Peter and Henri Greig are champions of regenerative farming on their small-scale family farm and credit it with creating low input, sustainable farming that has opened the door to direct sales.
Regenerative farming combines a number of techniques to rebuild soil and in the process sequester carbon and enhance ecosystems.
The Greigs have been practising the system for nearly three decades at Pipers Farm in Devon, where they farm 40 suckler cows and 100 ewes across 20ha of farmland.
Producing top-quality meat in a sustainable way is a key selling point for the business, which sells all its meat direct to consumers through a meat box scheme.
- 40 suckler cows and 100 ewes
- 20 employees
- 500 meat boxes sold a week, rising to 1,000 a week during November and December
Also produced on contract by 25 other small arms every year:
- 200 Red Ruby Devon cattle reared up to 11 months on their mothers then put onto a diet of forage only. Killed out at two-and-a-half to three years old, carcasses hung for a month.
- 750 Saddleback sows and Welsh boars finished at 34 weeks and hung for three weeks.
- 750 lambs, killed out between eight and 16 months old and hung for three weeks.
- 30,000 Hubbard chickens, running outside from three-and-a-half weeks, producing fertilised eggs. Grown until 12 to 13 weeks old and hung for a week after being slaughtered locally.
- 300 traditional fallow and red deer roam parkland four miles from Pipers Farm, grazing all year, with silage and fodder beet fed in the winter. They are shot where they are grazing to minimise stress and the carcasses hung for 12 days.
Consumer appetite has built to such an extent they now sell 500-1,000 boxes weekly and have enlisted the help of 25 family farms to meet demand, with each supplier adhering to the same regenerative farming principles.
Soils and grassland
A big focus of regenerative farming is to enrich soils by building soil health through practices that increase organic matter.
To achieve this the livestock are rotationally grazed, with pigs playing an integral part.
“They are on a rotation with maize, fodder beet and spring barley – so the pigs follow the harvester, ploughing, fertilising ahead of the crops, clearing up the fodder beet – minimising the need for inorganic fertilisers and machinery,” explains Mr Greig.
“The pigs offer the opportunity to reduce tillage and work in harmony with the soil, creating perfectly fertilised ground ready for sowing.”
The livestock graze all year round, with some grazing moorland which would otherwise not be used for production.
Out-wintering stock brings benefits including reduced labour, enhanced soil fertility and healthier stock, adds Mr Greig.
About regenerative farming
Regenerative farming focuses on practices which increase biodiversity, improve ecosystems and enrich soils.
It also aims to capture carbon in soil helping to offset climate change.
It is estimated that managed grazing sequesters up to 4tha of carbon per year, with organic annual cropping sequestering up to 6t/ha per year.
Stocking rates vary from farm to farm. “In general we are not heavily stocked and are keen to advocate mixed stocking on rotational systems. Generally, sheep follow cattle, but they might also graze together depending on the farm.”
Mob grazing timescales also vary according to the farm, but more time is allowed in between grazing to allow the grass to recover and improve soil.
“Everything farming does should respect the incredible resource of biota – our workshop is the top six inches of the planet, so everything we do should nourish it,” says Mr Greig.
“Any of the meat we produce must be reared in a way that is in harmony with that workshop.”
Herbal leys are used to help build soil fertility and stop soil erosion by acting as a break crop in arable rotations.
The mix comprises chicory, yarrow, lucerne, sainfoin, birdsfoot trefoil, vetch and white clover, and their cumulative benefits include deeper tap roots for drought tolerance and ensuring continued grass growth in dry summers.
Legumes such as clover fix nitrogen, eliminating the need for applying artificial fertiliser, while the natural homeopathic properties gifted by chicory, sainfoin and birdsfoot trefoil help to reduce worm burdens and limit the need for wormers.
At Pipers Farm the Greigs keep Red Ruby Devon cattle, which are native to Exmoor and are bred to live off the poor-quality indigenous vegetation.
Beef cattle calve from March through to late summer and graze year round. The calves are left on the cows for as long as possible until about 9-11 months, from when they transition onto a forage-only diet.
They are kept on a diet of forage with the aim of finishing them by 30-36 months, killing out at around 365kg.
The farm’s flock of 100 North of England Mule ewes are crossed with a Suffolk tup to lamb from early February on the lowland farms to May in the uplands.
“Some are lambed inside and some are outside, it depends very much on the farm – they are assisted if necessary,” says Mr Greig.
“We want the lamb to get as much mother’s milk as possible so wean them onto a forage diet at about four-and-a-half to five months old. Natural lactation is about four to five months without compromising the ewes.”
Some lambs are killed at eight months off forage, weighing 25kg. The rest are taken through the winter, finished on forage and slaughtered at about 16 months, offering consistency of supply year round.
The Greigs believes their system not only provides improved profitability but produces a better quality of meat and is kinder to the environment.
“We believe this is more rewarding as a day-to-day farming system and more likely to attract young blood into farming, particularly if this hard work can be appreciated by consumers enjoying the fruits of the process.”