WHAT’S THE BEEF REVISITED.

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Stanley
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WHAT’S THE BEEF REVISITED.

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WHAT’S THE BEEF REVISITED.

This is an article that was printed in the Food Magazine in 2004


WHAT’S THE BEEF?

In the days when my beard was black and I was driving a flat wagon which modern truckers would laugh at, a 90hp engine, 4 gears and a legal payload of 10 tons, I used to make a regular trip across to Sherburn in Elmet in East Yorkshire to pick up ten tons of barley for Cyril Richardson at Little Stainton who compounded his own cattle food. The name of the farmer I went to was Mr Bramley and I always used to enjoy visiting him because he was an able man, treated me with respect and I always learned from him.

The sharpest memory I have of the farm is the day Mrs Bramley asked me to come into the kitchen after we had loaded the 80 railway hire sacks each weighing 280lb and sheeted them down. She gave me a pint of tea and asked me if I’d like a beef sandwich. When I said yes, she asked me what sort, Angus or Hereford? I had to admit that I didn’t know there was any difference; as far as I was concerned beef was beef, full stop. She gave me some of each and I sat there and advanced my education. The thing that strikes me now is that they were so enthusiastic about beef on that farm that they always had at least two joints on the go from different breeds.

Mr Bramley ran Home Farm on the same cropping system that his father and grandfather had used. There were three rotated field crops, barley, turnips and grass. He kept Hereford beef cattle which grazed in summer and in winter were fed on barley, chopped turnips and straw in covered straw yards. The cash flow came from sales of finished beef cattle and surplus barley.

The beef cattle were bought as stores in Ireland and shipped across to Birkenhead. Jim Bramley and his mates used to go to Ireland for the sales in the spring and buy the best cattle they could obtain. Back in the 1960s they were paying £400 and £500 apiece for the beasts. I asked him how they could make any profit and he surprised me by saying that they couldn’t, they always made a small loss so I pressed him further, I knew there had to be an explanation.

He explained that the cattle were never intended to be profitable. The reason he farmed them was two-fold; he liked cattle, enjoyed rearing them and competing for prizes at the winter fatstock sales but the economic reason they were on the farm was as part of the farm machinery. They ate grass, turnips and barley and trod straw to make manure for the crops. This input maintained the condition and fertility of his land and resulted in a surplus of barley which provided the profit. A side benefit of the system was low stress and disease levels in the herd, the straw bed fermenting under the cattle kept them warm and killed off bacteria. He admitted that the main benefit to him was that he loved going out and watching prime quality contented beasts kept in the best conditions he could provide them with. Here we had a happy man making a profit out of producing top quality beef and grain with the added benefit that he was improving his land in the process.

Fifty years on it sounds like some Utopian dream doesn’t it. So what brought on this attack of nostalgia? I was listening to Farming Today on the BBC this morning and they were describing the moves in the USA to break away from traditional line breeding of cattle to a system where the selection of the breeding stock was based simply on performance. The resulting animals are finished on feed lots that can hold upwards of 100,000 cattle and rely heavily on hormonal and other chemical additives to raise conversion rates and keep down disease levels. The interviewer visited farms in Yorkshire where this technology is being adopted and the conclusion was that this was another nail in the coffin of the small scale traditional grazing farm.

My conclusion is that I must be some kind of a dinosaur. I bitterly regret the loss of the old style mixed farm which gave a good life to both the farmers and the stock. Apart from the purely agricultural considerations this is an erosion of a management system which has served us well for hundreds of years, preserved a landscape and nurtured a way of life which has made an enormous contribution to our social system. It seems to me we are losing out all round here and I wonder if considerations like these ever cross the minds of the people making the changes. Only one thing is certain, we can never go back and even though I shan’t be here to see it, I’ll lay a small bet that our children will live to regret it.

SCG/10 January 2004
830 words.

