Sustainable Farmer of the Year finalists revealed – Farmers Weekly

Graham McIlroy, John Pitts and George Youngs

Graham McIlroy, John Pitts and George Youngs

Our three finalists are adopting a virtuous cycle approach to their farming businesses – from improving biodiversity, protecting and harnessing their natural resources and seeking ways to be energy independent.

See also: Find out more about the Farmers Weekly Awards

Graham Mcilroy

Graham McIlroy

McIlroy’s Chickens, Coleraine, Northern Ireland

A carbon-neutral poultry enterprise has been built from scratch by Graham McIlroy on the family farm in Coleraine, County Londonderry.

The decision to diversify the mainly beef and sheep farm into poultry was made six years ago when Graham, now 27, entered the family business. The first chicken house received its first crop of birds in 2009 and was so successful that a second was erected in January 2013.

What the judges liked

  • A truly innovative and enterprising business
  • A fearless approach to new technology
  • Is a demonstration farm for fellow farmers
  • Good example of a financially sustainable business

Strong family values and advocate of poultry best practice

“I had never been in a chicken shed before – the first one was my own,” says Graham. Today, the business produces 600,000 broilers annually for Moy Park and Marks & Spencer – and was the first poultry farm in Northern Ireland to become carbon neutral.

The goal remains to produce high-welfare chicken to the highest standards and in the most environmentally friendly way. The farm is M&S Select approved and Graham also works closely with Moy Park on all aspects of production.

A third poultry house includes an internal viewing gallery, enabling fellow farmers, industry representatives and the public to visit the farm, view the birds without compromising biosecurity and learn about poultry production – one of Northern Ireland’s major agricultural industries.

A woodchip boiler installed in February 2013 reduced gas usage by 60% – a significant reduction in the cost of heating on the farm. A second biomass boiler was installed in February 2014 and all heating is now from 100% renewable energy.

Water heated by the boilers is pumped through a zero-heat-loss pipe into radiators that hang in the chicken houses. Air is recirculated inside the chicken house to save up to 15% of the initial heating cost by pulling hot air down from the ceiling and reusing it.

This new style of heating the houses has contributed to lower humidity and improved air condition – with benefits for the birds too. Hock burn average has since halved compared with the old gas system, gaining an extra £15 for every thousand birds reared.

One-third of Graham’s electricity is sourced from solar panels. Solar lights also illuminate the yard at night and lux meters in the chicken houses save electric when daylight levels are high enough. Any electricity not generated by solar is purchased from a 100% green energy tariff.

“My plan is to become totally self-sufficient with electricity use on the farm,” says Graham.

Water comes from a borehole and rainwater harvesting systems. The site uses a grass and reed-bed filtration system for cleaning roof and yard water. Plastic waste is recycled. New hedges have been planted around the farm and set-aside stubble is grown to create wildlife habitats.

Until last year, the closest source of dried woodchip for the boiler was 30 miles away. To reduce the carbon footprint from transportation, two drying floors have been installed so wet chip could be purchased locally and then dried on the farm.

“I haven’t been further than five miles for any of my chip since February,” says Graham. “I have been getting wet chip from a sawmill in Coleraine. A further source of biomass is 10.5ha of willow that is rented three miles away.”

Litter from the chicken houses is used to fertilise the willow and increase its growth. The farm also purchases and chips hedgecuttings from local farmers. To date, Graham has chipped more than 350t of hedgecuttings that would otherwise have been burnt in the fields.

Currently in the process of applying for permission to erect a 150kW wind turbine, Graham also hopes to increase solar PV output to 20kW. He is researching the viability of installing a 50kW-plus system and using an on-farm battery storage system to save any daytime excess to use at night.

“This technology to this scale isn’t in use in Northern Ireland, as far as I am aware, which makes it complicated to find installers – and even harder to find companies willing to come over here with their product for one job.”

Last month, the farm was one of 20 to open its gates to the general public and schools for Northern Ireland’s Open Farm Day.

“I took great joy in the opportunity to share and teach people about what I do here on my farm with the chickens and the renewable energy,” says Graham.

