Ian Boyd is a farmer and wildlife photographer, who has been farming at Whittington Lodge Farm since he took it over from his father about 40 years ago. He sadly watched the wildlife decline significantly on his 700 acre farm as he grew monoculture cereals for 30 years. Plus his thin Cotswold Brash soils got worse and worse, the weed burden grew, and it became unviable to farm in that way. With the advent of Environmental Stewardship schemes about 15 years ago he realised that maybe there was a different way, maybe he could bring back the wildlife and have a viable farm business. His family bought some Pedigree Hereford cows to manage the grassland and wildflower meadows. It became a huge success, the land needed fewer inputs, soils improved, wildlife returned and people were very excited about how special the resulting beef tastes.
“I move the cows daily onto fresh grazing that has been rested for a couple of months. I love cows. You have to love cows if you are going to work with them every day. They are very rewarding, you do tend to end up living with your cows, but that’s all part of the joy.”
Now the whole farm has gone organic. For the cereals they plant each field in herb rich leys for 4-5 years before growing the crops for a few years and then back into herbal leys. The herbal leys are grazed by the 40 strong cow herd (with calves, yearlings and 2 year olds). “In order to restore the farmland wildlife, initially I thought it was all about insects. But I realised now that I had overlooked a complete link in the food web. Insects need healthy soils. So now we are trying to build up the soil health and soil organic matter, this is what we are using the herbal leys for.”
We arrived at Whittington Lodge in the Cotswolds on a very grey and damp day in August. A cheery Ian Boyd greeted us and immediately put the kettle on. At first Ian seemed very wary as I (Abby) told him I’d made an app that was going to help him monitor his soil health today. I don’t blame him for being suspicious, I am a British girl with a distinctly American accent, wearing leopard-print leggings and claiming that I had created an app that could help him out in the field. Who wouldn’t be suspicious!?
Ian only feeds his cattle on the pastures and herbal leys and is a certified member of the PFLA (Pasture For Life Association). This practice requires careful soil and sward (grass) management to ensure the animals always have something to eat out in the fields. This type of farming can also be extremely regenerative for soils, as the animals help to return critters to the soils and this practice is thought to have the potential to sequester large amounts of carbon in the soils.
Back to the misty farm – we all bundled into the trucks with our simple tools – a spade, a card-table, few trays, soil corer, garlic crusher and a refractometer.
First thing you notice when you get out into Ian’s fields is that there are wildflowers everywhere, the fields are alive with colour. We trundled over to First Hill, setup the card table and got to work. Ian downloaded the app on his phone, and we walked around the field counting the % of undesirables (i.e weeds), % of bare earth, no. of grass species, no. of broadleaves and more every 60 steps, Ian recording it all himself using the app.
By lunchtime Ian was so excited, all reservations abandoned, he was telling all the newcomers about how easy he had found the different visual tests Niels had put together, and that the app made it no trouble at all to record the results. I was thrilled at the turn around and his enthusiasm – It’s moments like this that make me realise bringing simple digital technology to the sustainable farming sector is so worth it!
“It was all pretty simple to do, something that I could do on a standard basis over a number of years to see if we can measure how our soil health is improving and build up a database of how our soils are improving over the years.”
Ian has already noticed some patterns by eye from some of his longest standing herbal leys. “Initially there is lots of clover, then as the years progress we get more and more grass coming through. I’m really looking to build up the soil health so we will get more grass, more growth from them. We are starting with some continuous arable soils, so there is a huge scope for increasing soil health and increasing amount of growth over the years.” Ian is keen to learn how he can best manage the herbal leys and grazing them to build soil health quickly and increase grass growth.
What are Ian’s management objectives?
- Increase soil health and insects/wildlife on the farm.
- Understand best rotation patterns and grazing techniques.
- Improve grass and legume growth so can have more cows and more winter grazing.
What is Ian measuring?
- % of undesirables
- % of bare soil
- % of grasses, broadleaves, no. of species of each
- brix % & fuzziness
- VESS (1-5)
Find Ian’s Farm on twitter @CotswoldBeef
Interested in using Soilmentor to monitor soil health and manage your farm both above and below ground?