College Farm Focus: Choice of farming beside the downs

Find out more about the College Farm Focus initiative

Plumpton College lies at the foot of the South Downs and the farm extends over downland and lowland. This means it operates under two very different conditions.

The 200ha (494ha) of land surrounding the farm buildings comprises mainly heavy Weald clay. This land provides the basis for summer cow grazing, forage maize and winter wheat production in fairly conventional farming systems.

But move 800m south and you have climbed almost 200m to the top of the South Downs. Here are thin, flinty chalk soils which provide a challenge even to the most skilled.

Although this variety of soils across the farm can be a management challenge, it provides excellent teaching examples and was one of the reasons why the college site was chosen many years. The downland grass area has been designated an Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) and it also lies in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), with the South Downs Way and several other rights of way traversing the estate.

The college is tenant of the National Trust for some of its downland area and much of the downland grass acreage is organic. This all means the partnership between farming and countryside conservation has never been more relevant or visible.

Management challenge

Glen Redman of the National Trust, which owns part of this stretch of the downs, highlights the management challenge. “The correct level of grazing is extremely important to the survival and management of the organic downland ecosystems. The thin soils and low nutrient levels favour the non aggressive plants which generally results in a high level of biodiversity,” says Mr Redman.

The 750-ewe sheep flock and small Sussex beef suckler herd are the main pasture management resource on the extensive 200ha grazing areas, split only into three fields and obviously totally free from fertilisers, pesticides or cultivations.

Managing this environment is far from easy. Too-heavy stocking rates and successive dry summers can mean that grazing can all but disappear between July and August. So we accept stocking rates have to be that much lower on these types of soils, typically 2.5 ewes/ha.

Full organic status has produced good returns, with prices averaging more than £2.80p/kg, but the poor grazing in summer challenges the ability to finish stock without expensive supplementary feeding.

Shepherd Peter Sutton believes the answer lies in the genetic make-up of the sheep and finding a breed that fits the system. This has led to the setting-up of a North Country Cheviot nucleus flock.

Instincts

It’s well suited to the farm, says Mr Sutton. “A true dual-purpose breed, the Cheviot provides hardiness, forage ability and good mothering instincts as well as a good carcass. To improve lambing percentages and benefit from hybrid vigour, the Cheviots are crossed with Lleyn rams and these provide the basis for the main breeding flock. The terminal sires are mainly Texels.”

Lambing mainly takes place outdoors from mid-April, with 530 lambed in a hands-off system with few problems encountered to date.

About 200 are lambed indoors in February to allow students to get fully involved and gain practical lambing experience. This also provides facilities for visits by many local schools through the college’s Farming and Countryside Education (FACE) activities.

The college’s Sussex suckler beef herd calves in the spring. The system is very extensive, with no housing, a little supplementary feed only if necessary in the winter and a very “hands-off” approach. The durable Sussex breed is excellent for this type of system, producing good calves.

The skills required to manage the delicate pasture ecosystem under both organic and ESA regimes have been developed by the college into specific conservation grazing courses, which are in high demand from many conservation groups.

One advantage of marketing our lambs and beef is the growing interest from consumers in issues such as food miles and locally produced organic food that can demonstrate high welfare standards. These issues have become just as important as price and as such have added a boost to the organic meat prices.

Most of our beef and 10% of our lamb come with well under 50 food miles from field to shop, with most ending up in local butchers or farm shops, and the college canteen.

The majority of lambs are sold through the Organic Livestock Marketing cooperative. The combined factors of organic sheep and beef production on a chalk downland habitat do still make for some challenging economics but there have been sheep and beef grazing on the downs for many centuries. People tend to forget that they helped to form the landscape, and I have a feeling livestock will be there for a long while to come.

The college also grows arable crops on the downs – but that is a story for another day.

INFORMATION

For further information and advice contact

E-mail: enquiries@plumpton.ac.uk 

Web: www.plumpton.ac.uk 

Phone: 01273 890 454


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