We have always been a mixed farm and have farmed sympathetically with nature since moving to Boycefield in 2002. However, since Billy returned home from Harper Adams University in 2020 we have fully embraced a more regenerative way of doing things. A key aspect of this is focusing on the health of our soil. Soil is a finite resource and many modern farming practices result in it becoming degraded. It is the resource the sustains all of humanity and can play a vital role in combating climate change if managed appropriately. For us as farmers it is our most important asset, if our soils cease to function, so too does our business, so we're on a mission to keep it and our farm ecosystem healthy!
At Boycefield half our farm is permanent pasture, this receives no inputs (eg. Fertiliser, Lime, Cultivations). We are using animal impact alongside long rest periods to improve sward diversity and the soil health across this area of our farm. The other half of the farm is in a temporary crop rotation. Here we grow 3-year herbal & clover leys that are grazed by our livestock, acting as a fertility building stage in the rotation. This means that for the following three years we are able to use that built up fertility to help grow our cereal crops mainly Wheat and Oats sustainably and profitably. This is a very traditional farming system that is often overlooked nowadays. What we're doing here at Boycefield is combining ancient knowledge with modern technology to forge a truly sustainable farming system.
We use electric fencing to split our fields up into smaller sections (Paddocks), the livestock then graze these sections for just 48 hours at a time before we move them on. They then don't return to that area for 30-50 days - plenty of time for the grass and herbs to fully regrow. We aim to graze a third, trample a third and leave a third of the grass behind. This means that the livestock, the soil and the grass are all being kept happy. Essentially the idea is to mimic nature by simulating the behaviour of wild herbivores found in places such as the African Savanna. Here animals typically graze an area for a short period of time before they are moved on by predators. it is short duration, high impact mob grazing. We employ mob grazing across our permanent pasture as well as on the temporary herbal leys within our arable rotation. Grazing livestock on diverse swards is the most effective way to build fertility within a farming system and allows us to grow cereal crops on our farm using very low rates of fertiliser.
After the livestock have finished grazing a paddock there is a lot of trampled grass and plants. This trampled material keeps the soil shielded from intense sunlight and heavy rain and creates a perfect environment to encourage further growth. Earth worms will pull some of the trampled matter down into their burrows and convert it into soil humus. The remaining leaf that isn't grazed or trampled acts as a solar panel to capture sunlight allowing the grass to photosynthesise and immediately begin growing again.
These images nicely demonstrate how much of a 'residual' we are aiming to leave behind and trample into the ground with the livestock. Depending on the time of year the paddocks will be ready to graze again in 30 to 50 days' time. We're growing this grass using no artificial fertiliser, just the power of the sun, the rain, animal impact & adequate rest periods. This system is also allowing us to unlock the natural seed bank in the soil to help increase the diversity of our permanent pasture!
Rapid grazing events coupled with long rest periods mean that the livestock don't over graze certain plants. This ensures that these species are able to persist and multiply in the sward. We are seeing the amount of native Red & White Clover, Vetches, Plantains, Sorrel, and Knapweed very quickly increasing in our permanent grass land. helping improve soil as well as animal health and quality of meat produced.
Traditionally crops are established by first ploughing the land, then working it down, before drilling seed into it. Instead of doing this we are simply slotting the seed directly into the soil in one pass. The process of ploughing can be detrimental to soil health if done to frequently or incorrectly as it essentially turns the whole soil ecosystem on its head. It also causes carbon to be released and destructures soil structure. Direct drilling does not move any soil so the life within, most notably the earthworm populations are not disrupted. soil structure is maintained, and nitrogen and other nutrients are retained in the field. We try and plant 'Into the Green' whenever we can. This means direct drilling a cereal crop directly into a green manure catch/cover crop or into clover living mulches. Catch crops are a 6-8 week fast growing mix of Mustard, Phacelia & Buckwheat that we plant straight behind the combine. These crops act as solar panels for the soil, harvesting around two months of sunlight between cereal crops that would otherwise be wasted if the field was left idle as a bare stubble. They draw down and sequester CO2 into the soil, feeding the microbial life within helping mobilise nutrients for the following crop. As well as this the above ground biomass of the crop helps shade the bare soil from heavy rain and intense sunlight and provides a valuable source of organic matter when incorporated back in. Cover crops are used in longer term over winter scenarios. This year we have planted a 7 way mix of Vetch, Forage Rape, Linseed, Crimson Clover, Mustard, Kale & Phacelia. These cover crops work in the same way as the previously mentioned catch crops do but the more diverse mix of plant species is even better for improving the health of the soil. The cover crops will provide a valuable feed source for our sheep over winter.
