Tag: regenerative farming

Lessons Learnt at Erth Barton

Wednesday 18th October 2023

Tim Williams has now completed three years of a contract farming agreement with Antony Estates, working to convert Erth Barton into a regenerative farming system, rebuilding soil fertility. This event was a chance to hear about some of the successes and challenges encountered during the transition. This event was made possible with thanks to the National Lottery Community Fund who fund the Farm Net Zero project.

Tim took on the 300-acre (121 hectare) farm in two halves, arriving with very little kit and limited funds for inputs. This has meant he has built a simple, zero-input system focusing on restoring and feeding the soil microbiology in order to provide fertility.

A very diverse cover crop/herbal ley was drilled to increase rooting depth and diversity and then grazed with beef cattle (averaging 0.8 Livestock Units per hectare) with the aim to eat a third, trample a third and leave a third. Tim has learnt that it is best to focus on managing grass to build up a reserve rather than eating into it. Frequent moves leave grass to regrow, meaning there is always grass ahead of the livestock throughout the rotation.

Another method Tim has trialled to improve soil microbiology has been applications of compost created using a system called “complete microbial composting” developed by the Land Gardeners. This involves mixing brown (cattle dung, soil, straw) and green (fresh cut plants) material from around the farm in long windrows and turning. Three methods of application were trialled – direct spreading, compost tea brewing and “biopriming” (mixing compost with the seed prior to drilling). Tim felt that the biopriming technique has the potential to be the most successful. However, soil microbial testing conducted by the University of Exeter showed no difference so far between areas with and without compost application.

Tim has also experimented with pasture cropping alongside WildFarmed, this involved using a Moore Unidrill to direct drill a heritage wheat blend into a hard-grazed herbal ley. The aim was for the existing ley to provide ground cover and nitrogen-fixation. Tim described the first attempt at pasture cropping as a “disaster”, with chicory swamping the wheat and making harvest impossible. A second attempt meant tweaking the herbal ley mix to make it less competitive, grazing tight, sub-soiling and spring tine harrowing for seed/soil contact and then direct drilling. This appeared to have good establishment up until May, at which point Tim noticed that about two-thirds of the crop was Westerwolds grass. Again, harvest was abandoned and the field grazed instead to utilise the crop and keep organic matter in the field. In future, Tim plans on removing grass from the mix and replacing with a species that has more winter-kill such as sunflowers/millet/sorghum.

As Tim’s time at Erth Barton draws to a close, we would like to thank him for his work on Farm Net Zero and wish him all the best for his future endeavours.

Key takeaways:

  • Bringing pasture and livestock back onto the farm has helped to improve soil quality.
  • Fertility extraction should be balanced with fertility building. This can be done as part of a rotation.
  • Even when experiments do not go the way we first thought, we can still learn valuable lessons from them.

FCT and Yeo Valley at Countryside COP2

On the 10th October Farm Carbon Toolkit’s Becky Willson and Liz Bowles co-led an event kindly hosted at Yeo Valley Organic Garden as part of the second Countryside COP (CCOP2).

Countryside COP is a hybrid conference held to align with COP to create space for the agricultural sector and rural economies to push ahead on climate change and sustainability. It was established to allow rural communities to come together and illustrate the opportunities that are available, along with contributions that are already underway to reach net zero. The event is also an opportunity to explore adaptation options, something of increasing importance as our weather patterns become more extreme, as seen so starkly seen this year. 

The first Countryside COP was set up in 2021 by the Agriculture & Land Use Alliance (formerly Greenhouse Gas Action Plan GHGAP). Organisations in the Alliance include:

  • ADAS
  • Agricultural Engineers Association (AEA)
  • Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHDB)
  • Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC)
  • Country Land & Business Association (CLA)
  • Linking Environment & Farming (LEAF)
  • NIAB
  • National Farmers Union (NFU)

In an NFU article leading up to Countryside COP1 the Alliance said

“This journey is complex, but there is no shortage of professionalism and knowledge within the rural community, and all who support food and farming. This is the time to utilise and invest in this expertise so we can help contribute to the government’s net-zero target, all while continuing to produce fantastic, affordable food for people at home and abroad”.

This year Farm Carbon Toolkit was one of a range of organisations including universities and farming bodies contributing to CCOP2. Through a plethora of 15 events running from the 10th-14th October all across the UK CCOP2 speakers were hosted from as far afield as Australia, Ghana and Zambia.

At Farm Carbon Toolkit we teamed up with our project partners at Yeo Valley who kindly hosted us, to talk about making the transition towards regenerative agriculture and about the findings so far in the project. The event was attended by a range of participants including farmers, education providers, NGOs and the general public. 

FCT’s event on ‘Soil Health and Water Security’ discussed the benefits that agroforestry can bring to grassland systems. It was demonstrated that the presence of trees can buffer extreme weather conditions such as the drought experienced this summer by supporting grass growth and therefore livestock performance, as it has done at Yeo Valley. Agroforestry can enable soils to retain more moisture, limiting the impacts of both droughts and flooding, so has a direct climate change mitigation potential.

Other findings demonstrated at the event included discussing how research carried out with Yeo Valley farmers has suggested that soil management practices, such as growing herbal leys, can increase soil carbon deposition below 10cm. The amount of carbon this is sequestering due to the range of practice uptake on trial sites is significant – it demonstrates a carbon stock improvement of between 20-40t/c/ha.

The event also showcased how significant discussions and events like this one can be in improving carbon literacy amongst attendees, crucial in moving forward together.

To read more about the other events in the series and the insightful recommendations that came from them please see here.