We’re a mixed farm consisting of 45 pedigree Hereford suckler cattle and followers, 300 Cheviot/Cheviot mule sheep (breeding our own replacements to suit the farm and our system) and an area of cereal cropping.
Around half the farm is made up of permanent pasture, with the other half in what is normally a six-year cropping rotation whereby we grow three consecutive cereal crops: first winter wheat – winter oats – spring barley. A three-year grass/herbal ley follows, used for grazing and silaging.
Emphasis on soil health
We’re well on our way with the journey into regenerative agriculture and have been placing a huge emphasis on soil health, specifically working towards getting our soils biologically active with the hope that in time our use of artificial fertilisers will be negligible, if not non-existent.
The driving force behind much of our decision-making now takes into account the impact that certain actions may have on the health of our soil. To achieve all of this we are doing an array of different things.
Diverse system of living roots
We have moved away from tillage when establishing our cereals in favour of direct drilling.
Whilst direct drilling is obviously an important factor when trying to make your soils more biologically active and healthy, it is not the silver bullet. I think it’s much more important to have a constant and diverse system of living roots in the ground, feeding the soil biology and increasing our organic matter and soil carbon.
To achieve this, we are doing a few different things. Straight after harvesting winter wheat we plant a fast-growing six-week catch crop of mustard, buckwheat and phacelia using a Vaderstad Rapid drill. Winter oats are then direct drilled into the standing catch crop in October, using either a tine or disc drill.
Once the oats have been harvested the following summer, we plant a diverse eight-way cover crop over winter. This is grazed by our replacement ewe lambs before being planted with barley in the spring.
We have also experimented with growing cereal crops in a clover living mulch, by direct drilling wheat into an existing clover ley.
This allowed us to produce a 4t/acre crop of wheat using just 40kg of granular nitrogen/acre and 2kg of foliar nitrogen/acre and just one fungicide application. This turned out to be the most profitable cereal crop we’ve grown to date!
The clover not only offers a nitrogen source to the wheat but also forms a symbiotic relationship with it, again helping feed soil biology and pump carbon into the ground.
Preventing nutrient leaching
As a mixed farm we have plenty of FYM. This is a great weapon in our soil health arsenal, but only if managed appropriately.
We keep our muck in a covered muck store over winter then take it out and place it in windrows in late spring when we begin the composting process.
Keeping the muck in the store over winter prevents nutrient leaching and means it doesn’t become saturated by the rain and slump down which causes it to turn anaerobic.
I recently purchased a compost turner to transform all of our FYM into compost. This involves mixing a small amount of wood chip and paper shreddings into the FYM and turning it five to six times over what is generally a two-month period.
The compost is an aerobic product that is fugally rather than bacterially dominated, full of beneficial microorganisms that colonise the soil.
The finer more consistent texture of the compost also gives us the opportunity to spread up to 24m meaning reduced trafficking. The compost is also in a more appropriate form to be taken down into the soil by the worms and converted into humus.
Permanent pasture and herbal leys
On the livestock side of the business, we mob graze our cattle and sheep on our permanent pasture and herbal leys.
This year we managed to finish 60% of our lambs on a purely forage-based diet. We typically keep the sheep and lambs in groups of around 250. They are mobbed around herbal leys, allocated 1.5 acre paddocks every 48 hours.
The cattle are kept in appropriate groups and also moved every 48 hours. We aim to graze a third, trample a third and leave a third of the sward behind to keep the livestock, the soil and the plants happy.
Building organic matter
Livestock enter a paddock at 4000+kgDM/ha covers and come out at around 2500kgDM/ha. The paddock is then rested for 30-50 days before being grazed again.
The trampled proportion of the grass provides for soil life and builds organic matter and the long rest periods allow for a long period of photosynthesis and root growth, meaning plenty of carbon rich exudates are pumped into the soil.
As an added bonus there is always plenty of flowering plants which keep our pollinators happy.
Soil changing in front of your eyes
The effects of mob grazing on the soil and our livestock have become apparent quickly. The animals are healthy and content as they know every two days they’ll be receiving fresh grass. And you can see the properties of the soil changing in front of your eyes.
We’ve found that a truly regenerative farming system cannot be achieved without the incorporation of grazing livestock.
Worthwhile use of time
There’s a lot of electric fence moving but it is such a worthwhile use of time. Once you start paddock grazing it’s difficult to contemplate doing it any other way!
We’re working hard to reduce our anthelmintic use as using these and improving conditions for soil dwelling life and biology do not go hand-in-hand.
We no longer use pour-on drenches on our cattle when out grazing and the majority of our lambs last year were able to get to market on two drenches. One group we got away with just one.
An abundance of grass
Herbal leys have allowed us to grow a great abundance of grass for grazing and produce plenty of silage without the use of any nitrogen fertiliser.
The deep rooting nature and nitrogen fixing properties have been a huge benefit to the soil but also to the lamb finishing enterprise.
Obviously to expect an overnight change in the health of your soil is unrealistic. But the pace in which noticeable progress can be made when you put your mind to it has been astonishing. We’ve seen that for ourselves first-hand.
A more profitable and exciting way of farming
Ultimately in time, maintaining a healthy, biologically active soil will help us insulate ourselves against volatile markets, weather conditions and political demands placed upon us as farmers heading into the future.
We are by no means doing anything radical, but just simply tweaking our existing system is giving way to a much more exciting and profitable way of farming.
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