Sophie Alexander’s decision to run her 1,000-acre mixed farm in Dorset as a fully organic enterprise is paying dividends as a financially viable business that prioritises soil and livestock health as well as biodiversity regeneration. Hemsworth Farm has been fully organic since 2014.
In 2018, Sophie decided to establish an organic dairy herd to not only help plug the forthcoming Basic Payment Scheme gap but also kick-start the farm’s ecological engine. In April 2020, a herd of 300 Viking Red heifers was introduced to the farm.
Sophie is working in partnership with Oliver Chedgey, who started Roaming Diary and share farms an organic dairy herd with Tim May at the Kingsclere Estate in Berkshire. Oliver uses a fully mobile milking parlour that moves around the farm with the herd at Kingsclere, but Sophie opted for a static parlour due to the smaller size of Hemsworth.
An organic herd
Viking Reds were selected for their high health traits, which optimise longevity, management efficiency and minimal use of antibiotics. They also produce high constituents, which compensate for lower yields, and are extensively grazed with little added concentrate food. All the food is grown either on the farm or locally.
The cows live outdoors 24/7, minimising the implications of slurry management. With the threat of climate change, one of the biggest problems could be a lack of shelter from temperature extremes and rainfall. Building more livestock housing is expensive and carbon intensive, therefore more trees and hedges will be planted to provide shelter belts and areas of silvopasture.
Hemsworth is chalk ground with no steep gradients, which allows out wintering without severe poaching or runoff. The cows are moved to fresh grazing twice a day throughout the year, and on a four-year rotation, crops will be planted on the grazed land. Viking Reds also have high fertility, are spring block calved and are milked once a day, which results in reduced metabolic stresses and any related health complications.
The dairy is in its first year of operation, and Sophie says there are more unknowns than knowns. She says: “It is a constant balancing act to find the ‘sweet spot’ between cow numbers, milk yields and producing high-quality forage while improving soil and nature.
“At the same time, we are working to reduce fuel and water use and minimise the undesirable necessity of using silage wrap and other plastics. It is a continuous process of learning and adjustment to improve all health traits, pre-empt problems and improve our skills to manage the grazing platform of diverse herbal leys.”
When Sophie started farming at Hemsworth in 2011, she focused on prioritising soil improvement and ensuring the farm was a financially viable enterprise.
Building optimum soil quality is the beginning and end of any sustainable farming enterprise, regardless of whether you are using artificial inputs
Continuing to prioritise soil health is an area of focus for Sophie in moving towards net zero in an arable system for a variety of reasons, including active soil biology to improve disease resistance in crops and soil fertility, as well as soils that are more resilient to weather extremes.
“Resilience, particularly financial resilience, is a primary focus for me because otherwise none of the other land management and infrastructure improvements would be affordable,” she says. However, the farm’s role in contributing to net zero deliverables is also a key consideration.
Measuring the carbon footprint
Hemsworth has committed to calculate and monitor its carbon footprint using the Farm Carbon Toolkit. After establishing a baseline, the toolkit will model scenarios and changes so that carbon targets are part of the decision making process.
Sophie is awaiting the results from the farm’s calculations to provide direct comparisons, but she believes the high percentage of legumes in the three-to four-year grazing part of the rotation can fix 250kg N/ha naturally from the atmosphere, which means there is no reliance on CO2-intensive synthetic fertilisers to maintain soil fertility. Nutrient leaching is minimised by capture with continuous plant cover and improved soil organic matter content combined with the varied rooting depth and architecture of the different plants in the grazing sward.
The grazing system implemented at Hemsworth feeds soil organisms, invertebrates and birds and other wildlife. The cover crops and leys grazed by the cows create varied habitats for pollinators and a wide variety of other flora and fauna. With the data, Sophie will compare the farm’s carbon footprint from before and after the herd was established.
She says: “Emissions are bound to have increased but so will have the farm’s ability to sequest carbon and enhance ecosystems and wildlife. By not using chemical inputs, the farm reduces the use of water on arable crops and the lack of chemicals means no sodium is added to the soil and organisms delivering ecosystem services are not killed.”
All the water used for washing down the dairy parlour and the covered collecting yard is stored and treated with enzymes that reduce ammonia emissions. The storage capacity for the dirty water is sufficient for six months and, when applied to fields, it is done with an umbilical system to minimise volatilisation. Harsh chemicals are not used in the cleaning process in the parlour except for the bulk tank and milking plant. All housing and foot and teat cleaning treatments are carried out with probiotic products derived from soil organisms with no polluting effect in the water system or fields.
Sympathetic food production
Sophie’s rationale of running an organic farm is to avoid using ecocide chemicals or add greenhouse gas emissions with artificial fertiliser.
“No system has all the answers and all food production leaves an ecological as well as a carbon footprint,” she says. “I want to tread as lightly as possible by reducing carbon emissions and improving sequestration while producing nutritious, delicious food. At the same time, I want to achieve a viable financial return on investment to help fund continual habitat improvements for nature.”
As a result of the substantial wildlife growth at the farm, Sophie is working with Dorset Wildlife Trust on a six-year biodiversity study with independent ecologists monitoring specific species, and early results are very encouraging. For Sophie, the rewards of managing an organic mixed farm system far outweigh the challenges. However, she acknowledges that the system does not suit everyone.
A decade ago, I was asked what the single biggest threat was to my farm system, and at the time I said disease. But now, I’d have to say it is climate change.