How a Herefordshire mixed farmer won Soil Farmer of the Year

The farming system at Boycefield didn’t just tick all the judges’ boxes when looking for Land Farmer of the Year.

It ticks all the boxes when it comes to reducing inputs and costs in farming and livestock businesses.

At the Herefordshire farm, a focus on healthier soil has led to healthier animals, reduced intervention and concentrates, no pasture is fertilized and the grazing season is extended.

See also: How the winning mixed soil farmer cut his cropland

A central part of the regenerative system led by Billy Lewis is the integration of livestock and agricultural production.

This led to an improvement in grain yield, and the amount of fertilizer applied to farmland was halved.

“You’ll grow more grass with an electric fence than with a bag of fertiliser,” says Mr Lewis, who farms with his parents James and Jean.

The first change Mr. Lewis, 25, made after returning to the family farm from Harper Adams University was a grass grazing system.

Cattle and sheep are grazed in groups on the principle of grazing one-third, trampling one-third, leaving one-third.

“It works to keep the soil, plant and animal happy,” he explains.

Herbaceous plants in crop rotation

Cropland is a six-year rotation – three years of grain production, three years of alfalfa and herbage production.

As well as making the soil more productive, these varied showers keep the farm’s 300 breeding ewes well grazed and have allowed Mr Lewis to drastically reduce the use of protein supplements and worms.

Farm facts

  • 142ha (350 acres) mixed farm with beef, sheep and arable land
  • 300 head herd – Cheviot Mules crossed with Charollais and pure Cheviots crossed with Border Leicesters to produce Half Breds or Bluefaced Leicesters to produce a Cheviot Mule.
  • Lambs are sold ready-made or as stalls at the market
  • A herd of 40 breeding horned Herefords sold privately or for breeding at stud shows/sales or ready for market sale, usually R3 or R4

Grass meadows are harvested at a density of 300 heads per 0.4 ha. This is equivalent to 100 sheep and 200 lambs.

Pastures are free of worm problems in their first year and are returned to cropland when the worm load develops.

“I think the longer swath they graze on also helps because they’re not grazing in the parasite zone,” Mr Lewis said.

Some of these feathers are GS4 selections under the Mid-Level Agriculture Directorate, which include a mixture of white and red clover, chicory, plantain, esfort, bird’s-foot wood and grasses.

Others are a simpler mix of rye, white clover, vetch and plantain that is ensiled as winter forage for cattle.

Sheep enter cover at about 3500 kg dry matter (DM)/ha and aim to leave at 2000 kg DM/ha.

This sees them moving every 48 hours with a 25 day rest period for each paddock.

Despite this year’s drought, single lambs gained an average of 350 g/day from birth to slaughter, and doubles 310 g/day.

© Billy Lewis

In previous years those lambs could be seen creep fed, but only the last 25% of lambs still on the farm were offered creep this year.

At the same time, replacement sheep overwinter in cover crops.

“Cover crops have to be balanced – they have to provide decent forage, so we include forage rapa, cabbage and mustard – but they [also] you need to work for the health of the soil [with] fig and clover [used to] to fix nitrogen,” Mr Lewis explains.

To help reduce the need for ewes to supplement, lambing dates have been pushed back to late March to coincide with the switch to wet spring grass.

Cattle grazing

A herd of 40 breeding Herefords is mainly grazed in the permanent pasture.

Mr Lewis had previously tried the leader-follower system, with the cattle following the sheep, but now tends to keep the ewes and lambs in the temporary pen, and the cattle and dry sheep in the permanent pasture.

Cattle enter pastures at 4000 kg DM/ha and graze up to 2500 kg DM/ha at a stocking density of 40 head per 0.4 ha.

In a longer rotation, paddocks have 50 days off.

This period of rest encouraged the emergence of new species from the natural seed bed, such as native alfalfa, plantain, sorrel and bird’s-foot tree.

“This will happen in three years, who knows what we will see in another three years.

“With high-intensity mass grazing, there’s competition for what they can get, so there’s no selective grazing, which would have resulted in the death of plants from the sword in the past,” says Mr Lewis.

Heifers are finished on forage only at 22 months of age, and bulls are taken at 15.5 months and fed on plant-based silage, home-grown oats and protein supplement.

This year, grass was closed in late spring for deferred grazing for cattle. The goal was to extend pastures to December and reduce housing to 90 days.

But a lack of rain meant paddocks were brought back into rotation in August. But the collected silage was not delivered until October.

The use of worms in the herd has also been reduced, young animals are wormed only in the habitat and if necessary in the winter.

Throwing worms into the grass has made dung beetles a more common sight on the farm.

To simplify beef management, Mr Lewis wants to switch from split-block calves to spring calves. He hopes it will make better use of the grass.

Measuring soil health

Mr Lewis uses Soilmentor and what3words to make sure he picks the same spots. The four tests it looks at are:

  • The number of earthworms indicates the biological health of the soil
  • A creep (wet aggregate stability) test that looks at how well soil holds together in water. It shows the composition of organic matter and microorganisms
  • The rooting depth reached 80% of the roots. Limiting factors include crowding and lack of food
  • Rhizosheaths (soil particles covering the roots). This indicates biological/microbial activity in the root zone (rhizosphere).

“Rhizosheaths are important in my opinion. It shows how plants interact with the soil. If there’s a lot of soil stuck to the roots, that’s a good sign,” says Mr Lewis.

However, he says numbers aren’t everything.

“You can measure all you want, but the more you dig into the ground, the more you feel.”

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