Hampshire farmers reap regen rewards

Thursday, 4 March 2021

Behind the scenes at the Wheatsheaf Farming Company, near Basingstoke, farmer David Miller has worked with the three regenerative agricultural principles for decades – long before the term gained traction. A recent podcast featured AHDB machinery expert Harry Henderson who unearthed the secrets of the company’s success.

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In the early 00s, the company’s land was plagued with plateauing yields and rising costs. In 2010, the mission was to regain control of the soil and help it look after itself with minimum inputs. By working closer with nature, David wanted to bring back the feel-good element of farming.

The 700 farmed hectares are situated mainly on grade 3 land, with drainage occurring naturally through the dominant chalky, stony and flinty soils.

Use of cover

They experimented with cover crops, starting with a single species (crimson clover), followed by a trial-and-error approach that now sees fairly diverse mixtures deployed. The mix is tailored to the situation (e.g. larger seed mixes used toward the end of autumn), with brassica species avoided – due to their bridging potential for slugs and diseases. They use species that succumb to frost, so the standing cover is not too thick and sucking up all the nutrition. They roll after any frost to tackle the remaining cover, although glyphosate is still needed for complete kill. By around 2014, all spring cereal crops followed an overwinter cover.

Minimal soil disturbance

The on-farm default for cultivation and establishment is minimal disturbance methods. However, the use of more disruptive forms of cultivation are used when the situation demands it. For establishment, a cross-slot drill was purchased in 2015. Since then, the land has become easier to work – and the heavier cross-slot has gone, replaced by a more nimble disc-drill system. It is important to get the drill right at the start. In the last five years, the choice and experience has exploded in the UK. It is important to explore the options and make the right choice for your system. Most straw is chopped at harvest and raked to even the distribution. As the soils are fairly resilient to compaction, self-restructuring, and all effort is made to avoid working the soil in suboptimal conditions, there is never the need to mechanically restructure them.

Weeds now only tend to come up where the soil has been disturbed, and what’s on the surface lose viability or are eaten by birds. However, the weed population has changed. Now, there is less black-grass and more brome.

Rotational diversity

In addition to the use of cover crops, the cash crops in the rotation add diversity and flexibility, with a third of the land down to spring crops (barley and wheat). The winter crops include wheat, barley, oilseed rape, rye and, crucially, beans. Livestock are not a part of the system. Although they bring many benefits, they also bring risks, such as compaction in a bad winter.

Yielding success

David is a member of his local Arable Business Group, which helps him maintain a firm grip on production costs. From a labour and machinery perspective, the system is now simple and relatively low cost. There are big savings to be made. Dependence on plant protection and fertiliser products has reduced and there are more beneficial insects on the farm. Environmental schemes also help pay for the cover crop seeds.

David believes that doing nothing is not an option. With knowledge and experience of regen approaches exploding in the last decade, the risks of entering such systems are much lower now than a decade ago.

Critically, he is encouraged by the future of agricultural support. In particular, the signs that Defra clearly sees food and environment as the same thing. With policy set to intertwine the production of food and environmental goods, the UK is poised to lead the way to a global change to farming systems.

Stepping forward into regenerative agriculture