Soil Farmer of the Year 2023 goes to Stuart Johnson

Northumberland’s Stuart Johnson has been named Soil Farmer of the Year 2023 after changing his intensive system to use livestock to build soil fertility to benefit cereal crops.

The system change was made for financial reasons over a decade ago, as the family farm was using more and more inputs to get the same returns.

The switch to a more resilient model saw fertiliser use fall and concentrate feed dwindle.

See also: How Hampshire grower became Soil Farmer of the Year 

The farm started the move in 2012, with a rotation of five years of legume-based, herb-rich swards, and then two years of winter cereals, which has helped build resilience into the farm’s soils.

“Livestock is crucial to building fertility in the soils which allow us to grow two years of cereals,” he tells Farmers Weekly at an awards presentation at Groundswell 2023 in Hertfordshire.

Mixed farm

Stuart farms with his mother, father and brother at the tenanted 216ha farm at West Wharmley, just north-west of Hexham, stretching from light land by the River South Tyne to heavier higher fell land.

The farm is stocked with 170 suckler cows with progeny sold as six-month-old weaned calves, and 800 breeding ewes.

Cows graze permanent pastures until January, then housed only until they are back outside in March.

With usually no concentrates fed on the farm and little straw needed for two months of cattle winter housing, there is less need for cereal crops, so the arable area has shrunk from 80ha to 32ha. 

Input levels have dropped with annual fertiliser use falling from 90t in 2012 down to 9t currently, and no fungicides have been used on winter wheats for the past four years.

Welsh grower

Second in the competition is Welsh grower Richard Anthony.

His 1,200ha Tythegston Farm, midway between Bridgend and Porthcawl near the south Wales coast, grows arable crops and is stocked with 800 ewes.

Richard uses direct drilling and minimum tillage to establish crops with lots of cover crops grown.

He brings 3,000-4,000 extra sheep onto the farm to graze the cover crops and winter wheat over the winter months, and his soil’s organic matter has risen by 0.2% a year.

“We are looking to keep crops in the ground all the year to improve the soil’s organic matter,” he says.

Third in the competition is Bronagh O’Kane of Drumard Farm, just outside Cookstown, County Tyrone in Northern Ireland.

Bronagh farms sucker cows, sheep and no arable, and has been keen to build up worm numbers on the farm’s often water-logged soils.

The Soil Farmer of the Year competition, now in its eighth year, is organised by the Farm Carbon Toolkit and Innovation for Agriculture – a consortium of English agricultural societies.

It is sponsored by agronomy group Hutchinsons and Cotswold Grass Seeds.

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