Summerhill Agriculture Manager, Haydn Bam, shows the Summerhill pastures
(Photos : John Fair)
John Fair is nothing if he doesn’t resemble
the “absent-minded professor”
But don’t be deceived: he is the inspiration behind one of Summerhill’s principal initiatives in maintaining our position in the pantheon of the world’s great stud farms. Our “light bulb” moment recognizing the importance of the sustainability of our agricultural practices, dawned about 18 years ago, and arriving at where we are today, has been a long trek. But the real “oomph” came when we teamed up with John Fair some years back, and he took us to the heart of the bio-farming revolution which was considered by many in those days, as “tilting at windmills”. While only a few said it, most thought we were dealing in fairy tales, yet the evidence is everywhere to be seen today in a spectacularly preserved environment and a wonderfully productive farm.
Among the many initiatives was a total embrace of the need to farm in concert with nature. The first thing we did was to outlaw, to whatever practical degree we could, the use of synthetics and environmentally-harmful applications. We also knew that there was no shame in a reversion to the “old”, to an understanding of the nutritional and healing value of ancient plants, and that what was new in the conventional sense, was not necessarily better. We could see in our agricultural practices, the destructive influences of constant pulverizing of the soil with deep ploughing and feeding it, like an addict, by-products of the second World War’s explosives industry, synthetic fertilizers. This wasn’t something we could continue to do in the long term. So we started restoring the soils with natural elements, we embarked on a massive composting venture, converting the masses of horse bedding we generate every day, into bio-degradable, highly nutritious manure, and voila! Compost, of course, is not the silver bullet on its own; there are many other natural substances such as limestone, which South Africa has in abundance, and which’ve restored the tilth to the soils, brought back the earthworms and the dung beetles, as well as the many creatures and micro organisms that live in the metre above and the metre below the soil, and which’ve found solace at Summerhill. Suddenly the average birth weight of our foals has increased because of increments in bone density, quickly their immune systems reached new levels of resistance, and concurrently, we climbed the nation’s breeding ladder, all the way to the summit.
In conjunction with these things, on John’s advice, we integrated into all of our pastures a mixture of nitrogen-producing legumes, clovers, grazing vetches and the like, which has significantly reduced our dependence on manufactured nitrogens, as well as our total seed costs. As an example, in 2011 seed cost us R240,000: in 2012 the figure dropped to R159,000, and it reduces once again to R138,000 for next autumn. The introduction of grazing vetch provides us with an added 80 kilogrammes of nitrogen per hectare, it carries at least 300% more calcium (so critical to the bone development of our youngsters) than its neighbour, the Targa oats, which while essential to the welfare of our stock, is not quite as rich as the vetch in macro and micro nutrients. Alongside is a photograph of the bounty this interdependency has yielded for us, and especially for our horses, in one of the nation’s richest winter feed harvests.
John comments that he has no other client (and he has many of the country’s leading farmers on his books, in a variety of disciplines) “which produces such high yielding pasture at such low fertilizer costs as Summerhill does.”
In the end, it’s all about the welfare of the horses, and when you don’t have the money to compete at every level with those who do, you have to find other means of keeping yourself at the top of the mountain with the things you can afford. One of them is getting up with the early bird, and catching the worm!