A Lazy Farmer?
When I visited Clive Bright’s farm in 2016 (with a group learning about organic farming) he declared with a grin that he considers himself a lazy farmer. He clarified this by adding, “I’m always looking for an easier way to do things”. His statement belies a true passion for farming smarter: his close attention to detail and willingness to question the necessity of every process has led to great success. By reducing costs and selling his 100% grass fed beef direct he’s carved himself a very viable market. So how does he do? Find out here.
Closing the Family Dairy
Expansion of the dairy didn’t suit the farm so Clive made the brave decision to close the family 30 cow dairy after finishing his Green Cert. Then he set about making changes. “I bred out of the dairy with Al Shorthorn bulls and started to build up a suckler herd. I followed this with a Limousin stock bull and sold weanling calves for a while.” He felt there was more untapped potential and in 2010 he started the move into organic beef farming. The Bright family farm spans 120-acres of owned land: it sounds big but in truth much of it is wet, heavy and rushy and would be classified in Monaghan terms as “middling”. So from this point of view he knew he had to farm smart. As the business has grown he has also started to rent 40 acres of neighbouring land. He uses this to let his cattle to range when he takes his summer holidays with the family.
Conversion to Organics
The conversion to organic farming was tougher than he expected and it was challenging to get good advice but he pushed on. Clive is an avid reader and got titles on holistic animal management which boosted his confidence and gave him new techniques to try on farm. He became a Certified Organic farmer in 2013 and set up a website to sell direct calling his business “Rare Ruminare”. Since then has become a Farming for Nature ambassador, A Pasture for Life member and most recently he’s turned his attention to the Irish Agroforestry Forum. Clive also works part time with the Organic Trust and creates their e-newsletter. But back to the farming:
His Farming Methodology
In the early days of organic conversion he found the price of organic grains prohibitive and so he started to cull the animals in his herd who did not suit a pasture only system. During these early years he worked hard to improve his pastures (reseeding where necessary) and he started to select for breeds and characteristics in his stock that would suit this low input system. The animals that thrived were nurtured and he now uses a mix of traditional breeds such as Irish Moiled, Angus, Hereford, Shorthorn and his current stock bull is a Red Belted Galloway. He has 24 suckler cows and the herd ranges in size from between 60 to 80 animals.
He’s always looking to encourage animals that are naturally adapted to thrive in his landscape. He wants medium sized animals that are low maintenance and add bulk easily. He culls animals that are getting too big. In this sense balance is important and he’s careful not to weaken his herd by over focusing on a single characteristic. However there are basic requirements: his animals must calve, rear and wean their offspring on their own every year – if they don’t achieve this he culls them. It’s harsh in one sense but ensures long term efficiency.
Turnover is Vanity, Profit is Sanity
Active farmers will note that his livestock unit per hectare is low but this ensures the farm is sustainable and he has no need to buy in bales or hay – indeed he plans to reduce numbers further and move to year round grazing with no housing. Again the old adage stands: turnover is vanity, profit is sanity. And so by removing housing and all associated costs he can increase profitability on a falling turnover.
Conventional farmers who are working with higher stocking rates but struggling to make a decent return must be left scratching their head but Clive recommends they sit down with their accountant and play with figures: selling direct pumps up his turnover massively (when compared to sale through the factories). Clive has no fertiliser bill, no feed bills, few veterinary bills and gets a top up on his BPS by being signed up to the organic system. All the calving happens outside from the second week in May. “Calving inside was more effort than it was worth. Keeping the bedding clean and hygienic is a task I felt we could remove so we calve outside and let the sun sterilise the ground”. His latest plans for cost saving is ambitious and unconventional: if he can move to year round grazing he won’t need a tractor to move silage and hay as part of winter housing.
Holistic Planned Grazing
Clive’s grazing method follows this pattern: short focused periods of monitored grazing in defined paddocks before moving the animals on. This system emphasizes long periods of rest for each paddock between grazing and results in better quality grass with more established root systems. This is in turn improves drainage and moisture retention during dry spells. Longer grass is able to photosynthesis better than short regularly grazed grass and this too means extra free inputs (not utilised in a conventional system). The excess grass that is inevitably trampled down in turn fertilises the ground and so it becomes a self enhancing system. In other words the short term maximisation of grass production is sacrificed for long term soil health and sustainable, low input production.
The shortest rotation is about 30 days in the summer and he generally moves the cattle twice a day. This can be time consuming however it gets easier as paddocks and infrastructure are established. And in truth, this is his only regular daily task so in this sense it’s not onerous. As a rule of thumb you could say that the faster the grass growth the quicker the rotation. “Mob grazing” is another technique and I got to see this on Clive’s farm back in 2016: the cattle were released into a paddock with very long grass – the idea is that the cattle pick out the forage they want and trample the rest into the ground which builds soil cover and fertility. What’s left standing are thistles and docks and other less palatable species and this makes “topping” these undesirables simple, hence stopping them going to seed. But the thing that stood out for me was the sheer volume of insect life that erupted from the grasses as the “mob” of cattle stormed in: in turn, small birds attacked in their hundreds taking advantage of the easy pickings.
I mentioned earlier about Clive’s membership of the Pasture for Life Association: if you are a farmer interested in making improvements to your grazing they are a worth a look as it goes into much more depth than I have above.
Farming Within Natures Limits
Clive isn’t shy about his plan to farm within natures limits: if he can work with nature he can improve the water cycle and mineral cycle. In this way the fertility of the farm becomes self sustaining not to mention guaranteeing his profitability. Selling direct to the end consumer is a key part of his story – every year he is oversubscribed with a local abattoir preparing all meat for market. Most of his customers collect from the farm. The aggressive culling and refining of his herd is paying off now and in 2021 he prepared 14 animals (mostly bullocks) for sale. He usually keeps the best heifers to continually improve the herds genetics. He’s dug ponds and added a range of features to enhance and protect nature.
Clive has recently begun to prepare Rosé Veal (a specialty meat) and is on the look out for an Irish Moiled Bull; the animals are small but he can keep three for every two Angus with the same inputs. Clive also intends to put more work into agroforestry: adding trees to his landscape. He believes that his marginal land which has heavy clay ground (and is prone to compaction and rushes) would benefit enormously from cleverly designed tree systems. Rushes indicate ecological stagnation but trees rejuvenate the soil and rushes then fade naturally. The shelter provided by trees will also be vital in Clive’s plans for year round grazing: they will provide windbreaks in the winter and shade during the hottest periods. Cattle are evolved to graze in woodland pasture and so Clive knows that agroforestry will enhance his system greatly. However for now he is experimenting with small areas until the department further improve the current agroforestry scheme in a way that will work with what he wants in the future.
For more information take a look at https://www.rareruminare.com/ and also https://www.pastureforlife.org/