To say that Tom Abbottsmith Youl is a cattle and chicken farmer is an understatement. Tom is a steward of the land.
On Graceburn Farm, he is a stockman implementing and managing the farms regenerative agricultural systems. He is also a very welcoming host. Over coffee, we sit in the sun in his backyard, a serene sight of established trees and a large pond. He begins telling
us about how he started on his journey. “I had just finished my Mechanical Engineering degree in 2010 when I went to a talk in Shepparton by this American farmer called Joel Salatin.” Salatin is a shining light and a loud voice in the promotion of ecological farming and he opened Tom’s mind to regenerative agriculture and the importance of soil health. He was introduced to the benefits of cell grazing cattle in a cycle that sees chickens follow through afterwards, and the fantastic improvement it makes to pasture and soil. “It’s really based on herd movement like bison in North America or wildebeest on the Serengeti. They mob grazed and kept moving, never spending too long on grasses.
The birds would then come through afterwards and scratch through the earth and manure, finding bugs and seeds before moving on. The pastures would then rest, the nutrients would be absorbed and everything would regrow healthier than before thanks to this activity.” The healthier and more diverse the pastures are, the more water they hold, the greener and better the growth is – pretty straight forward really. So why don’t more farms manage their systems this way? “More people are coming around to it. The introduction of glyphosate and other herbicides to agriculture in the early 1970’s spawned a method of farming that the industry is still clinging on to. It killed any diversity in the ground and gave an immediate rush of phosphorous that seemed great at the time but was never sustainable. What people need to realise is you can’t keep taking from the earth, giving nothing back and expect it to keep giving”.
We follow Tom on his tractor up to his paddocks, stopping along the way to learn about the history of the property. “This block was bought by my grandparents in 1964. A priority for them was retaining remnant bushland, protecting endangered plants and increasing habitat for the wildlife indigenous to this area. Of the 330 acres, 160 is preserved bushland and the rest primary agriculture.” Tom tells
us proudly, “They created a wildlife corridor that stretches 100m across and 1km long from Toolangi State Forest through our property and out, so that wildlife can pass peacefully. Wetlands were planted out along the way too and Tom says his only interference within the area is to keep on top of any blackberry. This preservation means the existing natural ecosystem can live in harmony alongside agriculture. Tom gives us an example of how providing this native bushland benefits his farm. “There’s a native wasp that collects cockchafers, an insect most farmers spray for as they can be very damaging to pastures. This wasp though, it brings the cockchafer’s
back to it’s home, kills them and likes to lay its eggs on them! You really can’t put a price tag on the benefits of nature working for you.” As he steps up on to his tractor he stops and turns, “Please stop me if you want, I tend to ramble.” He laughs.
Tom introduces us to his herd of Simmental cattle. Passionately explaining about rumen scores, pasture maturity and dung scores,
“I’m looking for a good plop” he says earnestly. Unclipping just one strand of electric wire, the herd needs no encouragement to happily gallop onto fresh grass. “Because the cows have access to food and water, they won’t try and get out so you don’t need anything more than this one strand of fence. They now won’t be back on this area we’ve moved them from for 5 months.” This time of resting the land is key to not only sustainable farming but the future of farming.
Next we meet Tom’s chickens, all 900 of them. His layers happily scratch around on big plots recently grazed by his cattle. Eating grass and foraging for bugs is such an important part of a chicken’s diet and well being. They’re healthy and active, free to display their ‘chookiness’. Research shows that when compared with chooks that are confined, eggs from chooks foraging on pasture have less cholesterol, less saturated fat and more vitamin A and E. In terms of cooking, the chooks eggs have a bright orange yolk and thicker albumen thanks to the beta-carotene naturally found in the grass they eat. “It makes for an incredible poached egg for café’s which is a big part of my business.” As we’re talking, the chickens all start racing towards cover, we look up and see a huge wedged-tail eagle circling above. “Isn’t she beautiful?” Tom admires. He isn’t bothered by their presence amongst the flock. “If it get’s a bit much I might put out some extra cover for the girls.” The chickens lay and roost in a Chicken Caravan. When the egg is laid it rolls down to a belt that Tom can wind up and collect. He is currently getting about 750 eggs per day and is passionate about their freshness. “What you get in the supermarket can sit out the back for two weeks before it’s put on the shelf, in this time the egg loses vital nutrients and overall quality. Once my girls lay their eggs, I pack and deliver them as quickly as possible.
Back to the welfare of the chickens and we discuss the recent policy amendment that saw the commercial chicken egg industry come together and “decide” that the terminology of ‘Free Range’ should be changed. 10,000 chickens per static hectare now qualifies as
‘Free Range’, with Tom’s system it works out to be 45 chickens per hectare. The sad fact is that legitimate ‘Free Range’ farmers now
must deal with the frauds amongst them who are deceiving the community or change all their branding to the more accurate term
Toms devotion to the cause is admirable. The farmer is very open of his methods and their benefits, hosting open farm days to the public that are welcoming and insightful. “I want to support our local community to engage with where their food is grown.” When the average farmers age in Australia is 65 and Tom is just 31, it’s exciting to think how much he can achieve in the future.