James Brown may well have been the ‘Godfather of Soul’, but namesake farmer Gabe Brown of North Dakota is the agricultural world’s ‘Godfather of Soil’, a man whose work on improving soil health and fertility has greatly influenced Mike Powley on his 360-acre Oak House Farm at Green Hammerton, which he runs with his father, Tom.
"I feel good” could easily have been a cute, appropriate quote from Gabe in his now quarter of a century and more since he began operating a no-till way of farming and has seen him continually improve his 5,000 acres using, as he describes, a diverse cropping strategy including cover and companion crops eliminating the use of synthetic fertilisers, fungicides and pesticides, and now minimal herbicides. He also uses grazing strategies that allows pastures a recovery period of over 360 days.
Mike is an advocate. He’s adopted similar principles on his admittedly much smaller arable and cattle enterprise where his major aim is to bring about the best beef eating experience he can through ‘techno grazing’ and better breeding policy with South Devons forming the base for his herd.
“Oak House Farm is ASDA’s training and educational farm for beef in the UK,” says Mike.
“They are looking closely at sustainable farming and with our government currently debating a new farm payment scheme allied to environmental matters, no-till, carbon sequestration and better water and soil quality are boxes that are being ticked as well as helping farms.
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“What we are all striving to do, through ASDA and here at Oak House, is to produce a piece of beef that the consumer takes home, cooks and has a fantastic eating experience that is tender, tasty, leaves no plate waste and is reasonably priced.
"All of the research, experiments and day-to-day work we are engaged with here in terms of the way we look after the soil and the cattle are undertaken with that goal in mind.”
Mike operates a rotational cropping system.
"He recognises that purely growing grass is of greater benefit to the soil, but clearly figures have to stack up on what he produces to make his farm business model work.
“The perfect soil structure is permanent pasture. Our cropping is a rotation of red clover and high sugar ryegrass grown together in the sward for three years; followed by two wheat crops, a mixed species cover crop into spring beans followed by two wheats and a barley.
“Three years of red clover and the ryegrass gets us halfway improving soil structure.
"Earthworms gather dead grass up and pull it under the ground where the soil biology really gets to work. Scientists say there are more individual organisms in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on earth. It’s all about getting soil biology buzzing and you do that by growing grass and cover crops.
“When we grow wheat and barley we now leave the stubbles longer so that they can be pulled back in, which helps again.”
As soil structure improves so too does the quality of the crops from grass to cereals and a lesser need for cultivation.
“We now operate no cultivations. I can drill wheat in one pass, in an hour and a half where it would previously have taken me all day. It’s very quick and consequently cheaper. Our yields are holding up and the soil is getting healthier. We are also now working with Yorkshire Water about run-off, as we don’t have any.
“Red clover silage is a big part of our herd’s diet. We want it because it is high in protein and protein is usually an expensive buy-in. What we’re trying to do is grow a complete diet. All our feed is home produced. We also use the beans and the barley, as well as the red clover and the ryegrass. We sell some wheat, barley and beans.”
Mike’s cattle graze for just two days on one piece of land before moving on to another. This is ‘techno grazing’ or in some circles regarded as ‘mob grazing’.
“The idea is to create much improved quality grass growth that in turn creates much more milk from the cows. A grass plant doesn’t start to regrow for 48 hours so you get your cows in there, get it grazed off and get them out before the regrowth begins.
If the cows are left there, they would then start taking off the regrowth which stunts the regrowth and inevitably depletes the grass reserves – and when that happens ultimately soil health deteriorates.”
Mike and Tom have a suckler herd of 95 cows due to calve this spring. The herd base is of around twenty-plus South Devons and they use female sexed semen to produce replacements.
The South Devon X Limousin cow has been the base for the beef producing herd in the past, but in the past two years they have begun moving towards the South Devon X Norwegian Red.
“We are currently at around 70 per cent fertility, so if we can get that up with the Norwegian Reds that’s another box ticked and much happier cows. It also provides high quality, high protein milk for its calves, which in turn gives the calves more energy, greater growth and cuts down the number of days on the farm.
"We operate block calving over eight weeks in spring.”
The South Devon X Limousin and South Devon X Norwegian Red first timers are AI’d with Aberdeen Angus before moving on to the British Blue.
“Everything we do with the cows here, from looking after them with the right diet, easy calving and heat observation through ankle bracelets is designed to make their lives stress free and to meet that aim of better soil, better cows and better end product.
"We are particularly pleased with the growth rates of the Norwegian Reds that are around 15-20 per cent faster than we were anticipating.”
Mike and his wife, Sheena, recently moved to the newly built farmhouse at Oak House Farm, situated out of Green Hammerton, having previously farmed at Elm House Farm in the village.