Case Study: Clare Hill at FAI Farmshttps://soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/ClareSmith5.jpg11441322SoilmentorSoilmentorhttps://soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/ClareSmith5.jpg
Case Study: Clare Hill at FAI Farms
Since 2001, FAI have farmed 1200 acres of Oxford University owned land in Oxfordshire, running a ewe flock, a suckler herd, egg laying hens and forage making land as well as hosting trial facilities for on-farm research. Clare Hill is the farm manager at FAI.
After noticing cracked ground in spring on fields that had suffered flooding in winter, Clare began focusing her attention on building more resilience in their soils, and decided to transition to a regenerative system.
Clare and the team at FAI have been using Soilmentor to collect a baseline of soil health measurements and biodiversity observations, so that they can monitor their progress over time, and see the benefits of their regenerative management decisions in real time.
FAI are collecting a lot of data in Soilmentor, and are able to send their soil health data to their clients, to demonstrate the benefits of their regenerative system. They have found Soilmentor is much easier than using spreadsheets as they did before.
Photo Credit: Ben Pike
“Soilmentor is helping us to really see what’s going on with our soils, and it’s been amazing to have that instant feedback – no labs – just getting back in touch with the land. It’s given us an insight we didn’t have before, and it’s so simple with all the information in one place.”
“The first year of data collection is all about understanding the data and the processes, then we will be able to train others to monitor the benefits of the regenerative transition, starting with soils. Since changing our grazing we are starting to see many more butterflies, bees and birds, and we’re excited to see how this builds over time with Soilmentor”
Caroline Grindrod of Wilderculture helped to advise the new grazing system at FAI, which now involves much longer rest periods, with larger herds of animals grazed rotationally, to allow the grasses to grow longer and create better root systems in the ground.
Clare’s noticed that the cattle are now browsing much more, and will eat everything in their cell – nettles, buttercups, and the herbal leys: “set stocked animals become lazy and don’t try eating anything other than grass”.
We’re excited to support FAI’s soil monitoring journey going forward, and to see how their new grazing system changes their soil health results over time.
Case study: Peter & Henri Greig at Pipers Farmhttps://soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Screen-Shot-2020-08-12-at-11.24.26.png545565SoilmentorSoilmentorhttps://soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Screen-Shot-2020-08-12-at-11.24.26.png
Case Study: Peter & Henri Greig at Pipers Farm
Pipers Farm is a 50 acre permanent pasture family farm in Devon, with native-breed cattle and sheep herds. Peter and Henri Greig are the founders and farmers at Pipers Farm, and they also work to support an additional 25 family farms, to connect their customers with healthy produce that has been farmed with a focus on traditional, sustainable values.
Peter and Henri began mob-grazing three years ago to improve their soil health and increase the productivity of their grassland. When they first started mob grazing they noticed they were grazing the pasture too hard, so they’re now in the process of learning to optimise their grazing technique to leave more forage and allow a better root structure to develop.
Recording photos at specific sample sites on Soilmentor helps Peter and Henri to keep track of changes to their soil over time.
Soilmentor has given Peter and Henri a toolkit to stay in touch with their management journey, allowing them to monitor their soil health progress as they go:
“Soilmentor is an exciting revelation to us. It feels like we’ve opened a whole encyclopedia of wisdom, and we’re unravelling the ancient story of our land. Soilmentor has become our eyes and ears to monitor our regenerative farming journey, learning from nature as we go…
We got a good base line of soil health measurements last winter, and we’re excited to see how these might change after our efforts to increase resting periods in our grazing. The first holes we dug we realised our roots were very small, and we’re hoping to see our grass roots lengthen into the soil and improve our VESS scores”
The Greigs have been doing regular sward stick readings and recording their results in Soilmentor in order to optimise their mob grazing.
By tracking their forage with sward readings, they can monitor their DM/ha, and make sure they aren’t grazing their pasture too hard before moving their livestock on:
We can’t wait to see how the years ahead progress at Pipers Farm. Hopefully we’ll see the soils gain an improved structure and resilience as Peter and Henri perfect their grazing technique!
