First generation farmer Sam Berry shares her experience of attending a 3-day course on Holistic Management run by RegenAG UK..
I am bursting full of ideas for our small farm, having just returned from a 3 day course on Holistic Management run by RegenAG UK, with the inspiring Tony McQuail. Tony and his wife, Fran, have operated a mixed livestock farm since 1973 in Ontario, Canada. Tony has used Holistic Management on his farm since 1995 and credits it for transforming his farm into a profitable, enjoyable farm which is continuing to improve ecologically. He says “We were able to manage the farm so that it felt like the farm was working for us – not us slaving for the farm.” How many people can say that about their own farm?
As I walk around our own fields after the course, I’m contemplating better ways to graze our small beef herd, how we can make real profit and how to have more time to relax. During the course, Tony covered regenerating the land for healthier crops and livestock, ‘mob-grazing’ or more accurately, Holistic Planned Grazing (HPG) to maximise stocking rates, how to financially plan for a profit and how to make a fully informed decision about the farm. The three days were pretty intense and it did make my head hurt! Farming is often seen as extremely hard work which doesn’t pay off financially and has to rely on Government subsidies to make a profit but spending time with Tony will change that perspective. He sells farming as profitable, whilst providing a delightful way of life. Tony talks about making a living, but that living isn’t just about money. It’s about making a life, and one that you want to live.
An introduction to Holistic Management
So what on earth is Holistic Management?! Holistic Management International, define it as ‘a whole farm planning system that helps farmers, ranchers and land stewards better manage agricultural resources in order to reap sustainable environmental, economic, and social benefits’. It gives a structural framework to make a ‘HolisticGoal’, which states how you want to live and how you will get there and what you need to do in the future to get to your goal. By having a goal that is written down and accessible to all on the farm, it helps everyone to move in the same direction and towards the same outcome – rather than causing conflict by pulling in opposing directions. Having a clear vision is seen as key. The Holistic Management framework comes with a list of ‘testing questions,’ which help you make a decision based on your own HolisticGoal. I often worry about what I ‘should’ be doing on the farm, rather than doing what I think is best for myself, my family, my farm and the surrounding eco-system. By using the testing questions against my own HolisticGoal, I am now better equipped to make choices that are right for my place and my context. These discussions can be documented too, so there are less arguments later on! The important aspect of these questions is that they help us to consider the bigger, holistic picture at all times, and help stop us getting too distracted by the problem immediately in front of us.
Day 1 – the basic tool box
During the three days, a great deal of information was covered. The first day of the course was spent discussing the basic ‘tool box’ of Holistic Management, such as the ‘Testing Questions’ to help make better decisions, looking at the ‘weak link’ in your production chain, and ‘Holistic Planned Grazing’. We are already using HPG so it was useful to get tips on how to improve, but also see what we are doing right. HPG mimics nature to keep herds tight in their ‘mobs’ and helps to incorporate more organic matter into the soil. The advantage of HPG is that it builds soil quickly (rather than depleting it as can sometimes be the case), improves water retention by helping to increase ‘hydraulic roughness’ which helps reduce flooding and improves resistance to drought (not that we see much of that here in Pembrokeshire!), and in the long term, increases the amount of grass you can grow leading to more forage for your livestock. It can also play a role in sequestering more carbon in the soil, helping to mitigate climate change. Tony took us through a grazing plan to look at the next years grazing, which plans where the livestock will be at particular dates and when. This could include the annual TB test and knowing that the cattle have to be near the race and crush around this time and to gradually move them towards it, rather than a mad dash a couple of days before! Having a plan documented also helps others do what you intended if you can’t be on the farm for any reason. By providing clarity, everyone can head in the same direction, including the livestock!
In the holistic management classroom
Day 2 – out in the field
On the second day we had a ‘school trip’ to Rob Havard’s home farm, where he showed us how he uses HPG and the realities of this grazing system. Rob is an organic farmer and an ecologist with a wealth of experience from farming 230 acres with his beef suckler herd. He has been using Holistic Management since completing the course in 2014, focusing on the productivity of his beef cattle and the ecological advantages of HPG. We examined his grass, comparing it with our own. He has managed to grow a diverse mix of grasses, herbs and wildflowers in his pasture without using many inputs, which makes his cattle and the dependent ecology happy! He took us through his costs compared to the AHDB Beef Systems and Cost production forecast for average beef farmers. His figures, compared to the AHDB figures for an average cow calf system, were much more impressive. He is making a much larger profit per cow than most by following the Holistic Management framework.
Rob Havard and his adorable horse Fred
In the afternoon, after an amazing lunch of locally sourced produce, it was onto financial planning, not one of my favourite topics! Being a new entrant into farming, I wanted to absorb as much as possible about planning and making a profit. One of the many things Tony taught us, was to plan for profit. It sounds so simple, but many of us farmers find it a hard thing to do. Instead, we financially plan to cover our expenses and try to make more income than our expenses to make a little profit. Whatever is in the bank account at the end of the year is a bonus. But, with the Holistic Management toolbox, you first plan how much profit you want. This takes into account the lifestyle you want to lead, as well as your outgoings and current debts. Once you have an idea of how much money you want to make, you can then work towards it. There are many ways to to do this, and often it’s not about increasing productivity, as our culture tends to assume. One way is to lower your farm inputs, or lower how much money you spend on the farm. Tony gave examples with his beef cattle; if they are fed off your grass alone, or your own cut hay, you have no bought-in feed bills for beef, which reduces your beef expense, which increases your profit from your beef cattle.
Rob demonstrating using a grazing stick to measure the amount of dry matter
Day 3 – A deep dive into the tool box
Day three was delving even deeper into the Holistic Management tool box. We were given systematic, step by step ways to create a financial plan and plan our farming year to fit in with our lives – rather than us to try to fit into the farm, as it may often be. Tony took us through each of the daunting spreadsheets and plans until they made sense and turned into something useful, rather than something terrifying! He told a story of learning to use these planning tools to help him and his family take a month long holiday in August, which is his peak farming period. His children had said that they loved growing up on a farm, but one thing they felt they missed out on, was having a summer holiday. Holistic Management encourages everyone on the farm to be involved in decisions, and once Tony and Fran had included their two girls in the planning, this is the choice they made as a family. Tony and Fran organised their working year to be able to leave their farm in August and achieved one of the first goals they had set out as a family.
Apart from the knowledge and confidence I gained from Tony, the other participants were generous at sharing their experience. There was a huge mix of people, from big dairy farmers, to small acreage farmers to ecologists and people in farm consultancy. As a participatory course, one of the best ways to learn is through discussion, and there was plenty of it! On one evening we got kicked out of the venue at 7pm and all ended up at the pub where the debates continued!
By the time I left on Wednesday night, my head was buzzing with ideas and plans for our farm. Our grazing would be tighter and more efficient, our pasture would be more diverse, our finances better controlled. I picked up ways to get more customers and more publicity with our products, and perhaps even have more time to put my feet up! Let’s see if I can turn my ideas into action. With the tools I now have, I’m sure I will!
Check out RegenAg’s website – they are running a 3-day course from the 16-18th of January in Worcestershire – which you can find out more about and book places here
Also check out the HMI Holistic Management website – for more information and lots of free support resources.
All photos taken and kindly supplied by Ian Boyd