The great English Romantic poet Willian Wordsworth once said: “Let Nature be your teacher”.
nd, an inspiring and eloquent Sligo farmer is certainly living that mantra on his unique organic beef farm in Ardsallgh, Ballymote.
For around two hours ,on a sultry mid summer’s afternoon the genial Clive Bright (41) took around 120 farmers on a Teagasc Organic Farm Walk around his holding accompanied by officials from Teagasc, the Department of Agriculture, the Organic Trust and the Irish Organic Association, groups who have all been supportive of organic farmers like Clive.
There are approximately 2,000 organic farmers in the country and the hope is to grow this number substantially.
It was a most entertaining and informative talk and Clive’s wonderful sunny spirit and eternal can do attitude held the attention of the interested attendance.
Clive is also an accomplished artist and made his living as such during the last recession before going full time at organic farming in 2013.
This was a very well- organized event on the 120 -acre farm that lies about two miles out the Kesh road from Ballymote.
Just before we took off, Clive gave The Sligo Champion some background and a brief overview on how he has succeeded in making this farm a remarkable success.
He has his own brand called “Rare Ruminaire” and his own website callwww.rareruminaire.com.
His attitude to farming is refreshing and his catchy mission statement is; “To leisurely, profitably and perpetually farm an aesthetic landscape, to feed the minds and bellies of ourselves and others”
“My great grandfather, who was in the Australian army bought this farm for my grandfather in 1937 and he came home to farm it.
“My grandfather was Ned Bright, and my father took over the farm when he was 19 and that was in the 1960s.
“My dad was Teddy Brght and he passed away when I was six and my mum Joyce Bright is still alive, and she is from Croghan in Co Roscommom.
“I tried to trace the family tree and my grandfather would have come from Riverstown and I think he was Edward.
“They must have come over as labourers from England so there is no landed gentry in our family.”
Clive’s wife Shelley Brady is from Dublin, and he quips that his “saving grace” is that he did not go to Agricultural College.
After school he went to Art College,and has had exhibitions, and he is currently building a house on the farm. He and Shelley have two children Teddy (8) and Emily is (5).
“They are both very interested in the farm and Teddy is the tractor man and Emily is the nature girl.”
He added: “I have a keen interest in trees on the land and how trees can assist the farm.
“So, I will be talking about that from the point of view of soil function, animal welfare and shelter.
“We are a fully grass-fed farm as well as being organic and I will talk a little about the breeding involved.
“I went for smaller animals who need less grass, and I don’t use any meal for the animals or fertiliser for the land.
“The grass management is very important too and then a bit more about trees and then how we sell the meat directly to the public in 20kg beef boxes.
“Our fertiliser is from the dung of the animals, and we just clean out the shed two or three times during the winter when the animals are in, and we keep bedding on top to keep it as dry as possible.
“We have 120 acres and we rent a few more when we want to go on holidays. The soil is heavy limestone and drumlin.
“We have 40 animals between cows, calves and bullocks and we finish the calves by 30 months for beef.”
And then we followed Clive on a memorable walk on the land with four stops.
“I always wanted to farm organically since I was small, and it took ten years to convert the farm from I took over in 2003 to 2013.
“It is a really low-cost farm, we don’t buy meal or fertiliser, and my ultimate goal is to farm for free and get rid of the tractor.
“When we converted first, I upped the stock rate and got better at managing the grassland.
“I have cut that stock down dramatically and I outwintered half the herd last year. It is a lovely farm, 120 acres and all in one block.
“I am a low input farmer both in time and in costs, but I do a lot of planning.
“We did spread fertiliser at a time to keep with industry standards and found that it had a huge negative effect on the soil.
“There are some areas on the hill which have rushes and that is a direct result of spreading too much urea.
“The main thing we do is manage our grazing really carefully and it is very important for the grass to have a recovery period.
“It is called Holistic Planned Grazing and the difference in this, and other grazing is that you focus on the recovery period and never try to graze out a pasture or graze it even.
“The grazing of an area could be for a day or a day and a half and then the cattle are moved to another area that is cordoned off with an electric fence.
“If grassland is managed properly, it does not need any extra nutrients animals are making their own compost as they go so you are doing all of this without the diesel and you get the cattle to do all the work.
“We try and grow a big blanket of grass during the summer and then we have dung beetles who eat the dung and the land is really well fertilised.”
We walked for about ten minutes to a low field which was covered in rushes, but it had a long narrow strip of very good grass in an area where he planted native alder trees and the grass was lush and green between the trees.
‘This is where I had a Eureka moment about, trees,” explained Clive.
