Tag: Soil Farmer of the Year

Soil Farmer of the Year 2023 – Farm Walk with Bronagh O’Kane

Written by Emma Adams on behalf of The Farm Carbon Toolkit

In a first for the Soil Farmer of the Year competition, in October 2023 our series of farm walks took place in Northern Ireland. A group of farmers, academics and industry professionals met at Drumard Farm, just outside Cookstown in County Tyrone, to hear from Bronagh O’Kane on how she is transforming her farming business with resilient soil at its heart.

Bronagh introducing the farm to the group

Having come back to the farm in 2020, Bronagh began a journey to transform the soil. Historically the farm supported continental cattle breeds with a high reliance on imported feed, Bronagh has transitioned this system to more traditional breeds managed on herbal leys and ever-increasing diversity grasslands. Utilising a rotational paddock system she has extended the grazing period so that cattle can be out by 4 weeks and soils are more resilient to the extremes of dry and wet weather. Bronagh has started producing vermicast and composting to improve soil biology; focusing on natural inputs and a softer approach with foliar fertilisers where needed to manage historically compact and imbalanced soils. The walk will provide the opportunity to discuss and demonstrate the practices undertaken at the farm and the ongoing challenges and successes that Bronagh sees in her system.

The beginning of the farm walk

At Drumard Farm, Bronagh was told she had poor soils and no doubt they are a challenge, with testing suggesting an average of 45% silt and 45% clay they are tight and sticky, with little aggregation or infiltration. As such, understanding what was needed for the soil to function better was a priority for Bronagh, with a great deal of research it was understood that the high magnesium, bacterially dominant soils were being held back by a mineral imbalance, compaction from big tractors and heavy cows. 

Inspecting the soil condition following the autumn rain

Changing the livestock system at the farm has been central to Bronagh’s evolving management. The cattle business has been streamlined, and as such the previous finishing and store systems have been stopped instead to focus on a suckler system with pedigree Charollais sheep. The sheep are high value stock, as Bronagh suggests there isn’t the acreage for a larger flock, instead, she buys in September before selling the ewes with lambs at foot in the spring and runs the rest of the flock throughout the year. This system works well as there is the housing space available over winter and also the sheep provide a good opportunity to clean up the last of the grass when it is too wet for the cattle to graze. Previously the farm also had Charolais cattle, but these have been restocked, reducing numbers from around 80 to 50 on a sucker system focussing on more native breeds such as Speckle Park, Shorthorn and Hereford crosses with an Angus Bull. Even with these changes, Bronagh found that those animals with a Limousin cross within the breeding still comparatively lost condition on the new system which is thought to be from underlying epigenetic traits. This has led Bronagh to source more local Shorthorn heifers which are better adapted to a grass-based system. 

Bronagh utilises plant diversity as an indicator of the status of the soil. The species that may dominate in a field or area can suggest what the underlying composition may be – chickweed for excess nitrogen, low calcium or high potassium or creeping buttercup thrives where there has been poaching, bare soil and a low pH. Like many farms, docks have historically been widespread at the farm, often indicating compaction and an anaerobic soil environment. Bronagh’s approach to dock management is to change what has historically not been working – sprays and topping – and instead let them grow and allow the dock beetle to get to work combined with a cut for silage around June. This understanding of what the plants are indicating has led Bronagh to stop spraying and minimising fertiliser use to zero, instead focusing on balancing the soil and improving the health of the biome. She explains:

“Biodiversity, long rest periods and grazing management can change soils – you’re not stuck with what you have”

Grassland management is central to how the business is now run. Bronagh has diversified existing grasslands into multi-species swards despite the testing conditions and low pH of the farm. On the walk, the group visited a newly established herbal ley that had been planted in a field that was pH 5.8.  

The newly established multi-species herbal ley

The 15-way mix contained species such as sainfoin, plantain and chicory and Bronagh has subsequently experimented with both cutting and grazing, which has led to discussions with contractors on cutting heights, timings and more to best maintain the sward. For Bronagh, managing these lays to allow the full diversity is important, with the understorey plants encouraged through the aforementioned considerations in combination with the paddock grazing system. Bronagh has experimented with the paddock grazing timings and methods, including grazing the cows on knee-high swards which resulted in moving them faster but increasing the size of the paddock as the cows were found to be trampling rather than eating following heavy rain. Bronagh suggests:

The definition of overgrazing is letting them get that second bite – it is so important for my fragile, shallow roots to rest”

In addition to the home farm, Bronagh also has a 30ac National Trust tenancy on a zero-input system supporting both a rotational grazing and cutting platform. For Bronagh, having the right livestock that will thrive on a grass based system is key to success. As such, she puts the heifers on the poorest fields to determine which animals will be kept as some breeding is adapted better to the system than others. 

The walk also incorporated learning more about how Bronagh is using vermicast to provide nutrition and balance to her soils. Vermicast, or worm castings is made by using worms to compost organic amendments such as farmyard manure, food waste, wood chip etc to create a soil conditioning fertiliser.

Worm farm whereby organic materials are broken
down to create the vermicast

On the farm, vermicast is used to provide nutrients, stabilise pH and also as a coating on any new seed that is established. Bronagh applies her vermicast through a sprayer after making a ‘compost tea’. The vermicast is added to a porous ‘tea bag’ within an IBC filled with water which is then agitated and aerated using a bubbler to extract the nutrients and beneficial organisms which vermicast contains, the resulting liquid is then applied to land to stimulate soil biology and provide nutrients. Bronagh is aiming for a 1:1 ratio of fungi to bacteria which the vermicast and good soil management will help promote.

Bronagh explains the process of using vermicast
to make a compost tea

Regularly conducting Brix testing has allowed Bronagh to understand how to best apply the vermicast and the benefit it is having to her land, with fields which have had no fertiliser, slurry or inputs other than vermicast scoring 12, with Bronagh suggesting that every 1% increase in a Brix result can give a 0.5-0.75kg improvement in liveweight gain in the cattle. Any amendments which Bronagh applied to the land are designed with this goal in mind, alongside the cost and feasibility within her system. An example of this is that she has been experimenting with using egg shells to help aid the calcium balance and flocculate the soil; this can be spread with a conventional fertiliser spreader rather than other products which can have additional costs due to the price of both material and the contractor required to apply the product. 

