The benefits of feeding cows grass over grains
Agroecology may not be the easiest word to say three times fast, but its meaning is very simple.
It refers to farming alongside nature sustainably: using natural relationships and ecosystems to boost the health of your farm, instead of synthetic chemicals, and thereby working in a way that’s good for the environment.
Matthew Anderson, a farmer at Swinside Organic Hill Farm, is one of our agroecological ambassadors and is setting the example in working synergistically with his farm’s landscape.
He uses nature to sustain his cows (and vice versa), namely by feeding them a completely grass-based diet. But what, exactly, are the benefits of doing this? We reached out to him to learn more…
Why do you feed your cows grass over grains?
For over 20 years, we’ve been farming organically in the Scottish Borders, and have been feeding our cows on a purely grass-based diet. We believe that this is how they are designed to live and feed, and we take pride in our herds having a natural way of life, roaming the hills and creating family bonds. They’re extremely healthy and happy!
Why is grass good for cows, from a health perspective? What nutrients are in grass?
Grass is mostly water, but within its dry matter, there are water soluble carbohydrates, proteins, fibre, oils, minerals and vitamins. So, it’s a complete diet: everything a cow needs is within grass. Further - aided by their special combination of four stomachs and powerful gut microbes – our cows can digest poorer-quality rough hill grasses with low digestibility, making them extra-suited to their grassy fare.
To boost their diet’s benefits, we try and grow as much white clover as possible in the grass sward (the upper layer of soil that’s covered in grass), to provide protein for the livestock. Furthermore, the nitrogen that is fixed by the clover from the air into the soil helps to promote more energy-rich, sugary grasses such as ryegrass – improving the entire grassland productivity and overall digestibility of the sward.
Our consumers don’t need to worry, either. The oils in grass contain polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), which are assimilated into the meat of the livestock and are healthy to eat. These are Omega-3 and Omega-9, if you’re curious!
What kind of environment do your cows live in?
Our cows are free-range, so they get to be outside all the time. Because of this, they have a really good quality of life in which their welfare is high, and disease is rare.
At Swinside Organic Hill Farm, our herd grazes throughout the seasons as follows:
- Spring: The cows take to the most productive grassland fields we have as they need to milk well to feed their calves, which are born between March and June.
- Summer and autumn: They are released onto our hill, where they will graze a species-diverse grassland containing many native types of grass, herbs, and flowers. Once they have eaten off the rough hill grass species, we rotate them, in order to give light and space for other species of plant to grow. This regrowth process is helped along by the manure that our cows produce, which puts nutrients and organic matter back into the soil, and thus improves the soil’s productivity. Top tip: cows are natural ecosystem engineers, and can promote biodiversity through their non-selective grazing and dung output!
- Winter: We have quarries and rocky hilltops that are used to outwinter the cows, and we feed them grass silage. This usually happens from December through to March.
This system works really well for our herds, and has for years. It’s also worth mentioning that most of our cows have native breed blood in them, and that many of them are Blue Greys (a cross between the Galloway and White Shorthorn breeds). They’re a type of cow that, as mentioned, can thrive on poorer-quality hill grasses. Therefore, they’re a very low-input herd… and one that leads a really natural, healthy life.
How do you ensure you have grass available all year round?
The trick is to create lots of lovely silage! Around late June or July, the grass on our fields is generally long enough for silage-making to begin. The processes for doing this are:
- Mowing: In which you shear up the long grass from the ground
- Raking: To start pulling the grass together (this process can also help to dry out the grass if the weather is poor)
- Baling: Gathering the mown and raked grass into big, round bales
- Moving: Shifting the bales to the edges of the field in which they’ve been made
- Wrapping: Covering the bales in plastic, to start the fermentation process
- Stacking: Putting the bales neatly together, ready for when they’re needed.
As you can see, it’s quite a labour-intensive process, but it’s necessary to create all the feed we need for the five months that grass isn’t growing (or is growing slowly) on our farm throughout the winter and early spring period. So, for us, it’s more than worth it to be able to provide a healthy grass diet for the cows all year round.
Ultimately – is grass enough for cows?
Between the health benefits of grass, and the fact that it contributes to our cows leading totally natural lives, I’d say: absolutely! We’ve seen great results feeding our cows a grass-based diet over the years, and it has been instrumental to helping us run our farm in a nature-focused and cost-effective way.
There are great environmental benefits to consider, too. The carbon footprint of pasture farms (such as ours) is usually lower than farms where cereal crops are grown to feed the animals, if you look at the complete life cycle of each. Grassland plays an important role in this: capturing and storing carbon through both photosynthesis and by nurturing organic matter deep in the soil. We’re proud to work this way, and to help our planet while keeping our cows the healthiest and happiest they can be.
Watch Swinside Organic Hill Farm make moo-ves over on Instagram.