The Soil Farmer of the Year competition has been running now for the last five years and aims to find, promote and
champion those farmers who are putting soil health at the centre of their farm business management. This year the
competition has been slightly challenging to run due to the COVID pandemic and the inability to conduct judging in
person. Our finalist farmers all did a magnificent job at creating videos detailing their individual farm journey to sustainable soil management as well as enduring a virtual grilling from the judging panel to decide the results.
The top accolade this year has been awarded jointly to two farmers, Jake Freestone from Overbury Farms and Alex Brewster from Rotmell Farm. Both farmers were doing amazing things around soil management in very different locations and settings. Our third place farmer this year was John Martin, an arable farmer from Dorset who has been working on soil management for over 20 years. Normally by this time of year the farms walks have taken place and this article is a write up of the discussions that ensued, however this year things are a little different. The farm walks will be taking place in October, with some online and some in person with the required safety guidelines. All the information about the farm walks is available on the Farm Carbon Toolkit website (www.farmcarbontoolkit.org.uk). So its probably time to meet our winners for 2020!
Jake Freestone has been managing Overbury Farms since 2003. The farm sits within the wider estate on the Gloucestershire / Worcestershire border and is a mixed farm with 1600 ha of farmland, both permanent pasture and arable cropping, some land let out for vegetable production and a flock of 1000 ewes. The soils are incredibly varied on the farm from Cotswold Brash to an Evesham Clay series, and the farm has a diverse and wide rotation to help deal with the variety. The rotation includes wheat, spring barley, oilseed rape, peas, beans, linseed and quinoa. Jake started focussing on soil health and looking at adapting management following his Nuffield scholarship, working on a reduction in cultivation, improving organic matter and diversifying the rotation.
“Switching to no till has given us huge soil health benefits on the farm,” Jake explains. “It’s enabled us to grow bigger and better cover crops, that we can drill straight into which is reducing our costs, but also improve the soil structure and the organic matter. Especially on our stonier soils, we aren’t having to move the stones as we were previously when we were cultivating conventionally, and the soil structure is also protected, helping with water infiltration which is key on this farm as we supply the nearby villages with drinking water. Other benefits come from a reduction in weed burdens and the ability for the farm to support enhanced biodiversity, so no till is really a crucial part of the jigsaw.”
Cover cropping is integral to the farm system that Jake is running. A diverse mix of species is planted which effectively captures sunshine, help structure the soil and feeds the soil biology. The cover crops are also helping to reduce soil erosion by effectively capturing rainfall. Future plans include more integration of the livestock into the system to graze the cover crops and optimise the benefits that they bring in terms of soil health and biology.
Jake is seeing the benefits that these changes have made both in terms of improved soil health and structure but also a reduction in costs. Benefits include the soil being easier to work with which has led to a faster work rate and a reduction in diesel costs. Water infiltration is enhanced and there is a large reduction in runoff and erosion, with any runoff that does happen being clean water. Jake is seeing more insect life and reduced pest issues alongside no insecticide use and has managed to reduce both nitrogen and phosphate fertiliser rates.
The journey hasn’t reached an end though and there are more innovations and experiments planned including the use of a fertiliser tank on the front of the drill to apply biological inputs at the time of drilling. Other experiments include companion cropping and looking to optimise integrated pest management and a continuation of the reduction in Nitrogen fertiliser usage across the farm.
Jake explains, “Ultimately we are trying to use all the tools that we have to improve soil organic matter, water infiltration and wider water management, soil structure and soil biology to achieve the long term goal of improving our resilience both for our crops, our business and our soil.”
Alex Brewster farms at Rotmell Farm in Perthshire. The farm is an upland beef and sheep farm with 200 breeding cows and a flock of 700 sheep. The farm occupies just under 1000 ha with 130 ha of that being improved pasture based on a sandy clay loam soil and the rest being rough hill ground with typical upland soils.
Alex has been working on building the biological capacity within the soil through the use of rotational and mob grazing systems. Starting out with a transition to a rotational grazing system, this has now adapted and is a hybrid mob system with a focus on improving the diversity of plants within the pasture. Other goals are to improve both soil organic matter and pH through the use of animals, and to build a deeper root depth and mass to allow the plants to access slightly warmer soils and moisture found deeper in the soil when temperatures drop in the winter. Soil temperature is the biggest limiting factor to grassland production, so by allowing the plants to root deeper and providing a cover on the soil through trampling some of the grass down, the soil can be protected from the weather and stay warmer for longer. This also transfers some of the carbon to the lower soil layers.
Alex is also focussing on improving the hill ground and explains, “There is a huge capacity to improve the potential of the quality of some of our upland areas and the nutrition that this ground provides. We are working on sub dividing bigger blocks of land into hill paddocks, we are working on animal impact, building fairly tall grass covers, and then eating off 50% of the grass and trying to trample the rest back in to recycle the nutrient of the remaining 50% back into the top soil.”
