Angus runs a mixed farm of 405 acres in Escrick, North Yorkshire, where he breeds Salers cattle and grows a variety of crops including winter wheat and winter barley as fodder for his own livestock. He manages his farm to be as sustainable as possible with a focus on direct drilling and growing cover crops to maintain the health of the soil across his arable land.

Crops

125 acres winter wheat for feed/biscuit

70 acres winter barley for feed

60 acres spring beans for human consumption

45 acres spring linseed for seed

25 acres of spring barley for malting

20 acres temporary grass

60 acres permanent grass

 

Livestock

50 pedigree Salers cows

2 Salers bulls

 

Why did you choose to be part of the Sustainable Futures programme?

I believe soil health is the key to sustainable continued production and this appeared to be an important focus of the group.  I joined in order to gain knowledge from other farmers and speakers whom I would have the opportunity to learn from and be able to quiz.  From these meetings it would also be possible to grow a network of contacts in the supply chain and understand their requirements whilst also putting across the importance of the sustainability of production on farm both physically and financially.

 

Which Sustainable Futures activities have you been involved in so far and how have they helped you?

I have been to presentations by Neil Fuller on soil health and cover crops as well as a presentation by Dr David George covering amongst other things trial work on under story clover in arable cropping.  These have helped in my planning of what cover crop species to include in the over winter cover crop mixes I will be drilling at home as fields are cleared this harvest.  In March speakers at the Sustainable Futures conference in York helped me to understand the requirements of the supply chain and I had interesting conversations with several of the speakers afterwards.

 

Why do you feel it is important to develop a connected food supply chain?

I feel that we as producers need to understand the needs of our customers whilst also seeking to better educate these customers about the importance of sustainable food production on farm.  Being paid a minimum margin over cost of production, instead of a race to the bottom, is vital to allow this to happen.

Direct drilling spring barley into a cover crop

What is your personal motive to be a part of a more sustainable food and drinks industry?

My desire is to get away from ‘bag and can’ farming as the ever increasing reliance on chemicals and inorganic fertiliser is not sustainable in the medium term, environmentally or financially.  This over reliance is entirely man made and I believe is due in a large part to the reduction in organic matter levels in our soils.  I am aiming to improve the health of my soils by adopting the principles of Conservation Agriculture

  • increased OM retention/applications
  • having a living plant in the ground all year round by using cover crops
  • zero soil disturbance
  • increased diversity of crops in the rotation including within cover crops
  • grazing of livestock on the arable land

As a natural consequence of these measures the improvement in soil health will also increase the numbers of beneficial predators, increase natural drainage and water holding capacity, helping the soils to be more resilient to extreme weather events, and make more nutrients available from the soils natural reserves.

 

How are you driving sustainability on your farm?

A sustainable rotation was seen as key, part of this being 40% spring cropping.  Spring beans were brought in alongside the existing spring barley area.  More recently WOSR has been dropped in favour of spring linseed.

The fields going into spring crops are drilled with blends of cover crop species as soon as the field is clear.  These mixes have included phacelia, oats, buckwheat, berseem clover, vetch, sunflowers and oil seed radish.  Over winter the cover crops are mob grazed by sheep before being drilled in the spring.

I have been establishing my crops with a No-till drill for 4 years.  No cultivations are carried out unless a compaction problem is found or damage is done by lorries delivering organic matter.

Only the straw I need for the cattle is baled and this is spread back on our land as manure, all other residues are chopped by the combine.  Sewage cake is bought in and spread on approximately 20% of the farm every year.  I am using Fibrophos for any P and K requirements instead of bagged product and will all being well start bringing compost in this year.

Direct drilling into sunflowers

Salers cow with calf

What benefits have you experienced from developing more sustainable practices on your farm?

Due to the switch to No-till the amount of labour, fuel, wearing parts and horsepower required to establish the crops has shrunk significantly.  Crops are established in ¼ to 1/3rd of the time required previously and the crops established are more even.

Production costs are also coming down through improved soil health, there are more beneficial organisms in the soil resulting in lower insect pest pressures, less weeds germinating and reduced fungal disease levels, all of which is leading to reduced pesticide applications.

As a result of increasing the area in spring cropping, cover crops, No-till and reduced pesticide use there has been a significant increase in the amount of wildlife on the farm.  Most notably there are Skylarks in every field, Lapwings nesting and raising young successfully in the spring cropped fields and an increase in the brown hare population has been seen.

 

What does the future of your farm and the food and drink supply chain look like to you?

I believe the future for my farm is positive, I am producing crops using less inputs and with a reduced environmental impact both on farm and off farm than I was previously when carrying out conventional cropping.  The goods I am producing should be more sought after and be worth a premium price due to this.  What I can’t control is the outcome of the Brexit negotiations and world agricultural commodity values.

If there is to be a payment to farmers in the UK post 2020/Brexit I believe it will be heavily linked to the environment.  Conservation Agriculture has a far lower environmental impact than conventional crop production.  With the correct education of and understanding by government, I have hopefully reduced the amount by which any future payments would be cut.

Allied to this the produce that I grow is more attractive to the supply chain due to greater sustainability and improved environmental credentials, it is the hope that this will be recognised and a premium be paid for it.

With sufficient tonnage it would be possible for food and drink produced from Conservation Agriculture to be marketed positively to the consumer for a premium price.

Winter wheat into winter oilseed rape volunteers

Winter wheat with a clover understory

Winter barley into winter wheat stubble & chopped straw on heavy clay (Autumn)

Winter barley into winter wheat chopped with straw on heavy clay (Winter)