We are integrating the key principles of regenerative agriculture across 1,000 Ha of farm land under our stewardship
The mission for farming at Sotterley is to produce good food and capture the market. We define good food production firstly by our environmental foot print by looking at biodiversity of both plants and animals, quality of air and water, and secondly by the nutritional quality of the food we produce.
Today we farm 1100 Ha of that includes two contract farming agreements on neighbouring land. The cropping has largely been conventional with a rotation based around high yielding winter wheat for feed quality with break crops of oilseed rape and field beans. However, in order to both increase diversity within the rotation and continually look for alternative markets other crops such as winter and spring barley, durum wheat, ahiflower, maize and rye for a local AD plant, parsley both irrigated and dry land, linseed, vining peas, sugar beet and lentils have been grown.
The land is predominantly heavy Beccles series clay with approximately 10% being lighter sandier soils. In 2007 an 80,000 cubic meter reservoir was built to take advantage of a winter abstraction licence which has allowed our 100 Ha of lighter land to be irrigated for potatoes, onions, carrots, vining peas, roses, parsley and sugar beet.
Soil health has been a focus of the farming strategy over the last twenty years. The key pillars were to reduce inversion ploughing; retain straw; increase spring cropping; and transition into 12 meter controlled traffic farming (CTF). The objectives were to improve soil structure and increase organic matter. Spring cropping allowed us to control weeds, blackgrass in particular, by using glyphosate during the winter before spring drilling.
To achieve a full CTF system required trading machinery to get all operations onto 12 m width or a multiple in the case of the sprayer. In 2015 a Case IH combine with a 12 m header and an extended auger was purchased followed by a 12m Dale tine drill in 2016. We continued to use our 24 m Bateman sprayer and all fields were mapped using RTK technology. Oil seed rape was direct drilled into wheat stubble but we still used offset discs at a shallow depth before other crops.
There has been noticeable improvements in our soil structure with this strategy however, with many areas of farming other problems were appearing. In order to use 12 m drills and cultivators requires significant horse power which in turn needs weight to transfer that horse power into forward motion. Autumns of 2019 and 2020 were particular wet and this large equipment in relatively small fields created significant challenges that were undermining our efforts of improving soil fertility.
As a result our strategy has shifted again. Minimising soil disturbance remains key so we have sold our Dale drill and replaced it with a 6 m Horsch Sprinter tine drill and a 7.5 m Horizon disc drill. Our tractors have reduced in size by selling a John Deere 8400 and 8370 and replacing them with one 6215R John Deere and two 6250R John Deeres. The reduced horse power has reduced the weight. With lighter tractors drilling is now not done on CTF lines, rather we cross at an angle which will help us keep fields level and mix variations of soil created by repeated CTF farming.
Another key new strategy has been the integration of cover crops before spring cropping with the first cover crops known as the Raven Mix being drilled in autumn 2020 on approximately 50% of our spring cropping land. This has been increased this year to cover all our spring land.
To implement a strategy you need a good team and in early 2020 Rob Raven of Raven Farms based at Henstead accepted the position of Farm Director at Sotterley. Rob has been practiced reduced tillage for over 10 years on his own farm and in more recent years started using cover crops to great effect. Richard Harding was appointed our agronomist in the autumn of 2020 to help Rob and the team look at finer techniques of farming to allow reduced sprays in particular.
If we review our strategy today against the five key principles of regenerative farming it helps us plan for the future. First is reducing tillage and chemical application. Our smaller direct drills combining both discs and tines and smaller horsepower is allowing us to minimis tillage. Second is to armour the soil. Straw retention is key along with reducing the need for even light cultivations between crops. Third is diversity. Cover crops are containing more than 6 species of legumes, forbs and grasses to maximise diversity in roots and bio mass between the mono culture cash crops. We are trialling companion cropping and under sowing to keep looking to increase the diversity of plants on the arable land. Fourth is living roots in the ground. This year the drill with cover crops was literally following the combine around the farm. Under sowing cash crops with mixes that are exposed at harvest helps improve this further. Fifth and last is the integration of livestock. In 2020 Rob and Nicki Strachan moved to Sotterley with their suckler herd of stabiliser cattle in this summer for the first time Strachan implemented an intensive mob grazing system of moving the animals daily with a tremendous improvement in the pasture. Our plan is to start to integrate livestock within the arable land to further improve soil.