summerhill tractor (michael nefdt)Organic Integrity
(Photo : Summerhill Stud)

“Agricultural Eccentricity

We concluded our last episode on the “Mating Game” with the betrayal of a confidence, or put another way, with something of a presumption: declaring Lady Chryss O’ Reilly a kindred spirit. Truth is, the O’ Reilly’s don’t only have their breeding philosophies in common with us; they also share a deep-seated attachment to South Africa. Outside of Ireland, they have more homes here than anywhere else.

But for the best evidence of the value of what we had to say of our reliance on stockmanship as the optimal tool in the design of a mating, you need only look at the National Breeder’s Log, where Summerhill’s boldest pursuer is Lionel Cohen. A revered horseman if ever there was one, he’s another with something in common with the odd one among us: his computer illiteracy! Lionel’s Odessa Stud is nothing if it isn’t driven by a consummate professional, whose best advertisements most times have been bred the less conventional way, with stock of lesser commercial fashion.

In a world in which numbers are fundamental to championships, you might be forgiven for thinking the breeding of racehorses has become something of a production line, and while this is obviously true in many parts of the world, at Summerhill we still pride ourselves on the fact that with us, it remains an art. Talking of art, we quickly realised in our business model, that this was another pillar on which we could separate ourselves, by adopting a course that was off most radar screens. In episode two, “Defining The Job”, we spoke of the need to employ specialists in every division, and that most times in the horse breeding world, agriculture is a rather neglected area of activity.

It’s one thing getting the mating right, it’s another altogether sustaining the pregnancy in the healthiest and most productive circumstances, and then, post-delivery, providing an environment in which the foal is able to achieve its full genetic potential.

Our observations of the way things were being done on horse farms in most parts of the world (including here at home,) led us to the conclusion that, for the most part, this was an area where we could separate ourselves from the field. The first thing was to employ the best agriculturalist our money could buy, but in the process we needed to find someone who was still fresh and open to new ideas, unburdened by the baggage that so often besets a conservative community, when it comes to change.

The reason was, we were about to embark on an altogether untravelled road, and what we were about to do was in the nature of a revolution, certainly in the horse business.

Many of our lessons came by trial and error (we’ve paid the school fees!), but the one thing we’d learnt in our time at Summerhill, was that repeating mistakes was a costly business. So our powers of observation grew sharper each time we entered a cul-de-sac of no return, and in the fullness of time, not only did nature begin to reveal herself to us in all her glory, but the folly in trying to beat her became abundantly evident.

The end of World War II heralded the fertilizer revolution, coinciding with the development of serious tractor power. The new convention involved ploughing on a broad scale, and the application of fertilizers brought about a multiplying of yields on a scale hitherto unknown. Let’s not forget, the fertilizer business was born out of the explosives industry, which had to find a means of redeploying its products with the ending of hostilities. Agriculture provided the perfect place. What nobody told us, was that the regular pulverising of soils and its constant doctoring with synthetic stimulants was not a sustainable practice. Inevitably, we found our soils were beginning to resist the rigours of ploughing, and like a drug addict, they were drawing in ever-growing quantities of fertilizer, just to uphold the yields of years gone by.

And so we discovered what nature could do for us. We resorted to recycling our bedding through a composting plant, balancing of our soils through natural minerals and trace elements, and restoring the original integrity of the soil. No longer the impermeable, hard-baked crust that took a ripper to break it at the onset of the planting season; no more the outrageous quantities (at what cost?) of fertilizer, and countless applications of insecticides and herbicides. No, here we were, returning to our beginnings with composts, limes, rock phosphates, nitrogenous legumes, natural worm remedies and a “No’” sign across anything pretending to look like a toxic spray.

Cattle were introduced almost twenty years ago to combat the parasites that pervade the horse world, to pick up the ticks and convert the straw bedding into their own form of compost. The natural world is finely balanced by the variety in its multitude of species, and in the interplay between cattle and horses, there is something resembling the wildebeest and the zebra in the wilds. No wonder nature works.

If you’d come to Summerhill with a penotrometer six or seven years into this programme, and thrust it into a typical soil crust in winter, it might have gone, at best, some four inches down. Today, since the tilth or crumble of the soil has reverted to what nature originally intended, in many cases, the penotrometer will sink to the handle, almost a metre into the ground. Imagine the implications.

The earthworms are back, the dung beetles are peddling their trade, and instead of rushing away across its surface, water percolates down into what was once a parched earth, enhancing its retention and in its interaction with the new lungs of the soil, it promotes the existence of micro organisms. A new-found religion, it has to be said, and what a difference it’s made to life on the farm.

There are those that believe we must be sleeping with fairies at Summerhill, and that what we’re up to, boarders on what some regard as eccentric. If doing things differently means being eccentric, so be it. Truth is, eccentricity has always abounded where strength of character has abounded; the concentration of eccentricity in society has generally been proportional to the concentration of genius, mental vigour and moral courage. That so few dare to be eccentric these days, marks the chief danger of our time. But that suits us, because our “eccentricity” is obviously what sets us apart.

A recent estimate of the birthweights of foals at Summerhill reveals an average increase of between 5-6 kgs over those of less than a decade ago, while the incidence of loss through conventional disease has been stringently curtailed. The levels of natural immunity in our horse population, has been considerably enhanced, with one exception.

Two years ago we encountered the first occurrence of salmonella at Summerhill. Those who know it, will tell you it’s lethal. Yet, for all the wonders of modern medicine, and despite the application of the fanciest of drugs and the most stringent of bio-security measures to control the disease, it was only a resort to a natural remedy that restored us to normality.

Salmonella is a bacterial disease, and in a naïve environment (one which has never previously known it,) it is apt to spread like wildfire. Our horses and our environment had never before been challenged. Do what you want with all the antibiotics, washes, rinses, power hoses, movement curtailments, none of these on their own or in their collective might, are entirely effective in the eye of such a storm. In the end, we found our solace in a natural antidote.

Again it was about restoring the balance, and we sought the assistance of “good” bacteria to counter the effects of the “bad”. Almost instantly, we noticed the turnaround. To our knowledge, this was a ground-breaking “world first”, never before employed in our discipline, yet it was all so simple, and made so much sense. Thank you, eccentricity!

Of course, there have been other issues of influence in Summerhill’s four consecutive Breeders’ Championships, and each of them accounts for an increment of little more than 5-10% in terms of improvement. This though, was the beginning of an agricultural revolution for us, where our understanding of and our alliance with nature, prevailed over the previous revolution. Seeing it at work, and knowing its benefits, has been as satisfying as anything we’ve done here.

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