Ploughing is still the way for Wolds farmer John Gatenby who will host the Young Farmer's Country Ploughing Match

John Gatenby who will host the East Riding YFC County Ploughing Match which was postponed from its original site due to the wet weather.
John Gatenby who will host the East Riding YFC County Ploughing Match which was postponed from its original site due to the wet weather.
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The noble arable art of ploughing the fields has been with us for centuries, whether with the gentle giants of heavy horses or oxen.

It has been a staple of the agricultural scene but recent moves to improve soil health and fertility has brought about a sea-change in land thinking.

Min-till and no-till have become popular, but is ploughing on its way out or is this just fashion, fused with the current move towards greater carbon storage and reduced greenhouse gas emissions?

John Gatenby of Littlethorpe Farm, Rudston, just seven miles from the east coast and on what has always been regarded as fertile, free draining land is playing host to the postponed East Riding YFC Annual County Ploughing Match for the third time in 20 years at the end of this month.

“Ploughing is still the way for us,” says John who farms 600 acres on Wolds land that is on chalk and gravel. He also has 500 beef cattle at any one time, animals bought in to fatten that provide manure for his land.

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“We have a lot of cattle, and because of the large quantities of farmyard manure they provide we have well-structured soils.

It’s all a question or balance of what your soil type is, what your rotation of cropping is and what year you are having. It is fashionable at the moment to move away from ploughing, but mechanical control is probably a lot better than chemical control.

“I am buying in to the story that we as farmers have to manage soil and look after it properly. My own feeling is that it has got to the stage now where a lot of the machinery people use on the soil are too big and the soil can’t support them.

“We try to manage it satisfactorily and still plough, but apart from one tractor everything here is 100hp or less.

"That means we have little toys that do less damage to the soil in comparison to others.”

John is certainly not a farmer who is sticking his head in the sand over the future of arable farming and soil health.

He recently hosted the AHDB Northern On-Farm Soils meeting and has just been confirmed as one of the 60 UK farms involved in a pilot relating to the new environmental land management scheme organised through LEAF (Linking Environment & Farming).

“It is all about checking that what comes through from government is suitable for a large proportion of the industry,” said John.

“Incentives for responsible sustainable production will come relative to how we all look after the soil which needs to appreciate as an asset rather than depreciate.

"Livestock is a very good means of appreciating soil structure whether through grazing or usage of farmyard manure.”

John’s cropping for this year will see him with no wheat to harvest, nor oilseed rape.

“Wheat has been replaced by 130 acres of forage rye, which goes to an anaerobic digester unit at Burton Agnes. The forage rye also allows for an even earlier introduction to sheep feed for the following winter.

“We will have around 150 acres of barley, of which we’ve still a lot of spring barley to go in. We are growing the winter malting variety Craft and the spring variety Laureate for distilling and brewing.

I have rotational grassland, we let land for potatoes and carrots, and we grow vining peas for Bird’s Eye and we also grow forage maize. It’s a widespread cropping scene.”

John has taken part in ploughing matches and he still sees ploughing as not just a farming art form, but as having its place in the farming world.

“Ploughing shows how you can sensibly bury what you don’t want and produce clean soil with a clean seed bed. From an environmental point of view it also reduces the need for chemicals. I’ve taken part in a few ploughing matches both locally and when I was at London University.

“I started in the conventional ploughing classes in the 70s and eventually into the commercial reversible classes. We are always kept well away from the real ploughing professionals, I think it’s so we don’t feel too ashamed in comparison.”

The East Riding YFC County Ploughing Match is one of the largest in Yorkshire and was postponed in autumn last year due to poor weather. It was originally due to be held on a different site.

“We are now hosting it here at Littlethorpe on a 50-acre block that Mr Clappison is taking for potatoes after the ploughing match.

"The land is free draining and is accessible from a relatively minor road. We are all looking forward to the day and we are very grateful to Mr Clappison for allowing it to take place too.”

East Riding YFC Ploughing Match takes place at Littlethorpe Farm on Saturday, February 29.