Beef cattle help improve soil health on Nottinghamshire arable farm

Nottinghamshire farmer Trevor Needham is successfully using beef cattle to improve the health of his hungry sandland soils, lifting cereal yields in the process.

Bringing grass leys into the rotation has resulted in valuable savings in fertiliser use over the 1,800ha that Mr Needham farms, producing high-value carrots as well as cereals, oilseed rape, sugar beet and permanent pasture.

Mr Needham, general farm manager for the Howard Farms business based at Little Morton Farm, near Retford, explains why having such healthy soils is important to the farm.

“Without good soil profiles, profits will be hard to achieve and being a sandland farm, we’re very conscious of having damaged soil structures through irrigation and root cropping,” he says.

The inclusion of cattle began in 2003 and by 2012, they became integral to the arable rotation. Now more than 1,400 cattle are deployed, including followers, fatteners and a suckler herd of 400.

Farm Facts

  • Area: 1,821ha
  • Principal crop is carrots. Other crops grown are winter wheat, winter barley, spring barley, oilseed rape, sugar beet, rotational grass and permanent pasture
  • 20 full-time employees
  • Fifth generation of Howard family now farming at Little Morton Farm
  • Home to 23 John Deere tractors

Where grass leys have been introduced into the arable rotations, there has been a significant rise in earthworm numbers and improvement in soil structure, especially from the second year onwards.

Why cattle?

Mr Needham says the whole farm is now in HLS (High Level Stewardship) environmental agreements and that cattle had seemed the most suitable option for improving soil health.

“We’ve looked at other options, but we don’t feel sheep bring tremendous benefits, in terms of grass growth, as they tend to overgraze,” he says.

“For small animals, they can do a tremendous amount of damage on a long-term pasture, whereas cattle are far gentler with the grass. We use short rotation paddock grazing so the grasses remain strong and robust. They just fit all systems that we want at the moment.”

Rotations

The most profitable crop grown on the farm is carrots. Howard Farms is a major player in the UK carrot industry, focusing on the Chantenay brand.

It functions in a one-in-eight to one-in-ten-year rotation, depending on rental and stewardship requirements.

In between carrot crops, the focus is on putting nutrition and structure back into the soil, allowing it more time to recover, to give the next crop of carrots a stronger chance of producing profitable yields.

“Normally we’re working on a three- to four-year grass ley period and we’re pretty confident that will sort out any grassweed problems,” he says. “Ideally, we’ll tend to grow two straw crops, prior to the carrots,” he says.

Farmer Trevor Needham

Advantages

Mr Needham says he believes cereal yield have probably risen by up to 2.5t/ha since cattle arrived on the farm. He also highlights further benefits of using less bagged fertiliser and utilising organic manure produced by the cattle.

Pros

  • Soil health improvement
  • Ability to stretch the rotation
  • Utilises labour better during winter, as staff are given stock duties (feeding, fencing etc)

Cons

  •  When they get out of fields!
  • Often receive noise and smell complaints from public and there’s also a danger of animals escaping on to fast moving roads
  •  Through HLS, the requirements mean you can’t always do the things you want to, to move the business forward

The cattle create 500-600t of manure each year, with a further 1,000t of pig manure bought in annually. Being able able to spread it across the land has helped to make the soils more resilient, and has reduced the use of inorganic fertilisers.

Previously, sugar beet grown on the light land at Little Morton would suffer from a drought period in August, but since applying manure in front of crops, droughts have been avoided as the manure helps the soil retain moisture.

Mr Needham admits that one of the biggest problems with organic manure is the transport cost and that application is not as even across fields, compared with a fertiliser spreader.

Setting-up costs

Cost is a key factor that will put many growers off the idea of introducing livestock on to their land, with funds needed for items such as fencing, feeding and supplying water to each field.

Mr Needham says the HLS schemes helped with the set-up costs, providing subsidies towards all the water pipes, troughs and fencing, although he highlights that enterprises need to stand on their own feet and not rely on subsidies.

He has been able to introduce catch crops, based on cereal/legume mixes, to provide a late autumn bite for the cattle and keep growing plants to help improve soil structure rather than leaving bare stubble.

Mike Green, environmental stewardship manager for the agrochemicals giant BASF, believes the Howards Farm business has been successful in introducing cattle and sees environmental schemes, such as HLS, as important to farmers.

“Trevor has looked at the primary crop, carrots, and the barriers for making it more successful, realising that both the fertility and structure of soils needed improving. They’ve decided to bring in cattle and I think they’ve done a pretty good job,” he says.

“It’s important not to enter them solely for the extra money and subsidies, but instead focus on the long-term effects to your business and how a new enterprise will fit in to your current farming strategy,” Mr Green says.