Paul & Nic Renison
This profile was created as part of the AHDB Grass project
Cannerheugh sits on the edge of the Pennines, looking over the Eden Valley towards the Lake District. We came here in 2012 with our two daughters, and moved into a caravan in the farmyard, which was our home for 18 testing months.
Prior to the move, I (Paul / Reno), was a new entrant into farming and had been managing a traditional fell farm in the Lake District for 10 years, after a couple of years travelling / working and doing a degree at Harper Adams College.
I (Nic) was brought up on my parents' dairy farm on the Welsh Borders, where I developed an early love of cows and food. Working on the farm which also processed and sold milk locally after college was a good fit. A need to spread my wings led to several different roles and then a move north where I met Paul.
We arrived at Cannerheugh in 2012 with a very conventional mind. We had business plans, cash flows, and a mindset that high production / high output would carry us through and pay for the farm, be profitable and also give us a quality of life that would make us happy. Stocking up with sheep and using the many sheds on the farm to winter dairy heifers, we both had off-farm jobs. The hard winter of 2013 made us realise we had chosen a hard farm and a hard life!
We started a Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) in 2013, when we planted new hedges and reinstated walls and pockets of woodland - all with the aim of increasing shelter. At the time, biodiversity and water holding capacity wasn’t really at the forefront of our minds. With the HLS we fenced off a lot of our waterways / watercourses - it has been a bit of a game changer - we now have the feeling that the water leaving our farm is clean.
In 2014, I (Paul / Reno) visited organic beef and sheep farmers Angus and Duncan Nelless in Northumberland, who grazed their livestock in rotation. This was the lightbulb moment, and from that moment, the shift to a different paradigm began.
This change in thinking has meant in effect ‘relearning’ everything we learnt at college and from the mainstream farming community, and finding a new network of like-minded folk, via Twitter, YouTube, and countless books. Forging a different path can be a lonely road!
How we farm is continually evolving but having gone cold turkey on fertiliser, sprays and feed for ruminants 6 years ago, our grassland and its management is key. In retrospect we should have gradually weaned ourselves off or perhaps looked at going organic and have had the benefit of payments for those few years when production dropped… You have to hold the belief and come out the other side! But if someone paid us to put a fertiliser on now, we wouldn’t.
Rotational grazing means you grow more grass. The farmer in you says you need more stock - we did just that and in 2016 we had over 1,100 ewes and that’s when the wheels fell off; low growth rates, problems with lameness, worm burdens and much stress. We have learnt that for us, cattle work better on our system of daily shifts, in large groups.
We now currently have 60 sucklers, selling stores at 18 months, and 200 breeding ewes - alongside a small number of outdoor pigs and, for the last year, we have had egg layers that follow the cows in rotation in their egg mobile. (Joel Salatin Style). As with Chris Clark’s ‘maximum sustainable output’ concept (see here), we could be more productive but don’t think we’d gain financially - we’d make ourselves busier for only a small return. With having less livestock and rotationally grazing, there are lots of pluses, including the fields not being compacted.
Selling direct is becoming a bigger part of our business, getting closer to the consumer and being able to tell our story has become a huge focus. There is a want for grass-fed meat - if you go to Sainsburys or Aldi and want proper outdoor pork, you can’t get it. With us you can get 100% outdoor reared pork.
We are strong believers in the huge benefits of grass-fed livestock; to the environment, to our health, and also the bottom line.
We have very sandy loamy soil which is very low in selenium and cobalt (because the cattle and sheep don’t have any other feed, we bolus everything twice a year). We carry out regular soil testing, use lime when needed (importantly) and no synthetic fertilisers, which leaves us feeling quite smug in the soil department. But the sandy loam doesn’t cope with a drought well and with dry summers becoming a regular occurrence, we have found great benefit in leaving the grass cover for longer (preferring cattle grazing than sheep). The ground below remains much cooler and remains damp, as opposed to the nibbled, hard, scorched effect you can have after grazing with sheep.
Composting and taking better care of our FYM has been and continues to be an area of focus, it’s a limited resource and making the most of it is paramount. We are starting to learn more about the skill of composting - we do compost and turn it over, but it is a gap in our knowledge.
Varieties and alternative species
Historically the lower part of the farm was in a barley rotation, we did dabble with root crops for outwintering cattle and growing lambs on but cost and damage to the soil structure put a halt to this.
We’ve used quite a few herbal mixes - have done some reseeding with herbal leys (which include vetch, clover, cocksfoot, plantain, chicory).. They work well, plantain and cocksfoot particularly long-term. We’re going more into tall grass grazing so it’s a matter of working out what works well for that.... We have used herbal leys mixes with sainfoin and vetch - they seem to stay for the first year then disappear. Having gone down the route of doing lots of reseeding etc., we now direct drill into the leys.
Herbal leys have been good but we’ve realised that grazing our permanent pasture correctly is the better investment. Grazing in rotation has made us realise that there are huge advantages of having permanent pasture - it is that which comes out on top within our system. It responds incredibly well to an intense 24-hour graze at high density then a rest period - this could be 21 days or up to 120 days, depending on the time of year. We have noticed that we have far more clover (helping to fix nitrogen) particularly. We’d move the cattle then quickly spread plantain and chicory seeds using a fiddle drill. We’ve also direct drilled into pasture - we are always trying to increase our biodiversity. Because we have less sheep now, we have more docks and some thistle. It doesn’t bother us - we have come from the place of having a ‘perfect’ monoculture of ryegrass so have that insight.
