The phrase “Regenerative agriculture” is a relative newcomer to our collective vocabulary, and although it roughly describes the type of farming I attempt to practice, it is not a phrase that sits easily with me, as it is so vulnerable to being hijacked by special interest groups, and can mean very different things to different people. Rather than aspiring to any particular farming system, my strategy has always been about making the most resilient and de-risked business I can. Mine is a family farm of just under 700 acres, which has to support several householdsthis is no easy task and has always required a certain amount of lateral thinking. This strategy has led me on a circuitous path of logic to where I am now- managing, in one way or another, just under 10,000 acres of land and livestock which is all somewhere along what we now call “the regenerative journey”.
The first step on this journey was, bizarrely enough, to facilitate a potato contracting enterprise we were running at the time. With staff and machinery tied up on potatoes for much of the year, managing the crops on our own heavy land became a challenge. Up until then we had been on a plough-based continuous wheat rotation on Beccles series clay (which famously goes from too wet to work, to too dry, in about five minutes). Frustrated with the endless hours of power harrowing, and seedbeds that were often either dried out clods or wet slop, we wanted an alternative. We had read about direct drilling and thought this could be the answer.
We couldn’t justify buying a direct drill and there were no contractors around, so we decided to build one (pictured). It was a very modest attempt, but it did have narrow tines on 200m spacings, independent coulter depth control and hydraulically adjustable downforce on the press wheels. It was very effective and we pulled 4m with 100hp. We used this along with reduced cultivations, livestock integration and a more varied rotation while we learned how to make the system work, and before long we were direct drilling all the heavy land every year. With the reduced workload that direct drilling brought us, we suddenly found we had time to spare. We started to pick up contracting work with our direct drill, but it wasn’t up to a lot of roadwork, and since our confidence in direct drilling had grown and we could see an opportunity on the horizon, we invested in a “proper” disc direct drill. This gave us scope to plant on the green, become more adventurous with our cropping and cover cropping, and allowed us to take on more land with kit that was up to the job. We have since added to the fleet and now run disc and tine drills, as I believe there is need for both to make this system work! I also believe that lightweight drilling tractors are beneficial on our land type, so we run several smaller drills with low HP tractors on wide VF tyres.
As any reader of this magazine knows, the kit is only a very small part of the equation. We invested heavily in imported compost, set up muck for straw arrangements, and grew cover crops wherever possible to get some much-needed organic matter in the upper layers of our soils. Livestock were brought in over winter, to help manage over-zealous cover crops and turn them into an asset rather than a liability to following crops.
The farm now looks (and behaves!) radically different from the power harrow days. The top three inches of the heavy land used to be tan-coloured clay that was either like concrete or plasticine. Now it is highly organic, black and tilthy, and can reliably be direct drilled autumn or spring. Ruts and wheelmarks are a distant memory. I used to live in fear of a wet autumn, but the last two years have filled me with confidence. In both 2019 and 2020 we received over 100mm of rain in the last week of September- I thought we were snookered, but was astonished to find that the disc drill could get going on heavy land just a few days later.
I watched the drill go smoothly through a low place that used to stand with water every year, and it was a Eureka moment for mepeople often think that direct drilling is inherently risky, but by getting the land in excellent order for direct drilling, we had massively reduced the risk posed to our business by extreme weather.
In late 2019 as it became clear the UK was facing a disastrous wheat year, wheat prices climbed and malting barley fell off a cliff. Walking our multispecies cover crops in late November, I realised that despite colossal rainfall by then, they were still trafficable. Those fields had been destined for sheep grazing followed by spring barley, but we did an about turn and used the disc drill to plant wheat straight in to them. A couple of weeks later when the wheat was sprouting well and it looked like it would make a crop, we terminated the cover and ended up with a good crop of valuable wheat. Once again, the investment in our soils was paying dividends by allowing us to be fleet of foot and take advantage of an opportunity that would not have been on option on bare or cultivated soils.
Going forward, it is my intention to continue to de-risk our cropping in a number of ways. An easy win is to keep a stock of home saved seed on the farm – meaning that any autumn cropping that doesn’t get drilled or is not satisfactory can easily be replaced with spring drilling. We therefore retain some stocks of spring beans, barley and linseed on farm until spring drilling is completed. Seed is all tested rather than treated, meaning that anything not used can be returned to the heap or saved for use in cover crops. Another is to work hard to reduce the early spend on crops. Gone are the days of spending upwards of £100/Ha on a crop of hybrid OSR before it has even emerged- we now use home saved seed, with companions, which are direct drilled and then left alone. If it looks good, it will be a crop of OSR. If it looks poor or is attacked by CSFB, it can be a catch/cover crop into which we direct drill another crop.
Much improved soil biology, reduced soil disturbance, and retaining an open mind when it comes to cropping choices has allowed us to reduce inputs considerably. Pre-em herbicides are avoided wherever possible, insecticides have been eliminated, and we are conducting on farm trials to establish how far we can reduce our fertiliser and fungicide use. The micro (and macro) biology on the farm is hugely improved, as is our carbon footprint and I hope our wider environmental impact. I am really proud of all this, but I always point out that my motivation for adopting this route was not altruistic- my family has been on this farm for over a century and I hope to keep it that way, which will require consistently good farming.
It is a very happy coincidence that this style of farming, which adds resilience and consistency to our cropping while reducing costs, is better for my business as well as the wider world. It also reduces risk and workload, and therefore stress for the farmer. But I don’t really believe in coincidences- it would be more accurate to say that this is a farming system which harnesses and enhances the huge natural fertility provided by the soils and climate of our region, rather than constantly battling and degrading them!
Having made the system work at home, we have been able to invest and expand, and now provide regenerative farming contracting services on several nearby farms, as well as farm management services on two neighbouring country estates. This has brought great synergies and economies of scale as we are able to share facilities, machinery and knowledge, and pool resources for specialist advice and trials. We also now incorporate an expanding livestock enterprise, which allows us to have control of this element of the system. Personally, I love the engagement and exposure of getting off-farm regularly, and I am now responsible for crops and livestock across a much wider range of soil types and management history than I would have had in a lifetime on just one farm.
Clearly farming is in for a bumpy ride ahead, but there can be few places in the world so well suited to raising crops and livestock than the UK- and I am confident that the most imaginative and forward-thinking farmers here have a bright future. I would encourage anyone interested in changing their farming system to read this magazine, be brave and make some changes. As our home-made drill shows- where there’s a will, there’s a way!