Cover crops are a great tool to help improve soil health. The varying rooting architectures of the diverse mix helps structure the soil at varying levels and legumes in the mix fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil helping reduce our dependence of artificial fertilisers. We graze the cover crops with lambs over winter who help cycle the nutrients back into the soil by converting the cover crops into dung!
We have been using what is known as a 'clover living mulch' to grow some of our wheat crops in. The living mulch is a permanent under story of clover that exists beneath the cereal crop. The clover forms a symbiotic relationship with the cereal crop and helps provide it with nitrogen fixed from the atmosphere, enabling us to cut back our fertiliser rates. It also forms a weed suppressing carpet meaning we can cut down on herbicide use. once the cereal crop is harvested in August the clover is in place ready to start immediately capturing sunlight and pumping carbon into the soil.
We have been able to cut our Nitrogen use by more than 50% by growing crops in these living mulches. In the 2021/22 season we applied 60kg N/Ha to wheat growing in clover mulches. The wheat subsequently yielded 10.12 T/Ha, with just one fungicide application at T2. For the 2023/23 season we will lower the nitrogen rate to 50kg N/Ha and aim to use zero fungicides.
This summer after the wheat had been cut from one field growing in a living mulch, we direct drilled a 6-week mustard and phacelia catch crop straight into the clover. A week before a second wheat was planted into the clover, we let a mob of sheep into the field to graze it off. the sheep converted the plants into dung helping cycle nutrients for us and providing a free form of fertiliser.
Being a mixed farm means we produce a good quantity of manure, approximately 500T/year. All of our manure now gets composted. We do this for a few different reasons; The finished compost is a more balanced product, having a suitable C:N ratio for it to be easily utilised by the soil life, this means it will be converted to humus more quickly and remain in the soil as stable organic matter. The compost should in theory contain the correct balance of beneficial bacteria, actinomycetes and fungi and act as a microbial inoculant for the soil. Composting the FYM relies upon keeping it aerobic so that the microorganisms that are responsible for the process have access to oxygen. To ensure this is the case, we turn the manure using a windrowing machine. We normally spread the compost straight behind the combine before catch or cover crops are drilled into the cereal stubbles. It goes on lightly at a rate of between 6-10T/Ha. We also spread into standing cereal crops in the spring if ground conditions are dry enough. This allows us to cut out our use of mined potassium fertilisers.
Conservation is very important to us. We farm in a way that is sympathetic to nature and across the farm we’ve created an array of areas that are designed to benefit wildlife and the environment. Here at Boycefield conservation of wildlife and the environment is very important to us. Here farming and nature coexist and we work hard to ensure the farm ecosystem thrives & works as a whole and we play our part in aiding local nature recovery
We’ve currently got 18km of hedgerow on our farm. This equates to over 20 acres worth, and practically every field on the farm is enclosed by one! They’re vital for an array of wildlife and wildflowers, but also for our livestock, arable crops and slowing overland flow! Our livestock use hedges and the hedgerow trees to shelter from the weather. From the heat of the summer to cold wind of the winter, helping them thermoregulate and stay dry. Hedgerows are absolutely bustling with biodiversity. From nesting birds, to burrowing mammals, pollinators and beneficial predatory insects. The base of the hedgerows are also often home to a lovely selection of wildflowers.
In autumn 2022 we had some members of the West Midland Bird Ringing Group out to the farm to carry out night-time surveys of the bird population here at Boycefield. Using thermal imaging cameras, they were able to identify a great range of birds roosting in some of our direct-drilled cereal crops including woodcocks, snipe, jack snipe and meadow pipits. They were also lucky enough to catch a skylark, fieldfare and a redwing which were all subsequently weighed, measured, ringed and then released. We look forward to welcoming the group back this autumn to revisit the same areas and see how our population of farmland birds has imporved over the past year.