Since 2015, the Soil Farmer of the Year Competition has helped to find, promote and champion UK farmers who are passionate about safeguarding their soils and building resilient businesses. As part of the competition, the top three farmers host farm walks that bring farmers together to share good practice and innovations that improve soil health. The 2024 round of the competition opens on 5th of December 2023, which is World Soils Day – if you are interested in finding out more, entering the competition or nominating someone who you think is deserving of this award further details can be found on the Farm Carbon Toolkit website or https://farmcarbontoolkit.org.uk/soil-farmer-of-the-year/ 

2023 SOIL FARMER OF THE YEAR FINALISTS ANNOUNCED!

It was very hard work, but we have shortlisted six farmers as finalists for the 2023 Soil Farmer of the Year competition!

Organised by the Farm Carbon Toolkit and Innovation for Agriculture — and generously sponsored by Hutchinsons and Cotswold Seeds — the Soil Farmer of the Year Competition helps to identify, promote, and champion UK farmers who are passionate about safeguarding their soils and building resilient businesses.

This year we had so many wonderful entries that we have decided to award ‘Highly Commended’ to those farmers and growers who impressed the judges, but unfortunately didn’t quite make the shortlist. Well done to them all!

We really are grateful to everyone who took the time and effort to enter and who helped make this such a difficult competition to judge, as well as to our kind sponsors.

The 2023 Soil Farmer of the Year Finalists:

  • 🚜 Richard Antony, R&L Anthony Ltd, Bridgend
  • 🚜 Debbie Wilkins, Norton Court Farm, Gloucestershire
  • 🚜 Ed Horton, Poulton fields Farm, Gloucestershire
  • 🚜 Stuart Johnson, West Wharmley Farm, Hexham
  • 🚜 Andrew Jackson, Holme Hall Farm, Lincolnshire
  • 🚜 Bronagh O’Kane, Drumard Farm, Cookstown

Highly Commended:

  • Jonathan Hodgson, Great Newsome Farm, East Yorkshire
  • John Sansome, Woodfield Farm, Worcestershire
  • Will Oliver, Swepstone Fields Farm, Leicestershire
  • Robert Neave, The Manor, Lincolnshire

The judges have already started visiting the finalists this week to learn more about their farming practices and we’ll announce the winners at a special event at the Groundswell Show and Conference at 5.30pm on 28 June 2023.

The winning farms will also host open farm walks later in the year, bringing farmers together to share best practice and innovations that improve soil health.

Stay tuned for more info!

Mixed Soil Farmer of the Year 2022 – Farm walk with Billy Lewis

Our 2022 Mixed Soil Farmer of the Year, Billy Lewis, is based at Boycefield Farm in Herefordshire on a 350 acre beef and sheep farm. The farm soils are medium loamy with areas of heavy clay. Billy’s business includes around 100 head of pedigree Hereford cattle, a flock of 300 ewes and an additional arable enterprise. In October 2022 over 100 farmers, advisors and industry personnel met at Boycefield to learn more about the system that led Billy to win the competition.

Approach

Billy’s approach was historically sympathetic and typical of many mixed farms, with grassland alongside an arable area used to produce crops and fodder to raise livestock. However previous management on the arable land has seen some degradation through root crops in the rotation, in particular lifting potatoes in the wet harvest of 2008 and grass yields were stagnant. Over the past 5 years the farm has seen some radical changes with regards to soil management and, consequently, this has improved profitability in both the arable and grassland systems with reduced requirement for artificial inputs. Billy has transitioned away from renting land for potatoes and a predominantly high-input, plough based-system on the arable side, and an overall reliance on bagged nitrogen across the whole farm.

Now management is focused on a direct drilling regime, living mulches, catch and cover cropping alongside integrating livestock into the arable system to maintain diversity throughout the farm. Furthermore, the grazing platform has developed from a field-by-field rotational grazing system over the past 3 years to that of a high-impact, long recovery mob grazing approach; transitioning from monoculture grass leys into diverse herbal and legume leys with added natural regeneration of plants within the historic seedbank, resulting in a near total removal of artificial nitrogen requirement. 

The Soil Farmer of the Year farm walk at Boycefield Farm, Herefordshire. Exploring the management and system used by Billy Lewis, our Mixed Farm winner of 2022’s competition.

Speaking to the group, Billy described his process in altering the management undertaken at the farm,

“The first year we started putting up a few electric fences over a small area to try rotational grazing. Alongside this we tried around 5 acres of direct drilling. As these two approaches worked quite well the year after we increased the area and so on and so forth.”

The focus at Boycefield is upon building soil health and quality to increase the resilience of the system (either grassland or arable) alongside a capacity to utilise the nutrients already available below the ground,

“Our approach on the farm is to use what we have on the farm – sun, rain and the soil – if we get the soil right then in theory everything should fall into line.”

To aid this Billy has an integrated system whereby all of the farm with the exception of the permanent pasture will rotate between arable and forage cropping, with livestock featured throughout regardless of what is planted,

“We tend to have three years of cereals with grazable cover or catch crops followed by three years in grass or herbal leys to build the fertility – this is either silaged or grazed depending on what is required for the year”.

Maximising above and below-ground diversity is central to the management approach at Boycefield farm, cover and catch crops are used throughout the arable system allowing livestock to feature throughout the rotation.

Much of the permanent pasture is zero input, without cultivation or additional manures outside of what is deposited during grazing from animal impact, Billy explains,

“Since beginning our rotational grazing system we no longer apply fertiliser to our permanent pasture. You will grow ten times more grass with an electric fence than you will with a bag of fertiliser”.

Across Boycefield farm fertiliser use has been reduced by more than 50% over the last three years,

“The ultimate aim is to no longer use pesticides or artificial fertilisers.”

Conversion to mob grazing

Historically fields were set stocked, Billy believed that this was a main blocker on the potential biodiversity of the farm. A mob grazing system with long rest periods allows the natural seedbank within the soil to regenerate. The cattle are on a 48 hour system, whereby they are moved into a new paddock every two days with each paddock being grazed around 5 times throughout the summer season. 

