A couple of weeks ago the Pembrokeshire Permaculture Group met at Mountain Hall, the home of Alex and Sam Heffron. When Alex and Sam moved here 18 months ago they had no background in farming and had never milked a cow. What they did have was a passion and a plan. Now they have a micro-dairy and small beef herd which are showing every sign of becoming a successful business.
Before looking for a farm to buy Alex and Sam had used strategies from Holistic Management to get a clear idea of the kind of life they wanted to create for themselves and the values on which it would be founded. Although this approach is distinct from permaculture they espoused the 3 ethics of Permaculture – Earth Care, People Care and Fair Shares. They also followed the principle of ‘design from pattern to detail’ by thinking about the whole of their desired lifestyle before worrying about the names they would give their cows! (or even how many cows there would be) They had no wish to be rich but wanted to earn a decent living without killing themselves with overwork; to have happy, healthy stock; to provide high quality food direct to members of their community; to build the soil and biodiversity on their land; and, if possible, to enable others in the local community to benefit from the land as well. Then they devised the enterprises that would work for them and hunted for a small farm that would suit.
First we were shown the 5 milking cows. They plan in future to build a closed herd of Jerseys using AI with sexed sperm to ensure they get heifer calves. Calves are allowed to suckle for about 3 months and all the cows are milked just once a day, one at a time in a home made stall. Initially milking was by hand but now a small machine is used. Each cow’s milk is dealt with separately and is sold as raw milk. It is put into bottles (plastic for now at the request of their environmental health officer but glass once they have convinced her they are safe!) and each bottle has the name of the cow written on it. Sales are through the Carmarthenshire Food Assembly and from a fridge in one of the sheds to locals. They have regular customers who pre-order and could sell much more than they currently produce. Having done a lot of research they hope to selectively breed for A2 beta-casein in the milk which is thought to make it more digestible and they believe will become the norm in dairying as it has in Australia. In the future, as the herd grows, they may start to make and sell other dairy products such as cheese, yoghurt and kefir.
Next we visited the dexter cattle kept for beef (but on the way stopped to admire the goats). This group are dexter x angus store cattle and any bull calves from the first pregnancies of the Jerseys will join them. In another field were a group of older dexter cows who will provide calves for beef in future. They are grass fed so live outdoors all year round with only lucerne as supplementary feed if there is not enough grazing in winter. When ready they are taken to the small abattoir at Tregaron used by most of the local smallholders, hung there and then taken to a friend’s farm where there is an in-house butchery to be cut and bagged. Like the milk it is sold through the Food Assembly or from a freezer in the shed.
Alex (centre with Sam on the left talking to a cow!) explained that their aim is to build the fertility of the soil and the strength of the grass so they use mob grazing. By moving the cattle frequently the grass is never grazed too short and they believe that this encourages it to put down deeper roots and increases the variety of plants within the sward. They have found that there is an additional benefit in that it encourages them to check on all their stock frequently and the animals associate people with fresh grass so become more manageable. In places where the earth has been churned up because of rain they re-seed with a more diverse mixture than they found when they arrived and they may experiment in future with tilling and re-seeding some strips.
They hope that in time they will plant trees on the fields, probably in double rows so that moving electric fencing and grazing between is not too onerous. Cider Apples could enable someone else to start a micro-brewery and other trees for coppicing could provide a business opportunity for someone else. In fact between needing to increase their stock to meet demand and all the ideas they have for the future they are already planning to rent more land adjoining the farm!
All that talk of business opportunities meant that the discussion in the afternoon focussed on Permaculture for business planning. As well as Alex and Sam there were Matthew and Carys with their poultry and bees and Kate from Real Seeds (read about them here and in the 2 following posts Real Seeds 1 ) and 3 other planned businesses in what someone described as ‘the mistakes phase’ – not yet ready to launch but experimenting to see what is possible – a tree nursery, one providing fungal spores for a variety of uses (I never knew they were so versatile and useful) and one selling fermented foods. It was lovely to hear people all round the room giving each other free advice, tips and support. It is a real privilege to belong to such a generous, open group.