Farm of the Week: How ditching the plough changed the fortunes of this Yorkshire farm

No cultivation, direct drilling, farmyard manure, solid digestate and green waste compost provides the perfect blend that has increased a North Yorkshire farmer’s worm count and has reinvigorated his soil.

Angus Gowthorpe of Approach Farm, Escrick, was awarded the title of Farm of the Year at last month’s Yorkshire Post Rural Awards for the way in which he is farming by tackling the various challenges facing agriculture on his mixed arable and pedigree beef farming enterprise that runs to just over 400 acres.

Angus said that he had realised 18 years ago, when he had returned home to run the family farm alongside his parents, Peter and Margaret, that keeping costs under control, modernisation and being in tune with what was needed would be the way forward.

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“Ever since I came home, after studying at Harper Adams and then having joined JSR near Driffield, I had known the writing was on the wall for subsidies and that it is up to all farmers to adapt the best we can.

Angus Gowthorpe amongst some of his crops.

“Regenerative agriculture methods, carbon trading and biodiversity are all part of the equation.

“I very much knew we had to keep costs tightly under control. We started with min-till before moving totally to no-till in January 2014 when we started with a strip till drill and 2016 with a disc drill.

“For me it was the way ahead. I wanted to get the soil back to where it needed to be. That was my initial plan, to improve our soil so that it is better for the next generation, as well as reducing our costs.”

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Salmon photographed leaping up Wetherby weir on the River Wharfe for the first t...
Angus Gowthorpe and his Salers Cattle

Angus said the catalyst for change to no till had been his gut feeling over ever-increasing horsepower, time and energy being the wrong route.

“We seemed to be working harder and longer every year to create a new seedbed, especially on the heavier land. We were turning what was already a decent seed bed, after a year’s weathering, tipping it back 10 inches under, to then beat merry hell out of the soil again to recreate what we had just turned over.

“My thought was why not put the seed into what is on the surface already? We don’t use a plough at all. We just drill straight in. The drill makes a narrow 20mm slot, drops in the seed, firms it into the soil and then a wheel closes the slot. It’s all completed in one pass using a John Deere 750A.

“We add farmyard manure from our cattle, chopped straw and this year started adding green waste compost and solid digestate from an anaerobic digestate plant. We are adding as much organic matter as we can and have none leaving the farm.

Angus said the results have borne out the methods he has used.

“Our soil is far superior to what it was, and we are getting good yields without using costly inputs. We have doubled our organic matter content and worm count has gone through the roof. We can have up to 50 worms in a 20cm cube of land. The soil is such that it now absorbs and holds moisture so that crops can grow greener for longer.

“This means in drought conditions the soil is far more resilient both physically and financially to the vagaries of the weather.

“Winter wheat is our predominant crop. We aim for about half of our arable land to be wheat. This year we harvested 150 acres averaging around 3.75 tonnes per acre, which is about the norm. We use a blend of varieties, this time including Kerrin, Crispin, Shabras and Gravity. I use a blend to reduce the risk of having to use fungicides to hopefully make them less susceptible to yellow rust or mildew.”

Just near to the end of this year’s growing season Angus found he had to give way to a use of a synthetic fungicide. Angus said it was minimal usage, but necessary.

“We gave the wheat crop all fungicidal biology until near the end when in the last few weeks yellow rust came in quite hard and we couldn’t control it with the biology. We used nothing on anything else.”

This year’s harvest included 65 acres of spring beans, 60 acres of winter linseed grown primarily as a soil improver and partly instead of oilseed rape, 25 acres of winter barley, 17 acres of maize specifically grown for the AD plant and 50 acres of arable down to temporary grass.

Angus said winter sowing was completed in good time this year following two successive years of difficult autumn seasons for establishment.

“The rains came in September at pretty much the same time as the past two years but we then had a period of 10 days of dry weather that allowed us to get everything finished.”

Angus and his wife Kerry have earned a formidable reputation for their pedigree herd of Salers cattle. Angus said the move towards wholly pedigree began apace in 2010 after his parents had started with Salers-cross cattle in 2001.

“Mum and dad had always liked the look of the Salers as a suckler cow and had begun adding them to what had been a Heinz 57 type of herd up until that point.

“When I came home, we began gradually whittling away at the Heinz 57s and buying more Salers-cross bulling heifers from Castle Douglas. It then became a struggle to get hold of the quality we were looking for and Kerry and I fancied getting started on pedigree Salers.

“We bought-in some pedigree heifers and a bull and we’ve gone from there. Last autumn we sold our last Salers-cross cow. We are now totally pedigree with a herd of 42 cows and concentrating on commercially raised pedigree stock to sell to other pedigree breeders.”

Last month they had champion bull in the pre-sale show at Welshpool that went on to take overall champion and they had the champion pen of commercial heifers. The bull sold to the judge for 3,000 guineas.

Angus said he is as delighted with their cattle as he is with his soil results. He has set up a trading company with other farmers called The Green Collective to help farmers achieve maximum value for carbon stored in the soil and biodiversity gains through stewardship.