Billy demonstrates his grazing system, utilising the approach of graze a third, leave a third and trample a third,

“The livestock are kept happy with the grass available, whilst the plants left have leaf area to continue photosynthesising and the remaining third which is trampled in is boosting the below-ground biology.”

The farm utilises a leader-follower system, where the sheep graze in-front with the cattle following behind; this allows the sheep to take the majority of the lush and tall grass which is less suitable for the Hereford cattle, which perform better on the permanent or older grass pastures. On a particularly tricky year with the drought Billy discussed how this system had fared,

“It has become apparent that this is the method we should be using to grow grass, fields we went into with high covers recovered faster with ground moisture being maintained alongside that remaining leaf area.”

Although the system is based on 48 hour moves between paddocks, Billy keeps this flexible – altering the area available in cases such as holidays or in the extreme heat to allow for better shading,

“The grazing system is a balancing act between your own life and the farm life – I don’t get too hung up on moving animals or having a set plan so we can adapt to the season, the demands of the animals and the ground”.

In regards to the performance of the livestock, Billy shares,

“The stock know that every 2 to 3 days they will be moved to fresh grass – they are calm, happy and well. The cattle have a lovely shine to their coats and lambs are performing really well on a purely forage based diet.”

On the farm tour Billy demonstrated his rotational grazing system to the group, showing how livestock are moved on a 48 hour system to a new paddock and fresh grazing. 

Cattle are wormed a week prior to turn-out when in the shed but treatment is not repeated – Billy relies on regular movement and an increased sward height to reduce the parasitic worm burden and likewise increase the dung beetle population through minimising anthelmintics onto the pasture. Billy mentions that a group of lambs made it to market this year without a single worming treatment, he explains,

“We would never not treat an animal if we thought the need was there, however, with our system worming is no longer a high priority – the animals tend to stay ahead of them and therefore have much lower contact.”

Focusing on soil health has helped Billy grow far more forage, aiding livestock performance and the recovery of pastures to extend the grazing season.

Compost

Cattle are housed over winter and all of the resulting farmyard manure is composted and then used on the arable fields, either into a standing crop in the spring or prior to drilling in the autumn. Billy describes,

“With compost it is a case of little and often.”

Adapting the compost to field requirement, Billy has previously added solid digestate fibre to his compost mix to increase the nutrient content available. All of the straw from the arable system is baled to use in the livestock, however it is then returned via the compost which Billy sees as far more beneficial to the soil and crop being grown. The compost is produced through windrowing the muck and using a compost turner to mix, around about 4 to 5 times before the finished product is realised – being much more in texture to that of the soil, being capable of spreading around 24m at a rate of 6-10 tonnes per hectare. 

Boycefield Farm produces pedigree Hereford Cattle, with 2022 marking the bicentenary of the Lewis family breeding herd.

Diversity and reducing inputs

The group looked at an arable field that was just coming out of the three year fertility break – consequently the field has been planted with a three-way blend of wheat (Extase, Costello and Graham) using a direct drill. The seed used is currently dressed, however in the coming years Billy looks to minimise this,

“We are aiming to have half of the wheat undressed next year, we have wireworm within the soils but are yet to see worrying levels of damage – there is so much variety in the soils and also in what we are growing above ground, they don’t seem to bother with the crop”.

Billy uses contractors for some of the cultivation and spraying work, so minimising the number of passes required equally reduces the overall spend requirement for the crop. The field was sprayed off with glyphosate at 2.5 l/ha with 0.5 l/ha of fulvic acid and 80g of citric acid, which left a clover understorey to act as a living mulch for the combinable crops. Billy explains,

“Traditionally I wouldn’t go out of my way to establish clover in an arable crop, but as it is already here and very well established I will capitalise on it. We have done it the last three years and seen some good successes.”

He continues,

“As much diversity you can get in a system the better, in what is usually a monoculture crop of wheat we now have clover roots and three different varieties”.

Billy now manages clover understories within his arable rotation, providing extensive benefits in crop nutrition, water infiltration and soil health.

When looking at a field which has had a clover understorey for the past two seasons Billy explains his method,

“Originally this was wheat direct drilled into a herbal ley and the clover persisted, after harvest we then direct drilled some more mustard and phacelia in to provide some different rooting architecture and sheep grazing. We grazed around 70 sheep for 10 days on the field which could take back the green cover before we have now planted our second wheat.”

Billy uses Humber Palmers fertiliser in a three way split, of roughly 10kg in March and then a following 20kg later in the season before the final dose which is applied as a foliar with humates. The fertiliser program going forward is much reduced to the traditional application rate, Billy explains,

“We are budgeting 50 kg of nitrogen per hectare for this wheat crop, last year the wheat with a living mulch had 60 kg of nitrogen per hectare and one fungicide at T2 and yielded over 10 t/ha, making it likely the most profitable crop of wheat we’ve ever grown on the farm. Therefore it would be nice to go zero fungicide this year and reduce the fertiliser rate further, however if the crop is looking stressed or like it needs more we would always consider increasing the inputs.”

Having livestock available to the arable system keeps management flexible, with Billy having the capacity to graze particularly forward crops to reduce the requirement for fungicides later in the season.

Restoring soil health with cover cropping

The walk visited one of the poorest fields on the farm, which is currently undergoing a process to restore soil quality, health and fertility. Billy explained to the group,

“We started in here with a winter cover crop which was grazed off by lambs intended to go into spring barley. However the field was still very poor and with the current fertiliser prices we didn’t feel like we would get anything other than a marginal crop – so instead we planted a summer cover crop (buckwheat, phacelia, mustard, chicory, oats, crimson clover, rye, vetch) and focussed on restoring the soil to a position where the field could function in our low-input system.”

The field has now been direct drilled with a GS4 herbal ley as part of the farm’s stewardship scheme, with a planned winter grazing to remove any remaining plants from the summer cover crop – anything that is left within the herbal ley will be seen as a bonus to the overall diversity. 

One of the fields at Boycefield currently in a GS4 herbal ley as part of a fertility building strategy to improve soil functionality before returning to the arable rotation.