Want to know more about Regenerative Farming? Here are our top resources!https://soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Screen-Shot-2020-05-12-at-20.20.13.png595596SoilmentorSoilmentorhttps://soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Screen-Shot-2020-05-12-at-20.20.13.png
New to all this? These resources are a great place to start:
(scroll down for more in-depth info)
Still not sure exactly what it means to be a regenerative farmer? This is a great Groundswell short video to get you up to speed; the key messages of regenerative farming are laid out with interviews and animations.
Now you know what regenerative farming is, but how do you apply it? Charles Massy’s talk at TEDxCanberra “How regenerative farming can help heal the planet and human health” is an inspiring resource that discusses the wider impacts of an ecological approach to farming.
Meet Nicole, who shares insights in this video on the regenerative agriculture movement in New Zealand. Find out about the importance of soil biology and the profitability of regenerative practises. Watch more of Nicole’s videos here.
Our next stop is the Groundswell youtube channel, sharing recordings of facsinating talks from their past events. Word on the street is there will be new videos posted in lieu of this year’s cancelled show – so worth a subscribe to stay in the loop!
Our sister podcast – Farmerama shares new regenerative farming stories every month. The recent five-part series ‘Cereal’ is worth checking out – taking a deep dive on cereals, milling, baking, supply chains, and the importance of regenerating this system.
There’s a great list of resources on Joel Wiliams’s Integrated Soils website – including audio clips, videos, and articles worth exploring to learn from Joel’s experience in soil health, plant nutrition and sustainable food production.
Thirsty for more? Agricology is a knowledge exchange network, providing an interface between farmers, researchers and organisations. The Agricology site is bursting with innovative resources, with a focus on agroecological methods that are practical and sustainable.
Regenerative farming is all about healthy food. The Sustainable Food Trust website is home to a plethora of great articles and informative resources which aim “to accelerate the transition to more sustainable food systems”. The SFT podcast is also well worth checking out – including interviews with some key figures in sustainable farming and policy.
The Savory Institute is a great resource for those interested in mob grazing of livestock for the regeneration of grasslands. There are plenty of informative videos and information on regional holistic grazing hubs to connect with.
The College for Real Farming and Food Culture aim to establish Enlightened Agriculture as the global norm, and to encourage complementary food cultures. Their website is full of interesting information about the college and its ideas.
FarmEd is the centre for Farming & Food Education, with a mission “to accelerate the transition towards regenerative farming and sustainable food systems”. The website has some great resources to read up on, we particularly enjoy their seasonal wildlife updates!
Innovation for Agriculture have a fab mix of resources covering regenerative farming, livestock, soil and water. In particular they share information from their Animals to Arable conference, which was all about integrating livestock into arable rotations to improve soil health.
What do you think, feeling up to speed now? Let us know if you have any resources to add – contact us
Will Godwin – Hampton Estatehttps://soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/A377F7FB-6293-4021-8156-A1C0FF8F9CCC.jpg14401079SoilmentorSoilmentorhttps://soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/A377F7FB-6293-4021-8156-A1C0FF8F9CCC.jpg
The beautiful family run Hampton Estate is nestled in the sandy soils of Seale, near Farnham in Surrey. Most of the farmland is in woodland or grass and twenty years ago Guernsey dairy cattle grazed the estate. The family have since switched to a Sussex cattle herd and started producing grass fed beef to sell direct to their local customer base. Their cattle are raised on tasty grass and lovely Surrey sunshine! Hampton Estate are members of the Pasture Fed Livestock Association and in the process of having their beef pasture for life certified. Pasture fed systems with good grazing management can be very regenerative for soil health. Hampton have started using Soilmentor to monitor and understand how soil health is changing across their farmland.
The estate has some very special gardens filled with hops! This speciality crop has been grown in the local area for hundreds of years, despite a lot of production being wiped out by a fungal disease called verticillium wilt. Many other farms gave up their hop gardens, but Hampton has maintained growing this traditional crop with high biosecurity measures. Their hops are used in three major breweries across the country. The infrastructure required to grow hops is extensive and to fit in with the natural landscape Hampton uses tall poles made of chestnut from their own woodland.
