“Using the cover crops as forage is a really cost-effective destruction method and the livestock manure helps to build soil health and replenish organic matter.” - Farm Manager, Richard Pennock
Farm managers, Richard Pennock and Gavin Wilson have successfully integrated a carefully thought out cropping strategy on their large farming operation in North Yorkshire. With cover crops tailored to designated areas, they are providing forage for a significant livestock enterprise while also improving soil health, utilising land areas effectively and achieving optimum results from stewardship options.
After severe winter floods decimated parts of the large 1,500 acre mixed unit, cover crops were introduced in 2016. Richard recalls, “We lost a 300 acre block of land. It wiped our crops out completely and the soil was so wet we couldn’t put the spring crop in either. In a bid to help the soil recover, we filled the area with cover crops for that season and the difference we saw to our soil conditions was exceptional.”
After seeing the benefits, Richard and Gavin began to look at ways they could incorporate cover crops into their wider rotation as part of a whole-farm management strategy. Having attended a local farmer meeting, they met with Kings business development manager, Clive Wood to discuss seed varieties and cover crops that would suit the farm’s conditions.
Richard explains, “We’re quite an intensive farming operation so it’s important that we try to mitigate any impacts as much as we can. Having seen what the cover crops could do, it made sense to start pinpointing other areas on farm that could also benefit.”
Bespoke mixes to suit the farm
Clive devised bespoke mixes that were tailored to the designated areas of land but made sure they delivered multiple benefits. “We wanted to use mixes that would complement the farming rotation while also enhancing soil health and soil structure,” explains Clive. “However, they also needed to deliver on a number of other objectives including compliance with Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs) and they needed to provide increased outputs for the farm’s grazing systems which are crucial for profitability.”
As well as comprising 1,000 cattle, the farm business also hosts a contract grazing agreement for 400 ewes. In order to meet demand, Clive, Richard and Gavin developed a dual purpose soil structure and grazing mix to suit the lighter soil areas. This meant that once that the crops had delivered from a soil management and nutrient perspective, they could serve as a forage crop.
Richard comments, “Using the cover crops as forage is a really cost-effective destruction method for us. It’s also less intensive because we don’t need to rely on the use of heavy machinery and the livestock manure helps to build soil health and replenish organic matter.”
A typical rotation based on the use of the cover/forage crop would be to follow it with forage maize and then replant with a first wheat. This provides year-round ground cover, maximises nutrient capture, increases soil biota and organic matter, improves soil structure and contributes to the farm’s income.
“Richard, Gavin and the team are taking on what can only be described as an innovative and forward thinking strategy. It is clearly embracing every aspect of how we will be expected to manage our farms for the future in light of the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan,” says Clive.
The farm has also seen incredible results on heavier soils. “We are always monitoring our progress with regular worm counts and soil tests. Where we have already planted cover on heavy soils, the difference has been phenomenal. Worm numbers are much higher and water infiltration has improved dramatically. It’s incredible to think that this was achieved by spending less too.”
With developments in seed breeding and new hybrid brassica species becoming available, it is possible to provide options that deliver even greater performance in a number of key areas within farm rotations. Clive states, “The work by Richard and Gavin is a clear example of how whole-farm cover crop strategies can be successfully implemented, provided that a detailed period of planning is undertaken. They are now able to make the most of grazing opportunities, improve soil conditions and they are still taking advantage of key establishment windows for spring planting.”
“It’s about trying to farm smarter,” concludes Richard. “We need to utilise the natural resources we already have on farm but that means protecting and maintaining them too.”