields very carefully and notice any changes that are happening, taking it very gently. For example, whenever we need to go to a daily rotational grazing system, I am quick to watch out for those fields and their plant diversity.
As I said before about farming in a way that suits your particular conditions and terrain, to really find out what’s best for those conditions you have to observe what is happening, how the cows are grazing, what they are grazing and what is happening to the diversity above ground. The soil is a competitive system and needs to be managed with animals to get the species you want, so a large part of farming is about observing, keeping track of what’s happening throughout the year and adapting to it.
ADB: And how do your farming methods benefit the environment?
FW: Yes, well I suppose the biggest example for us was actually when we went organic. The only thing we've really done until then was to put artificial nitrogen on the soil, so we had to stop doing that and actively encourage clover and trefoils back into our swards that can naturally fix nitrogen. We are now at a stage where we are getting as much hay as we would have done with fertiliser, but entirely using nature to get us there. It does take longer to get there as well. The hay is not ready for cutting in June, but maybe a couple of weeks later in July. The benefit of that is leaving the land and encouraging an absolute haven for insects. If you walk across our fields in the summer, they're not just green but a multitude of whites and yellows in them and they're humming with all sorts of insects. So I'd say there's massive benefits all around that.
We also graze and rotate our livestock much more carefully and frequently than we might have done before, letting grass grow longer so their roots grow deeper. Alongside the livestock manure, we are making sure that the cows take less of the grass and trample a lot into the ground in order to rebuild soil fertility. That’s really what is at the heart of regenerative farming I would say, very regular moving and by leaving areas for a longer time, insects, small birds and mammals can benefit from the longer grasses. It’s inevitably following a sort of natural pattern.
ADB: What were the reasons behind why you became certified with the PFLA?
FW: We've been organic since 2000 and I've never fed cereals to our cows. It was only when I searched on Google – with the thought to increase our sales direct from the farm – something along the lines of ‘the best reasons for being zero-free cereal feed’, and that got me onto the PFLA. They had a nice website that drew me in and I guess they were about three years old then and I've been involved with them ever since. That’s seven years now!
The reason why I became certified was because I wanted a seal of approval that I was feeding my livestock 100% pasture and no cereals. Being organic, you can still feed your livestock 40% cereals. So I would say that being a combination of organic and ‘Pasture For Life’ certified is the gold standard for farming!
ADB: Was it easy to become ‘Pasture For Life’ certified with the PFLA?
FW: It was very easy. Unlike many other certifications that are very prescriptive, saying you cannot do this or you must do that, the PFLA certification takes you through a journey, helping you correct things and recommending that you do ‘this’ because of ‘this’. For instance, they recommend that if you move your animals around more often you'll find that you get more grass and you can stop using your fertiliser.
I think that by certifying with the PFLA scheme, you are essentially farming alongside organic principles. The paperwork and certification may seem a little daunting to many but it’s simply just a change of mindset that is needed and after you’ve done it you really see the benefits.
What is also great is that the standards are always changing, always improving alongside new research, research that is consulted with the farmers. PFLA are great at keeping the farmers up to date with changes that reflect current farming standards and animal welfare. They are called ‘Pasture-fed’ as they cover all sorts of forage, not just grass-fed.
If you're an arable farmer, the PFLA wants to encourage arable farmers to get livestock back onto their fields, which means that their cash crops and their fallow periods can also generate income and be good for the soil, those crops just need to be leafy and no grain. Say a farmer is growing a field of wheat, then afterwards he or she can put in a herbal lay or similar for their cows to graze, putting fertility back in the soil. It’s all about farming in a way that isn't taking away from human consumption and encouraging farmers to actively rebuild their soil fertility.
ADB: How is it working with local butchers like Simon Maynard at Macknade Food Hall?
FW: Well, the animals that we moved today (see photographs) are all heading to Simon at Macknade Food Hall very soon. What’s great about Simon at Macknade Food Hall is that he really appreciates how our animals are being reared and loves to tell our story to the customers coming into Macknade.
Macknade Food Hall is also great to deal with, both as a business and the people there are really nice. A while back we did a tasting at their food hall and that was fun, cooking a lovely hogget for their customers to enjoy and for us to meet the customers that was special.
ADB: What’s your favourite recipe using your ‘Pasture For Life’ certified meat?
FW: My absolute favourite is Boeuf en daube, a recipe from Delia Smith (https://www.deliaonline.com/recipes/international/european/french/boeuf-bourguignon). I use the silverside piece, which is often hard to sell but delicious. Simply marinade it in wine and spices and I like to slow cook it from the morning, leave it throughout the day so it is ready for the evening. Serve with split lentils and away you go!
ADB: Do you believe that the PFLA could be nationwide, by which I mean can pasture-fed systems be used at large scale productions such as supermarkets and national corporations?
FW: I would like PFLA to be nationwide, definitely. I think the quickest way would be for the government when they're doing their farming policy to say that farmers can sign up their grasslands to PFLA standards and they’ll give you a grant to do the changeover. If that happens that will have massive benefits to the industry. We originally converted to organic in 2000 because there was a grant, which incentivized us to do it! So that's really what the government needs to do for the PFLA scheme. Farmers would then realise that they can farm profitably, something that many don’t believe they can with such low inputs. Most farmers just think that can't be true. Well, it is. Yeah, it really is true!
Read Fidelity Weston’s paper ‘Pasture Champions’ on the PFLA website on how the government can encourage farmers to certify with the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association.