On the pleasant autumn afternoon of 17th October 2017, a group of the Sustainable Futures farmers met at Angus Gowthorpe’s family farm of just over 400 acres near Escrick, south of York. Part of the reason for arranging this visit was because Angus runs a mixed farm, breeding Salers cattle and growing a variety of crops as both commodity for sale and as fodder for his own livestock.
Angus explained to the group how over the past few years he has radically changed the way he farms, moving from a conventional plough system to ‘no-till’ and direct drilling. He was becoming increasingly concerned with the high level of inputs he was using from a financial perspective. He was also becoming more aware of the increased labour required to cultivate in a traditional manner, with him being the main provider of manpower on the farm.
Angus wanted to move to direct drilling, but on his clayey loams he was worried that he would see a big yield penalty in the first year or two. So, to reduce the risk of this he initially went to Strip Till and minimal cultivations as a step on the journey for two years using a Mzuri Drill. After cultivating in this manner, he sold the drill and replaced it with a new John Deere Direct Drill (see picture below). Although this was a significant investment, he is now very happy with the results.
Angus Gowthorpe’s John Deere – Direct Drill, purchased in 2017.
Some of the farmers commented on the lack of other cultivation equipment on the farm. The JD drill in conjunction with a 130HP tractor is all that he now uses. Angus considers that he now expends only a quarter of the energy to establish a crop in comparison to ploughing, and has seen wheat yields averaging over 4.5 tons per acre. Angus said “although it is a simple and relatively low-cost system you have to farm differently and think carefully about what’s happening within the soil.”
Angus further explained that the key to success was continually improving soil health. To this end he adds organic matter whenever he can. Muck from the cattle, sewage cake or compost. He also grows a range of cover crops before all his spring crops which are established after harvest and are either directly drilled in spring or grazed off with sheep before drilling. He is also using Fibrophos to get Phosphorus and Potassium (P & K) into the soil.
To support this improvement activity Angus has increased his spring cropping with now 40% of his farm sown at that time of the year. Recently winter OSR has been replaced by Spring Linseed which with virtually no inputs is proving a real winner in terms of margin. Angus also pointed out that an increase in spring cropping had seen, bird numbers increase dramatically, particularly Skylarks and Lapwings which were now in every field.
Angus’s own cover crop mix sewn summer 2017
Angus also showed the group one of the fields where his own mix of cover crops have been sewn and whilst planted late, due to the poor weather conditions over harvest, they are now well established.
The proof of the pudding is always in the eating and all those present commented on the quality of crops that were now established on the farm. They were also impressed with the soil structure that Angus had managed to achieve, in a relatively short period, even on full bodied clayey soils.
Digging a soil pit it was clear to see the excellent health of the soil, the biological activity in the soil, and particularly the significant amount of worm activity (see picture).
Healthy soil showing near surface worm activity
With good soil structure, roots can penetrate deeply, and better exploit the nutrients within the soil. The soil holds more water in the organic matter component, preventing surface runoff, but also acting as a reservoir in times of drought.
This all makes Angus’s crops more resilient, giving him consistently good yields. However his new farming system has become very low on inputs and cost, and he is now truly profiting from sustainability.
Radish element within the cover crop
Healthy cover crop root system
Cover crop roots developing nodules of fixing bacteria, that will return nitrogen to the soil for use by the next crop
To find out more about Angus Gowthorpe, his farming practices and why he chose to become a Sustainable Futures Partner, read his Partner Profile.