New Forest Eye at FAI: Using red flags to guide regenerative decision-making

Beef Cattle - FAI Farms

New Forest Eye at FAI: Using red flags to guide regenerative decision-making

By Paige Hunt
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The FAI Farm in Oxford UK is transitioning to regenerative farming – an approach that puts more back into the environment and society than it takes out. Many lessons have been learned along the way. In this article, FAI’s Research Assistant Paige Hunt shares our story of how a typical farming issue can be solved in a radically different and more beneficial way when adopting regenerative principles.

The FAI farm in Oxford UK has been completing its own transition to regenerative farming over the last year. As part of this journey, FAI have partnered with McDonald’s UK to explore the benefits of adaptive multi-paddock (AMP) grazing for cattle. AMP grazing involves each farm having a bespoke grazing plan and decisions are made based on regenerative principles rather than prescriptions.

By farming under this new approach, there has been a mind-set change amongst all those working on the farm. The team at FAI are now seeing things differently. They no longer treat the symptoms of issues they encounter but look for the root cause of a problem. They now consider the farm as part of a bigger system, reminding themselves of the complex and dynamic networks that make up the living world. Whenever a decision needs to be made, a new pathway is adopted. This difference in decision-making has allowed the farm team to reach new conclusions that work with rather than against nature, helping them to move towards climate-friendly farming.

Here we share FAI’s story of how a typical farming issue can be solved in a radically different and more beneficial way when adopting regenerative principles.

The problem

A cow suffering from an irritating fly infestation
A cow suffering from an irritating fly infestation

During the summer months of 2020, the cattle grazed the floodplain fields next to the river. This particular year there were many flies surrounding the cattle resulting in many cases of New Forest Eye. This disease is caused by a bacterial infection (Moraxella bovis) that occurs when adult female flies (Musca autumnalis) feed on the eye secretions of a female cow. The typical life cycle of the fly involves females laying eggs on fresh dung pat and after roughly 2 weeks, the fly emerges as an adult and females feed off the secretions from a cow’s eyes. The fly acts as a vector for the bacteria, which can infect many different cows in a short period of time. The infection causes eye lesions in cattle that can be painful and irritating. In some cases, these lesions can cause temporary blindness.

When New Forest Eye was prevalent at the FAI farm, the team knew from their regenerative training that this was a red flag - highlighting that something within nature’s dynamic network was not quite right.

Life cycle of Musca autumnalis (Grindrod, 2020. Roots of Nature - Decision Making)
Life cycle of Musca autumnalis (Grindrod, 2020. Roots of Nature - Decision Making)

The ‘normal’ solution

When livestock disease is prevalent, the typical reaction for a farmer is to provide treatment. In this case, those that had developed the New Forest Eye infection would be treated with antibiotics. However, thinking regeneratively, antibiotics are merely treating the symptoms of the disease and not addressing the root cause.

Not only do antibiotics increase the risk of antibiotic resistance, but they can cause a disruption to nature’s dynamic network and the ecosystem in which the cattle, fly and bacteria each have a role. Not to mention, antibiotics are an additional, unwanted cost to farmers.

The ‘regenerative’ solution

In a regenerative approach, a dominance of weeds or presence of disease are ‘red flag’ symptoms that are highlighting an imbalanced ecosystem. The red flag points us towards how we can address the root cause of the issue. In response, management should be planned to reduce the likelihood of the problem recurring while taking a temporary holding action that doesn’t damage the underlying functions of the natural system too much. In this case, the temporary holding action was using antibiotics in selected cases to reduce welfare problems.

Within this dynamic system we have the cattle, the fly and the bacteria. Eye secretions and dung are needed by the flies to complete their life cycle. The presence of so many flies was causing a rise in New Forest Eye cases.

So the question was, why are there so many flies?

After carefully considering the fly’s life cycle and the ecosystem as a whole: predators, parasites, competitors and resources, it was realised that there were too many flies due to the lack of dung beetles breaking down the dung pat and eating the fly larvae.

This then led to the next question, why aren’t there enough dung beetles?

The farm team thought carefully and came to realise that it could be due to the insecticide used on the sheep that may be killing the dung beetles in that particular area on the farm. Insecticides such as wormers and treatments for flystrike contain ivermectins, which are toxic to dung beetles. Therefore, the use of insecticides for their sheep could be indirectly affecting the cattle’s health by disrupting the balance between them, the dung beetles and the fly.

The proposed solution for the farm at FAI is a plan to reduce the need for insecticide applications with the sheep. They are hoping to achieve this by having better rotations and higher grass swards, shearing earlier in the year and looking at their flock genetics in the long term. It is by reducing their insecticide use that the dung beetles can thrive, and thus breakdown the dung and eat the fly larvae. This pathway offers a natural control to the disease, which is sustainable and needs no additional inputs from farmers.

Lessons learned

By thinking regeneratively, the farm team have changed the way they make decisions and this has resulted in a radically different outcome than they would have normally come to. With livestock disease, it is easy to grasp readily available medical treatments. However, this only deals with the symptoms, masking the red flag which is signalling that there is an imbalance present. It is through considering nature’s dynamic networks that the root cause of New Forest Eye at the farm was realised: sheep insecticides.

Due to the mind-set change of the farm-team in looking at these red flags and thinking about the system holistically, they now have a plan in place for healthier cattle, more biodiverse fields and more resilient sheep. All the while it is costing the farm less and leading to a less stressful life for farmers.

A pathway for every challenge

This decision-making example and the use of red flags can be applied to any dilemma found when managing land. What’s more, this story is just one example of how completing a regenerative farming training course can bring about many improvements.

FAI are offering multiple online courses for anyone interested in learning the principles of regenerative farming. Our fortnightly podcast Farm Gate in collaboration with Farmwel also features leaders in regenerative farming enterprises, sharing their success stories and top tips.

If you would like to keep updated with everything that’s going on at FAI Farms, you can sign up to our monthly newsletter, here.

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