Through adopting Regenerative Agriculture our aim is to improve our soil whilst achieving good yields, healthy animals and leaving a sustainable legacy for generations to come.
Our journey to a regenerative system started around twenty years ago when I realised that the plough-based cultivation method widely used and coupled with a rotation of only two crops (wheat and oilseed rape) all planted in the autumn was unsustainable. It had become clear to me that yields had plateaued and soil structure along with soil health, had declined.
After much experimentation with different tillage regimes and more varied cropping the system we now have is far better for the soil and the wider environment.
We recognise that the soil is our most valuable asset so we do everything we can to protect and enhance it. We have achieved this by completely stopping all cultivation of the soil, allowing worms to work and breed unhindered, creating tunnels through the soil which allows oxygen into the ground creating better drainage. The worms and other organisms in the soil also help to raise organic matter by pulling crop residue into the ground. By not cultivating we also leave the roots of previous crops which, as they decay, leave more channels through the soil and provide food for the organisms which live there. This helps to produce a soil structure which allows rainwater to drain freely, rather than running off which causes soil erosion and nutrient leaching. It also provides a better load bearing capacity. The result of this is a drier surface which will carry tractors or livestock with less damage. Also, by not moving the soil carbon is not released into the atmosphere.
Another important part of our system is to keep a green cover on the land whenever possible. This may be a crop which we sell, such as wheat, or a cover crop which is planted after harvest to maintain soil health and structure before planting another harvested crop. The benefits of this are many; for example: more roots creating more organic matter. Continued feeding of soil organisms. Drying of wet soils by the growing crop. Improved soil structure allowing crops to be planted without prior cultivation. Carbon sequestration by the growing crop.
A major use of cover crops is to store the suns energy in plants through photosynthesis which is then made available to the following crop.
Our crop rotation is much more diverse now than it used to be. We plant spring as well as autumn crops. Crops include wheat, barley, oats, beans, linseed and rye. If a spring crop is to be planted, a cover crop of several species will be established after harvest to provide a living cover through the winter. In fact, if there is a gap of more than six weeks between harvest and drilling, we will try to get something growing in the summer as well.
We are a mixed farm with cattle and sheep as well as arable crops. We aim to integrate the livestock into the arable system wherever possible. This can be by growing grass within the arable rotation for grazing; growing winter fodder crops such as turnips or short-term cover crops after harvest which are grazed before the next crop is planted. An additional advantage of integrating the animals is their health. By moving stock onto land which has not been grazed for a long time, worm burdens are greatly reduced meaning less medicines are required. Their varied diet gives the meat we produce a superior flavour. Grazing arable land gives our permanent grass a chance to rest and rejuvenate creating more nutritious grass. Manure produced by the animals provides nutrition for the following crop.
Regenerative agriculture creates a system which not only works with nature, but it will in time, rejuvenate soils which have been abused for many years. This is a slow process but eventually, with everything working in harmony, large amounts of humus and better nutrient availability means that new topsoil is produced which is why we use the term Regenerative Agriculture.
As mentioned above we do not plough our ground. Obviously, we still need to get seeds into the soil so that they can germinate and grow. Technology is now available which allows us to plant directly into uncultivated ground and this is referred to as direct drilling. To achieve this, we use a very narrow opener going into the soil which can be a tine or disc. This creates a slot into which the seed is placed. The opener is followed by a press wheel closing the slot and consolidating the soil around the seed. This technique is part and parcel of our system. Although it is the main thing that people notice when they come onto our farm direct drilling is only a small part of our system. Without all the other management practises mentioned previously direct drilling will not work.
A major advantage of direct drilling is reduced fuel usage due to less passes across the field and less horsepower requirement as the machinery is working on top of the ground, very shallowly into well-structured soil. The ability to be able to seed through a mulch of residue from the preceding crop also has the advantage of reducing the number of weeds growing in the following crop which can reduce herbicide usage and preserve moisture during dry periods.