Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Towards a farming plan for the West Croft


My objective for farming the West Croft is to essentially make as large a contribution to self sufficiency as possible, while minimising cash inputs. I'm not significantly concerned with maximise cash profit, although I can't afford for it to become a major cash drain.

I intent to continue to farm the croft as organic, not so much because I believe in the benefits of organic food but because I want to maximise biodiversity and minimise long-term environmental impact. It's no great advantage to me for the croft to be registered organic, since the difference in profit between certified organic production and uncertified production is unlikely to cover the cost of registration, but if the croft continues to be covered by the Standingstone registration that is in my interests.

These objectives need to be balanced against constraints.

Cropping the croft without fertilising it will lead to impoverishment in nitrates. Also, regular cropping of the same land will lead to a decline in meadow herbage, which is not what I want. Organic fertiliser is expensive, and, from the point of view of a registered organic holding, not permissible as the major source of fertiliser anyway. So I need to maintain pasture under grass/clover with some shit-producing animals as a significant part of what I do. It could easily be all I do...

During years under grass/clover, and particularly with animals, nitrates build up in the soil. During years under crop, the nitrates deplete. Scottish Agricultural College recommends an organic cycle of three years grass/clover, one year cereal, one year roots, one year cereal. This doesn't appeal to me as if I plough up my land three years in succession every six, I'm going to seriously degrade the meadow herbage.

At the same time modern tractors and combines need a lot of turning room. Therefore, economically, I ought to treat my whole croft as one field. But if I do that there's no reservoir on my land for herbage species to recolonise from (there is of course the commons). Also, treating the whole croft as one field means that in any one year I have only one sort of produce, so I'm forced to trade most of it in the cash economy since I'll have more of that product than I need, and will be short of other products which I also need.

Three park strategy

These considerations make me feel that there's merit in a three park plan: to divide my current 2.9 hectares of arable into three roughly equal parcels each of slightly less than one hectare each, with more-or-less permanent fencing between. This means that in any one year I can have all three down to grass/clover, two down to grass/clover and one down to crop, or one down to grass/clover and two down to crop.

If two adjacent parks were down to the same crop in the same year it would be good to be able to remove the fencing between them, but this may be more work than it's worth. If I'm going to have crops, I need to be able to use a tractor from time to time, and given the park sizes it needs to be a small one. It could be mine, or communal, or shared, or contracted in (although contractors rarely have small tractors).

Livestock

I like to eat meat; not a lot of it, but some. Keeping hardy livestock involves little work and helps fertilise the land. Livestock slaughtered and butchered for home consumption require remarkably little bureaucracy and hence, cost. Cattle, sheep and pigs are all possible. However, pigs are particularly hard to fence, and sheep (especially lambs) are fairly hard to fence.

Regardless of species, I could buy weaners in the spring, fatten through the summer and slaughter in the back end, or I could keep my own females and breed from them to produce animals to slaughter.

For cattle a stocking density of two cows (including suckling calves) per hectare is often recommended, with up to three stirks per hectare. Galloway cattle are particularly hardy and low maintenance, and they are, after all, bred for precisely our conditions. A viable strategy would be to have two parks as pasture at any one time; to have two cows, serviced by AI each year, and run the calves with their mothers for twenty-four months until slaughter. This would produce an average of two beef carcases per year at around 300Kg live weight, each yielding about 200Kg meat. That's more than twice the meat I need for own use, so one animal could be sold each year.

For shelter, access to part of the wood in winter is probably all Galloways would need, but a small cattle shed would be a good thing.

For sheep, stocking density is about six ewes per hectare, each producing on average two lambs per year, so probably eleven carcases per year at about 30Kg each live weight. This means only one park would need to be devoted to livestock in any one year. The advantage over cattle is more slaughters per year means less meat in storage at any one time, and meat is eaten fresher. Also, it would be possible from an economic and husbandry point of view not to produce much excess. The downside is that slaughter is inevitably a pretty grisly and horrible job, but doing it more often would get one accustomed, I suppose. If I kept just one park of sheep I could put one park down to hay each year, which could be a cash crop.

Sheep wouldn't strictly need shelter and definitely shouldn't be allowed into the wood, but a small shed would nevertheless be useful for lambing.

Crops

The SAC states that the average yield for oats in Scotland is 5.92 tons per hectare, but that's assuming conventional production; if I half that to around three tons/park (given I have organic production and that my parks are shy of one hectare) that's a reasonable target. Thus if I grow one park of oats every two years, that gives me

250Kg own use for two years (I currently consume about 0.5Kg of oats a week, but if I baked oaten bread or oatcakes could easily increase that)
175Kg reserved as seed for next planting
2500Kg available as cattle feed or to sell

To have oats in my rotation requires that I have a granary capable of holding at least 3 tons of oats (5 tons capacity would be better given that I may be being overly pessimistic on yield), and a means of hulling and rolling small quantities of oats at a time.

As to root crops, the obvious one is potatoes. The trouble is I don't actually much like potatoes. Also, mechanically harvesting one hectare of potatoes is almost certainly uneconomic, and manually harvesting a hectare of potatoes is a lot of work. Onions seem to be doing reasonably well for me this year despite neglect; the parsnips I planted this year seem entirely to have succumbed to slugs. If I add roots to my rotation, it seems to me best to divide a park into strips of early, main-crop and late potatoes, onions, and possibly brassica roots such as swedes or parsnips. This means that they won't all come ready for harvest at the same time, spreading the labour of manual harvest over several months. It would be possible to have strips of green brassicas (cabbage, chard, etc), courgettes and peas in the same park since potatoes and brassica root crops will need regular tending for slugs and weeds anyway, so the additional work would be low.

You can't reasonably store root crops over two years, and I can't afford to devote one park a year to roots, so I'd need to sell surplus production in producing years and buy in non-producing years - possibly in an arrangement with another Standingstone croft.

Summary

At present my feeling is that my best plan would be to divide my croft into three parks and to seek to buy two Galloway heifers in calf next spring. I would then run a rotation with each park doing two years pasture, one year oats, one year mixed roots. But I'd be very interested in other people's comments on this plan! This plan assumes that the commons remains permanent meadow (which is the current plan) and thus serves as a seed source and genetic reserve to keep repopulating my parks with meadow herbs ('weeds'); if the commons is not managed as permanent meadow I may need to set one of my parks as permanent meadow, in order to maintain biodiversity. This would mean either that I could not practically keep cattle, or that I could not grow crops.
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