We have white faced sheep - which are Aberfield crossed with a Lleyn. They can hack the system and looks after themselves.
The cows are Aberdeen Angus - the bull we use is from a breeder in Northumberland who breeds bulls off a grass-based system (we buy rams that are bred on a grass-based system too). They’re quite a small cow, have a calf every year, and again, look after themselves and the calves with little input from us… It’s more about if they can convert grass to meat that we’re interested in, rather than the breeds.
The cattle have always been rotationally grazed to help stimulate grass growth and avoid poaching. We have been practicing two systems - using a series of small paddocks (each less than 1 hectare), and a series of 6-acre fields, with cattle rotated on all of them on a daily basis. Our aim now is to have a big group that are continually rotated round the farm. We have 65 cows with their calves and a few other random young stock (about 140 head) in one big group moving round the farm on daily shifts.
We currently have about 54 cells, but it’s always changing - it’s important to make sure you move them before they get unsettled and there’s too much poaching. All the other fields (except one group of sheep) are resting during this time, soaking up water etc. The cows' trampling effect and the way they eat has a much more beneficial impact on the ground than the sheep. Sheep graze everything, they aren’t selective, and graze things very low.
We wanted to simplify and make it streamlined. By having less sheep and mixing them with cows, there are lots of benefits - when the sheep go on to ground where cows have been they always do better. It’s a cleaner pasture.
Our main enterprise now is beef - to make money out of suckler cows they’ve got to be out for a long time, so we have hay bales (see below) that are grazed in pods.
One of our big costs is straw. Last year we had two groups of 30 - bale pods. We’re moving away from silage - we think hay is easier and leaves less mess.
Our laying hens roam free among long grass around a mobile laying unit. This ensures no areas of grass is damaged through prolonged use, and a dispersed, low level of nutrient input into the fields from the birds’ droppings.
Integrating trees and hedges into the system
Trees and hedges contribute a lot to the farm in terms of shelter, providing browse for livestock, and increasing overall biodiversity.
Our land contains conventional blocks of mature and semi-mature forestry (as pictured below) that have been inherited from previous owners, and younger (planted within the last 5 years) strips of shelterbelt agroforestry that we have planted. Many of the 6-acre grazing paddocks also contain recently planted in-field trees. These are planted in groups of 5 or so saplings and protected by substantial wooden planking or in a smaller arrangement of a couple of species protected by wire mesh.
Moving the cattle and sheep around regularly showed us the way we wanted to farm - when we subdivided the fields, it gave us the idea of putting more hedges and trees in. We’re losing field in the farmer mentality, but we’re gaining lots of shelter and other benefits. We’re always looking for ways of putting more resilience into our system. We’re going to get drier summers and wetter winters - thinking ahead, trees and hedges are going to raise the value of the farm.
Our decision to develop shelterbelts was stimulated by the severe winter weather of 2018. Every lambing time is different - you can see sheep lambing against the new hedges - scientifically, it’s very difficult to say the hedges have saved this many lives… but you can see the impacts on the livestock when they can’t get shelter.
We intend that new agroforestry planting will eventually be able to be grazed by livestock. They quite obviously want to eat something other than grass. The other day the cows moved into a field that had crab apples on one side of it - they went straight down and frantically ate all the crab apples.
This year we’ve bought in a lot of woodchip to complement our bedding - when cattle are in they’re bedded on straw, which is expensive. Our plan eventually is to have our own willow or hazel we can chip (from hedges).
We currently have 2 sows who each year have 2 lots of piglets. They go onto rough bits of land and into wood (we pulse them through) - we need to have pigs in woods (they help rejuvenate) but the current infrastructure to do it right is expensive.
Our motivations for better grassland management are to be productive without the use of sprays and fertilisers, and to farm in an ecologically ‘right’ way - a regenerative way - so everything is getting better rather than worse, producing our meat in the most productive and sustainable way. It’s about maintaining that equilibrium between the right way financially and quality of life. As we get older, we’re becoming increasingly aware of our impact and the world being created for our kids.
We want to do more agroforestry. All we’ve really done so far is put a load of shelter on a bleak hill farm! We want to create more subdivision using hedges and are looking at doing a bigger field of agroforestry with laneways (inspired by Wakelyns).
We hope to combine cow grazing, chickens and tourists. We’d like to put some ponds in and aspire to have lots of little pockets of income so the whole system is quite resilient.
Generally, as Joel Salatin would say, we think there needs to be a total paradigm shift. Charles Massy says we’ve become “landscape illiterate” and we think we have. The danger is the uplands get planted with trees and there’s no rural community as no jobs around, and the lowlands are farmed intensively, cause lots of pollution, and carry on producing ‘average’ food. We’d like to see our farm and farms generally be vibrant places with lots of people around / employed. If you’ve got soil, you can grow more than just sheep and beef - you can have apples, pears and plums amongst your sheep…
With our type of farming, even though we do have high borrowings and are continually looking at our overdraft, it’s a much easier way of farming to live with. We believe you need to look back to go forward.
With very many thanks to Paul and Nic Renison