Further explaining the cover cropping system, Billy showed the group a previous oat stubble with freshly drilled winter wheat,

“This field had compost in the spring for the oat crop, straight after combining we establish a catch crop (mustard, buckwheat and phacelia) with a disc drill to create a little tilth and allow any weeds to chit. This catch crop will be in the ground for 6-7 weeks to capture the sunlight and keep the soil life ticking over and cycling nutrients before we desiccate it and drill the following crop.”

Upon digging a hole, Billy mentions,

“When we have been out digging we have noticed some phenomenal plant Rhizosheaths, most noticeably in our cover crops where the plant roots are absolutely laden in soil. This is a great sign, it shows us that our soil biology is functioning and forming great symbiotic relationships with the crop.”

He continues,

“When we dig up any legume species, be it in a herbal ley, cover crop or in the clover living mulch, we’re seeing plenty of nodules forming and more importantly we are noticing that they are active due to the dark purple colour when they are sliced open.”

Moving forward

The next steps at Boycefield are to reduce input usage further, focusing on utilising what is available on the farm. Billy has now taken on additional local arable land after demonstrating the benefits of a more regenerative, resilient system. Boycefield has started running a number of farm walks throughout the year to show other visitors what they are up to.

Follow Billy

Equally, Billy shares the daily goings on for the farm on twitter (@BoycefieldFarm) and on the Boycefield Farm website – a great platform to see all of the wonderful photos of the farm throughout the year. 

Arable Soil Farmer of the Year – A farm walk with David Miller

The second in our series of farm walks was with David Miller in Hampshire. This year’s Arable Soil Farmer of the Year, David is keen to demonstrate how a regenerative system can be both simple and profitable even on challenging soils. Managing 700ha of majority Grade 3 land in a purely arable rotation, David focuses on four of the main pillars of regenerative farming – keeping the soil covered, diversifying the rotation, maintaining a living root and minimising soil movement – proving a regenerative system without livestock.

The 700ha farm has been managed under a regenerative system for the previous 7 years, focusing on minimising tillage and incorporating diverse cover crops into the rotation. The move was triggered by rising input costs without the reciprocal rise in expected yield – a change of system was needed to improve profitability and farm resilience. David explains,

“The overriding ambition is for our soils to be much more biologically active and more resilient. Resilience can be defined as, being able to function and produce a healthy crop with minimal interference, either mechanical or chemical and to continue to do this year after year”.

Initially cautious to make the transition, due to the perceived cost of a system focusing on the soil, David conducted a series of trials over a 5 year period; following this the investment was made for a no-till drill to maximise the benefits of the cover crops within the rotation.

With the farm located around 600 ft above sea level and containing large quantities of flint, the soil David manages is challenging from many perspectives. Moving to the no-till system has seen vast improvements to the fixed costs of the farm,

“We have much less depreciation on machinery and save a lot of diesel compared to our previous practices.”

David reveals that prior to their transition when conventionally farming they averaged 85 litres/ha of diesel for the whole year compared to only 50 litres/ha now. The current system also means there is a lower staffing requirement, with the 700ha farm only having one full time member of staff supported by two part-time workers to assist with spraying and harvesting. 

Reducing inputs has been a key focus of David’s throughout the journey so far. Historically DAP (diammonium phosphate) has been used to establish crops alongside applications of potassium however now with the cover crop system in place this is deemed no longer necessary.

“The harder you push a farm conventionally with high inputs the harder it is to come back”

– David suggests.

Inputs were steadily reduced over time as the system came into balance, he explains

“The cycling phosphate and potassium was actually at a deficit for a few years as it was tied up in our cover crops. Over time this system has equalised and now we are self-sufficient, cover crops mine the nutrients that were once unavailable within soil that we need for the arable system”.

The farm has had no phosphate or potassium fertiliser for 7 years and has reduced nitrogen fertiliser by 25%, when explaining how he has achieved this he states,

“We have adopted a nitrogen dose reduction strategy alongside making cropping changes (spelt wheat or spring milling wheat rather than winter wheat) whilst lowering chemical costs through a more targeted approach combined with a more flexible risk strategy – we put less money at risk in each crop and therefore we are able to budget for lower yields and margin is our driver.”

David is a believer of testing theories and trialling ideas on the farm, a fertiliser rate trial demonstrated that up to half of the total nitrogen applied was used to produce the last tonne of yield (9 tonnes to 10 tonnes/ha) –

“We are trying to get a consistent yield from a consistent application of fertiliser, if we can understand what’s going on in the soil a little bit more we are likely to be able to reduce our synthetic fertiliser even more”.

Reducing the spray program has also made great savings from both an input and fuel perspective. Insecticides are rarely used on the farm despite the large OSR acreage, instead relying on providing habitats for invertebrate species and beneficial predators to deliver pest control. This has been encouraged by establishing 4 metre margins around all the fields with indigenous species such as mayweed, speedwell and wild carrot which historically would have been considered arable weeds, but provide the habitat to encourage the species within their own local ecosystem. David describes this thinking,

“A healthy, active soil is just one component of a healthy, active environment – getting the biological balance in the soil requires, or results in, getting a balance of invertebrates, predators, beneficials and pests”.

An example of this promotion of beneficials and biological influence on the cropping system is the companion crops used during establishment of the oilseed rape, David explains,

“We try and keep the companions in for as long as we can to help with the mycorrhizal fungi but we avoid having them in the crop at harvest as it can make combining tricky – the species we choose are either not tolerant to the frost or can usually be taken out with the normal herbicide program.”

Establishing the crop using this system has meant no insecticide has been used in 4 years, with no requirement for starter fertiliser, “The seed and companion crop are about £30 per hectare, so if we loose a little bit it is not the end of the world – we’ve given up trying to keep a bad crop of rape”. 

Aardvark oilseed rape drilled on the 20th of August, which is farm saved following euric acid testing. Drilled using the Horizon with only the front set of cultures to give 40cm rows which has been drilled with a companion crop of buckwheat, berseem and crimson clover.

Having moved away into a no-till drilling system has itself presented new challenges with crop establishment as David tells the group

“As we no longer apply fertiliser at drilling and have very little mineralisation of nitrogen through cultivation establishment can be much slower. However, once crops are established they seem far more resilient and having had a dig they have a far more developed root architecture than in our previous system.”

