By Debbie James

Working with nature is increasing soil organic matter and plant diversity on a Powys livestock farm.

Cabalva Farm is managed by Geraint Powell who runs a system of regenerative agriculture that allows pasture to recover fully before re-grazing.

Livestock graze in short bursts with pasture given long rest periods to allow roots to flourish, plants to grow a bigger leaf area for harvesting energy from the sun, and organic matter to build from dead material at the base of swards.

Ewes are never housed, lambs are grown without supplementary feed and hay is the only additional feed given to the grass-fed suckler herd and their offspring.

The farm is stocked at a rate of 0.95 livestock units(lu)/hectare (ha) but Mr Powell says building organic matter will allow the land to support 1.35lu/ha within five years.

All 105ha acres of pasture and 35ha of river meadows are down to permanent pasture.

Although yield from these perennial leys falls short of ryegrass, it can support 420 wool shedding Easycare ewes throughout the year and lambs which are sold at an average of 111 days as light lambs or stores.

The flock shares the grazing with a herd of 38 Aberdeen Angus suckler cows and calves.

These too are wintered outside, on deferred grazing and homegrown hay; they are housed on hay for 60 days from mid-February when the grass sward is dormant.

The farm rises to 600 feet above sea level and has an annual average rainfall of 900mm.

Cattle are paddock grazed and given a fresh break every one to three days – paddock size is dictated by grass availability, season and time constraints but can typically range from 0.2ha-2ha.

The grazing system for sheep is more flexible. Ewes are set stocked ahead of the start of lambing on April 5.

A grazing rotation starts when lambs are three weeks old, with fields divided by electric fencing into paddock sizes that reflect the stage in the growing season.

Plant diversity has increased in the last two years, with yarrow, birds foot trefoil, native red clover, common vetch, white clovers, common knapweed and cocksfoot reappearing from the natural seedbank.

Having lots of different plants growing throughout the year gives better resilience to climatic shocks, says Mr Powell.

That diversity of plants catching sunlight and pumping carbon into it is key to health soils, he adds.

“Plant diversity is the missing piece in the jigsaw that we need to encourage back into our grassland systems,’’ he says.

The estate’s owners, the Guest family, share his vision for a natural and resilient business.

He had been farming in the Cotswolds for 20 years, running a large-scale sheep and beef enterprise on an extensive system, when he was offered the opportunity to farm at Cabalva.

The low input strategy he has adopted targets the land’s optimum sustainable output rather than going all out for the maximum.

“It is about profit but without being yield orientated, the land will dictate what the output should be.

“When you pass optimum it is obvious because this where cost and stress increase and profits fall.’’

Genetic decisions are concentrated around breeding fertile, low maintenance animals that produce marketable offspring.

Cabalva Farm is not organic but no chemical fertiliser is applied.

Ecological decisions are tested against whether the actions would be detrimental to earthworms - if the action is damaging then it doesn’t happen.

“Earthworms are my most important below ground livestock, Charles Darwin described them as 'more powerful than the African elephant and more important to the economy than the cow'. And best of all, if looked after, they work for free,’’ says Mr Powell.