Hampton are developing their farm strategy around building soil health and improving their sward. Using Soilmentor they can create a baseline for where their soil health is at now and give them an idea of where they want to go. Growing good grass is essential for their pasture fed cattle and so one approach they will take is to increase species diversity and deeper rooting plants in the sward. This will increase their resilience in times of drought as deep roots can reach water and nutrients further down in their sandy free draining soil. A more diverse range of broadleaf plants and root systems will increase the potential to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and put it into the ground. Hampton is monitoring the % of different plant species and their density to see how this changes over time in their pasture fields. As they collect more information about their pasture with Soilmentor they will be able to compare plant species readings with soil structure and earthworm readings to see if there are any trends and links in their improvement.
“I’d been looking for a tool to monitor soil health just like this, I’d tried other tests but they were always so complex and involved lab testing. It’s great to have a set of simple tests that I can do easily myself.” – Will Godwin, Hampton Estate
We spent the day soil monitoring pasture fields under different management approaches with Will Godwin. Will is part of the estate management team and works very closely with Bridget and Bill Biddell who own and manage the Estate on behalf of the wider family. Heading out to the field with Will and Bridget was great fun and the excitement about digging holes and hunting for worms was palpable! Will had expertly crafted an infiltration rate pipe from a piece of drainpipe, sharpening one end to make it easier to get into the ground. He used an old water bottle with 444ml of water marked on it to ensure the exact same amount of water was used each time. An old dustbin lid made an excellent examination tray for the soil block and Bridgett didn’t seem to mind us using her freezer bags to collect samples for the slake test!
We started on a very sandy permanent pasture field grazed throughout winter by their steers and very poached up in places. On this field we found no worms at all! This meant Will recorded an earthworm count of 0 in Soilmentor and we all agreed this is definitely an opportunity to improve how the soil on this field is managed to increase earthworms for the next time it is monitored. Next we headed to a permanent pasture field being rested after grazing last year which had an abundance of wigglers, seventeen in one soil pit, and even a dung beetle popped its antlers up. At the time we didn’t realise it was a dung beetle, but took a photo of it using Soilmentor so Will could look back at a later date to identify the beetle. This field had a dense thatch of grass on the surface which slowed the infiltration rate down considerably. The third field we tested was a grass field cut every year for hay which had a few worms but an exceptionally fast infiltration rate. In addition to these fields Will plans to monitor two more pasture fields and one hop garden.
Going forward Hampton plans to start a new grazing system, to improve sward quality and soil health across the estate. Changes in the way the herd is managed and trying mob grazing to encourage tall grass and deep root growth are central to the strategy. Over in the hop gardens, although they cannot return the biomass from the hop plants back to the soil due to the verticillium wilt disease risk, there are plans afoot with Rob, their Agronomist, to plant green manure cover crops in between the rows of hop plants. Verticillium wilt only affects broadleaved plants and to avoid attracting it to the garden the cover needs to be a cereal to mitigate this risk, so rye and oats are good options. The cover crop will anchor the soil, protecting it from erosion, photosynthesising and putting nutrients into the soil.
Soilmentor will help Hampton monitor how their soil is changing as they experiment with new farm management approaches to improve soil health. For example, with a new approach to grazing the fields over winter, such as mob grazing, Hampton will hope to see an improvement in earthworms, sward density and soil structure. All of these are what we call ‘soil health indicators’ and are easily monitored using soil tests with Soilmentor. All the information Hampton collects using the Soilmentor app is visually displayed on their online account making it easy to look back at their soil health records and analyse how things have changed over time.
What are Will’s management objectives:
Improve soil health across the estate
Increase grass and broadleaf species
Understand best grazing technique to optimise grass growth
What is Will monitoring:
Slake (Wet aggregate stability)
% of undesirables % of bare soil
% of grasses, broadleaves, no. of species of each
Interested in using Soilmentor to monitor soil health and manage your farm both above and below ground?
