Rainton Farm has been an organic farm for more than 20 years, and introduced pasture-based, regenerative, agroecological farming methods 12 years ago. In 2016 it became Europe’s largest cow-with-calf dairy farm, after 10 years of research, development and preparation. This means that unlike most other dairy farms, the calves on the farm get to stay with their mum to suckle naturally.
In conventional dairy farms, calves are removed from their mothers within a few hours of their birth. The people at Rainton Farm wanted to find another way, and visitors to Cream o’ Galloway encouraged them to give it a try. Put simply, they didn’t want to have to choose between doing what’s right and staying in business.
Cream O’ Galloway – David Finlay
Hello, I’m David Finlay. I’m a farmer and I’m the director of Cream O’ Galloway Dairy Company and Finlay’s Farm. Cream O’ Galloway is a tourism organisation and ice cream manufacturer. And Finlay’s Farm is a cheesemaker. We sell our products throughout the UK.
What steps has your organisation taken to improve biodiversity?
We stopped using fertilisers and weed killers, cut our pesticide use and cut our antibiotic usage; so, we’re now producing without antibiotics in our dairy. We have planted 35,000 mixed broadleaf trees on the farm. We have stopped ploughing and deep cultivations, so we only do minimum tillage for reseeding purposes.
All the organic waste on the farm is composted before it’s put back in the fields and we only use low ground pressure machinery and equipment to try and avoid compaction of the soil. When we stopped the use of fertilisers, crop yields as well as the volume we could store dropped by around one third. Although gradually we clawed that back through better management. The natural productivity of the soil increased the microbes in the soil and interaction with a diverse community of plants in the herbage. The microbes feed the plants and the plants feed the microbes creating a symbiotic relationship which, in healthy soil, brings you back to the productivity that we were achieving with the use of fertilisers. This also increased the nutrient density of the forage that the animals are eating. Therefore, we’re able to cut back on nutrient supplementation of the diet because the herbage is so much more nutrient-dense.
We previously used pesticides for treating parasites in cows and sheep. However, this was interrupting a vital part of nutrient and carbon cycling in the soil through the dung beetles. Organic matter has increased from 11% on average up to nearly 14% now, which is quite amazing and encouraging. This means that we are sequestering carbon in the soil, more carbon than we’re emitting so we claim to be net-zero now.
Then we’ve got the larger animals like the return of the predatory species, such as badgers, red kites, and even a golden eagle on the farm. These are all predators for the young rabbits and voles. We used to have a huge number of voles around the farm but the badgers, red kites and buzzards seem to be taking their toll on them.
Around the middle of May, the farm turns orange, which is quite unusual because all the surrounding fields are green. People ask what crop we are growing: in fact, it’s dandelion! It is nutritious, palatable and it’s high in nutrients, feeding the insects in the early springtime. Birds also want the dandelions seed so there are a lot of benefits. All these things are very complex and interactive but the main thing that we’re seeing on the farm is that the productivity is increasing.
What drove you to take these steps and how does this align to the purpose of your organisation?
The niche market we’ve been looking at for the last 25 years has been the growth in the ethical food market. Operating in these circles, you start to become much more aware of the various crises that are threatening humanity such as biodiversity loss, climate change and pollution of the waterways and water systems and oceans.
It’s about trying to follow best practices. We feel good about what we’re doing, but we’re also very aware that the market for products produced in this way is growing quite dramatically.
What have the benefits been for your business?
We’re seeing a lot of good benefits in terms of the business and the growing market for the products. We are not buying supplements for our crops or animals anymore, we’re using the nature-based production systems so we only use natural processes, meaning we’re not vulnerable to global price spikes and input prices. The business’s resilience is excellent; the market is growing and it’s huge: we are barely scratching the surface with our products.
How easy and affordable was it to take these steps?
With the increase in the cost of all these inputs, in particular fertilisers, we’re saving over £100,000 a year using a nature-based farming system. We have been doing this for 25 years now. 10 years in, we did a financial analysis of the first 10 years and it was a struggle. During only two of those years were we better off. I think the biggest problem with nature-based production systems is that they take a long time. I would say it took us ten years before we saw our management adapting sufficiently to the new paradigm of nature-based farming.
It’s costly. It takes a long time to see the benefits. But once you’re through that sort of initial phase of learning and adapting and changing your methodologies then the position that we’re in now very strong from the business point of view, both in terms of the market and in terms of our cost base.
What do you wish you knew when you started down this route?
Becoming accustomed to new ways of doing things or new approaches. Rather than intervening all the time or sorting problems as they come along, it is better to anticipate the problems and avoid them in the first place. It is important to understand the parasites and their life cycles and how to interrupt those life cycles to avoid having to treat the animals for parasites and infections.
With regards to pathology, the indoor housing creates a lot of disease pressure. Therefore it’s important to have an understanding of the pathology that’s present and how you can manage your systems to avoid the diseases from getting out of control.
What skills have you had to grow within your organisation to adapt your business? And did you get advice to help you get started on this work?
I suppose we had to learn the hard way. Perhaps the best advice we’ve had in terms of parasites and pathology has been from the vets. The vets have been fascinated by what we’re doing because it’s very different to what their usual customers are doing.
I think the biggest problem is there is a lack of support in terms of helping farmers to understand the impact of their systems and their methods and the chemicals that we use on the environment and how damaging a lot of these are. Fortunately, we can avoid a lot of that damage by changing the way we farm.
The ice cream we produce is a very manufactured process, although it probably doesn’t have a lot to do with biodiversity but cheese production is a different thing altogether. The cheese connects our story on the farm directly to the customer. Most of our cheeses are made with raw milk so the argument that we support is that we are taking the healthy soil biomes through our crops and our livestock into our cheeses. The cheeses are carrying that biological diversity, providing a beneficial probiotic within the cheese which is good for public health.
The cheeses we produce are very much a part of this biodiverse system of farming and it contains that diversity within the live unpasteurised cheese. You’ve got to look after it almost like your livestock on the farm and care for it, ensuring that it is maturing properly in the right environment. It is important to make sure that the temperatures and the humidities are right for maturation. There are limits to what the cheeses will tolerate.
Any advice for SMEs looking to do something similar for nature-based solutions?
There wasn’t a lot of knowledge around 25 years ago at the commercial farming level. We made a lot of mistakes, and we probably could have avoided a lot of these if we had better advice to start with but there is good advice now. Talk to people who are already down that road and who have made the mistakes to get an idea of the mistakes not to make.
Get good practical advice, but also talk to ecologists because they have a scientific understanding of what we’re trying to achieve and it helps us to understand where we’re trying to get to and how best to get there.
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