“I am continually researching ways to become more sustainable through my business, as this not only increases margins, but more importantly leaves a better world for future generations. I believe that sustainability is key to success in farming and the future of farming.”

John Pitts

John Pitts

The Woodhorn Group, Oving, West Sussex

Profitability is the first and most important cornerstone of a sustainable farm, says John Pitts, of the Woodhorn Group at Oving, near Chichester, West Sussex. But both profit and sustainability are vital for a farm in business for the long-term, he adds.

“I am a farmer,” says John. “It is in my blood and in my soul. There are many ways to farm and there is no right or wrong way – merely the way that works for you. But I have been fortunate enough to be able to explore and develop the way that works for me.”

What the judges liked

  • A multifaceted business that plays to its best assets
  • Constantly challenges the way the farm operates
  • All parts of the business are financially sustainable
  • High quality of management across all areas
  • Oozes passion, innovation and professionalism

The Pitts family have been tenants of the Church Commissioners at Woodhorn Farm since 1882. John is a fourth-generation farmer and took on the tenancy age 26 in 1990. Two disastrous harvests followed that threatened the future of the farm.

“They were largely weather related, but probably also due to inexperience and a little incompetence,” says John. “But they prompted me to create a long-term plan to develop and diversify the business so it would be less vulnerable and exposed in the future.”

At the time, the Pitts were farming conventionally with about 365ha of wheat and oilseed rape, combined with a dairy herd of 180 cows. Today, the business is certified organic and has grown to more than 600ha with 240 dairy cows.

“The single biggest change was to convert to organic production in 2000,” says John. “This decision was taken partly for personal reasons – I used to do all the spraying – but the business case had to stack up as well.”

Milk is marketed through the Organic Milk Suppliers Co-operative (Omsco). Mastitis is managed through a combination of Swiss Red genetics and sand bedding. Average yield for the autumn-calving herd is about 8,200 litres. “Good animal health and welfare is paramount – it is all about the cow at the end of the day.”

All organic crops are benchmarked against their conventional equivalent and all field operations and inputs are costed to ensure business performance is a crucial part of every decision. Much organic barley, for example, yields only 15-20% less than similar conventional crops.

Some 75ha of maize are grown, of which about 25ha are grown for silage. The rest is grain maize. One of the few farmers growing maize organically, John acknowledges that bird damage is nonetheless a serious problem.

“Because we are organic, we don’t use a seed dressing and the rooks love the seed. We employ people to scare the rooks which costs £60-75/ha. It sounds a lot, but if you were a conventional farmer you wouldn’t question spending that sort of money on sprays.”

A major farm diversification involves green and wood waste recycling. The farm now operates two recycling sites with a total capacity of 100,000t annually. Compost was initially spread on farmland, but has led to the development of the farm’s own Earth Cycle brand of compost and soils.

“This includes our ‘cow compost’ from the dairy herd. We are very close to the market and our customers range from farmers, gardeners and the horticultural industry to local authorities, highways, golf courses and football clubs.”

Teamwork and staff development are seen as key, with individual training programmes and one-to-one appraisals. Employees and their families are invited to an annual barbecue and social events are held throughout the year.

The business also seeks to benefit the wider local community. A football pitch was built on the farm a few years ago in response to a lack of facilities for young people. It is used by two under-12 and under-11 mixed teams from neighbouring villages.

Sheep graze below solar-PV panels that form a 5MW ground-based installation across 14ha. “We are producing food, energy and for the environment. It makes sense to me and it makes sense to people locally, too. When we applied for permission, we had 50 letters of support and only two against.”

The organic system effectively turns the farm into a very large conservation scheme, says John. “This is not to say that equal levels of biodiversity cannot be achieved conventionally – they can. This is just our way of doing the same.”

Farming remains at the core of all enterprises. “It is farming that has made everything else possible – including the composting and the solar panels. And when your head is spinning at the end of a busy day, there is nothing better than walking through a field of cows.”

George Young

George Youngs

Bernard Matthews, Great Witchingham, Norfolk

Britain’s biggest turkey producer believes it has an important role to play in preserving and protecting the environment – and has embarked on a comprehensive energy-efficiency programme that stretches across its 56 farms and factories.

