Transforming our soil

When the Mayhew family undertook an ambitious diversification plan that included arable reversion to grassland, it transformed their thinking about soils and farming methods

The Mayhew family has farmed in Woodton, Norfolk, since the mid-1940s, starting with a small suckler cow herd, chickens for egg production and pig rearing, as well as farming over 500 acres of arable land.

While on a family holiday in 2016, Rebecca and Stuart Mayhew spent time on a friend’s dairy unit in Scotland and fell in love with the idea of having their own herd of Jersey cattle.

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When additional land near to their farm became available, the Mayhew family seized the opportunity and purchased it. Rebecca, who is a land agent and auctioneer, decided to take the plunge into a major diversification project at Old Hall Farm, with Jersey cattle at the forefront of their plans.

Improving the land for the environment was an abiding principle from the outset. Rebecca says:

“The idea for the business came out of a love for Jersey cows, and everything we do is influenced by this. We use simple artisan processes for all of our products and believe in quality over quantity. The cows have led us to look at life, farming and food production so differently.”

The farm is now a cow with calf dairy, with a farm shop, butchery and café selling their beef and pork as well as raw milk, milkshakes, cream, butter, yoghurt and ice cream produced by their grass-fed Jersey cows. The cows are allowed to keep their calves with them rather than weaning at birth.

Improving the land for environment was an abiding principle from the outset

Rebecca Mayhey, Woodton, Norfolk

They usually stay for six to eight months, but this can be longer depending on the cow and calf pair.

From arable to grassland

Early in the project, Rebecca and Stuart studied the ingredients in the feed they were using for their cows and decided a different approach was needed. “The more you start reading, the more you realise that pasture-fed is much better,” says Rebecca. “There is better nutrient density in the final product for humans, and it is much better for the planet, so we started putting down species-rich pasture for the cows.”

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The Mayhews set about converting the majority of their arable fields to grassland using no sprays or fertilisers. Initially, they used the Countryside Stewardship scheme as a way to help pay for the pasture needed for the cows. But as a predominantly traditional arable farm, they found reverting their fields to grass more difficult than they had anticipated.

“It turns out that growing grass is harder than you would think,” says Rebecca. “When we started, we realised that our soils, despite us always applying a lot of muck on them, were not as healthy as they needed to be, and certainly not as healthy as they are now. There was a point when we were watching the farm contractors going up and down a field and saw the top soil blowing away. It was then we decided this practice should end.

“We end up as farmers growing monocultures that are entirely dependent on a level of chemicals. If you take those away – the soil doesn’t like it as it’s addicted to it. The soil cannot function without it.”

The Mayhews have given considerable thought to the water management of their soil with the primary aim of retaining more moisture.

“For every extra percentage of organic matter in soil, each acre can hold an extra inch of water,” says Rebecca.

“If you’ve got bare soils, the rain just bounces off and runs away, and if you’ve got cover crops, it will just absorb in. If you sequester more carbon and increase soil organic matter, you’ll become a more resilient farmer.”

The first 18 months of drilling were a little hit and miss, but now, the soils are working better – they hold the moisture, and the land is functioning far better.

“The land is much more resilient; it’s got the memo.”

Nutritious soil

Old Hall Farm now consists of around 300 acres of grassland, 100 acres of nectar-rich species and wild bird foods and 100 acres of arable, 50 of which they crop each year and the other 50 is left as enhanced over wintered stubble.

As an industry, we were more in touch with the soil 80 years ago than we are now. We need to turn the clock back

Rebecca Mayhew

“If you look at the natural world, the most successful, tallest thing is a tree. If you go down to our fields, see the hedgerows, and study the soil around them, you can see it’s full of carbon and full of organic matter. It’s aerated, it’s healthy and it’s full of roots. If you watch the cows in a field, it will be the first place they go as it’s full of nutrients.

“The fantastic thing about cows, in my view, is that they are self-medicating. If you give them 27 different species of grass and herbs, all of which are beneficial in different ways, they will pick out what they need. Some will be anti-worming, others good for vitamin levels and iron levels – the cows know what they need.”

The future

The Mayhews hope to partner with the Norfolk Wildlife Trust and Norfolk County Council to plant more trees on the farm, but the potential financial benefit of doing so through future Environment Land Management schemes is not a driving factor.

“We are very much working our business model towards not taking any money (through Government-supported schemes),” Rebecca explains. “We cannot rely on Government to solve any climate or farming-related problems, and we are working towards being subsidy free. The land will sustain us, the business and the mortgage so that we won’t need that cheque.”