The rooting patterns now achieved on the farm also provide the crops with a better foundation during tricky weather, with David observing that in particular the wheat can now stand longer periods of drought. Growing crops such as the spelt can leave a lot of straw residue behind after harvest, David explains that a proportion of the straw will be baled but the majority is chopped and left to biology to disperse,

“If we are confident that we have a good worm population that helps with the straw management following harvest as they take it down into the soil and decompose it.”

When discussing cover crop choice and management David has a key strategy,

“The cover crops which are deemed to be the ‘best’ are those with big top growth and leafy canopies. I however am interested in what’s going on below ground – big cover crops with a lot of above ground biomass use a lot of the available nitrogen in the soil and we don’t tend to see the same benefit to the following crops”.

David blends his own cover crop mixtures from straights, aiming to spend approximately £30/ha on the seed. 

A field of oilseed rape established with an in-row companion crop of buckwheat, phacelia and vetch.

David discusses his thinking in choosing cover crop combinations,

“We used to have a lot of radish in the covers in the early days, we found this led to finding a massive amount of slugs. So we therefore decided to remove brassicas from the mixes for a few years, we are now just starting to put a couple back into the mix as they seem to dominate very quickly.”

Crops are established either using a Horizon DSX drill or on occasion a Horsch C04 if there is a large quantity of straw when drilling cover crops. In regards to establishing the following crop after the cover David describes his approach,

“If we get a chance in the winter with a hard enough frost we will come out with a set of cambridge rolls to start to terminate some of the leafier covers, but eventually we will use a low rate of glyphosate (2-3 litres of 360g) before we drill in the spring”.

David explains his thinking behind an overwinter crop of sunflowers, phacelia, buckwheat, gold of pleasure, radish and vetch before planting spring wheat for milling.

David maintains flexibility within the system by not having a set rotation and also using environmental stewardship options to aid trickier areas of ground, he explains

“I would say that our soil structure is improving across most of the farm – some heavier fields which have been more reluctant to accept no-till have been included in our stewardship scheme and planted with AB15 or a 2-year legume mix. Also, active clovers in place for 2 years have formed very strong tap roots and improved the soil structure a lot.”

Since converting from a high-input, conventional system there has been many notable changes in the quality and condition of the soil, David explains

“It has probably taken 4 or 5 years, but the soils are now visibly more friable and better structured – this is underpinned by the old and living roots as well as the many worm channels. Observational changes can happen in the first couple of years but the quantifiable changes become far more apparent after around 5.”

David is keen on assessing the land through many different approaches to measure the resilience and functionality of the soil, he says

“Slake tests are showing soils are less fragile and hold together better when we get heavy rain, this is seen in the fields as our infiltration rates have definitely increased and the fields are much cleaner following downpours.”

David is also a strategic farm for the AHDB where he looks to be able to quantify some of the anecdotal theories in partnership with NIAB, increasing the confidence in the practices for other farmers considering converting,

“The regenerative system is such a long-term journey it is sometimes difficult to know what to try and measure, let alone how”.

In particular being able to understand the best approach to lessening the usage of fungicides and nitrogen alongside the impact healthy soils has upon the nutritional density of the food produced. 

The 2023 Soil Farmer of the Year competition launches on the 5th of December 2022. Established in 2015, the competition is run by the Farm Carbon Toolkit and helps find, promote and champion UK farmers who are passionate about their soils. With awards presented annually at Groundswell Agricultural Show, the competition is widely recognised within the industry and beyond as a fantastic platform for farmers to share their knowledge and experience. If you are interested in entering the competition or would like to read further articles about previous winners please visit the Farm Carbon Toolkit Soil Farmer of the Year website here

The group in a field which has been direct drilled for 9 years, it is now planted with Extase winter wheat following a previous crop of beans. The wheat was established by straw raking the bean stubble and then drilling straight in.

Soil Farmer of the Year competition 2023 is open to entries!

Organised by the Farm Carbon Toolkit and Innovation for Agriculture — and generously sponsored by Cotswold Seeds and Hutchinsons — the Soil Farmer of the Year Competition (SFOTY) helps to identify, promote and champion UK farmers who are passionate about safeguarding their soils and building resilient businesses.

The 2022 competition was a huge success, with significant coverage of the competition and winners in the farming press and across social media. Farmers Weekly alone featured three articles on the 2022 Soil Farmer of the Year (Livestock) Billy Lewis2022 Soil Farmer of the Year (Arable) David Miller, and 2022 Soil Farmer of the Year (Runner up) Andrew Rees! It’s fantastic to not only see the individual winners celebrated like this but for their pioneering farming practices to be shared so widely.

With the ever-increasing interest in the environmental and business benefits of soil health and regenerative practices, the Soil Farmer of the Year competition looks set to be even bigger for 2023. Click on the link below to apply — or nominate someone you know! Or click here to find out more.

FAQ:

When does the entry period close?

The closing date for the competition is the 5th of March 2023.

How do I enter?

You can enter the competition HERE, or visit https://forms.gle/PN9NZf8iyiTsZ2ed6

We encourage applications from all sizes and types of farm – if you are passionate about soil management we would love to hear what you are up to. Equally, if you know someone who you would like to nominate or have any further questions please get in touch and we will be happy to have a chat: [email protected]

How is the competition judged?

All entries will be anonymised and short-listed for judging by our panel including the winners of the 2021 competition. The highest placed entrants will then be contacted and farm walks with our judging panel will commence in May 2023 to decide the finalists for the 2023 competition.

When are the winners announced?

The winners will be announced at the Groundswell Regenerative Agriculture Show and Conference at the end of June 2023.

Celebrating Our Soil Farmers

Since 2015, our SFOTY competition has helped to find, promote, and champion UK farmers who are passionate about safeguarding their soils and building resilient businesses. The 2022 competition involved a cohort of applicants with new ideas and perspectives on what sustainable soil management means for the future. As part of the competition, the top three farmers host farm walks that bring farmers together to share their good practice and innovation to improve soil health.

Celebrating the 2022 winners

Winners of the Soil Farmer of the Year 2022 Competition. From left to right: Andrew Rees (Runner-up), David Miller (Arable Soil Farmer of the Year) and Billy Lewis (Mixed Soil Farmer of the Year).

