How farmers are capitalising on Countryside Stewardship Scheme

David Oates with his cattle

© David Oates

Organic beef and sheep farmer David Oates has stopped growing barley in favour of brassica crops and wholecrop to benefit local wildlife habitats.

With a mixture of improved land, heathland and Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Mr Oates and his father, Christopher, have refined their practices at Rosuick and Tregoon Farms, Helston, Cornwall, so they are more in tune with the environment and wildlife.

Their whole farming system has been built around the Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS), with both higher tier and mid-tier agreements in place.

These schemes provide financial incentives to help farmers look after and improve the environment.

See also: Tips for applying for Countryside Stewardship in 2020

Adopting techniques from the scheme have had the added benefit of providing additional income and reducing labour requirements, they say.

Farm facts

  • 364ha (899 acres) – half owned/half rented, including common ground and Cornish lowland heathland
  • 75 pedigree Welsh Black cows and a polled Charolais bull
  • Closed herd, breeding own replacements
  • 130 cross-bred Dorset, Shropshire and Texel ewes
  • Lambing at Christmas, finished lambs sold to St Merryn or ABP directly
  • At lambing, ewes are kept outdoors by day and are housed at night
  • Calving outside in March with access to shed

Changes

The farm has been organic since 1999, so when the family bought an extra 40ha of conventional land at Tregoon Farm four years ago, they converted it to a long-term organic grazing rotation.

The additional land enabled them to plant 5ha of wild bird seed – with the CSS income similar to renting out that land for flowers or vegetables, which would have damaged the soil.

However, the biggest change the family made was to stop growing any cereals; they went from crimping 8-16ha of barley to nothing in a bid to cut costs, improve soil structure and increase habitats for wildlife.

Instead, they grow more arable silage, which is supported by the CSS.

“The bottom line has improved – we can afford to buy straw instead of grow it because we have so few costs,” says Mr Oates.

In addition, labour is more easily spread throughout the year and they have a simpler quality ration for the cattle.

Grass leys and cover crops

Mr Oates ploughs temporary leys in July before broadcasting three types of stubble turnips – chosen for variety in his organic system.

David Oates' cows strip grazing

© David Oates

These are strip grazed from mid-November in line with the stewardship agreement.

The livestock also get hay or silage, with no purchased feed bought except for mineral blocks.

This maximises labour efficiency and reduces feed costs; and there’s less manure to spread. Although stock will be housed if necessary.

Changes at Rosuick and Tregoon Farms

Old system

New system

Benefit

Long term organic grazing rotation

Planted five hectares of wild bird seed

Habitat and food for pollinators and birds (£640/ha from CSS)

Growing 8-16ha of barley

Growing a brassica fodder crop

Foraging sites for seed eating birds and winter cover. (£100/ha from CSS) Reduced contracting costs and labour

Growing 8-16ha of barley

Growing wholecrop cereals

Provides summer foraging for declining and localised birds, small mammals and pollinators. Overwinter habitat for insects and birds (£495/ha from CSS)

Permanent pasture

Maintaining permanent pasture

Flowering grass and wildflowers, nectar and shelter for invertebrates and increased food for birds (£95/ha from CSS)

After the stubble turnips, Mr Oates plants a barley and pea wholecrop in March – early April to act as a habitat and food source for local wildlife.

This also acts as a nurse crop to the heavy white clover mix that is undersown two weeks later.

He ensiles the pea and barley mix in the same clamp as grass silage to keep things simple and avoid spoilage.

Rotational grazing

There are about 150-200 head of cattle on farm at any one time, and stocking rates are low because of strict scheme requirements.

“In an ideal world, the sheep will follow the cattle [to reduce the worm burden and use all the grass], but it’s not always possible,” says Mr Oates.

For example, some blocks of land (in the SSSI) can only have sheep on, the heathland can only have cattle and other land is saved to make hay.  

Grazing heathland provides the mix of open and dense vegetation that birds and wildlife need, while moving the livestock every three to seven days allows leys to recover more quickly.

Benefits

By dropping the arable rotation, the family no longer pay contractors to power harrow and drill corn – which was having a negative impact on soil structure – or harvest and crimp.

“We have less paperwork and harvest is less stressful because wholecrop is less weather dependent.”

Biodiversity has also improved. A survey conducted last year found a wealth of rare plants on the farm – notably the small flowered catch-fly.  

And another big benefit is the flexibility.

“We aren’t tied down to the everyday routine. Our emphasis is to keep costs as low as possible.

“We work hard to keep a good work-life balance. Keeping an eye on the bottom line while being willing to change.

“This has been particularly valuable this year, with the unpredictable impacts of coronavirus,” he adds.

Plans for the future

Although the family had dropped herbal mixtures in favour of longer-lived grasses, this year they are giving them another go, as the deep roots are efficient at drawing nutrients from the soil.

In addition, they sink carbon into the soil, which Mr Oates believes will get them ahead of the game when it comes to the new Environmental Land Management or carbon credit schemes.

Farmers Weekly Awards 2021

Enter or nominate today