The herd of peaceful Hereford cattle gazing out from the front cover this week don’t know how important they are.
This magnificent breed has served farming families and the consumer for many hundreds of years in a variety of roles.
First their ancestors pulled the ploughs through Herefordshire’s famed red soil before finally ending up on a plate.
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Then, as word spread of their many attractive traits, including docility, eating quality and ability to keep condition while being walked to distant markets, the breed moved far beyond the county’s borders and began to appear across the globe.
Now a very old trait is coming to the fore again and gaining new recognition – their contribution to soil fertility and crop health. Not just Herefords, of course (many other great breeds are available), but cattle and sheep in general.
This week’s issue carries two articles – one in the Livestock section and one in Arable – on the work being done by Herefordshire mixed farmer Billy Lewis, demonstrating again the benefits that integration of these two enterprises can bring.
Mr Lewis, the joint winner of Soil Farmer of the Year (an award organised by Farm Carbon Toolkit and Innovation for Agriculture) has slashed artificial fertiliser use and improved soil health by building fertility with grass leys and manure.
To all of this, there is both a modern element – making use of the latest understanding of soil’s complexity – and a traditional one – a renewed appreciation of mixed farming.
Some people scoff at any excitement about “going back to the old ways”, dismissing those who are discovering or rediscovering its benefits as naive or ignorant. I don’t have much time for that.
Just because we are reverting to what our forefathers did as far back as Turnip Townshend’s four-course rotation does not mean there should not be enthusiasm for making these techniques right for our era.
Shutting down discussion is wrong for two reasons.
First, it overlooks the fact that there was a long era in the last century where fertiliser was relatively cheap and every time a herbicide or fungicide stopped working, there was another chemical to take its place.
Just because we are just reverting to what our forefathers did as far back as Turnip Townshend’s four-course rotation does not mean there should not be enthusiasm for making these techniques right for our era.
It is reasonable to say in some ways that farming was a lot simpler then.
While livestock were vital for food, it was definitely easier to overlook their other benefits by turning to the fertiliser bag or the spray can and farmers from that era shouldn’t be blamed for specialising in solely arable units.
Second, it should be gratifying that we are not wholly reliant on new technology and future innovation to solve the problems of today.
Gene-edited crops, robotics and other futuristic tools will have their role to play in slashing inputs, increasing yields and tackling climate change, as outlined at this week’s Nuffield Conference by keynote speaker Robert Saik in an optimistic vision for farming’s future.
But while they hopefully will be of benefit to humanity, there is always the risk that the farmer will have just swapped one expensive cost for another without making their own business more resilient.
In contrast, relearning and reappreciating tried-and-tested methods has more potential to return control to the farmer by prioritising practices over products.
As the old poem by Anthony Houghton goes: “The cow is queen, so don’t forget, Don’t curse or swear, or make her fret, Talk quietly, and treat her well; Your profits then are sure to swell.”