Asda Soil Masters Bursary Visit US Farms

Asda arranged and funded a ‘Soil Masters’ tour of a number of US farms which have been in the forefront of no-till techniques. The main part of the bursary project was to explore the feasibility of combining arable and beef farming using a combination of no till farming practices which include all year round crop coverage and natural fertilisation with the purpose of regenerating the ever decreasing organic soil structure and matter of over farmed soils thus reducing the need of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides to ensure our farming practices have a sustainable future.

Written by Mike Donovan @Practical Farm Ideas


The Soil Masters group is a selected closed group of farmers and others with a specific interest in soil management. Steve Townsend of Soil First Farming said the trip was “mind blowing” for them all. Hearing how Joel Salatin had created seven inches of new soil on his land in just over 50 years (left to nature it takes 100 years to an an inch, while tillage farmers can lose nearly an inch a decade) by buying and getting hold of all sources of organic material to make carbon to build up what was a poor farm. Steve has not forgotten Joel’s remark “most farmers try to make their farms bigger, I try to make my farm deeper”.

The course was attended by 12 Asda arable no-till farmers, 7 Beeflink NSSSG farmers, was led by Pearce Hughes from Asda and occurred in 2015. Direct Driller is indebted to Mike Powley from York for the pictures.

Farm 1. Gabe & Paul Brown – Browns Ranch, Bismarck, North Dakota

The Brown ranch is located just east of Bismarck, ND. Gabe and his wife purchased the ranch in 1991 and have expanded the operation to 5000 acres of owned and leased land. Son, Paul, returned to the ranch after graduation from North Dakota State University and became a partner in the operation. Daughter, Kelly, lives and works in Fargo, ND and returns home to help whenever possible.

The family believe in and practice Holistic Management, a part of which is farming and ranching in nature’s image. They strive to solve problems in a natural and sustainable way. Improving soil health is a priority and no-till farming has been practiced since 1993. A diverse cropping strategy, which includes cover and companion crops are used. They have now eliminated the use of synthetic fertilisers, fungicides and pesticides. They use minimal herbicides and is striving to eliminate them as well. This natural system of farming does not use GMOs or glyphosate.

The ever evolving grazing strategy allows most of their pastures a recovery period of over 360 days. These strategies have allowed the health of the soil, the mineral and water cycles to greatly improve. In other words, the natural resources have benefited. This results in increased production and profit and encourages the use of cattle production in precision arable farming. The Brown family believes their farming is a real way of moving towards sustainability for this and future generations, and increases the need for the use of cattle and mixed farming.

One of the main reasons for the Browns farming this way is to help improve the sales of his own boxed beef enterprise. He currently runs 350 late spring calving cows (all black) but with Hereford and British white genetics. The calves run with the cows for 11 months before being weaned. All the beef is grass fed with no cereal inclusion whatsoever and currently the animals are 26 months and 300kg deadweight at sale.

All cows are run as one mob and will run 10 bulls with the cows for a maximum of 42 days. The result is an average of just 8% of cows being empty, and 70% of his heifers were in calf after 30 days. Cows which are not in calf or which fail to raise a calf to 11 months were culled from herd. The cost of animal to slaughter cattle is $1086. The farm also includes sheep, chicken, pigs, and seed sales.


Farm 2. Jay Fuhrer – National Resource Conservation Service (NCRS) – Menoken Farm, North Dakota.

Jay has worked for the soil conservation arm of the USDA for over 30 years. In his first years he was dealing with land with a tendency to flood and his work was involved in planning and building irrigation ditches and dams. Today he sees this work as reacting to the issue rather than solving the problem.

In the last 15 years he has become the the world’s leading resource on no till soil conservation agriculture. He now focuses on regenerative soil health typically bringing North Dakota soil from an organic matter of 2% to in-excess of 12% using holistic, pesticide free, fungicide free and herbicide free practices that promote soil regeneration. He achieves this by using increasing organic soil biology, soil armour made form crop residue left on the surface to create a water retentive soil structure and livestock fertilisation management.


The Soil Masters Bursary Group spent a morning carrying out practical hands on workshops that compared soil structure from the extreme of full tillage monoculture cropping with artificial nutrient and chemical usage to a natural biology fully diverse crop covering no tillage and livestock inclusion.

The workshops covered soil structure, organic content biology, chemistry and physical structure verses the effects wind water and heat.

The afternoon was spent exploring the trial soil fields of the facility understanding firstly the history of the Dakota’s and its soil structure. Starting with the native American plains and their biological history following through to their demise and the wiping out of the buffalo heard and the effect of converting pasture land to cropping land. With this move away from extensive grazing came the destruction of the soil health due to mass cropping and artificial nutrients inclusion which from the 1970’s.

Whilst mass cropping is still widely evident in the Dakotas, basically the soil is biologically dead and can now only be used with the use of artificial nutrients.

