Organic milk: Udderly delicious
It's official, organic milk is better for you - as Richard Parks can attest. And now his dairy farm has won the Soil Association's top award. Phil Boucher reports
Thursday 31 August 2006
Kendal has attracted nature lovers for generations, both as a base for discovering the Lake District and as a beauty spot in its own right. The scenery around the pretty Cumbrian town owes as much to human hands as it does to the artistic bent of Mother Nature. It is a landscape that has been sculpted to include hedgerows, pastures, thickets and stone walls by generations of farmers working in partnership with the land and its seasons. It is for this reason that the human alterations so perfectly complement the landscape. Put simply, the man-made additions look natural because they serve nature.
The tradition is alive and well. Travel four miles down the A590 from Kendal towards Lancaster and you'll discover Lower Sizergh Farm. Instead of using chemical fertilisers the fields here are fed with nothing more than compost, manure and lashings of rain. Its 120-strong herd of dairy cows also benefits from open-air grazing and a system of preventative medicine that aligns their needs with the natural cycle of their environment. In return the herd produces more than a million litres of organic milk a year, the health benefits of which are then passed on to us.
"I like to think of it like a restaurant menu: traditional with a modern twist," jokes Richard Parks, who works this land. "We've got a better understanding of genetics in our livestock, better seeds to grow our feed and better machinery to plough the fields. But we are basically using the advantages of the modern world to farm in a very traditional way."
Parks' family used to farm here in the modern way. The change has been hard for everyone. But milk yields are higher than ever, and this week Lower Sizergh was given the cream of organic farming awards: the Soil Association's Best Organic Dairy Farm.
Walk through Lower Sizergh at different times of the year and you'll come across grass, red clover, white clover, cereals, spring wheat and a crop called tritcale - a wheat crossed with rye. This is testament to Parks' desire to get every inch of his land working in harmony. By harvesting these crops throughout the year he's able to store enough organic feed to see the cows through winter and ensure the soil benefits from the increased fertility of crop rotation and regular ploughing.
At the same time the lack of pesticides and chemical fertilisers has encouraged worms to return in abundance, rapidly followed by rabbits, moles and swallows. As a result the soil under the hedges now includes a range of delicate flowers and grasses, and if Parks does repair a hedge he follows the traditional method, where branches are kept bushy and placed on their sides to allow birds to nest and younger plants to grow through the twigs.
Elsewhere on the farm, 250 organically reared hens wander freely. A spring-fed pond and protected, ancient woodland encourage frogs, birds and all manner of insects to thrive. On the far side an orchard has been established to grow bright purple damsons and a selection of rare apple breeds that once thrived in the area. Parks hopes this will one day become a "living library" for ecologists and uses a natural method to keep the grass around the stumps at bay: hungry sheep.
It's not just the environment that's benefiting either, as a couple of fields have been set aside for a project that supports people recovering from mental health issues through arable farming. Volunteers grow organic crops and slowly rediscover their wellbeing in the process. The vegetables are then sold in the farm's shop. All the packaging and plastic wrapping used on the farm, café and shop is recycled.
Yet the most remarkable aspect of Lower Sizergh is not the sheer amount of organic measures Parks has taken: it's that he's done it all in just six years. Before that he was a conventional farmer and the farm itself had been run intensively by his parents for more than two decades.
"In the late Nineties dairy farming was going through a difficult period because of low prices and the end of the Milk Marketing Board," Parks recalls. "We were facing the dilemma of what to do. Increasing the cow numbers was one option - as was packing up. But at that time the organic market was under-supplied."
Parks went organic in April 2000. His first step was to stop using artificial fertilisers or chemical sprays to control weeds and pests. He then stopped giving his cows antibiotics and allowed them to freely roam the meadows in the day and then the cowsheds at night. At the same time he overhauled the sheds to include padded floors, improved ventilation and heating and bought giant rakes to scoop up the manure so it could then be used on the fields.
The change wasn't easy. In his first year Parks's calves had to be treated with a wormer. At one stage the older cows also had a problem with mastitis when their milk dried off. Whereas a conventional farmer would simply reach for the antibiotics, Parks had to improvise an organic solution. Now he only puts the calves on fields where the adults haven't been to give them clear grazing - and consequently little chance of catching worms. He also discovered an organic paste that stops the udders from becoming infected by flies in the first place, preventing the mastitis at its source.
"The scary part was that in the beginning it was so unknown," says Parks. "I couldn't even understand how to grow grass without fertiliser. We made plenty of mistakes, like not getting the crop rotation right. I also increased the cow numbers too quickly and was short of feed at one stage. But we were amazed. Within two years the average cow's yield rose from 7,000 litres to nearly 9,000 litres a year. They were also far healthier. And it was all down to the improved quality of the grass and the extra room in the buildings."
Parks describes the Best Organic Dairy Farm award as a "nice pat on the back" for everyone that works at the farm. "My parents farmed conventionally all their lives but support everything I've done," says Parks. "My grandfather has also been fascinated because he farmed in a traditional way for the first part of his career then went over to the more intensive system after the war.
"Now I've made the change I don't think I could ever go back. Organic farming constantly challenges you, as there's nowhere you can go if you run out of feed or your animals get a nasty disease. You have to come up with a system to avoid that happening. Our job also changes with the seasons and forces us to think about every inch of our 300 acres. It's all about finding a balance with nature. To my mind it is what farming is all about."
Natural selection: the definition of organic
The Advisory Committee on Organic Standards is responsible for the approval and supervision of all organic certification in the UK. Their dairy standards cover the following:
Livestock Cows must have plenty of space and be kept in social groups. Over-stocking and single pens are not allowed as they are unnatural and create stress for the animals. Feed is strictly regulated and no GM, urea or solvent-based products are allowed.
Soil Artificial chemicals and fertilisers must be avoided. Instead, a sustainable system including the planting of nitrogen-fixing crops such as clover should be used to build a fertile soil and encourage micro-organisms and earthworms to improve the soil.
Pests All herbicides are prohibited. Organic farmers must use long-term alternative methods such as crop rotation, active habitat management, careful timings of cultivations and seed selection.
Conservation The development of a rich, natural habitat is a priority. This can include leaving field margins unploughed to allow wild mammals and insects to flourish. Hedges can only be cut in the winter so that nesting birds and insects aren't disturbed.
GM crops Genetically modified organisms are strictly prohibited at every stage of production.
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