Chris Leach – Waddesdon Estate Farmhttps://soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/IMG_20181207_155203-1.jpg40323024SoilmentorSoilmentorhttps://soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/IMG_20181207_155203-1.jpg
Chris Leach is part of the Forestry Team at Waddesdon Estate in Buckinghamshire. Around 500 tonnes of wood is produced from managing the 450 acres of the estate’s woodland, half of which is used as fuel for the biomass boiler. Chris was keen to find an environmentally sound way to use the waste wood and saw the perfect opportunity to work with the Estate’s farming operation to combine the waste wood and farm waste to create compost. He will add bokashi to the compost which he hopes will encourage mycorrhizal fungi and beneficial bacteria in the soil. Chris is now working with all departments on the Estate, (Gardens, Stud, Forestry, Farm), to improve and sustain soil health.
By recording information on soil tests with Soilmentor, Waddesdon created a baseline starting point as well as a future goal for what the estate team want to achieve. Chris finds testing water infiltration rates most interesting as one of the estate’s aims is to increase the soils capacity to store water and make it more resilient to drought. Doing the VESS test has highlighted how much topsoil they really have and the difference between arable fields and permanent pasture.
Chris said “Generally the lack of earthworms across the whole estate was a surprise, we would love to see an increase. Soilmentor is so simple – it’s an amazing tool. I find the app extremely easy, I record soil test results on my phone and when I get back to office it’s all there in one place on the computer. It makes you look at things a bit differently, giving a wider picture, something to reference and understand how to improve. All Heads of Department can access the data online too so that now everyone is working together to improve soil health across the estate. We are always learning and want to share our knowledge for the present and the future. I spout regenerative agriculture at every opportunity, even when I’m talking to other parents at my son’s football matches!”
Chris’s management goals
Improve soil health and build regenerative farming system
Reduce chemical inputs
Disturb the soil less
What is Chris measuring?
Field photo diaries
Interested in using Soilmentor to monitor soil health and manage your farm both above and below ground?
Hannah Steenbergen is the farm manager at 42 Acres Farm , a 170 acre working farm and garden which is home to the 42 Acres Somerset Retreat Centre. Until this year much of the land was untended and wild, so there is an amazing amount of wildlife. Hannah’s plan is to create a small-scale diverse regenerative farm where they use minimal inputs, foster biodiversity and increase the fertility of the land.
“After we made hay the field was a buzzard playground! Hay making revealed all these small mammals. There’s amazing wildlife at the farm, we want to keep it that way whilst also bringing the land into production.” – Hannah, 42 Acres
On the farm she has introduced a small beef herd of Shetland cattle, which are 100% grass-fed and managed with ‘mob-grazing’.The garden, greenhouse and polytunnel are filled with delicious vegetables, salads and plants grown by Head Gardener Arek. There’s also a flock of Khaki Campbell ducks waddling around the garden and laying eggs. Hannah grew up on a biodynamic farm in North Yorkshire and is committed to following regenerative agriculture principles as she takes the 42 Acres farm forward.
The aim is to build soil health through clever grazing management with their growing number of livestock, moving them around the pasture regularly, ensuring grass has time to regrow and organic matter is continually incorporated into the soil. The farm is in a very wet area, so increasing the soil’s capacity to hold water is very important, that way they can prevent run-off and keep topsoil and nutrients on the land.
The Soilmentor app allows Hannah to monitor how the soil is changing, and if she is in fact moving towards her goals to build soil health at the farm. Her first soil tests clearly show where she started, and with testing every 6 months, she will quickly get an idea for how the soil is changing with each new farm decision and management practise put in place. Plus it can be fun! Hannah said “I particularly enjoy the earthworm tests, identifying the different types of earthworms is very interesting. The infiltration rate is also very interesting, it was completely different in our pasture vs roto-tilled veg plots. I feel like I’m understanding more about soils all the time.”
For Hannah it’s very important to become a financially viable small scale and diverse farm, with a social impact. As the farm is in its first year, Hannah and the team are figuring out what the land would be best used for, and the soil tests will give a good indication of things to try out. By monitoring and understanding the soil health now, she has taken important first steps to ensure healthy soils on the farm.
