Carbon Sequestration with Nick Millard of Westcombe Dairy

One of the main areas of focus when it comes to climate change activism is carbon emission and its impact on the environment. It has been well-documented that the agricultural industryparticularly dairy farming, has a significant impact on these emissions. A subject that seems to us to hit fewer headlines is the role certain farming systems can play in carbon sequestration, the process by which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and held in solid or liquid form. 

As part of our exploration of different areas relating to sustainability, we have interviewed colleagues from the dairy industry about carbon sequestration. Our goal is to find out their unique viewpoints on what is being, should be and can be done to move towards a system of dairy farming that has a regenerative impact on the environment. 

In this piece, we interviewed Nick Millard. A former professional drummer, Nick's volunteer work at the Woodland’s Farm Trust in London led him to a career change into farming. He describes himself as a cheese-farming Herd Manager, and is currently based at Westcombe Dairy, in Somerset, where Westcombe Cheddar and Duckett's Caerphilly are made. Prior to that he was herdperson at Holden Farm Dairy, where Hafod cheese is made, in Ceredigion, Wales.

Is reducing your carbon footprint something you have the time, money and resources to explore? Have you made any changes so far specifically aimed at reducing the carbon footprint of your farming system?

Over the last few years, we have been reducing our carbon footprint, although reducing our carbon footprint wasn’t our primary focus. The reduction has come about by focusing on producing the very best raw milk for cheesemaking. You do that by enhancing the botanical diversity on the farm, thus increasing the array of interestingly flavoured and aromatically rich plants that are made available to the cows. Aiming to increase biodiversity has led to us make decisions that have reduced our carbon footprint.

One example of this is how many nitrogen-fixing legumes we grow now, which has reduced our usage of nitrogen fertiliser. Creating a legume-heavy, herbal ley-based paddock grazing system has increased how much food we grow for our cows and has lowered the volume of bought-in feeds we need to buy, in particular protein. Again, this is partly thanks to growing that large array of legumes that are also high in protein.

This year we embarked on a huge, many years/decades long carbon-sequestering agroforestry (ad)venture. Just shy of 400 mostly fruit and nut trees (along with some fruit bushes, oaks, birch, and alders) have been planted along four grazing paddock boundaries. We’ve set the bar for ourselves this winter and aim to plant around 400 trees each winter going forward.

You represent a different perspective, where do you look for resources to inform your decisions?

First of all, it has been looking at what the science says, and for that we looked to mostly France, Italy, and Switzerland, because they have such a large body of research concerning the question of what makes good milk for cheesemaking. Time and again they show this to be 1) botanical diversity of grazing lands, 2) reducing the amount of cereals fed to cows, and 3) having the sort of cow that is able to cope with such a system (which is generally any breed of cow, just as long as it is not a Holstein!). I have made several trips (both with NYD's "Cow Club" and solo) to France and Italy to see this research in action on farms. 

In Somerset, we are surrounded by some incredible farmers who are not themselves cheesemakers and are also not always dairy farmers. From the dairy farming point of view, Peter Cheek at Godminster Farm has been a fount of knowledge regarding grazing cows on herbal leys, as have the Freane family at Brown Cow Organics in Pilton. Ed and Rob at Slow Farming Co. are doing wonderful things with Pasture for Life Association (PFLA)-accredited beef cattle, again on herbal leys, and following the cows around the leys with laying hens. And from a completely non-cow point of view, we have learned a huge amount and derived endless inspiration from Fred Price at Gothelney Farm, with his herbal ley-grazed pigs, and his heritage wheat growing. Fred also supplies us with his exceptional pork that – along with our rose veal calves – is the raw material for Westcombe’s charcuterie.

Spending four or so years working at Hafod cheese in Wales gave me first-hand experience that you do not need an armoury of agrichemicals to attain bounteous yields of crops. It has given me the confidence to say “No, honest, it really DOES work!” when my suggestions have occasionally been met with furrowed brows in conventional farming circles.

Are there any subsidies or grants available to you to change the way you farm and reduce your carbon emissions?

