The Rainton Sustainable Farming Project

Our motivation to act is driven by the profound belief that only through a fundamental change in the way we farm are we going to make any meaningful impact on the growing issues facing us:

  • Environmental degradation – climate change, biodiversity loss, diffuse pollution
  • Resource depletion – fossil fuels, water ( not so applicable here perhaps), soils, major nutrients (P & K)
  • Agri-chemical misuse – accumulations of toxic chemicals, antibiotic resistance
  • Animal welfare – as an industry we are becoming de-sensitised to the suffering of animals, as numbers in herds grow but staffing doesn’t
  • Social degradation – replacing 20 small family farms sustaining a farmer and a worker and their families with one mega-dairy with a ‘farmer’/businessman and manager plus 10 itinerant workers (worthy souls though they be).
  • Food security – the move towards larger, more complex and more intensive farming systems, that are increasingly dependent on bought-in goods and specialized services to operate, is making these businesses much more fragile, and food prices more volatile
  • Food affordability – the push towards intensification, unless accompanied by substantial improvements in management expertise, is quite evidently resulting in an increase in waste (infertility, lameness, disease, nutritional disorders, cows and calves unfit for food, slurry viewed as a problem not an asset) with little benefit for the consumer, and an industry increasingly dependent on public subsidy

When government goes out to consult ‘the industry’ on these various issues the response invariably is: ‘Do you want food, or not! You can’t have it both ways!’

But we believe we can.

Our model is based around the concept of Lean Production, which at its essence is about: Simplification, Waste Reduction and Cost Internalisation. The target outcomes (some we have already achieved and some have been calculated by SAC Consulting) are relative to the average dairy:

  • 60% reduction in green-house gas emissions and energy use, per unit production (SAC)
  • 90%+ reduction in the use of antibiotics and agro-chemicals (actually achieved)
  • 10-fold increase in biodiversity (to be confirmed!)
  • 100% increase in net food available for human consumption per unit production (est. Fairley, 2013)
  • Doubling the lifespan of the cow.
  • Achievable at current prices (SAC to confirm, but early projections promising)
  • Attaining the highest standards of animal welfare (CiWF welfare award (2013) – first in Scotland – judged during last winter’s trial)

We actually trialed the system last winter and are confident we can make it work, but need more time (and money) to make the necessary changes. We intend fully implementing the new system in the Autumn of 2014.

That’s the easy bit! It’s when I go on to describe the actual system itself that eyebrows really get raised. I can honestly say that I have come across very few in the industry who believe we can pull this off. Our SAC consultant was reluctant to even consider the option, and was much keener for us to get back to ‘proper’ farming. However, on his second visit, when we had tidied up the assumptions and ran the various models on his laptop, he became cautiously interested when our proposed model came out more profitable than the organic one.

  • We have set aside 10% of the farm and planted it down to conjoined, mixed broadleaf woodland, while increasing the productivity of the remaining 90% farmland by at least 10%. We’ve assumed the woodland will carry 100 times the number of wildlife species of fertilized and sprayed Ryegrass grassland (the average dairy).
  • We are breeding up a more dual purpose, robust, crossbred cow for milk, beef and longevity (7.5 lactations vs. 2.5 on intensive farms)
  • We are allowing the calf to suckle its own mother who we will also milk
  • We will reduce the amount of concentrates fed per cow and calf by 40%
  • The faster growth rates of the calves, and thus quicker finishing or entry into the herd of heifers, releases land for 40% more cows
  • The extra cows will help to replace much of the milk drunk by the calves
  • The extra cows, their greater longevity and better beefing qualities will double the value of beef or breeding animals sold off the farm
  • We have just installed an experimental, micro, anaerobic digester which, on paper, will use our waste products on the farm to generate sufficient electricity and hot water to run the farm and Cream o’ Galloway (in conjunction with the wind turbine), AND reduce the environmentally damaging qualities of the slurry whilst significantly enhancing its fertilizer value!
  • We will move to once-a-day milking with welfare benefits for cows and herdsman

If we can deliver all this AND make a (modest) profit at current market prices?!

As I mention above, we trialed the system last winter and are now monitoring the impacts on cow and calf performance, and are happy that our targeted performances can be achieved. The model works because we produce most of our feed, fuel and fertilizer needs from the farm, turn waste into valuable inputs and are thus more resource efficient and independent of global input price spikes. The animals are much freer to express their full potential, rather than being forced to do so. Of course labour costs are high, but that pays dividends in these other areas.