Farming News - Quickes: Nurturing the soil under hoof

Quickes: Nurturing the soil under hoof

We all know businesses across the board are looking to decrease their carbon footprint nowadays, firstly because it is essential for the wellbeing of the planet and future generations, but also because factors such as the cost of fossil-fuels - which cause climate change - have been rocketing in recent times. But it seems some businesses take carbon emission and sequestration more seriously than others.

One of Devon’s best known and successful food businesses, for example, which is already sequestering three quarters of its carbon output, is now declaring it will be carbon-neutral by the end of the decade, despite the fact that everything it makes is  based on a large herd of dairy cows. Cattle tend to have a bad press when it comes to the complex and sometimes controversial world of counting carbon - but Mary Quicke, of multi-award-winning Quicke’s Cheese, says her dairy business is already managing to sequester more than 3000 tonnes of its annual carbon generated in cheese output of just over 4000 tonnes, and she is determined to deal with the outstanding 873 tonnes by 2030.

“The climate emergency and biodiversity loss are the most important issues for our future as a species,” says Mary. “We are all responsible for our impact on this beautiful planet. We must work towards methods of making food, generating energy and using water that are environmentally, economically and socially sustainable.”

Mary Quicke Grading 2.jpg

Mary is a passionate champion when it comes to forward-thinking agricultural practices. “Our challenge is to farm in a way that makes sure Planet Earth can feed us, now and in the future, in a way that balances our responsibility to steward the environment in a way that affords full consideration for our human and wildlife neighbours. 

“On our farm there are a number of important factors which are considered when determining our impact,” Mary commented. “These are the soil, the use of the land, our cows, our cheesemaking process, what happens to our cheese until it is sold to the consumer, and our general business practices. 

“When it comes to the all-important soil - which is capable of locking up so much carbon - we are implementing regenerative farming techniques.  Our cropland grows straw and crops for the cows, and we return manure, whey and used water to the land to restore it.”

She explained:  “Our land is more suited to growing grass than crops for human consumption. But even by growing grass for grazing, we can help the soil remain rich and full of organic life by rotationally grazing the cows from February to November on pastures with clover and some mixed swards. This system increases soil organic matter.  We do out-winter some animals on kale and silage bales, but out-wintering too many is hard on our soils.  Bringing our cows off the fields and making sure the soil is covered with perennial pasture or winter crops during the wet winter months reduces soil erosion keeping the most fertile soil in place and preventing it from environmental damage to streams and rivers through runoff.”

Because the fertility of soil is so important to the environment, the team at Quicke’s returns any healthy elements that have been lost through crop rotation with legumes and other cover crops, along with manure from the housed animals. The whey created in the cheesemaking process also goes to improve soils. 

Experts agree that fertile soil holds a lot more carbon than its barren, overworked, chemical filled counterpart - and in so doing it is capable of removing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

“We have increased our agricultural soil organic matter (an indication of organic carbon) by 1.8% over the past eight years,” says Mary. “This resulted in a reduction of 416 tonnes of carbon dioxide that would be in the atmosphere, now held by the soil. We plan to increase that value by various means. Increased soil organic matter also gives soil resilience against drought because it can hold more water. It also improves the biodiversity of microbiology that can live in the soil and which play an important role in decomposing organic matter, cycling nutrients, and fertilising the soil.”

In order to achieve many of these aims, Quicke’s Cheese works closely with the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) on best practices in sustainable land use. Just under half the land owned by the dairy is forested, having been rewilded in 1880. This was as a result of the Agricultural Depression when American wheat poured into Britain, forcing farmers to adapt. Quicke’s fields weren’t worth farming so they planted acorns instead. The result of their labours still stands today, making Newton St Cyres a wooded parish, where they continue to plant over 7000 trees each year. The woodland is sustainably managed alongside the large area of hedgerows, wildlife margins, skylark plots, wildflower meadows, various beetle banks and several traditional orchards. 

“All of this contributes to removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at a rate of 3144 tonnes per year,” explains Mary. “We are exploring the best balance between ‘land-sharing’ (where wildlife and farming co-exist on the same plot of land) and ‘land-sparing’ (where some land is farmed as efficiently as possible while other areas are left un-farmed for the benefit of wildlife). Evidence suggests that more mobile wildlife such as birds benefit from land-sparing techniques, as do species such as ground beetles that are highly sensitive to habitat fragmentation.  Some wildlife such as certain species of butterfly benefit from land-sharing. Our commitment is to farm environmentally sensitively and efficiently.”

As part of the cyclical nature of Quickes, woodchip from the farm, as opposed to straw, is used to bed calves on, which then returns to the land. This process also aids carbon sequestration.

Collecting methane to power machinery

When it comes to those gas-creating cows, Mary says: “We plan to collect methane from the cows’ manure and to use it to power machinery.  We are monitoring, and where there is good scientific evidence, applying feeding and breeding fixes to reduce an animal’s production of methane altogether. Our cows are bred to be long-lived, not too high yielding, enjoy grazing in all weathers, and happy to walk to pastures, as well as producing good milk for our cheese.  We are learning to make better use of clover and other broadleaved plants to reduce nitrogen in cow’s diets contributing to ammonia and nitrous oxide production.

“We supplementary feed the herd with non-GM feeds, largely made up of by-products of the human food industry - so the animals eat the part of the foods people can’t eat.”

The cheeses at Quickes are all hand-made and, as such, require far less of the power-hungry machinery seen in some large dairies. “We have a photovoltaic array on our main cheese store that produces renewable power in sunny weather when our chilling units need it the most - and we’re currently planning more photovoltaic arrays to produce more of our own renewable energy and also looking at other ways of producing our own power.

Mary admits there’s still plenty to do.“There is still a way to go to improve our movement to net zero and beyond,” she says. “We are looking to improve on our existing efforts in methane reduction, soil and other land carbon sequestration as well as projects to reduce and where possible remove the use of plastics in our farming, production and product packaging.”