The increase in diversity is key to the whole system. By increasing the diversity of plants within the grass leys, there is an increase in leaf sizes, grass heights and densities which is more efficient at capturing sunlight which can then be turned into red meat. We want to create a system that optimises the feed value of this plant.”
He is seeing the change on the farm especially over the last few of years. The rooting depth has been increased dramatically and the amount of friable soil is increasing to depth. Alex is seeing an improvement in water retention and improving worm numbers. This is all leading to an increasing resilience to extreme weather patterns. However as well as benefits from soil health, there is also a productive benefit arising with the grass remaining greener for longer and the farm being able to keep stock out for longer than in previous years, while at the same time carrying a higher number of stock
Alex is looking at fields where there are issues with weeds and trying to use analysis and knowledge to understand where there might be an imbalance, and work to try and rebalance the system. One of the strategies that he is employing is the use of a diverse mix of plants in a bespoke forage mix which is used as a break crop that provides winter feed but also provide a diversity of plants which will then start to manage these soil imbalances. The theory is that if we can get the soils correct, then the weeds will drift away
This rebalancing is also being seen in the forage, both in terms of improved grass yields but also mineralisation from forage analysis. Alex completed regular forage analysis and then targets the minerals for the cattle to address any imbalances found in the forage. He is seeing the benefits both in terms of animal performance but also in the pasture, with a larger rooting depth and root mass within the soil. The results are clear to see as Alex explains, “we’ve doubled cow numbers in the last 5 years but we are actually using less bagged mineral than we were 5 years ago.”
There are more plans in the future to continue to evolve and hone the system to achieve Alex’s aim of managing a beef and sheep farm which is totally carbon positive, promoting the benefits of animal impacts in land management and the relationship between rumen microbiology and soil microbiology.
Alex concludes “The Future of farming is this absolute linkage between the total nutrient system. Its total nutrient of soils, total nutrient of pasture, and of red meat produced from these pastures and how these red meats then feed back into the food chain. It’s a really strong story that’s positive and beneficial for the future understanding what food production really should be.” The farmer that came in third place in this year’s competition was John Martin. John farms 300 acres in Dorset on an all arable rotation with two thirds of the farm in spring cropping. The farm was a former dairy farm until 2000, and since then the overarching aim of the management has been to keep the soil status in good health. John’s farm is situated in an area with a high degree of designations on it, being within a Class 1 Soil Protection Zone, an NVZ and the Poole Harbour Catchment, meaning that there has been a large focus on efficient nutrient use, especially on nitrogen.
A key strategy employed on the farm to boost soil health and also to help capture nutrients has been the use of cover cropping. All of the land that is in spring crops has a cover crop before it, and John has been experimenting with increasing the diversity of the mix. The mix now includes sunflowers, buckwheat, phacelia, linseed, and various clovers to ensure that the soil biology have a diverse diet. John explains “its like taking a coach party of people to a fish and chip shop, some will want fish, some sausage and some pie and chips. All of the soil bugs bring something to the party and are all important, so we need to provide a diverse food supply for them so they can do their jobs.”
John is farming on chalk soils and enjoys the challenges that this soil type can bring. He first started looking at soils in the 80s, digging his first soil pit in 1985. This then prompted a move towards bigger, low ground pressure tyres and focussing on axle weights of machinery to minimise compaction. There is always a spade in the tractor allowing John to assess the structure of the soil at two key periods in the year; in winter when the soils are wet, to assess how the drainage is doing, and then after cultivation to see whether the machine has achieved its goal.
The chalk soils mean that John is keen to build resilience in his soils to aid water retention. A key strategy is focussing on returning organic matter to the soil to build humus. All of the crop residues are chopped and returned to the fields and 75% of the farm is cover cropped to ensure that there is something growing all year round. When John started his transition to enhanced soil management he took some baseline soil samples. He explains “We tested fields for organic matter and they weren’t bad, but we wanted to get another 1 – 1.5%. If we can get hold of that then we’ve got more resilient soils to do spring cropping. We can tell that we are moving in the right direction as the soils are much more springy. That elasticity is coming from the humus and the soils are developing the resilience to carry us through.”
John’s focus on his soils is linked to his overarching aims for the farm which is to develop a more sustainable way of farming with consistent yields. He is involved in a range of applied research projects on the farm, including the ASSIST project, planting flowering strips through the middle of fields to aid in beneficial insect populations and an exciting project looking at reducing leaching from peas through using cover crops with Wessex Water.
Michael Kavanagh and Ian Waller were both awarded highly commended in this year’s competition. Michael is farm manager near Wolverhampton and has been totally dedicated to improving soil management over the last five years with amazing results in terms of resilience, profitability, nutrient cycling leading to a reduction in plant protection and fertiliser use.
Ian Waller farms 450ha in Buckinghamshire on an arable rotation that has incorporated cover crops, and is using innovative drilling methods and hasn’t applied insecticides for 5 years. He is a passionate advocate for soil management and its role in wider conservation and is constantly trying new things.
For more information on the farm walks please visit