We know how our varieties perform in trial but what’s even more important is how they perform on farm, and that’s where our Growers Club comes in.
We recently caught up with new member Angus Gowthorpe, who farms near York.
KM and CAW Gowthorpe, Approach Farm, Escrick, North Yorkshire
Area farmed: 160ha
Soil types: Varied – blow-away sand to heavy clay
Key crops: Winter wheat, winter barley, oilseed rape, spring beans, spring oats, spring linseed, grass (temporary/permanent)
Typical cultivations: No-till
40 Saler cattle plus followers
Angus Gowthorpe, a leading and well-known advocate of conservation agriculture in the UK, began his journey eight years ago, transitioning his 160ha farm to benefit soil health, the business and the next generation.
“I realised the writing was on the wall for subsidies, and that we had to reduce costs, get on top of grass weeds and tackle labour issues as well,” Angus recalls.
“I could also see the damage we were doing to the soil. It has certainly degraded since I was young, but what really brought it home was the damage done when we rented some ground for potatoes. Whilst the grower was very good there was still horrific damage after lifting.
“I realised I needed to do something if there was to be a farm for the next generation that didn’t need propping up with chemistry at great expense.”
Tweaking the system
The move started with the purchase of a Mzuri strip till-drill in 2014, followed by a John Deere disc drill in 2016. Angus has been tweaking the system since, introducing spring crops following over-wintered cover crops, and catch crops to keep soil covered between harvest and autumn sowing.
Organic matter is preserved and added where ever possible. “We don’t sell any straw – we only bale what we need for our own cattle,” says Angus. “We apply green waste compost and rotate the grassland around the rotation to add organic matter.”
Cover crops are typically drilled mid-August and are tailored to purpose, but usually include sunflowers, legumes and other flowering plants like phacelia and buckwheat that offer a variety of rooting profiles to condition the soil while providing food for beneficials. White clover, which can survive as a nitrogen-fixing understorey for a couple of seasons, is also added to cover crop mixes.
The system has greatly improved crop health and reduced disease, pest and weed pressures, enabling Angus to move away from high-input farming.
“If you keep plants healthy, they can look after themselves. We don’t use any seed treatments, insecticides or plant growth regulators. And while we have a little bit of blackgrass and brome that come and go, the move to no-till and a diverse rotation has helped enormously.”
He has reduced nitrogen input on wheat from around 200kg/ha to 130kg/ha while maintaining yields and quality. “If you don’t lather nitrogen on early, you won’t get luxurious growth, you don’t get weak cells, so there’s no need for PGRs, you don’t get insect damage and you don’t get BYDV.
“We use very little synthetic fungicide – in 2020 we did use one on wheat at T2 and last year at T3, both to control yellow rust. Otherwise, we apply biological mixtures and potassium silicate to control fungal diseases.”
Variety blends are grown to improve disease resistance in cereals, currently there are eight varieties in the wheat crop and four for barley. Wheat is sold to the nearby Sedamyl processing plant for alcohol production, or elsewhere for biscuit manufacture. Target yields is 9.25t/ha across the farm. Around 60t of barley is retained for the farm’s livestock, the rest is sold as feed.
Angus, a Harper Adams graduate, worked for JSR Farms for five years before returning to the family farm in 2003. His success in transforming the system at Approach Farm in more recent years was recognised in when he was runner up in the 2018 Base UK Soil Farmer of the Year competition.
He has since set up the Green Farm Collective with five other SFoY finalists to create a network of nature-enhancing and carbon-reducing projects that investors can use to offset their environmental footprints. The intention is to start carbon trading this autumn.
Angus entered Approach Farm into mid-tier Countryside Stewardship at the start of 2021. “It’s very compatible with what I’m doing – two-yearly hedgecutting, getting paid for growing cover crops and we’ve planted a further 300m of hedges this winter. We’ve also converted some grass margins into flowering margins, and we now have 1.5ha of bumble bee mixture and 0.5ha of wild bird seed mixture.”
It fits very well with Angus’s farming philosophy. “We are farming alongside nature, not against it, using a low-input system but still achieving relatively high output, with the aim of leaving the farm in a better place than it would have been.”
“It’s one reason why I have joined the RAGT Growers Club. There is a move towards no-till, and I would like think plant breeders might well take those changing requirements into consideration when bringing new lines through. If growers can offer feedback and bring some influence to bear, that would be a good thing.”