There are. We made use of the Countryside Stewardship (CS) scheme, in which we get paid to grow herbal leys, manage old hillside pastures with minimal inputs, and sow mixes of plants that grow seeds that birds can feed on over winter. But the scheme is quite the headache in terms of paperwork, and the only reason we went into it was to obtain grant funding for building our paddock grazing infrastructure. Most of what we’re doing that is environmentally friendly isn’t supported by subsidies or grants, we have done it because we want to and haven’t lost money by doing it. In actual fact, we have saved money on many fronts by adopting methods that conventional wisdom would argue would leave you worse off.

The CS scheme will be phased out soon, along with the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS), with both being replaced - in England at least, the rules will be different in the devolved nations - with the post-Brexit Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS). We are, however, all still more or less in the dark as to what this will mean! To think! The politicians who led us into this glorious Brexit Wonderland led us here with no particular plan in mind for what happens next! 

Many conventional farmers I have spoken to have said they won’t sign up to ELMS and plan to turn their backs on the subsidy culture. Their aim being to hugely intensify production, with all the potential environmental damage that may entail.

Could you tell us more about what you feed your herd? For example, what percentage of the total feed is concentrate? Given the higher carbon footprint of concentrates (due to the impact of growing and transporting them, and the need to till) how much could you increase the forage as a percentage of the diet within your current system?

When the cows are out grazing, then they have the diverse range of plant life that can now be found on our grazing paddocks. When grazing, they get “buffer” fed in the evenings with grass-clover silage, wholecrop barley-pea-vetch silage, hay, straw, home-grown wheat grains that are “crimped” (which means rolled and fermented), and two arable bi-products: the meal left over from oil seed rape oil production, and the pulp leftover from sugar from sugar beet production. That buffer feed becomes the diet when the cows are housed for winter. They also get fed concentrate in the parlour year-round. The arable bi-products and concentrate are all bought-in, everything else is homemade, although we sometimes end up having to top-up our supplies of hay and straw.

Overall, about half our cows’ average milk production of 9,000 litres per cow per lactation comes from grazing, silages, hay, and straw. And the other half… The long-term aim is to increase what we can produce from the former and radically reduce our dependence on the latter. Our move to Dairy Shorthorns from high-maintenance Holsteins will help with this a great deal.

What do you think of the philosophy espoused by the PFLA and others, that the best diet for ruminants is one that includes only forage and pasture, and no starches or concentrates whatsoever?

Admirable! I also suspect that if the dairy industry is to have a future, then it will be one that finds the industry aligning itself with PFLA’s philosophy. It feels like intensive dairying will price itself out of the market. However, as I write, the price paid to conventional dairy farmers for their milk is in many cases greater than that paid to organic farmers. The primary reason for this is the tremendous increase in the cost of nitrogen fertilisers; the milk price has increased to accommodate these increases. 

How do you hope to be farming differently in 5 years?

Carrying on along the path we have started to bumble down. The cows will be a very different type of cow, as more and more of the Dairy Shorthorn breeding comes through, which will mean that we will most probably be feeding far fewer bought-in feeds and will have a smaller cow that will positively thrive on the species-rich grazing we provide.

It will be fascinating to see how those grazing lands evolve by being rested for long periods, what wild plant life will spring-up in the absence of grass growth promoting artificial fertilisers, and what influence all those trees will have.

We’ll hopefully grow more crops for direct human consumption (as opposed to putting it through a cow first). So, more heritage wheat for bread flour for our friends at Landrace Bakery, and in five years’ time we should have a thousand or so fruit and nut trees lining the grazing paddock boundaries. If anyone has ever dreamt of dedicating their life to picking fruits and nuts while gazing at cows grazing in flower strewn meadows, then your time has nearly come!

We will be farming a lot more energy as well. Increasing energy prices have focused our minds on being producers of electricity, and so the farm buildings will either be glittering with roof top lakes of solar panels and/or there will be a dark green dome of an anaerobic digestion unit sitting alongside the farm buildings.