As we launch the 2023 competition, we want to celebrate this year’s winners and thank them for all their efforts to promote the benefits of good soil management.

Farm walk with Andrew Rees, 2022 Soil Farmer of the Year (Runner-up) In the first week of August, farmers and industry professionals met at Moor Farm in southwest Wales to hear Andrew Rees explain how he has developed a dairy system with soil health at the centre. READ THE REPORT

Farm walk with David Miller, 2022 Soil Farmer of the Year (Arable) Managing 700ha in Hampshire of majority Grade 3 land in a purely arable rotation, David Miller demonstrated how a regenerative system can be both simple and profitable even on challenging soils. READ THE REPORT

Farm walk with Billy Lewis, 2022 Soil Farmer of the Year (Livestock) Billy Lewis explained to visitors to his farm in Herefordshire how he’s been focusing on regenerating tired soils (previously in a high-intensity arable system) through integrating livestock and increasing species diversity. COMING SOON!

Key statistics

4,411 Hectares collectively managed by applicants across a range of soils throughout the UK. Farming systems demonstrated soil managements across a variety of geographies and landscapes.

60% Mixed Farms. The majority of applications were from mixed farming businesses, with arable and dairy systems also represented.

215 Businesses attended farm walks, participating in information sharing and knowledge exchange to discuss new ideas of how to implement sustainable practices.

Key messages

  • Protect the soil surface
  • Maintain a flexible rotation
  • Understand the biological, chemical and physical requirements of healthy soil
  • Minimise the disturbance of soil created through cultivation, trafficking and grazing pressures

Best of luck!

2022 Soil Farmer of the Year competition: Shortlisted farms announced

Soil Farmer of the Year Winners 2021 at Groundswell

Press release: 2022 Soil Farmer of the Year competition: Shortlisted farms announced!

The Soil Farmer of the Year competition 2022 has selected seven farmers as finalists.

The 2022 Soil Farmer of the Year Shortlist:

  • Stuart Johnson, mixed farm – Northumberland
  • AV and N Lee and Partners, mixed farm – Devon
  • Billy Lewis, mixed farm – Herefordshire
  • David Miller, arable farm – Hampshire
  • Andrew Rees, grassland farm – Haverfordwest
  • Paul Temple, mixed farm – Yorkshire
  • Tim Williams, mixed farm – Cornwall

Now in its seventh year, the annual Soil Farmer of the Year competition is organised by the Farm Carbon Toolkit and Innovation for Agriculture and, this year, generously sponsored by Hutchinsons and Cotswold Seeds.

The competition aims to find farmers and growers who are engaged with, and passionate about managing their soils in a way which supports productive agriculture, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and builds soil health, organic matter and carbon.

As part of the competition, the top three farmers will host open farm walks that bring farmers together to share good practice and innovations that improve soil health. The competition is widely recognised by organisations working in soil management, with many promoting it to their networks to increase participation.

Emma Adams, Farm Carbon and Soil Advisor with Farm Carbon Toolkit, says 

“This year’s Soil Farmer of the Year competition saw the highest number of applications so far, and we’ve been blown away by the number and quality of the entries. Indeed, the sheer variety of entries highlights the fact that, despite the many differences in farming systems and locations, the soil connects us all. We’re very grateful to everyone who took the time and effort to enter.”

Deborah Crossan, Innovation for Agriculture, says 

“As the Soil Farmer of the Year competition gains momentum and the numbers of entries reach their highest level so far, the summer walks at the winning farms represent a not-to-be-missed opportunity for farmers to see first-hand the innovation and change that leads to excellent soil management.“

The judging process now involves visiting each of the seven finalists to learn more about their farming practices before selecting the winners.

The winners of the 2022 competition will be announced at the Groundswell: The Regenerative Agriculture Show and Conference, which runs from 22nd – 23rd June 2002 at Lannock Manor Farm, Hertfordshire. 

Open farm walks at the top three winning farms are scheduled to take place in July.

For further details about the 2022 Soil Farmer of the Year competition, contact Emma Adams, Senior Advisor with the Farm Carbon Toolkit, at [email protected]

For more information, visit farmcarbontoolkit.org.uk/soil-farmer-of-the-year

ENDS

Soil Farmer of The Year 2022

The 5th of December is World Soil Day and also the launch of the 2022 Soil Farmer of The Year Competition.

Now in it’s seventh year, the Soil Farmer of The Year competition aims to find farmers and growers who are engaged with, and passionate about managing their soils in a way which supports productive agriculture, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and builds soil health, organic matter and carbon.

Previous winners of both the Arable and Livestock Soil Farmer of the Year title have demonstrated how soil health can be integrated into all aspects of a farming business, to aid economic resilience and environmental custodianship. The competition aims to promote businesses or individuals who are fantastic ambassadors for soil health and the benefit agriculture can have on the wider landscape.

If you would be interested in entering the competition please see the further details below. Equally, if you would like to nominate someone who you feel would be an excellent candidate please do not hesitate to get in touch!

FAQ:

When does the entry period close?

The closing date for the competition is the 5th of March 2022.

How do I enter?

You can enter the competition HERE

We encourage applications from all sizes and types of farm – if you are passionate about soil management we would love to hear what you are up to. Equally, if you know someone who you would like to nominate or have any further questions please get in touch and we will be happy to have a chat: [email protected]

How is the competition judged?

All entries will be anonymised and short-listed for judging by our panel including the winners of the 2021 competition. The highest placed entrants will then be contacted and farm walks with our judging panel will commence in May 2022 to decide the finalists for the 2022 competition.

When are the winners announced?

The winners will be announced at the Groundswell Regenerative Agriculture Show and Conference at the end of June 2022.

Livestock Soil Farmer of the Year Farm Walk with Sam Vincent

The final walk for this year’s Soil Farmer of the Year series was with Sam Vincent at Rookery Farm in Dorset who was recognised this year as our Livestock Soil Farmer winner. We are very grateful to Sam for fitting the walk in during calving, which is much appreciated! The farm is 130 ha which is all down to permanent pasture with no reseeding for the last 15 years, following some experimental direct drilling which yielded mixed results. The grazing platform for the milkers occupies around 45-50ha and the rest of designated for youngstock grazing and making winter forage.