“Every year we topped and sprayed it to no avail years ago, it is heavy soil.
“I got sick of the neighbours pulling me out of this damp rushy ground, so I threw in a line of alder trees.
“It is a cold field with a horrible wind, and I planted the alder trees as a shelter belt and about six or seven years later I noticed that rushes and most of the flagons had completely disappeared.
“It showed the power of what trees can do in the landscape and what they can do for soil function.
“After eight years, I piled the whole herd into that area between the trees and they levelled it, but I did not leave them there for long.
“After that quick grazing there was some great grass and every time the cows come back it is getting better.
“Trees can actually help this kind of land because the mechanical alternative is to put in gravel drains or to keep topping it and that costs a lot of money and energy, and the land nearly always goes back to what it was.”
“If you can find a natural route to solving a problem, it is easier and it is cheaper.”
It is clear, that in everything he does on this farm, Clive questions conventional methods.
“The future plan is to have a lot more trees in the ground because it is such an easy way to convert land that is not functioning into land that is functioning, and this is agri-forestry.”
What followed was a bit of a climb amid the strong heady smell of summer grass, cut to allow us to walk the land, to look at Clive’s herd which is made up of a background of Hereford with a strong mixture of Aberdeen Angus and Irish Moiled with 15 breeding cows.
“This was a dairy farm when I took it over in 2003 and it was losing money because it had missed the whole “get big or get out thing.
“We were at the whim of the market for milk, and I did not like that at all.
“Continental animals did not suit what I was trying to achieve.
“I was moving to organic farming, and I started learning about animals and the ones that I needed for that purpose.
“I started to try and get the bulls to breed a smaller, neater butty animal, not long in the back and a big gut so they can eat a lot of grass. I was concentrating on a breeding herd, so fertility was a huge goal, so any animal that did not calve on their own, didn’t rear a calf on their own and didn’t wean a calf on their own got culled.
“By doing that we have a super fertile herd now and we have the bull in for six weeks, take him away for a while and if they are not in calf in that period they are culled.”
We had another bit of a climb and saw much of Clive’s stock sheltering from the heat half- way up a hill in a group of hawthorn trees where we were looking across at the magnificent caves of Keash, full of myth and mystery.
“But if we had trees planted in this field the stock they would be out grazing and that is how productivity is achieved.
“There are loads of ways of planting trees, you can do a strip up the middle of the field or plant it quite densely.
He added: “I think I could have the cattle out all winter if I had a low stock rate and if I had enough trees for their shelter.
“But as we go up it is colder, and the grass gets a bit scalded, so we need the trees”.
Another tougher climb lay before us as we walked further up and Clive gave us a very detailed explanation on how “Holistic Planned Grazing” worked.
This focuses on the land recovering after grazing and one of the key goals is to graze fast when the growth is fast in the summer months for a day or a day and a half at its peak and then move the herd to another paddock and to graze slow when growth is slow in tandem with Nature.
The total rotation can vary from 30-70 days depending on the season.
“It is important that you keep some vegetative grass happening all the time. There is no way you can do that consistently across a field with a small herd, so we never graze out pastures.
“There are patches, low, and untouched and trampled but mess is good as Nature tends to be quite messy too.
“Holistic Planned Grazing takes in the whole farm and the uneven nature means I have a whole new species in the land and their life cycle is different and it increases diversity in the soil.
“This creates community dynamics and if I have the cows in a paddock for one day and they graze out as much as they can and there are loads of different species there, when they come back in 30 days there is going to be 30 days of high protein for them with leafy stuff and their diet is not going to dip because they have created enough feed to do that.
“And that will keep happening, but they will also have access to different fibre and taller grasse and a young plant will have high energy and older plants will be high in minerals as their roots are going down deeper.
“All your paddocks remain the same size throughout the growing season and that is very important, and you just change the time the animals are in them”.
“In a droughty period, I slow it down to a 70- day rotation”.
He added: “If grass is grazed properly, you need no fertiliser.
“The grass here is tougher and it can be grazed through winter’s and it has been grazed in winter and it resets the farm just like if you had topped it”.
“I was finishing animals no bother in winter. We were trying to downsize the herd and now I try to geta a cow size of 550 kgs which is really small.
“I try and finish the beef animals at around 600 kgs. I try to pick bulls and cows accordingly.
“I got an Irish Moiled Bull in more recent years, and he was fantastic as he looked so primal and I got the loan of him for a few seasons and he was gorgeous.
“He was 14 and I collected him in Cork and brought him to the field here at 4.30 am in the morning and he hopped straight out of the trailer and served his first cow- a complete champ.
