READ THIS EXAMPLE OF “AN EASIER WAY TO DO THINGS”!
On a visit to Clive Bright’s farm in Sligo in 2016, as part of a group learning about organic farming, I recall him declaring with a grin that he “considers himself a lazy farmer”. Clive clarified this viewpoint by adding: “I’m always looking for an easier way to do things”. Clive’s statement belies a true passion for farming smarter, and his approach is reaping rewards. By paying close attention to every detail, and questioning the necessity of each step in the farming process, Clive has carved out a viable market for his 100% grass-fed beef. So how does he do it? Dermot McNally shares some insights.
CLOSING THE FAMILY DAIRY
Clive had come to the realisation that his dairy farm was too small to turn a profit, but equally, he did not have the means to expand production. He made the brave decision to close his dairy soon after finishing his Green Cert. However, as Clive explains, he then set about making significant changes: “I bred out of the dairy with Al Shorthorn bulls and started to build up a suckler herd. I followed this with a Limousin stock bull and sold weanling calves for a while.” Clive felt there was untapped potential in his farm, and in 2010 he started the move into organic beef farming. The Bright family farm spans 120 acres, which may sound large, but in reality this farmland is mainly wet, heavy and rushy, and would be classified in Monaghan as “middling”. Clive knew that he had no option but to farm smart. As his business has grown, Clive has started to rent 40 acres of neighbouring land, which he uses to let his cattle range when he takes his summer holidays with the family.
CONVERSION TO ORGANICS
The conversion to organic farming was tougher than Clive expected, and from the outset, it was challenging to find good advice. Nonetheless, Clive is an avid reader, and he acquired books in holistic animal management which boosted his confidence and presented him with new techniques to try on the farm. He became a Certified Organic Farmer in 2013, and he set up a website to sell direct, calling his business “Rare Ruminare”. Since then has become a Farming for Nature ambassador, A Pasture for Life member and, most recently, he’s turned his attention to the Irish Agroforestry Forum. Clive also works part time with the Organic Trust and publishes their e-newsletter.
In the early days of organic conversion, Clive found the price of organic grains prohibitive, and so he started to cull the animals in his herd who did not suit a pasture-only system.
During these early years he worked hard to improve his pastures (reseeding where necessary), and he started to select for breeds and characteristics in his stock that would suit this low input system. The animals that thrived were nurtured, and he now uses a mix of traditional breeds such as Irish Moiled, Angus, Hereford, Shorthorn, and his current stock bull is a Red Belted Galloway. He has 24 suckler cows, and the herd ranges in size from between 60 to 80 animals.
Clive is always looking to acquire animals that are naturally adapted to thrive in his farmland. He wants medium-sized animals that are low maintenance and that can add bulk easily. He culls animals that are getting too big. In this sense, balance is important, and he’s careful not to weaken his herd by over-focusing on a single characteristic. However, there are basic requirements: his animals must calve, rear and wean their offspring on their own every year, and if they don’t achieve this, he culls them. It’s harsh in one sense, but he contends that this approach secures long-term efficiency.
TURNOVER IS VANITY, PROFIT IS SANITY
Active farmers will note that Clive’s livestock unit-per-hectare is low, but this ensures the farm is sustainable, and he has no need to buy in feedstuff – indeed, he plans to reduce numbers further, and move to year-round grazing with no housing. Again, the old adage stands: turnover is vanity, profit is sanity. And so by removing housing and all associated costs, Clive can increase profitability on a falling turnover. Conventional farmers who are working with higher stocking rates, but struggling to make a decent return, are probably left scratching their heads with this approach. Clive, however, recommends that these farmers sit down with their accountant and play with figures. In short, selling direct increases his turnover massively when compared to selling through factories: he’s achieving €14/kg.
