How two arable farms are tackling soil health to protect business

Big changes have been made to the cropping systems at two farms in Berkshire and Bedfordshire, which aim to future-proof their arable businesses.

Both are tackling soil health with the eventual goal of direct drilling.

While the Berkshire farm is 12 years into its journey and is starting to see costs come down, the Bedfordshire light land farm is only starting out.

Farmers Weekly visits both farms to see their progress.

See also: Farmers reveal results of combine weed seed destroyer trial

Randall Farms, Berkshire

Farm facts

  • Area 320ha
  • Soil Medium clay loam
  • Cropping Six-year rotation of both milling and feed winter wheat, oilseed rape, spring oats and spring beans
Vetch at Randall Farms

© Ceres Rural

Having changed the arable system at Randall Farms in Berkshire back in 2011, Andrew Randall is already seeing the benefits that a wider rotation, reduced cultivations and greater diversity can bring.

Farming 320ha of owned and tenanted land, Mr Randall has a six-year rotation of both milling and feed winter wheat, oilseed rape, spring oats and spring beans, with multispecies cover crops grown ahead of spring crops.

Apart from the disastrous 2012 year, when the weather had dire consequences for most arable farms, yields have been maintained and costs have started to come down.

He believes there is scope for them to reduce even further as the system matures.

His starting point over 10 years ago was the decision to go no-till wherever possible, which led to purchasing a tine drill and a disc drill.

With the flexibility to drill according to the conditions, both soil health and function have improved. This has been helped by his strategy of having a living root in the ground and keeping the soil covered.

Along with the use of chopped straw and biosolids, the cover crops have helped to add organic matter, boost soil function and get nutrient cycling working well.

This provides the additional diversity and rooting profile that a regenerative system needs.  

As a result, the medium clay loam soils at Hyde Farm are in good condition, with more than 2t/ha of carbon being sequestered by the farming approach.

The first financial rewards are expected in spring 2023, due to the trading of carbon credits with Soil Capital.

Multispecies cover crops, Randall Farms

© Ceres Rural

Nitrogen use

Mr Randall is now looking at nitrogen use, which he hopes to bring down, and is working with his agronomist, Alice Andrews of Ceres Rural, towards this goal.

The current focus is to determine the potential of wheat to utilise nitrogen, ensuring he is not applying more than can be physically taken up by the crop.

He is also looking at the role cover crops play in this approach. “We know that nutrients are caught and held by the cover crops, so I would like to be bolder with nitrogen use in the following spring crop,” he says.

“Our spring oats usually get 120kg/ha of nitrogen, but our trials are showing that this could be reduced.”

Cover crop mixes are home-made and cost about £25-£35/ha. This year, they consist of sunflowers, linseed, vetch, buckwheat and peas, and weren’t drilled until early September.

“It was too dry in August, when I had planned to drill them, to guarantee success. So we waited for some rain before going ahead – fortunately they have flourished in the very mild temperatures that we’ve had ever since.”


Sheep are used to graze the cover crops, with the disc drill used for the following spring crop, without evidence of any poaching-inflicted soil damage.

“We did roll some cover crops in the frost last year, at -5C, which did a really good job and gave us 95-97% kill, which is going to help reduce our glyphosate use,” says Mr Randall.

Slugs have created some issues and slug pellets are used routinely, he admits. “We also double-roll and make use of straw-raking, to help disrupt their life cycle.”

Blackgrass levels are low, but there has been an increase in bromes since the switch to direct drilling, which requires action with spring herbicides due to their extended germination period.

A very simple Countryside Stewardship scheme is in place on 11ha and the Sustainable Farming Incentive will be finalised once the cover cropping management implications have been fully thought through.

Additional income streams at Randall Farms come from diversification activities, including renewable energy, property, alternative land use and storage.

Childerditch Farms, Bedfordshire

Farm facts

  • Area 440ha
  • Soil Light land
  • Cropping Winter wheat, winter barley, oilseed rape and winter beans spring oats and peas
Light soils at Beckerings Park

© Ceres Rural

Taking on a new 440ha light land farm in Bedfordshire last year has given grower Charles Ford the focus of future-proofing the business, so that it is less susceptible to increasingly unpredictable weather.

To do this, he is starting with soil health and plans to introduce direct drilling at Beckerings Park, having already reduced cultivations on another holding in Essex and seen the financial and environmental benefits of doing so.

“Our aim is to build better soil structure and increase its organic matter content, so that we give direct drilling the best chance of success and increase the water holding capacity of the land – something we will need to do for spring cropping.”

Soil moisture

Retaining soil moisture will be important, especially on the land he describes as bottomless sand, which has grown a range of vegetable and flower crops under previous owners and is very susceptible to drought.

His experience in Essex has shown him that yields don’t have to dip and that improvements in soil can be seen fairly quickly.

Both organic matter and earthworm numbers are up where no-till is being used with a supporting rotation.

Working with Jock Willmott of Ceres Rural, the current Farmers Weekly Arable Adviser of the Year, the rotation is deliberately being kept flexible while they get to know the land better and build some soil stability.

“Some of it is very light, but it is also very variable,” reports Mr Ford.

“There is a reservoir at one end of the farm, with a capacity of 21m gallons, which sustains 20-25ha of onions on some land that we let as well as some of the arable crops.”

On the lightest land, it is unlikely that two wheats will work, says Mr Willmott, who notes that winter wheat, winter barley, oilseed rape and winter beans are already in the ground and will be joined by oats and peas in the spring.

“We’ve got different manures available locally, including composts,” he adds.

“We will mix and match these, as required, and make good use of cover crops to prevent the land slumping over the winter and to retain nutrients.”

Cover crops

Decisions about cover crop composition are ongoing.

The use of a contractor for autumn fieldwork this year is allowing them to compare the use of different drills and row widths, to see how establishment and subsequent agronomy is affected.

Chopped straw will also help to increase soil organic matter levels, although some will leave the farm in a straw-for-muck deal.

“With no-till, our aim is to drill as early as possible,” says Mr Ford. “We are fighting some blackgrass here, so that has a bearing on timings and operations.”

Otherwise the farm has diversified into property and commercial lets, with a wide portfolio of residential and industrial units, while a local angling club has a licence for the reservoir.

There is also a renowned shoot on the farm.

Both farmers were speaking at the recent Ceres Rural “On the Farm” events.

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This article forms part of Farmers Weekly’s Transition series, which looks at how farmers can make their businesses more financially and environmentally sustainable.

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