“His calves are very good, and the Moils are slow maturing, but the meat is so much better as a result, and I have Angus in there as well and I can spread it out over the season naturally.
And mixing genetics has been very good for me”.
The final leg of our journey brought us back to the yard where Clive gave the all- important information on how to market and sell his beef.
And the key thing is that he sells directly to his growing band of customers.
“I had been a beef farmer and I’d go to the mart really proud of my animals and got screwed over by some dealers and come home with nothing, so it was deflating.
“All that stuff annoyed me enough to want to do something about it.
“I saw a huge niche in the market because being a lazy ecological farmer I ended up producing this really prime beef product and really sought after and I used to sell lamb also.
“We have a great abbatoir, in Grange Burns Farm Meats and they were open to change and really helpful.
“They taught me a lot about meat, and I came up with a 20 kilo beef box which was the equivalent of a lamb.
“They would break it down evenly and we sell them at a cost of €15 per kilo”.
This makes a total of €300 per box and translates into a sale price of E2,800 per finished animal.
“It is one product and if someone looks for a bit of fillet I say no, and all we sell is this 20- kilo box.
“They either want it or don’t and they keep coming back so it seems to work.
“If you offer a 10kg box you will sell out, but you will have twice the work do to.
“It just takes me an hour to sell a 20 kilo beef box and if I have ten beef boxes in an animal and that takes 20 hours.
“I have kept it simple, the more complexity added, you end up being a busy fool.
“Direct selling is very direct”.
He added: “I can definitely up my production levels.
“An ideal way would be to get rid of the breeding herd and buy weanlings and carry them through the winter and that is a tempting idea.
“But I am not sure that the animals I would need are available and I don’t like going to the mart and I like to be independent”.
“The abbatoir does the packaging of the animal and I don’t store any meat on the farm.
“I pick up the beef packed, boxed and labelled from the abbatoir, and I am just the courier, but the meat is hung up for three weeks”.
So, how does Clive market his product?
“Part of it was luck as there is a huge demand and I was at it quite early. Random people ring me all the time.
“When I started, I was lucky enough to get on “Ear To The Ground” an agricultural programme on RTE and that gave me a good start.
“I have an Instagram Account and a website and sell some veal as well. We also do an occasional barbeque box -no steaks.
He was then asked the question if it was important to have beef for sale all year round?
“The easiest time to finish beef animals is from September onwards and it is a natural sequence.
“It is seasonal thing but because I have so many different breeds of animal and the grass quality is good, so I am able to finish beef all year round”.
And how would competitors affect Clive?
“The more the merrier because there is huge demand out there. Anyone who rings me, I tell them how I operate.
“There is room for a me in every parish and the more people who buy beef like this the more people will continue to buy beef.
“There is a big niche in the market and there is also an organic market for exports as well and there are loads of options
“Moiled beef is the best of them all and is so tender and Angus beef is nice too”.
Farmers intending to convert to organic farming can look forward to a government budget of €256m from 2023 to 2027, according to a Department of Agriculture official.
Kevin McGeever of the Organic Unit of the Dept, told a around 120 farmers/interested parties at Clive Bright’s farm in Ballymote, that this was a five-fold increase on the previous figure of E56m and showed that the government was “serious about organic farming.”
Speaking just before a Teagasc Walk on the farm, he said:
“It is to give you the public, the farmers, consumers an idea of what goes on, on an organic farm and how different it is from other farms.
“Currently two per cent of farms in the country are being farmed organically so clearly it is a very small amount but the current programme for government has a target of 7.5 per cent by 2030.
“The last budget was for €56m so there is five-fold increase there and clearly shows the government is serious about organic farming and organic farmers will have priority access to the new agri-environment scheme announced recently.
“The supports are there and there will be a new scheme opening in 2003 and if you are in a current contract, you will receive the enhanced payment rates that will be on offer in the new scheme. The payment rates have been sent to the EU for approval and hopefully we will be hearing back from them in the next few months. We will have a clear indication of the payment rates for the various organic enterprises by the Ploughing Championships.
“The new scheme will open in October of this year for contract starts in January 2023 and I would advise you to talk to the IOA and Organic Trust and to your local Teagasc adviser and find out what you need to convert, and you need to do a 25 hour organic training course to be prepared if that is your choice.”
Beef Sales: 33,486
Direct Payments 24,160
OFS Scheme 9,800
TOTAL INCOME 67,506
TOTAL COSTS: 17,170
https://www.independent.ie/regionals/sligochampion/news/farming-for-free-is-clives-organic-vision-for-his-county-sligo-holding-41799991.html Farming for free is Clive’s organic vision for his County Sligo holding