What are Hannah’s management objectives?
Increase soil health on the farm
Understand best grazing techniques and optimise grass growth
Maintain and increase biodiversity above and below ground
What is Hannah measuring?
% of undesirables % of bare soil
% of grasses, broadleaves, no. of species of each
Interested in using Soilmentor to monitor soil health and manage your farm both above and below ground?
Getting started monitoring on our farm – Abby Rosehttps://soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/1_HKEsC3DdFD9mC8NAqwNHKQ.jpg800600SoilmentorSoilmentorhttps://soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/1_HKEsC3DdFD9mC8NAqwNHKQ.jpg
Sunday morning early my dad and I went out to observe and investigate our soils on our farm in Chile. As you may know 2017 was a very difficult year for my family’s small farm as the mega fires in Chile consumed our farm, burning all our crops — olives and vines, just the buildings survived. Come November (Spring) it became obvious that most of the 8000 olive trees and 2ha of vines were dead or growing back from the ground. In terms of having a crop, it’s a bit like starting again.
It is at times an overwhelmingly dire situation. But there is no point lingering on the negatives as this is what’s happened and mega fires are bound to happen again based on global trends, so we must rethink.
Where to start? The soils. If there is one thing I have learnt over the last year, it’s that soil health is the litmus test for the direction your farm is going in. For fire prevention we see two ways forward: Either we bite the bullet and plough between all the trees and build fire breaks around the whole farm (100m wide!?) — a disaster for soil health; Or, we make our 700ml of rainfall each winter go further and retain moisture on as much of the farm as possible, for as long as possible, allowing a green ground cover all year round. Neither sounds particularly easy, but as the realities of the changing climate and human impact on our landscapes intensify — we have little choice. So we are opting for the latter, as the first sounds like a barren nightmare.
To systematically observe our soils and document where we are at now we used Soilmentor, an app I recently launched, along with the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association and soils advisor Niels Corfield. I’ve used the app on a number of other farms in the UK (read more about them here) but this felt like a seminal moment using it on our own farm in Chile for the first time. This app is just part of my commitment to ensuring smaller-scale farming businesses around the world thrive, building a more resilient future for us all. In an odd way, it felt very moving to have this tool support our farm, especially at this moment of so many unknowns! I can’t explain but when you go out and really observe the soil, something happens, you become immersed in a whole new dimension of the farm. This is why I think farmers such as Ian, Fidelity and Tim have also been so excited using the app, doing the simple soil tests themselves — we are empowering farmers to take the ‘pulse’ of their soils.
Back to our farm. Doing the tests. We went to 3 fields and dug a hole as best we could at 3 sites in each field. At first it felt incredibly daunting looking at the different tests in the app. I am still learning about soil science, so many things I don’t know! How deep should we dig? How many samples should we take? How can we tell where the top layer of soil ends and the bottom one begins for the VESS (Visual Evaluation of Soil Structure) test? And in fact how can we determine aggregates* from clods* in this incredibly arid soil? Luckily many of those questions are answered here.
We gave it our best shot, followed the notes on the VESS diagram and gave the top layer of soil a slightly higher score than the bottom, determining it was just 1cm deep — that’s where almost all of the roots were and some evidence of aggregation. We had to use a hammer to cut down into the soil, so Spading Ease was definitely 1 (the worst). As we moved on to the next hole it got easier to assess VESS and by Sector 2 we felt confident scoring our soil. Here, in Sector 2, things were quite different, the top 5–6 cm were top soil and showed definite signs of aggregation but then beyond 6cm the ground was almost impenetrable. In Sector 7, we were amazed the spade went in easy after the initial top cm or so. It was completely different again, a crumb-like soil all the way down, quite red, but oddly little sign of microbial life or root activity.
For each VESS reading we took two photos of the soil, one before breaking it up and one after. Later this week I will be talking through the results and photos with soils advisor Niels Corfield in the UK to better understand what it all means and how we might move forward in terms of management. Pretty exciting that we can so easily share the state of our soils with an advisor.
