Graham Potter farms 500 acres at Topcliffe near Thirsk. He grows wheat, barley and Oil SeedRape (OSR) and a small amount of fodder beet.

Graham is a huge enthusiast of precision farming techniques and has embraced much of the very latest technology enabling him to farm efficiently and profitably, whilst at the same time reducing his impact on the environment.

How have your farming practices changed over the past 5 years?

If we look back 7 years, we ploughed everything. We used a traditional combination drill, and used a lot of fuel and a lot of paid labour. We knew we had to do things differently if we were to be sustainable. So, 5 years ago, we bought a Claydon Seed Drill and now direct drill using very little cultivation. We also use cover crops to capture any spare nutrients left from the previous crop and to help build up organic matter in the soil.

 

How has this worked for you?

It’s not been without its challenges and it has been a steep learning curve as we have effectively re-learnt how to farm in a very different way.

 

What have been the key learnings?

It is really important to reduce soil compaction, so we introduced a controlled traffic farming system, maintaining tramlines in the same position every year. We have developed a variable depth sub-soiler which we use to take out the combine harvester wheelings after harvest. We have improved our soil quality, with a lovely honeycomb structure and lots of organic matter in the top few inches, as well as a great deal of worm activity.

 

What are the key things that precision farming technology has enabled you to do?

We can now drill to an accuracy of 2.5 cm and carry out inter-row cultivation, whilst leave the stubble standing and drilling between the rows. We have 20 different soil types on the farm and our soils can vary between blow-away sand, to blue clay all in the same field. So, having an accurate understanding of the soil type and nutrients present is really important. We now have accurate soil maps which we can use to variable rate spread fertiliser on the crop. We also have our own drone which we use to identify the crop’s Nitrogen requirement. Using this aerial imagery we are able to accurately feed the crop what it needs, when it needs it. This reduces waste, makes the crop more consistent and helps us to get “more from less”.

 

This all sounds really positive, have there been any downsides since introducing direct drilling?

The biggest problem has been the increased slug population which have been helped by warm wet winters and limited frosts in the winter to kill them.

 

How have you tackled this problem?

We have tried to be really strategic rather than just using a blanket application of slug pellets. We have some zones which have heavy soil and more slugs which we target with slug pellets. We also use a straw rake after harvest to disturb the habitat and expose their eggs. We have also started using the straw rake at night, when the slugs are more active on the surface which makes them more vulnerable. We noticed that we have less slug damage on the headlands where we had turned, and believe that consolidation of the soil helps control slugs. The problem with the Claydon drill is that it creates a furrow in the soil, which they can use as a food ‘highway’ moving from seed to seed. We found that by double rolling after drilling, firstly rolling the same way as the drill and then again at 90 degrees, effectively closes up that furrow and consolidates the soil, making life hard for the slugs. We have also moved away from using metaldehyde, switching to Sluxx HP which is a ferric phosphate compound and less polluting. We have also found that it works well to put some phosphate and nitrogen fertiliser in with the seed when drilling, which gives the seedling a bit of a boost and gets it growing away from any slug damage. This is particularly important as we chop most of our straw and the breakdown of the straw can take up Nitrogen.

 

How have you found the Sustainable Futures Project?

It’s been great fun and I have made a load of new friends up and down the supply chain. There are lots of meetings to go to, but I always prioritise Sustainable Futures meetings as there is useful knowledge sharing between farmers who are keen to push their businesses forward.

 

What will be the future for you farming here in North Yorkshire?

If we are to be sustainable, we need to be profitable. Clearly, there are big concerns about the loss of Single Farm Payments and how that could impact our business. We are trying to get more from less by minimising inputs, but it would be nice to think that the consumer would be prepared pay for food produced in a more sustainable way.