Sam’s transitioned his 100 cow dairy farm to organic in 2018, following a breakdown of TB which had meant a reduction in cow numbers from his formerly fairly intensive system.

Prior to the TB breakdown, I had considered going organic, because we weren’t using a huge amount of inputs” Sam explained, “but once our cow numbers were lower and following a couple of years where we had cut our Nitrogen back dramatically (from 120kg to 35kg) and seen an increase in grass yields we felt ready to make the jump.”   

The farm came out of conversion last year and now Sam supplies Arla on an organic milk contract as well as being a member of the Pasture Fed Livestock Association for his youngstock operations and any dairy beef that are sold. Traditionally the herd was on an all year round calving pattern, however this has now changed to a split block with half the herd calving in Feb – April, and then other half August / October.  Now the herd calves in late summer in one block with the aim to gradually bring the calving earlier in the summer, ideally in May and June. The youngstock graze the fields that are further away from the dairy and that provides an opportunity to cycle the nutrients around the farm. The dairy is based on the site here and then there is another farm up the road where the youngstock are kept in the winter.

On grazing

“We’ve certainly changed the way that we are grazing now,”

Sam explained. “In the past we were going back and back to the same fields, eating everything and leaving nothing.  Now we try and lengthen our rotations as opposed to keeping the grass continually short; some people call this mob grazing.”

The cattle are predominantly British Friesian, which seems to suit the farm, although Sam has experimented with other breeds in the past, including New Zealand Black and Whites. “We needed a cow that has longevity, and will work on our system,” explains Sam. The milking herd are fed a small amount of concentrates (between 6-800kg) and yield on average 5,500 litres. Due to the losses from the herd Sam is looking to build the milkers back up in numbers again to be more like 100, currently he is milking around 85.

The plan next year is to front load the summer block with some older heifers that we’ve had this year and the fresh heifers we’ve got coming on that will be ready to serve mid September this year.  However there is a group in with the bull now which will calve April – May next year. Last year we had a few issues with the heifers, they weren’t on a great rising plane of nutrition and then we kept them out too late and it didn’t pay off, but that is how you learn.  We’ve currently got 17 in with a Friesian bull and the idea is to push them all up next year and sell the surplus and then get the dairy herd back up to around 100 and see where we are then the following year.”

The first field we visited was a field of pasture that had been last cut for silage at the end of June. Discussions ensued about the need for pre mowing or topping to manage forage quantity, Sam is not keen on doing either of these operations, “the field and grass stays as it is unless it would benefit from being mown, then its baled up and put in the clamp.” The field that we walked through had some interesting features in it, including one half of the field which had significantly more clover than the remaining area. The fields were reseeded a long time ago, using mixtures that were predominantly ryegrass. “It almost set some of the fields back in hindsight,” Sam explains,

“We should have done things a little bit differently, but that’s how you learn.

The field in front has never been reseeded, but the one over there has, and you can tell the difference when the cows are grazing.”

The plan of where to put the cows next is now dependent on the stage of growth and pasture quality, rather than following a set plan. Sam explains, “Originally the cows were supposed to be grazing in the fields across the hill at the moment, however I had to weigh up whether I put them over there for a week and then get them eating on regrowth, or put them over there for 10-14 days and then have a lot more grass in front of them just in case it was going to carry on staying dry. I’d rather stay on a 40 day plus rotation at the moment, rather than a 30.”
The increased length of rotation is something that Sam sees is a measure of success. 

“By increasing the rotation length to 50-60 days, and leaving higher covers we are seeing diversity within the pastures which is as a result of management.”

We then walked up to see the cows from the milking herd. The cattle are moved twice daily on 12 hour moves and have a back fence. There were lots of discussions and questions from the farmers about the design of the water system and how portable it was. The trough design that Sam has works quite well and was made for him and is on a skid which can be moved daily using the buggy. Sam’s aspiration is to gradually move all the farm over onto mobile troughs so that he has ultimate flexibility and can be responsive in terms of grassland management.

The grass allocation is based on the grass covers and the cows,” Sam explains, “we sample the grass and plate meter so we have a good understanding not just of the covers but also the quality.”  Last year Sam experimented with satellite measurement of the grass, which is something that needs a little more development but is a useful future tool. 

Sam has noticed the diversity in the pasture species start to return since the transition over to this management system as well as the reduction in the fertiliser rates.  All the fields vary a little, but we get different species come up depending on the seasons and the conditions.  In March / April there is a lot of foxtail, but as the season progresses, its amazing what you get, including tufted vetches and trefoils. The field that we were standing in hadn’t had any silage / hay taken off it since Sam has been managing it, its just had grazing. Sam stressed the importance of managing the ground using the cattle and ensuring that the numbers and paddock sizes are matched.  This varies throughout the year and Sam’s risk period is often early spring when the ground can be a bit ‘tender’ and as such, higher residuals and lower stocking rates are left to protect the soil and minimise structural damage and poaching.

“Some people think, in order to get diverse leys you need to rip it all up and start again, but that isn’t the case. We have fields that haven’t been reseeded but have still got diversity including trefoils and  native red clover.  If you reseed with ryegrass, the species that come back once the ryegrass dies back is weeds, usually annual meadowgrass and other non productive species.”

There were questions around the number of cows and how well the cow numbers matched the grass covers. Sam explained that the dairy numbers are dependent on how long they want to keep the youngstock and beef cattle. All of the youngstock are weighed regularly so that growth rates can be monitored and they have no concentrates.  The calves are fed whole milk and once they are in a small group they are turned out and fed milk through a 50 teat feeder as well as starting to graze.

The youngstock are moved once per day but have a back latch system and half way through the day the latch opens and they are into fresh grass. The stock have taken to the system well and Sam doesn’t get many problems. By allowing the stock to graze across the farm, Sam is seeing the benefits in terms of improved grass production.