We brought back samples from each field and did a slake test, Sectors 1 and 7 mainly disintegrated but as expected those from the top layers of Sector 2 stayed glued together. I did question whether the slake test would work for such dry soils, maybe they wouldn’t break down because they are baked into shape…or they would disintegrate completely because they have no moisture in them to keep their shape? Always so many questions and variables. But as we looked over the tests 24 hours later it seemed pretty obvious. Only Sector 2 had any real sign of the soil being stuck together thanks to microbial and root slimes (good stuff!) — it stayed completely intact. Sector 1 disintegrated partially and Sector 7 completely disintegrated. An interesting indication that the light crumbly soil in Sector 7 probably isn’t thanks to great soil creation from plants and microbes but a combination of other factors in the short term (it was dug up most recently of the 3). But I’m not sure on this one so will be asking in the group convo what others think!
The whole experience was rather brilliant, my dad and I in conversation about our soils, really looking and recording whilst we go. We now have begun to understand what we are working with and that the mechanism for living soils is not currently in action on our land. The next step is how to get that mechanism in action as soon as possible. Currently we are considering direct drilling with multi-species herbal leys, grazing lambs in Spring, or maybe chickens all year round. We also want to use compost teas to move the soil health more quickly, as a short term input. If you have any other suggestions please let us know 🙂
How will we test if things are getting better? Well if our VESS top depth begins to increase and the score goes up in the bottom layer, if we start to see rhizosheaths, if we have even one or two earthworms and if we have all 3’s on the slake test then we will know our soil health is improving — it seems like a huge challenge but we believe it’s possible. Let the work begin!
Soilmentor is now available for anyone to use to investigate and monitor their own soils — find out more here. Join a community of farmers working together to monitor our soils and improve soil health!
*A few soil words:
aggregation: Soil aggregates are clumps of soil particles that are held together by moist clay, organic matter (like roots), gums (from bacteria and fungi) and by fungal hyphae. The aggregates are relatively stable and vary in size. This means that there are spaces of many different sizes in the soil and these spaces are essential for storing air, water, microbes, nutrients and organic matter.
clods: Soil clods are clumps of soil stuck together due to compaction. They often have very few spaces in them and can be very large. A sign of not as good soil health.
Ian Boyd – Whittington Lodge Farmhttps://soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/IMG_2378-e1513868272358.jpg20002667SoilmentorSoilmentorhttps://soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/IMG_2378-e1513868272358.jpg
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.
Tim Williams – English Farmhttps://soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/IMG_3915-1-e1513624381275.jpg20001500SoilmentorSoilmentorhttps://soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/IMG_3915-1-e1513624381275.jpg
“My role here is to look after the land. My aim really is to be a carbon negative farmer.” Tim Williams is a young farmer, based at English Farm, near Reading. He spent many years farming in New Zealand’s more intensive systems before moving here to find ways of farming that regenerate soils and mitigate climate change rather than add to it. Tim took on the ultimate challenge of working with cows to achieve this, now demonised by many as a key cause of greenhouse gases, but Tim has also seen the positive benefits as the once arable land is beginning to transform. He is using a mixture of grazing and herbal leys to return the whole farm to healthy permanent pasture.
Tim has only been at English Farm one year running the herd of 28 English Longhorn cows. With their horns the animals look so majestic munching through the green pastures. The cows live outside all year round, so it’s important there is plenty of shelter in the fields and of course enough grass to last through the Winter. Tim does supplement with a bit of hay in the coldest, darkest days, just to make sure they are all happy.
Tim has realised that to reach his goals he needs to understand and monitor the health of his soils and pasture. So when we turned up in November to get him setup he had already prepared an outline of the fields he wanted to watch, some that ‘had never done well’ and some that were the best fields on the farm. He wanted to know why was one field better than the other, maybe the answers lay in the soil? And could he improve the quality of the field through how he managed his animals?
