Implementing regenerative agriculture principles across 14,000ha is a central component of Dyson Farming’s long-term circular farming model, as it produces high-quality food with minimal environmental impact.
The plan has been to employ as many of the five regenerative principles as possible to improve soil health and build resilience, while recognising that some measures can’t be introduced immediately.
As a result, the approach taken looks different on all the farms, emphasising that it is not about being right or wrong, but making best use of resources and matching them to soil conditions.
“There’s lots of opportunity,” says research agronomist Tom Storr.
“But with such a range of soil types across Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, as well as very varied cropping, there are also considerable challenges.”
Five regenerative principles
- Minimise soil disturbance
- Keep the soil surface covered
- Keep living roots in the soil
- Include crop diversity
- Integrate livestock
As part of this commitment and despite growing potatoes and sugar beet on its farms in Lincolnshire, the entire Dyson Farming business entered the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) intermediate soils standard, worth £40/ha, when it was open.
“Having green cover on 70% of the land over winter was the aspirational bit,” says Tom.
That standard is no longer available under SFI 2023, so he will have to take another look at what’s on offer.
“We already grow cover and catch crops, make use of living understoreys and include companion crops, so we will expand these practices when and where it’s appropriate.”
Already, there have been lessons learned, he adds. “We’ve been tracking lots of data, so we have some idea about what’s working and what isn’t, with plenty more still to understand.
“Catch crops don’t succeed everywhere, particularly on heavy soils, for example, as following wheat yields suffer, while seed rates and drilling dates have to be spot on with cover crops.”
There is no set rotation in place at any of the Dyson Farming locations, he reveals, but some cropping choices are changing as the business considers what will be expected of it in the future.
In Lincolnshire, where the company has two main sites, Nocton and Carrington, there is a 45% bias towards winter wheat and oilseed rape, with forage maize being grown for an anaerobic digestion (AD) plant.
There are also root crops and other forages, as well as a 12ha agroforestry site.
Around two-thirds of this land receives some sort of disturbance, Tom points out.
“We’re still moving a lot of soil, but it is coming down. There’s no denying that potatoes make being regenerative more challenging, especially when it comes to soil disturbance.”
Trials are helping to pinpoint which operations can be dropped and how the potatoes can have less of an impact, but there is a balance to be achieved so that yields and quality don’t suffer, he stresses.
Another solution has been to replace some of the forage maize with an oats/vetch mix, which also goes to the AD plant but is less demanding on the soil and has an inherent fertility benefit.
In Gloucestershire, winter barley and beans are included in the rotation and a mixed cultivations system is in place, while the Oxfordshire farms runs a 12m controlled traffic farming (CTF) system on its easy-working soils.
“The rotation and the cultivations system in place varies with soil type, as you would expect. Each of the regenerative principles makes a contribution, as we keep moving forward.”
Potato production – plan of action
- Cut number of machinery passes
- Reduce intensity of passes
- Lift in best conditions, where possible
- Maintain yield and quality
There has been more success with the aim of keeping the soil covered, he says.
“We are trying several things, from establishing a clover understorey in cereals to including companion crops and retaining chopped straw.
“Catch and cover crops have a place with this aim, as does the shift in our cropping.”
In the same vein, keeping living roots in the soil is being supported by growing cover and catch crops.
An Anglian Water trials site on the Lincolnshire farm, looking at 19 cover crop species and four different mixes, has been helpful in refining seed rates and understanding more about the best establishment conditions.
“We’re getting there,” acknowledges Tom. “There are a number of factors to get right.”
Otherwise, livestock integration is ongoing. There are 5,000 sheep in Lincolnshire, grazing cover crops, leys and permanent pasture, but not many on the Carrington site, as the high-magnesium soils are prone to poaching.
Herbal leys are grazed very hard and then brought back into arable production by direct drilling.
Organic manures are used to reduce synthetic nitrogen applications, while soil organic matter levels are being monitored
Overall, livestock integration is running at 27% in Oxfordshire, 24% in Gloucestershire and 23% at Nocton, with Carrington at just 3.5%.
An integrated system that addresses biodiversity, habitat and the provision of public goods is behind Dyson Farming’s approach to environmental protection.
As Ian Willoughby, the company’s environmental co-ordinator, explains, management decisions are based on the results of detailed monitoring, so that the right measures are put in place.
A good example of this in practice is with yellow wagtails, which are ground-nesting and prefer an open landscape typical of some farmland, he explains.
“By keeping track of birds, pollinators and water quality, we know what our impact is,” he says.
“Bird surveys are done at migration and in the spring, while monitors placed in our field margins give us pollinator activity information.”
There are 250ha of margins in Lincolnshire, he reveals, as well as 111 owl and kestrel boxes.
There are also three Mid-Tier Countryside Stewardship schemes and two Higher-Level Stewardship schemes operating, as well as the intermediate Sustainable Farming Incentive soils standard.
The value of existing agri-environment schemes has to be considered as Environmental Land Management becomes a reality and more detail is revealed, adds Ian, with private funding options also being assessed.
“We are having positive conversations with partner organisations and we are also in a facilitation fund with five other businesses in Lincolnshire, covering 15,000ha and making changes at scale.”
Woodland is managed under a 10-year plan and is now covering its cost.
Water is monitored for nitrogen and phosphorus across six locations, to understand if any spikes seen come from farming practice or are due to cross-contamination from housing.
A diverse range of land types growing both food and energy crops across 14,000ha, along with property and leisure divisions and a knowledge provision arm, make up Dyson Farming.
Started in 2012, it now spans east and west Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire and employs 170 people.
It looks after 1,300ha of environmental stewardship features – including 390,000m of hedgerows, 11,700 trees and 250,000m of watercourses.
Energy is generated at its Lincolnshire-based anaerobic digestion plant, which powers more than 10,000 homes.
The waste heat is used in the company’s 6ha glasshouse, which produce strawberries for Marks & Spencer, while the digestate goes back onto the land in a circular farming system.
With seven people on the Dyson Farming Research team, the output from this division underpins every decision and is shared with 150 farmer subscribers, who attend technical meetings and field days.
Increasingly, technology is playing a key role – from reducing agrochemical applications by 90% to the more effective storage and spreading of digestate, helping with synthetic nitrogen fertiliser reductions.
Farmers Weekly was talking to Dyson Farming on a recent Base-UK visit.