Is veganism a herd mentality? My recent experience at a sustainable dairy farm
Charlotte Dent shares her insight and experience on a sustainable dairy farm and provides reassurance about the future of sustainable living.
I jumped backwards. A cardinal spider, the largest arachnid in Britain, had taken up residence in the barn door. The farmer was excited. ‘They’re rare,’ he told me. ‘It’s a sign of a healthy ecosystem.’
The weekend I spent on Patrick Holden’s farm was full of unexpected surprises. Patrick is a cheese farmer who has a herd of 90 Ayrshire cattle in west Wales. I confess: I am one of the people Suella Braverman recently called ‘the guardian-reading, tofu-eating, wokerati’.
In 2019, I switched to a plant-based diet after reading about the catastrophic effects of cattle farming on the climate. It wasn’t only industrially farmed meat I shunned; everything I read suggested organically raised cattle was having an even worse impact on the environment. George Monbiot’s book Regenesis (2022) cemented this, arguing organic meat is a highly inefficient way of using the land to produce calories, and is a leading cause of deforestation and biodiversity loss. Regenesis states it would be better for the environment if organic cattle farmland was rewilded (left to grow back into the wilderness), or converted to organic vegetable farming.
It all seemed so clear. Give up meat and dairy. The environmental footprint of both organic and non-organic industries, I thought, seem about as suspicious as Suella Braverman’s recent reappointment to the cabinet.
In 2019, I switched to a plant-based diet after reading about the catastrophic effects of cattle farming on the climate
When on holiday in Southern Ireland this summer, I met Patrick in a pub and we started chatting. When he told me about his job I became curious. Didn’t he know how bad his business was for the planet; for my future? The conversation that followed was, if truth be told, rather embarrassing. I was blithely unaware I had stumbled across one of the UK’s leading agro-ecological thinkers, the former head of the Soil Association and the founder of the Sustainable Food Trust, an environmental think tank and charity campaigning for regenerative food practices in the UK and beyond. Patrick was gracious and patient enough to explain his side of the equation. He told me dairy farming could not only be carbon negative, but good for biodiversity and soil ecology. He invited me to visit his farm and see for myself. It was an offer I couldn’t turn down. Armed with a spare pair of trousers and a yellow waterproof jacket, I headed down to the home of Hafod cheese.
The weekend challenged most of what I thought I knew. Patrick farms his cattle in total harmony with the environment of West Wales. Of course, he doesn’t use antibiotics on his cows, as industrial farms do. Unlike some other organic farms, he moves his herd around in a land management system called mob grazing. This means sectioning up the fields and portioning them out to the cows bit by bit to ensure that they don’t overgraze and damage the grass beyond the point of regrowth. Patrick also produces all his cows’ feed on his farm. He plants a pea and oat mix that he gives to his herd in the winter months. No soya beans, no air miles. He fertilizes these fields with the cows’ manure, and after harvesting he plants ‘green manure’, a grassy mix of seed turns the field back into pasture so the soil is not left bare and susceptible to flooding or carbon leakage.
Patrick told me he believes that over the last 50 years, his careful farming has generated about 2 inches of topsoil. Soil is the second largest active carbon store in the world (there is more carbon stored in soil than in the atmosphere and in vegetation combined), so building its carbon reserves is a vital strategy to combat the effects of climate change. In the UK, 1 hectare of healthy grassland soil sequesters about 2.5 tonnes of carbon each year, and Patrick farms one hundred and twenty-five hectares. The statistics outlined by Turf Grass Growers (linked above) show that Patrick’s soil has the potential to sequester more carbon than his farm produces, making it carbon negative.
Over the last 50 years, his careful farming has generated about 2 inches of topsoil. Soil is the second largest active carbon store in the world
My first afternoon on the farm was spent preparing fields with electric fences for mob grazing. But as I trudged up and down the verdant slopes, I wondered what would happen if Patrick let his land rewild, as George Monbiot suggests.
“Well firstly, I believe in rewilding, but in the right environments”, he responded. “The UK’s climate is classed as Temperate Dry, which means that the carbon dioxide removal rate from a forest landscape here wouldn’t be much more than grassland sequestration. Tropical humid climates are really the place for rewilding. They sequester around six times the amount of carbon dioxide that a UK forest could”.
