Farmers heard about the merits of adopting regenerative agriculture principles on their farms at an open event hosted by the Farmer Scientist Network at the Great Yorkshire Showground.
At Pavilions of Harrogate, the Regenerative Agriculture Open Event on 9th January 2023 brought together nearly 100 farmers and others who work in the industry to hear fascinating insights into a hot topic that is shaping modern approaches to farmland management.
Watch a short clip of the Open Event and read a full report from the day below.
Opening the event, Dr Dave George, Management Team Member of the Farmer Scientist Network explained how the aim of the session was to better understand the basic principles of regenerative agriculture and some of the successfully adopted new practices.
There are a number of basic principles of this approach and not necessarily all of them apply to every single farm.
It [Regenerative agriculture] is not a term that is completely well defined, but there is something today for everyone to take back to their farm.
‘Fantastic future for farmers’
Guest speaker Neil Fuller, technical director of the Atlas Sustainable Soils programme and author of the Good Soil Guide, sponsored by Yorkshire Water, captured our imaginations with a detailed explanation of what regenerative farming is and why this is an exciting time for British – and global – agriculture.
Neil said he believed the introduction of new directives that focus on soil, including new strategies set by the Science Based Targets Initiative, give farmers “a fantastic future”.
Until September of last year, the only thing that we could do in agriculture to reduce our carbon emissions or to hit our net zero targets was to cut our inputs, so we have got real issues as regards to food security and to farm economics.
[But now] The new Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTI) says farm well, introduce new technologies where you can, pull carbon out of the atmosphere and we will give you credit for it.
That is fantastic, and places farmers right in the centre of everything that happens from now on for any company across the planet that uses an agricultural product to produce a food or a drink.
All the major supermarkets have signed up to the SBTI, so if you are on the lookout, as a manufacturer of food or a drink, to put your brand on a supermarket shelf and they are SBTI compliant, you might be told you have got to be SBTI compliant, which means your farmers have got to play with all the right bits and pieces on carbon removal.
Cover crops are a fantastic way of doing that, at the same time as [achieving better] crop performance, productivity at farm level, soil in terms of its resilience to climate change, and biodiversity.
We now have a real raft of strength in regulation that we can engage in.
Neil’s presentation was brought to life with a ‘soil safari’ during which his examination of different soils and worm activity beneath a high-powered microscope was shared on a big screen.
Carbon capture approach
Angus Gowthorpe, Farmers Weekly Environmental Champion of the Year 2022, discussed ‘driving down nitrogen’ and provided an overview of his latest experiences of implementing regenerative agriculture techniques at his farm in the Vale of York.
Angus, who farms 500 acres, runs an arable enterprise alongside his Salers cattle herd and has introduced herbal leys to much of his grassland.
His farm is in the Mid-Tier Countryside Stewardship Scheme, and he recently signed up to the Sustainable Farming Incentive.
Angus explained that he has not used seed treatments for a number of years, nor does he use insecticides, plant growth regulators or bagged P or K (fertilizer).
Instead, his focus is very much on working with the soil biology and organic matter, including muck from his cattle.
The use of synthetic fungicides on his crops has also been reduced significantly, while Angus utilises both cover and catch cropping to nurture soil health.
Annual applications of calcium fertiliser help to regulate acidity levels of his soil’s top layer.
This approach means his input costs have fallen substantially.
I started with a strip till drill in 2014 and we have progressed on from there.
It’s taken a lot of work to get to where I am now. For those starting out, don’t try to run before you can walk.
The soil very much comes first with everything I do.
Angus went on to say that the adoption of cover cropping can bring enormous carbon capture advantages.
60 per cent of all the carbon the plant takes in through photosynthesis is exuded into the soil to feed soil life.
By keeping the plant there, you really are maximizing that carbon draw down into the soil.
The difference between, as a worst case scenario, overwintered ploughing and a direct drilled overwinter cover crop can be as much as 15 tonnes of carbon dioxide, which is a staggering amount.
Echoing similar advice from Neil about getting a handle of current farm carbon capture, Angus added:
Know where you are by using a carbon tool, I’m not going to say that any one is the best, just use one. Know where you are and get some idea of where you need to go.
‘Soil health has momentum’
Clive Wood, Business Development Manager at Kings provided an overview of technical findings of cover crop establishment in the North of England over the last 12 years, saying that scientific understanding and development had advanced greatly.
Clive said an “exciting” marker for him was around Spring 2012, when he found that a lot of farmers started looking at cover crops in a serious way for the first time.
Since then, Clive said, what farmers have been looking for in terms of their needs from cover crops had changed “dramatically” as more sustainable approaches to the cost of production had come to the fore, and as prevailing thinking in the industry has turned towards alternative farm incomes, such as carbon credits, biodiversity net gain and the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI).
Clive said that most farms will have areas that are considered as having low productivity, and that it makes financial sense to enter these areas into Stewardship and the SFI, as a starting point.
David Purdy, Soil Health Specialist of David Purdy Soils and Territory Business Manager (East Anglia) for John Deere, presented ‘Investigating the biophysical effects of cover crops, tillage and compaction on soil health and crop yields, a 5-year study’.
David has been studying for a PHD looking at cover crops and soil health and working on AgroVista’s Project Lamport regenerative agriculture trial site on “challenging” silty-clay soils over the last five years.
David said the understanding of soil health is continually “evolving”.
Anyone who has measured a lot of things in the field will know how noisy, ecologically, that fields are.
We have looked at soil chemistry, at physical qualitative levels and have really looked at how soil health systems are organised.
That’s a new paper that just been written and looks at soils in three different ways: signs of life (such as earthworm activity), signs of function, signs of complexity and interactions between parts of soils.
Although there are challenges to maximise soil health, a good sign of healthy catch crops and cover crops is its ability to effectively manage water throughout the year, David said.
The event concluded with guests divided into two sub-groups for open discussions to inform the development of an independent cover crops guide, led by Angus and supported by the Farmer Scientist Network – read more about this project here.
Thank you to everyone who attended the open event and to our excellent speakers for their useful contributions.