Under warm, midsummer sunshine, Matt stands amongst Nutfield Dairy’s herd of beautiful cows – mostly dairy shorthorns. The family’s pet Jersey, Lilly, nudges him constantly to seek his hand for a pat. 

Matt has just become a Farming Champion for the Nature Friendly Farming Network and is a member of
the Pasture-fed Livestock Association (PFLA). He tells me that he wants to show people that cows should not be stereotyped as climate change contributors – that when grazing is well managed, they are one of the best tools we have to regenerate soil.

He explains: “I really want to show how farming and cattle can be beneficial to wildlife, a healthy ecosystem, and the environment. There is a lot of focus on reducing livestock farming and even abolishing it but what we need to do is change it. We know that emissions from cars are damaging but rather than ban them entirely we focus on changing the way they are fuelled. The same attitude needs to be adopted in farming.

“The soil is the key and it’s where we need to start (literally from the bottom up), whether we’re making improvements for the benefit of wildlife, animal health, human health, water absorption or carbon sequestration.”

Rotational grazing 

We are stood within around an acre and a half enclosed by electric fencing. Across the 50-
acre farm there are enough of these sections to move the herd every day for 26 days. Matt introduced this rotational grazing method this year. He wanted to do it last summer, but unfortunately the drought delayed his plans because the grass wasn’t growing. He had to give the herd winter stocks of haylage from late July onwards!

Thankfully, the weather this summer has been much kinder to livestock farmers, with more rain than many of us would desire. 

The technique Matt is using is like mob grazing, but he doesn’t have the high density of livestock that can be associated with this method. Moving the herd each day avoids over grazing, allowing the grass to recover and put down deeper roots. 

Matt says: “This method mimics the natural process that used to take place in the countryside when herbivores like deer and bison roamed freely and were moved on by carnivores, allowing grazed areas to recover.

“The cows help regenerate the soil as their dung adds organic matter. Also, when grass is given time to recover after grazing it grows with greater vigour. So, if grazing is managed properly, a larger amount of carbon dioxide is taken in by the growing grass and stored in the soil.”

Matt places a clump of grass into a press and squeezes its juices into a refractometer, which carries out a Brix test measuring the amount of sugar in the fluid. This gives an indication of how well the grass is growing, and therefore how nutritious the soil is. Matt is recording a baseline, so that in the coming years he can monitor the effect of the regenerative practices he is introducing.

Rotational grazing also has many wider benefits, including for the cows’ health and for wildlife. As the cows move away from their dung onto fresh pasture every day, there is less risk that they will be bothered by flies or suffer from worms and other health conditions. This enables Matt to avoid using insecticides or wormers, which is good news for insects. Matt points at a cow pat and shows me where a dung beetle has burrowed into it and says: “We didn’t have that before we started farming regeneratively. And when you give more invertebrates the chance to survive and thrive the whole ecosystem will benefit and biodiversity will increase, as mammals and birds have more to eat.”

Totally grass-fed

This autumn, Matt is sowing a herbal ley full of clovers to add nutrients and fix nitrogen into the soil, which will help the grass to grow without using artificial fertiliser. 

Matt said: “When you use artificial fertiliser, you’re not allowing the soil to do what it’s capable of. You’re feeding the plant not the soil.”

The cows will take in these nutrients as they graze, so Matt doesn’t need to give them concentrated feed to boost their growth and milk production. Concentrated feed is expensive, can have been transported a long way and may contain grain that hasn’t been grown using environmentally friendly methods, so feeding only grass to his herd reduces costs and is better for the planet.

Matt hopes to gain certification from the PFLA’s Pasture for Life (PfL) scheme. He explained: “The trouble with food labelling is anyone can put ‘pasture fed’ providing the animal has eaten grass at some point in its life. To have full confidence, shoppers need to look for a label like the PfL mark, which guarantees the product is from 100 per cent pasture-fed animals.”

Cutting out concentrated feed took some getting used to in the milking parlour though. With nothing to encourage them to stand quietly in the milking stalls, Matt and Betsie’s cows were having none of it. So, after seeking guidance from other members of the PFLA, they now give them grass nuts (made of compressed grass) as a delicious incentive to behave themselves. 

Nutrients for all

All the goodness from the healthy, nutrient-rich pastures makes its way through to the cows’ milk, and in turn into the Nutfield Dairy yoghurt, frozen yoghurt, butter, cream and cheeses.

Matt and Betsie maintain the natural goodness of their products by not adding any artificial ingredients. Matt said: “With the way we farm and the high-quality milk we produce, it doesn’t make sense to then fill our products with stuff like emulsifiers. So, we keep the process natural. It’s fascinating how much of a difference well produced food can make to our health.”

Their Surrey Red is a hard cheese that this West Country-raised cheese lover can vouch is delicious. They’ve also created a cheddar that will mature just in time for Christmas. 

They spend most weekends selling their products at farmers’ markets. They also supply local farm shops, village shops, butchers, and delis. 

A wholesaler has expressed an interest in taking bulk orders of their cheeses, which would see their products enjoyed in more farm shops, hotels and restaurants. 

A farming family

Matt is the first in his family to become a farmer. He went to agricultural college and worked in the farming industry for 14 years before he started to rent Brays Farm from the late John Collett six years ago.

The farm was part of an estate given in legacy to the CRT by John and his wife Rosemary. Ownership of the farm passed to the CRT in spring 2021. John was passionate about sustainable farming and keen to encourage young new entrants into the industry.

Initially, Matt farmed a beef suckler herd and small flock of sheep before joining forces with Betsie and setting up Nutfield Dairy in 2019. 

Betsie grew up on her grandparents’ dairy farm and her mum is a cheesemaker. She was working in childcare when they met but had always dreamed of raising her family on a farm. Their son Albie is now two-years-old and their second baby is on the way.

Herd welfare is paramount

Both Matt and Betsie look out for the health and wellbeing of their herd. 

The cows spend most of the year out in the fields, only being kept in barns and fed haylage when the weather is too cold and wet for them to be out to pasture. If the herd tred across wet ground, it damages the soil and they can pick up foot infections.

A challenge presented by rotational grazing is how to provide shelter from the elements for the herd in mid-field enclosures. Matt is looking into planting trees out in the fields as a solution in the long term. 

They aim to have calves arriving all year round to keep a constant supply of milk, with most being born in the spring so they can benefit from the peak season of grass growth.

Betsie tends to do the milking each morning, with Albie chilling out in his pram watching CBeebies or doing puzzles on his tablet. When I visited in August, they were milking 22 out of their 25 productive cows. 

Their cows are only milked once a day, so they are able to stay with their calves for four months and rear them naturally. When they finish lactating, around ten months after their calf is born, Matt and Betsie allow them to rest for a two-month dry period before their next calf is born. 

Matt explains: “It is important that they have a chance to replenish. Our cows are healthy as they’re not under pressure like in an intensive system. Yet thanks to regenerative grazing techniques improving the soil and making the grass grow more vigorously, our milk yields have gone up.”

For Matt and Betsie, the farm and dairy are their passion. Betsie said: “It’s got to be, or you wouldn’t do it. We enjoy the new calves and chatting to customers at markets, getting their feedback on our products. We don’t produce cheap and cheerful stuff like you get at the supermarket, our produce has a story behind it, and that’s what people appreciate.”

Published November 2023 in The Lark magazine.