The Aberdeenshire farms mapping out a more resilient future
Two Aberdeenshire farms which are just 20 miles apart are proving how different approaches can still achieve the same result.
Harriet Ross and Ben Lowe farm arable and pigs across three sites around their principal farmstead of Newseat of Dumbreck, near Udny. Half an hour north, near Mintlaw, Craig and Clare Grant have a mixed arable, laying hen and beef business.
While very different enterprises, their shared goal is the same: resilience. They want to take action now to help their businesses thrive long into the future.
Both farms were chosen to be part of the Resilient and Ready Programme from Corteva Agriscience, which is delivered by sustainable food and farming charity LEAF.
They are nearly two years into the three-year programme and hosted an event in October to share their progress so far.
Young farmers with big futures
Ben always wanted to be a farmer and, in 2019, he got his wish.
The day before his 30th birthday he and Harriet moved into Newseat of Dumbreck having just signed a short limited duration tenancy (SLDT) on the 400-acre former dairy farm.
Since that day the pair have not looked back and the pace of change has been rapid.
Harriet, who has an environmental degree and worked for Strutt & Parker, has this year succeeded the family farm nearby which doubled the pair’s farmed acreage.
Not content with that, they bought a 450-sow pig farm in August, which came with 200 acres of arable land, and secured an extension to their SLDT which now runs for 10 years.
Ben said: “We’re now cropping 975 acres growing winter barley, oilseed rape, wheat, spring barley and grass for an anaerobic digestor which helps us to keep grass in the rotation.
“We want to close the loop by using the pigs to make the arable business more sustainable and use the arable to make the pigs more sustainable. It’s a big learning curve.”
Working with LEAF and Corteva, the pair have access to training, consultants, measurement tools, new products and a network of advisers who are helping them identify what they have, and where they can go.
They’re already making changes – some subtle, some bolder – in order to learn more about the farm they are only just beginning to work with.
Harriet said: “We are quite a young business so it’s great to have help from the start; people to advise us and give us new ideas rather than looking back with hindsight.”
As an agent with Agrovista, Ben is keen on improving soil and has been trialling new establishment methods which allow him to keep grass in the rotation.
“A lot of arable farms have lost grass and it’s a big loss to the soil,” he said. “Giving the field a rest, applying digestate to build fertility and gaining soil structure are big benefits so we wanted to try and utilise that.”
Instead of ploughing before drilling, Ben and Harriet have been trialling drilling winter wheat into grass using a Mzuri drill. The early results are promising. The first year saw a yield uplift of 0.5t/ha when compared to a nearby field which was ploughed and combi drilled. They have drilled two further blocks using the Mzuri this autumn to see if the same result is generated.
“This didn’t cost us more money,” said Harriet. “It’s given us a yield benefit and allowed us to bring grass into the rotation to help improve the soil. We’ve done worm counts and they are higher in the Mzuri-drilled field. We’re also doing carbon audits and tracking our use of nitrogen to see what impact it’s having – maybe we can reduce our reliance on that too.
“The point is that these are small changes that we can do quite simply, and we can measure the results.”
Biodiversity is also under the microscope at Newseat. Consultant Tamsin Morris from Walking the Talk has been working with Ben and Harriet to evaluate what species they have on the farm.
Aberdeenshire is a renowned farming region and, as a result, much of it is farmed intensively.
But Tamsin explains that changes which enhance biodiversity don’t always have to come at the cost of replacing productive land.
She said: “It’s about looking at what’s on the farm – wildlife habitats and biodiversity – and looking at how you might want to change or develop that.
“Looking out across Ben and Harriet’s farm, you see a very agricultural landscape so you don’t necessarily expect to see thriving habitats, but we looked and found some interesting evidence.”
A burn at the bottom of several fields proved to be a stronghold for water vole. The grassy banks flanking the water is not common and was working to encourage the species which is otherwise declining.
“Having found the water voles it was all about finding actions which can be taken to help protect their habitat,” Tamsin said.
“We’re also looking at what we can do to help seed-eating birds such as corn buntings which are here but quite rare elsewhere.
“The plan for any farm should be to look at what’s present, think about what you can do to strengthen it, and look at your long-term objectives. Is there anything you can do to strengthen the connections of the habitats across the farm?”
Home-grown protein to displace soya
As with most livestock enterprises, any carbon footprint analysis which includes imported soya does not reflect favourably.
Craig and Claire Grant are on a mission to change that.
Over the next five years they want to cut their reliance on soya in the diet they feed their 150,000 laying hens by 50%.
That journey started this year with the first ever harvest of winter beans at Kindrought farm.
They grew 10 acres of the crop to evaluate how well it grew, what challenges it presented, and how it could be incorporated in the hens’ feed.
“We grew the beans right next to the main road so there was no hiding,” Craig said. “People were interested in what we were trying to do and it has started a lot of conversations with neighbouring farmers.”
Despite some challenges getting crop senescence, the trial went well and the 10 acres produced an average of 2t/acre. The beans have been tested and provide 25% protein.
It had one fungicide applied for chocolate spot, but had no nitrogen applied, and soil testing is underway to reveal how much has been fixed in the soil by the crop.
Claire said: “The carbon footprint of the beans is 20% of soya’s footprint, so that’s a huge advantage. Our goal is to work with neighbouring farmers to help grow enough of the crop to provide us with our protein requirement. In five years, we want half of our protein to come from local beans rather than imported soya.”
Craig returned to farming in 2008 after working as an engineer in the oil industry.
He and Claire started farming in their own right in 2010, investing in egg production with a 72,000-bird laying hen business.
They bought and rented additional land and farm about 400 acres with 150 high health status beef cattle, as well as taking on another poultry site in 2020 with an additional 76,000 laying birds. They have recently agreed to take on a further hen shed, increasing the capacity from their free range and colony birds. They currently produce one million eggs a week.
They are also looking at simple changes they can make on the farm, such as investing in different tyres for their trailers which have reduced fuel consumption. Additionally, the pair are moving to a new system to deal with their hen manure.
From this year, they will use the profit from the hen muck they sell to pay for any bought-in fertiliser, meaning no additional expenditure on artificial nitrogen – a big win in the current market.
Giles Field-Rayner, Business Development Manager for Corteva, said: “Resilient and Ready is all about sharing ideas, information and experiences with the whole farming industry and both Aberdeenshire farms
“As a seed and crop protection company, we need to know what role we can play in helping these farms. When we innovate, it must be in the right places, so it’s been great seeing how these farms are adapting for the future and what they need from businesses such as Corteva.”