How a tenant farm manages 3,200ha of Wiltshire grassland

An organic ranch-style farming system is allowing a Wiltshire business to run 490 cows with just two labour units and create a rare and highly valued habitat in the process.

The Waight family farm arable and beef on a Ministry of Defence tenancy at Compton Farm, Enford, on the chalkland of the Salisbury Plain.

By working closely with the MoD and ecologists at Natural England, the crossbred herd grazes sensitive grassland, 70% of which is classed as a site of special scientific interest (SSSI).

Farm Facts

  • Tenant farm renting 4,451ha from Ministry of Defence
  • All grassland is in Higher Level Stewardship with Natural England
  • 3,237ha chalk grassland, heathland and scrub
  • 647ha growing wheat, barley, oilseed rape with land sublet out to pig farmer in the rotation
  • 490 crossbred cows run organically since 2005

Environmental grazing

The system requires hardy, maternal cows to calve unassisted and thrive outside all year across more than 3,200ha of unfenced extensive heathland, stocking at one cow to 6.5ha.

See also: How a Yorkshire suckler herd is achieving 96% calves weaned

“Cattle are so important to this environment,” explains Bruce Waight, who farms with wife Lucy and sons James and Henry.

“They open the ground up treading seeds in each year. Without cattle, bushes and bigger plants dominate and shade out the rare flowers.”

The business pays a rent to the MoD as Agricultural Holdings Act tenants, with land quality and rent varying hugely. 

The Waites receive subsidy and stewardship payments directly.

With no fencing out on the plain, the breeding herd spends much of its time behind electric fencing, grazing land that has never seen fertiliser, herbicide or a plough.

Cattle are moved around the plain to suit the management of the flowers and ground-nesting birds, with Natural England advising on how to prevent over- and under-grazing.

Wildlife at Compton Farm

  • Flora Viper’s-bugloss, Birds’s Foot Trefoil, Pyramidal orchid, Devil’s-bit scabious, Frog orchid, Early gentian.
  • Fauna Stone curlew, Nightjar, Glow worm, Windchat, Stonechat, Quail, Lapwings, Great Bustard, Marsh Fritillary Butterfly

Genetics

Initially composed of bought-in Hereford-cross Friesian dairy replacements, the Waites now run a closed herd using South Devon bulls to breed replacements.

The farm uses two South Devon bulls, 16 Swedish Charolais bulls as terminal sires and six Angus bulls on heifers for easy calving.

Angus bulls bought from the Nightingale herd have worked well on heifers recently, while a Swedish polled Charolais line from the Cockerington herd have worked well on cows, says James.

James Waight

Calving

Easy-calving bulls and polled genetics help minimise labour. Cows calve in 4-12ha paddocks in mobs of up to 100.

About 5% of animals require calving assistance, which is done by catching cows using a stick lasso rope from a quad bike or Land Rover.

Heifer calves are given red tags, bulls are given yellow tags and castrated with a rubber ring.

All calves get their navels covered in iodine and for the first time this year were EID tagged.

Calves are moved from the calving paddock at two days of age onto the rotation. Two herds are run in separate calving blocks.

About 350 cows calve in a 10-12-week block from February, while 140 proven cows calve in a 10-12-week block from September to produce replacement heifers which calve at 30 months in the spring block.

A further advantage of running two blocks is the cashflow benefit of being able to sell cows through the year, which also suits the organic contract with ABP, says James.

With an 11% barren rate in the spring block and higher calf mortality than a typical indoor calving farm, the system can wean around 80% of calves per cow bulled.

Finishing

  • Ration: Homegrown ad-lib Lucerne and red clover silage, straw and 3kg of rolled barley
  • Age: Cattle housed at 18 months and finished from 21 months
  • Carcasses: Steers hit 380-390kg and heifers typically weigh 330kg at mostly R3/R4L grades
  • Numbers: 120 cattle finished last year and 150 finished this year.
  • Premium: About 80p/kg deadweight organic premium over the standard price. Cattle were sold as weaned calves at Frome, averaging £675 last year, with organic calves making £20 a head premium.
  • EID: Farm productivity grant scheme funding has been used to invest in EID and an electronic weigh crate and weigh scales to scrutinise feedlot performance and breeding stock.

Herd Health

Vaccinations

  • Calves receive a tetanus and clostridial vaccine a month after calving in two 2ml doses given 4-6 weeks apart.
  • All breeding stock and bulls are vaccinated for BVD (bovine viral diarrhoea).
  • 10-12 youngstock are blood tested for BVD antibodies and trace element status annually.

Trace elements

  • High-iodine boluses are given to cows a month before calving, also supplying copper, cobalt, selenium, manganese, zinc and vitamins over a six-month period.

Infections

  • Antibiotics, if necessary, are administered with a dart gun, using compressed air to fire a 25mm dart into the neck. Management tags can be read 20m away and the dart can be fired accurately from 10m away, usually falling out within 10-50 strides.

Ticks

  • The herd is developing immunity, but occasional imidocarb dipropionate treatments (213-day withdrawal period) are required to cure or prevent ‘red water fever’ (babesiosis).

Herd Management – Spring

  • Spring calvers start calving in February for 10-12 weeks
  • Autumn calvers return to the plains in March/April after two months yarded on wildflower hay.
  • Cattle are grazed in mobs of up to 100-head in electric fenced cells of 4-12ha  for 7-10 days before being moved on.
  • Water is taken to mobs in 20,000 litre bowser trucks filled from two bore holes up to four miles away. Each bowser typically lasts around two days.

Summer

  • Spring calving cows run with a Charolais bull in June and July and heifers run with Angus bulls.
  • The previous year’s calves are also grazed in paddocks before being housed at 18 months old for a 3-6-month finishing period on Lucerne and red clover silage and 3kg or rolled barley a day.
  • No mineral buckets, cake, creep feed or shelter is used, with cows using natural vegetation for shade and calving shelter as necessary.
  • Himalayan rock salt is put out to drive water intakes, which in turn increases grazing behaviour.

Autumn

  • Spring-born calves are weaned at seven months old, while autumn calvers calve out on the plains from September to November.
  • Cattle are walked home or to pens, and calves are loaded up on a wagon and transported home where they are fed Lucerne and red clover silage, straw and 1-2kg of rolled barley per day to store them over winter.
  • Spring calvers are fed hay in yards for 3-4 days post-weaning to dry off.  

Winter

  • Autumn calvers are brought into yards for around two months and fed hay in the New Year for bulling to South Devons.