Clive has no fertiliser bill, no feed bills, few veterinary bills, and he gets a top up on his BPS by being signed up to the organic system. All the calving happens outside, from the second week in May. “Calving inside was more effort than it was worth. Keeping the bedding clean and hygienic is a task I felt we could remove, so we calve outside and let the sun sterilise the ground”. His latest plans for cost-saving is ambitious and unconventional: if he can move to year round grazing he won’t need a tractor to move silage and hay as part of winter housing.
HOLISTIC PLANNED GRAZING
Clive’s grazing method follows this pattern: short, focused periods of monitored grazing in defined paddocks, before moving the animals onwards. This system emphasises long periods of rest for each paddock between grazing, and results in better quality grass with more established root systems. This in turn improves drainage and moisture retention during dry spells. Longer grass is able to photosynthesise better than short, regularly grazed grass, and this too means extra free inputs (not utilised in a conventional system). The excess grass that is inevitably trampled down in turn fertilises the ground, and so it becomes a self-enhancing system. In other words, the short term maximisation of grass production is sacrificed for long term soil health and sustainable, low input production. The shortest rotation is about 30 days in the summer, and Clive generally moves his cattle twice a day. This can be time consuming, but it gets easier as paddocks and infrastructure are established. In truth, this is Clive’s only regular daily task, and therefore the routine is not too onerous. As a rule of thumb, you could say that the faster the grass grows, the quicker the rotation.
“Mob grazing” is another regenerative farming technique, and I got to witness this on Clive’s farm back in 2016: the cattle were released into a paddock with very long grass, and the idea here is that the cattle pick out the forage they want and trample the rest into the ground, which builds soil cover and fertility. What’s left standing are thistles and docks and other less palatable species, and this makes “topping” these undesirables simple, hence stopping them going to seed.
But the thing that stood out for me was the sheer volume of insect life that erupted from the grasses as the “mob” of cattle stormed in: small birds attacked in their hundreds taking advantage of the easy pickings. This biodiversity is further enhanced by the ponds and other features that Clive has added to his farm to enhance and protect nature. I mentioned earlier about Clive’s membership of the Pasture for Life Association: if you are a farmer interested in making improvements to your grazing, be sure to check them out to learn more.
FARMING WITHIN NATURE’S LIMITS
Clive isn’t shy about his plan to farm within nature’s limits: if he can work with nature, he can improve the water cycle and mineral cycle. In this way, the fertility of the farm becomes self-sustaining while also guaranteeing his profitability. Selling direct to the end consumer is a key part of his story: he’s achieving €14/kg but has the added costs of butchering to factor in as compared to selling direct to the factory. Indeed, every year Clive finds himself oversubscribed. A local abattoir prepares all his meat for market, and most of his customers collect from the farm. The aggressive culling and refining of his herd is paying dividends now, and in 2021 he prepared 14 animals (mostly bullocks) for sale. He usually keeps his best heifers so that he can continually improve the herd’s genetics.
Clive has recently begun to prepare Rosé Veal (a specialty meat) and is on the look out for an Irish Moiled Bull; the animals are small, but he estimates that he can keep three for every two Angus with the same inputs. Clive also intends to put more work into agroforestry by adding trees to his landscape. He believes that his marginal land, which has heavy clay ground, and is prone to compaction and rushes, would benefit enormously from cleverly designed tree systems. Rushes indicate ecological stagnation, but trees rejuvenate the soil and rushes then fade naturally. The shelter provided by trees will also be vital in Clive’s plans for year-round grazing: they will provide windbreaks in the winter and shade during the hottest periods. Cattle are evolved to graze in woodland pasture, and so Clive knows that agroforestry will enhance his system greatly. For now, however, he is experimenting with small areas until the Department further improve the current agroforestry scheme in a way that better aligns with his future plans.
Thankfully we won’t have to go to Sligo to get pasture fed meat. Drumsheeny Dexter is run by the capable Conor and Sorcha McPhillips and is based in Glaslough: I bought one of their first beef boxes in Autumn 2021 and the flavour of the meat was fantastic. The couple will be taking preorders this summer for their pasture fed beef boxes. Exciting for the couple was the news that they’ve been nominated for a Farming for Nature award.