The government are now backing the conservationist’s to regenerate the farming lands of the North Dakota’s. The soil structure is being re-built with no till cover cropping and continual livestock grazing which is bringing back a soil that will continue to harvest crops for the foreseeable future.

Farm 3. Joel Salatin – Polyface Farms, Harrisonburg, V.A

In 1961, William and Lucille Salatin moved their young family to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, purchasing the most worn-out, eroded, abused farm in the area near Staunton. Using nature as a pattern, they and their children began the healing and innovation that now supports three generations.

Disregarding conventional wisdom, the Salatins planted trees, built huge compost piles, dug ponds, moved cows daily with portable electric fencing, and invented portable sheltering systems to produce all their animals on perennial prairie polycultures.

Today the farm arguably represents America’s premier non-industrial food production oasis. Believing that the Creator’s design is still the best pattern for the biological world, the Salatin family invites like-minded people to join in the farm’s mission: to develop emotionally, economically, environmentally enhancing agricultural enterprises and facilitate their duplication throughout the world.

The Salatins continue to refine their models to push environmentallyfriendly farming practices toward new levels of expertise. Joel’s farm is currently 650 acres of which 480 acres are woodland the remainder is used for open farming land for multi stacking farming practices.


He currently employs 20 staff with an annual turnover of 4 million dollars he prides himself on maximising financial return per acre by multi stacking production enterprises that are symbiotic to the farm. Joel sells most of his products direct to the public on line with agreed collection points.

His main enterprises are salad bar beef, pasture fed chicken & rabbit, Acorn glen pork, pasture eggs, duck, vegetable growing, honey and timber products. Joel’s main focus area are grass and pasture utilisation.


Using the grass starts with the cattle mob grazing the pasture with electric fenced paddocks. This is closely followed by the egg mobile, having laying hens in an old horse box. The free range layers like eating the residue cow pies left from the cattle and help spread the manure further afield benefiting pasture recovery and soil health. After the laying hens have been over the pasture, the boiler chickens follow with their portable shelters moving to fresh pasture daily.

The system moves cattle on a daily basis and Joel aims to achieve 400 cattle grazing days per acre per annum. The Virginia state average is 80 cattle grazing days, making Joel’s system five times more than the average farmer in Virginia, yet at the same time he is benefiting soil and pasture land.


Joel’s cattle herd is 160 cows plus followers and he purchases 200 stirks a year. All of his production is slaughtered through his own abattoir and retailed through his on- line business.

During the winter a number of animals co habit in poly tunnels on a carbon based deep bedding system that will be utilised as compost on the rest of the farm after the winter period.

By focusing on carbon recycling and utilisation along with soil health Joel has managed to turn the farm from one of the poorest and least fertile into one of the most productive and regenerative farms in the USA. His soil organic matter was 1% in the 1960’s to in excess of 8% today as well as gaining over 10 inches of top soil.

Farm 4. McCormick Farm, Virginia Tech University, Harrisonburg, V.A.

The group had a late afternoon visit to McCormick farm owned by Virginia Tech University one of ten land based research units in the state. We were hosted by David Friske who showed us round this beef and forage based research centre. The unit was 1000 acres, holding 240 cow and calf pairs these are mostly Aberdeen Angus and Angus / Simmental cross.

All of the offspring are finished on farm going through feeding trials using Calan gate feed recording system. The university is currently focusing on mob grazing verses set stocking and forage utilisation looking at improving farmer returns and efficiencies. The party went to see one specific trial of strip grazing cows and calves with hot wire induced movements and creep feeding. Due to the similarity in climate and production systems to the UK the group gained a lot from this it will be interesting to see the end results of this trial.

Farm 5. Mike Phillips United States Department of Agriculture (NRCS) – Valley View farm Harrisonburg V.A.

Mike farms with his wife on a 4th generation farm in Harrisonburg V.A. He currently runs 96 cow calf pairs that are a mixture of Angus and Angus cross and Hereford cross. All his cattle are sold to finishing feedlots at around 12 months old. Mike has operated a closed herd for 26 years with the exception of buying in breeding bulls.

All of the crops grown on Mike’s farm are used to feed the cattle operation. Mike has been using no till and cover crops for the last 15 years but the principles behind farm cropping dates back to his father’s generation. He has a unique and novel approach to cover crops and the varieties used, one field seen having 27 seed varieties growing at one time. He is a great believer of introducing cattle to new varieties of forage. Part of Mike’s land is loaned out to Virginia tech where agriculture PHD students are encouraged to trial rotational no till crop comparisons against conventional farming . The difference is measured by using basic biological physical and chemical markers for soil health.

Many thanks to Steve Townsend of Soil First Farming 01452 862696 and Mike Powley, Northern Farmer of the Year 2016 for their help in this report.