On arrival he showed us a soils report he had done of the farm when he arrived a year ago. “I didn’t know anything about the land and needed to know if I could make a low-input system work here, so I had a professional soils assessment done. They came and spent a day taking readings and then they sent me a report which basically advised me where to put Lime to balance the pH of the fields. It was dealing with patching up symptoms not long-term solutions, so I put it on my shelf and haven’t looked at it since.”
After going out and doing above and below ground assessments across multiple fields we bundled back into the truck and headed home as darkness descended. Back at the office with a warm tea Tim told us, ‘Even just going out there today I have learnt more about my soils than I did from that expensive report. I’m very excited to be part of this project and better understand my soils, plants and animals so I can make the farm here a carbon-negative success.’’
What are Tim’s management objectives?
Take it up to 40 cows from 28 cows.
Improve carbon holding of the soils. Is this farm carbon positive or carbon negative?
Continue to run a low-input system on the 200 acres
How will Tim judge those?
Total live weight gain
Amount of soil with living plants in
Possibly compare the Brix morning and Brix evening
Fidelity Weston is a wonderfully positive and curious farmer, she was previously Chairman of Kent Wildlife Trust and sees farming as a way to work with the natural world around. As with many farmers, she cares about her animals, biodiversity on the land and of course has to make ends meet.
We arrived at Romshed Farm in Kent, where Fidelity has been farming for 30 years, on a chilly November day. We bundled into her kitchen and were promptly offered a tea. To get the lay of the land she rustled up a field map of the farm, and explained how about half the farm has been in Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) programs but will be coming out in 2 years time. With future subsidies very unclear she is experimenting with ways to keep high biodiversity and wildlife on the farm whilst also harnessing profit from those fields. She has one full time farm worker and she needs to make sure she can continue to pay him.
Fidelity has 60 cows (20 suckler cows and all their followers) and 150 ewes that she grazes on the land, all 100% pasture-fed (she is an accredited member of the PFLA). One of the experiments she has just started is mob-grazing her fields: regularly moving cows around small portions of the field, mimicking the movements of a herd on the savannah. There is scientific evidence that this grazing method can help grass grow quicker as well as put more nutrients into the soil. This seems like a great option for Romshed and Fidelity.
She tells us one field, Mud Mead, has always been a poor performing field, but ChurchField 1, right next door, fares much better: the colour of the grass, the forage, everything is just happier. She has no idea why but suspects the soil may hold some clues. We choose 4 fields, including Mud Mead, and one control field to monitor the soils in. Some ‘good’, some ‘bad’, one with particularly good diversity in the ley.
Fidelity is not a tech-lover but knows her phone is vital for her direct sales meat business and running her medium-sized farm. She downloads Soilmentor app on her phone and we head out the door. We work with Fidelity so she is confident about doing soil tests at 5+ sites in each field. Tests include the spade test below ground and then forage tests above ground. Fidelity then enters those results in the app, as well as taking photos as she goes. We go back home and compare above and below ground test results on her computer.
Fidelity keeps telling us “I can’t believe in my whole time farming I have never looked at my soils like this. This is so exciting!”. “I’ve never done it before because it seemed like such a hassle, but with a few simple tools and this app it’s easy.”
For Fidelity monitoring her farmland above and below ground is vital to understand whether the mob grazing is increasing the biodiversity on the land, rebuilding the soils and producing more forage. All these affect her bottom line, some more imminently than others. Ultimately she needs to understand how she can manage more animals, whilst maintaining biodiversity on her land and generate a profit.
Fidelity hopes that as the rest of the land comes out of HLS in 2 years time she will have a better idea of what works on her farm and understand how things change as she works with that land to regenerate soils and cultivate pasture. This is all vital as so many farms are staring into a very uncertain future financially.
“This app is brilliant. In 30 years of farming I have never looked at my soils in this way before and with the app I can easily collect the information and learn from it.”
What are Fidelity’s management objectives?
Improve grasses and forage for animals, without affecting the current good levels of diversity.
Understand if mob grazing is effective as a management tool to improve forage and carrying capacity on the land.
Reduce issue with copper deficiency in cows and sheep.