As you can see, that was over 16 years ago and of late things have changed and I am looking more like a prophet than a dinosaur. Here’s why I think that.
We have to go back a long way to understand what has happened. There are some advantages in getting old, what I am about to write isn’t down to an hour of research on Google but my lived experience, I was there and saw it happen. I this case, eighty years ago.
One of Britain’s biggest problems during World War Two was feeding the nation. We imported about half of our food and these imports were one of the first casualties. The War Coalition took over all aspects of food from production to distribution including rationing and we survived. Actually we did more than survive, we improved. At the end of the war, as a nation, we were better nourished that we were before war started. This was done by concentrating on basic foods and making choices, the major innovation was the replacing of horses as draught animals and vastly increasing the number of tractors, mainly Ford Standards imported from America. The new nationalised system worked and we survived.
The end of the war didn’t bring immediate relief. As a nation we were bankrupt and world trading systems took a long time to recover. It was over ten years until rationing finally ceased and in order to get to that point big decisions had to be made. In terms of agriculture the choice was between continuing the traditional farming that had saved the day or going for the most modern technologies and increasing output. The latter won the day, farming was still heavily controlled and subsidised and full advantage was taken of all the new technologies that had sprung up owing to the pressures of war. One of the main advances had been in chemistry, this was to manufacture explosives and regrettably, poison gases. It was realised that these translated directly into artificial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. You may have noted the recent explosion in Beirut caused by a store of nitrates exploding. This was ostensibly agricultural fertilizer but is still explosive. These new chemical resources were applied extensively and we gradually arrived at the growing systems we use today world wide.
So far, so good. The yield per acre massively increased and it looked like a slam dunk. However, we started to see side effects from the chemical inputs. One of the first was noted by Rachel Carson in her book ‘Silent Spring’ in 1962 which drew attention to the fact that pesticides, notably DDT, were in the food chain and killing wild life. Then followed a whole list of other problems mainly connected with nitrate run-off due to over use of artificial fertilizers and over-tilling of the land which caused wind erosion of soils. Remember the American ‘dust bowl’ in the 1930s? Something was going wrong but too many giant corporations were making too much money out of supplying the destructive inputs.
Gradually we started to hear dissenting voices and alternative solutions. The first of these was the Organic movement which started in the UK in 1946 and gradually gained ground until today we have organic farms who work to set standards and command a premium for their products. Unfortunately this means more expensive food and a parallel non-organic movement grew which advocated minimum tilling of the land. It had been proved that over much mechanical disturbance damaged soils structures. I remember many years ago reading about a farmer who farmed using no-till methods and encouraged the earthworm population as he believed they were improving his soil and bringing up essential minerals from deep underground. Like Mr Bramley, he was on the right track! Associated with the no-till movement was a move away from mono-cultures where a farm grew only a couple of crops in favour of the older systems of mixed farming like the farm I described in the original article. These trends are very slowly gaining traction because if adopted they guarantee the long term health of the soil.
That’s the back story. As I watched this all happen I was having my own thoughts. I noted that very little attention was being paid to the nutritional advantages of the minerals and micro-nutrients in well farmed soil under a mixed farm system. The vitamin content alone of common foods was falling, for example potatoes used to be one of our prime sources of Vitamin C but this is no longer the case, there are many more examples. I didn’t know what the mechanism was that was embedded in mixed farming with less tillage but it was obvious it existed. Then I made a discovery that blew my mind and this is what has triggered this revisit to the old article.
I am currently reading a book called ‘Entangled Lives’ by a man called Merlin Sheldrake. This man has spent a lifetime studying mycorrhizal fungi. He details the research that is being done into these and to my mind proves that this is the mechanism I was looking for. These fungi are a form of intelligent life. Over billions of years they have formed symbiotic relationships with other organisms and are the genesis of all growing plants. They ‘mine’ the earth for minerals and nutrients and supply them to plants which in exchange give the fungi carbon inputs in the form of sugar produced by photo-synthesis. As simple as that but if you take the trouble to read the book, far more complicated.
The bottom line is that these fungi are the basis of all life, including us humans and we would do well to recognise and nurture them. I didn’t realise it at the time, but this is what Mr Bramley at Sherburn in Elmet was doing sixty years ago. He didn’t know either, all he knew was that he was looking after and improving his soil and he regarded this as his mission in farming. It looks as though he was right and also that I was not a dinosaur but might have been in front of the curve.
Look into this, read the book, learn about mycorrhizal fungi. Forget Covid19, that is just another bug we have to learn to live with like all the others that have been hunting me down all my life. These fungi are our past and our future and the sooner we realise this the better!

SCG/23/09/20
[I sent this to uncle Bob who is a very hard critic. He gave me a first class mark!]
Stanley Challenger Graham
Stanley's View
scg1936 at talktalk.net

"Beware of certitude" (Jimmy Reid)
The floggings will continue until morale improves!
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