“What we have here at Hafod is an ecological system that’s existed for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Grasslands have their own important ecosystems. My cows don’t disturb that; in fact, they add to it by keeping the soil healthy through their manure. If this grassland was turned into forest, we would lose the ecosystem it supports”. We watched as a buzzard swooped overhead. Almost as an afterthought, Patrick added, “Without the grassland, how would my barn owls and buzzards be able to hunt? They need open vistas, not dense woodland.”
The health of his land makes good food. Patrick’s cheese starts its journey in the microbiome in the soil, where a complex system of nutrients, bacteria and fungi stimulates grass growth. The cows eat the grass, and their stomach microbiome converts it into milk. The milk is then made into round blocks and left to ferment through the bacteria in the air. A year later, it can be eaten as Hafod cheddar.
Patrick explained the benefits of this complex microbial system to me. “Our cheese is created by three exposures to friendly bacteria before it enters the gut of the consumer. The gut is a complex microbiome, and our cheese supports its healthy functioning. If we rewilded our farm, it would stop producing thirty tonnes of food each year. The cows convert what we can’t eat – the grass – into something that is full of protein and nutrients we can digest. The process is magical, really”.
The cows convert what we can’t eat – the grass – into something that is full of protein and nutrients we can digest. The process is magical, really.
The next day was a 4:30am start for my first round of milking. ‘Don’t wear your yellow jacket,’ Patrick advised, handing me a forest-green cagoule. ‘It might frighten the cows’.
Milking taught me two important things. Firstly, Patrick and his wife Becky were what you might call cow whisperers, and secondly, I was not. The Holden’s parlour is small and their cows like to be handled by people who know what they’re doing. As they attached the milking machines in seconds, I scrambled around at the udders for minutes at a time trying to attach all four teatcups without the others falling off. My clumsy efforts earned me a kick in the face from cow no.26, which I fully deserved.
Milking confirmed the cows considered Patrick and his wife apart of the herd. The trust they have means they come when they are called, pushing past each other to reach the parlour first. This passes over into their relationships with their calves. The documentary Cow left me with a horrifying depiction of what can happen with no trust; when calving mothers are traumatised after their babies are ripped from them. At Patricks’ farm, I witnessed a different story. The Holdens are part of the herd; the cows trust them with their calves.
The documentary Cow left me with a horrifying depiction of what can happen with no trust; when calving mothers are traumatised after their babies are ripped from them. At Patricks’ farm, I witnessed a different story.
My weekend at Hafod taught me many things. Firstly, two pairs of trousers will quickly get soiled if you’re working with livestock. But also, eating organically farmed meat and dairy isn’t always an environmental and animal rights atrocity. Vegans must acknowledge that the majority of people will not stop consuming meat and dairy, and be careful when we advocate for everyone to change their diets both for the sake of people’s health, and the livelihoods of the farmers, economies and ecologies who we affected by this decision. If cattle are to be farmed, they need to be farmed correctly. Farmed as Patrick sets out in his manual, Feeding Britain.
If you want to be an environmentally conscious omnivore, you must consider: sourcing your food from biodiverse, organic farms, and buying locally and mindfully of the ecosystems you’re affecting (British grass-fed beef is less environmentally damaging than Amazonian-reared beef, for example).
For us in Exeter, it is easy to source organic meat and dairy. Consider buying it from Aris Healthy Life food store on Sidwell street (which does a 10 per cent student discount), Exeter Farmer’s market (every Thursday 9-2 pm) or from Eversfield Organic online.
Organic food is undoubtedly more expensive. This is not what any student needs, especially during a cost-of-living crisis. However, the hidden costs of industrially farmed meat and dairy have an immense financial and ecological impact that is already causing many of the problems plaguing the UK economy (click on the link to find out more, courtesy of the SFT). And of course, it will impact the future of our health and environment.
In July 2022, Boris Johnson’s government outlined a new approach to the farm subsidy policies that would reward farms through payment schemes for having positive environmental management systems. This was an important step in saving British soils and ecology. Unsurprisingly, Liz Truss’s 49-day fiasco called for a review of spending under the scheme, so its existence is in jeopardy. If you have spare time, you can write to your local MP, asking them to put pressure on Rishi Sunak’s government to carry on with this approach and allocate it money in the upcoming budget on November 17th. Any students hailing from Fareham, Hampshire, who have Leaky Sue as their MP, might consider emailing Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP for Exeter, instead.