If we let the stock graze it then we don’t have to haul the muck out there. We cut fields and graze fields in a rotation rather than continually  cutting all the time, the flexibility needs to be there to decide based on grass condition and stocking. The fields at the other end of the farm benefit a lot from the flexilblilty, the soils are a lot shallower. We cut here as well. FYM is spread in April on ground that had been grazed and spread on ground which is cut for silage later after cutting. All manure stores are covered which leaves very little dirty water to spread by irrigation. We normally cut very similar height as what the cows graze which makes for an adaptable system. Quite flexible, if you have a field that you were going to cut but the weather turns wet then it isn’t the end of the world, you can simply go back and graze it. The cows are normally out grazing from early March until the end of November. The youngstock stay out a bit longer and we outwinter the dairy beef on a deferred grazing system. The fields that are selected are the driest fields on the farm and then they are closed off early summer and then line the bales out across the field. “It’s a very simple system but it works for us,

The farm has installed over 4000 railways sleepers to make cow tracks which mean that the farm is much more accessible in terms of grazing infrastructure and the benefits are visible in the pastures.

On weed management

Sam isn’t too bothered about weeds, he sees them more as an indication of a soil issue that he tries to solve using his cattle.  Traditionally this farm had a lot of thistles on it, but they are starting to retreat and the ones that are around are looking less prolific. 

On Soil health

The soils vary on the farm with some being heavier with a  higher clay content and others more silty. The risk period for these soils is early season with risks of structural damage.  For Sam what holds the soil back is tractor movement, so the more that the cows can do the work the better.  “We don’t want to top and roll, at the end of the day its 4 wheels that are going along and causing damange. If you’ve got a rotation, with cattle who are utilising the pasture, then you don’t need to be sat on the tractor.”

Other enterprises

Sam also has pigs which he uses in the cattle housing to turn over the FYM and to help with the composting process. He adds some corn to the material in the sheds and then the pigs are turned into it to mix it all up and compost it. This process takes between 6-8 weeks, which is how long the corn lasts within the system. If the pigs are in for any longer then they will need supplementary feeding. A future aim to try and set up a Bokashi type system to enable further composting of the manure.

The final question was about the business benefits that Sam was experiencing due to his transition to this system. He explained that although the cow yields dropped from 6-5000l, a lot of concentrates were taken out leading to better margins.  “Milk from forage percentage is high and milk solids have gone up. Not having inputs makes an impact on beef / dairy. Organic milk price means that the impact has been minimal.  The business is a lot more stable. 

Before we went rushing around, we’ve now got time to stop and think – feel better.  We are more resilient and sustainable now.”

The farm walk was absolutely fascinating and it was brilliant to see how Sam is pushing boundaries of what is possible in a pasture based organic dairy system. Thank you to Sam and the team at Rookery Farm  for a brilliant evening.

Winners of Soil Farmer of the Year 2021 announced

Soil Farmer of the Year Winners 2021 at Groundswell

Tom Sewell, an arable farmer from Kent and Sam Vincent, a dairy farmer from Dorset have been awarded the 2021 Soil Farmer of the Year as joint winners.

The competition, now in its sixth year is organised by the Farm Carbon Toolkit (FCT) and Innovation for Agriculture (IfA) and is generously sponsored by Hutchinsons and Cotswold Seeds

The competition aims to find famers and growers who are engaged with, and passionate about managing their soils in a way which supports productive agriculture, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and builds soil health, organic matter and carbon.

The Winner

Tom farms around 500ha across Kent running a simple low cost arable system focussing on building soil health, maintaining production and regenerating the landscape. An early pioneer of reduced cultivation, Tom’s Nuffield scholarship in 2013 ignited his enthusiasm in soil health and the system has grown from strength to strength. 

Tom has been chosen as the winner for this year due to his enthusiasm, attention to detail and fantastic soil and crop health. He is constantly questioning his system and looking to innovate and focus on improving soil health and building resilience.

Second Prize

Sam Vincent farms 130ha in Dorset, running a dairy herd of 100 cows and followers. He transitioned to organic in May 2018, and all of his land is down to permanent pasture. Sam impressed the judges with his ability to make a regenerative system work on a dairy farm with permanent pasture. Using the cattle as a tool, he has improved the diversity in his pastures by adapting his grazing management from a traditional New Zealand paddock grazing system to a mob grazing approach which he follows now. This has improved his soil health, the resilience of his fields and the ability to provide grazing for extended periods.

Sam impressed the judges with his determination to make a system that worked for his soil type, system and livestock. The soils on the farm were well structured and pasture quality and species diversity was abundant. 

Third Prize

The accolade of third prize was taken by Anthony Pearce from Buckinghamshire.  Anthony is transitioning the whole farm to regenerative and is trialling a range of different techniques including no till, cover crops, integration of livestock and the use of compost.  Anthony has spent the last 3 years learning about soil health, travelling to the states to take part in the Soil Health Academy and learning under Elaine Ingham.  He also records his transition on the farm through his YouTube channel where mistakes are viewed as learning opportunities and a chance for sharing of ideas with other farmers.

The competition is kindly sponsored by Hutchinsons and Cotswold Seeds, with the top three farmers being awarded prizes from Cotswold Seeds in the form of fertility building, cover crop or green manure seeds.

Becky Willson, FCCT Technical Manager said “Yet again we have been totally blown away by the quality and calibre of the applicants for this year’s competition. The finalists were all achieving amazing results and showing a diversity of approaches to building soil health and so the decision was incredibly hard. However our winners this year stood out in their ability to challenge themselves, continue to innovate and to achieve high quality production from fantastic soil management. Congratulations to all of the finalists.”

Ed Brown, Head of Agroecology for Hutchinsons says “It’s great to be involved with some of the best soil managers in the country. The entrants show how a profitable and sustainable business can put soil health and improvement at the very heart of the enterprise, showcasing industry-leading practices and techniques.”

Seven farmers were shortlisted as finalists as part of this year’s competition. These included, Casha Bowles-Jones who runs an organic farm with a pasture fed dairy in Shropshire; Jack Martin an arable and sheep farmer from Stafforshire; Mark Oldroyd, who manages a mixed farm estate in Oxfordshire; and Rob Raven who runs an arable farm in Suffolk.

All of the finalists were presented with their awards at Groundswell 2021 which provided a fantastic opportunity to meet all of the finalists and see them rewarded for their efforts. 

The top three farmers will also all be hosting farm walks who are open to anyone who is interested, where there will be a chance to see, understand and dig a bit deeper into what they are doing. Further details on these walks are available on the FCT website.