Dubbed the Big Green Plan, the energy strategy aims to reduce water use and reliance on fossil fuels, becoming 100% self-sufficient in renewable green energy by 2016 and reducing carbon emissions by 35% before 2020.

What the judges liked

  • A genuine commitment to carbon dioxide reduction
  • On target to be 100% supplied by renewables by 2020
  • Major employer with strong community links
  • Willingness to invest in state-of-the-art technology
  • Encourages staff involvement in company decisions

To deliver this ambitious target, the company has rolled out 229 biomass boilers across 30 of its farms in Norfolk, Suffolk and Lincolnshire. It has also erected nine large-scale wind turbines and 38ha of solar panels installed on farm locations across East Anglia.

“Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and improving our energy efficiency will ultimately enable us to reduce costs as a business – helping towards profitability,” says George Youngs, the company’s commercial manager for green energy.

“We have deliberately targeted a set of sustainability projects that have all taken time to develop, fund and deliver. We are just beginning to see meaningful financial benefits now – and these will grow in the coming three years.”

Although recent falls in oil prices have reduced financial savings from the biomass boilers, the greatest benefit has been in conditions for livestock inside the sheds. A corresponding reduction in carbon dioxide has allowed the company to reconfigure its ventilation strategy.

“Because biomass produces a dry heat, there is no condensation, which you get with direct burning of gas in sheds. This has significantly reduced wet litter, and bedding top-ups per flock have fallen 30% from 600 bales of straw and wood shavings to about 400 bales.”

A new ventilation system has seen eight-stage slats introduced to replace four-stage systems, giving a fuel saving of about 0.6p/kg of turkey for processing. Performance has been further improved by replacing bell drinkers with nipple drinkers, leading to a 2% improvement in feed conversion ratio.

Production and performance across all farms is carefully monitored, including hen and egg fertility, hatchery performance, feed conversion ratio, flock mortality, as well as bedding material use, gas and electricity, feed mill operations and finance.

Each wind turbine generates 2.3MW of electricity. Four have already been erected, with the additional five to be completed by this summer. “The goal is to make the most of our land and other assets, creating a sustainable business with renewable energy at its core,” says George.

All turkey litter is recycled as a crop fertiliser or as fuel for a local power station. In the future, Bernard Matthews hopes to get the green light to burn 10,000t of turkey litter in biomass boilers, generating heat, replacing LPG and removing up to 500 lorry journeys from the roads.

A business that markets 1.6 million turkeys between November and Christmas Day alone means Bernard Matthews is a major wheat buyer, supporting other local businesses by purchasing 160,000t of grain annually from Norfolk and Suffolk farms to use as animal feed.

A £4.2m anaerobic digestion plant generates power from 29,000t of factory waste annually. “It provides sustainable power for our factory and also offsets 1,600 lorry movements previously used to dispose of the waste,” says George.

Biodiversity is an important part of farm management. All farmers manage and monitor biodiversity projects on their farms based on five key initiatives: dead hedging, dead wood habitats, nest boxes, bug boxes and wildflower patches.

A staff resource efficiency group comprises employees at all levels from the farms. They meet quarterly to review how the business can reduce water, electricity and gas use – from simple ideas such as putting bricks in toilet cisterns to redesigning air inlets to reduce demand on fans.

“By making our staff instrumental in forming ideas and taking on initiatives, we are able to build a strong, inclusive and united team – even though they work on sites that stretch from Louth in Lincolnshire to Beccles in Suffolk.”

The company takes its wider social responsibility seriously, too. A major local employer, it sends 10 of its up-and-coming managers to act as mentors to pupils in local schools – helping students organise their revision and homework, as well as lending an ear to “problem” pupils.

“One of the benefits of having farms across such a wide area is that there are lots of communities we can get involved with,” says George. “It is also a way of promoting agriculture and showing local people that they can stay in Norfolk and have a career in farming.”

Sustainable Farmer of the Year is sponsored by Bridgestone.

Bridgestone logo

“These three finalists have profitable farming at their core – but they are also protecting and harnessing natural resources, while improving biodiversity and working hard for the benefit of local communities”

Steve Hewitt

Product manager


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