The combination of bespoke machinery with a focus on soil health, a small anaerobic digestion unit and changing cattle breeds is helping one Norfolk farm to improve its sustainability. Alex Heath finds out more.
Farming in North Norfolk, Stephen Temple of J.F. Temple and Son says having a sustainable and regenerative view on farming practices has led to each enterprise on the 230-hectare mixed farm becoming more efficient by working together.
The bulk of the farming operations at Copys Green Farm revolves around a 130-cow Brown Swiss herd, with a third of milk destined for the farm’s cheesemaking enterprise marketed as Mrs Temple’s Cheese, as well as an anaerobic digester (AD), producing 170kW of electrical and 198kW of thermal energy through a combined heat and power unit (CHP).
The milking herd calves year round to Brown Swiss female sexed semen on the best animals and British Blue semen on the rest.
Mr Temple says the Brown Swiss is favoured for lower inputs, such as making better use of homegrown forage and more resilience to challenges and the quality of milk. The herd averages 7,500 litres per year with 4.16 per cent butterfat and 3.49 per cent protein. Cows are housed during the winter and fed a total mixed ration of home-produced maize, lucerne and grass silages, while in the grazing months, nutrient requirements are topped up with concentrates fed in the parlour. Purchased feed costs average 5.7 pence per litre.
Mr Temple says: “Crucially for cheese making, the Brown Swiss cows have a higher chance of producing beta kappa casein proteins that gives a 10 per cent higher cheese yield unlike the Holstein herd that comprised the bulk of the herd at Copys Green Farm prior to 2013.”
Gas from the AD is piped to the CHP, which is based on a MAN six-cylinder engine that was strategically placed nearest to areas of the farm where heat demand is the greatest.
“Heat recovered from the engine is used throughout the farm, maintaining the AD temperature, heating the farmhouse, worker’s cottages and the cheese processing as well as drying grain in the summer, when domestic demand is lower. It is also used for heating the parlour wash water and drinking water for the cows, increasing intake,” he says.
The predominant feed stock for all enterprises is maize.
“The cows are fed on the crops grown on-farm. All slurry and muck from the cows, about seven tonnes per day, goes into the digester. In addition, about 8t of maize silage also goes in. We can keep the best of the maize silage for the cows, with the tops and sides of the clamps going into the digester,” he says.
Each year more than 100ha of maize is grown on-farm, and for the last 10 years Mr Temple has been looking at ways to reduce the environmental cost of growing the crop.
With a background in engineering, he is not averse to building and modifying existing kit to make it work.
“We farm sandy soils over chalk, with a large flint content. We have to be careful to conserve moisture and nutrients in the soil, but maize is a crop that needs a good seed bed and no compaction in the rooting zone to grow well. Previously, we would plough, power harrow then drill, however, it is a costly way of growing a crop, from a soil health point of view, but also in labour, fuel and wearing metal,” says Mr Temple.
“I saw sugar beet and oilseed rape being established with strip-till in 2011, which sparked my interest in trying to grow maize this way, being one of our main crops.
“We now have a system that is comparable in yield to a plough based system, but is a one pass operation and better for the soil and the environment, as nitrous oxide is not being released from turned over soil.”
Over the years, the planting system has been adapted to what it is today, with plenty of workshop modifications.
At the front is a French-built Duro subsoiler, chosen for its compact dimensions and piggyback mechanism, allowing the planter to be adjusted independently. Four J.J. Metcalfe legs are used, spaced 750mm apart.
When it arrived on-farm, a set of wavy discs were responsible for creating tilth, however, Mr Temple says these did not always do a sufficient job for planting the maize seed into. After five seasons of using the original system, Mr Temple sought an answer to the tilth issue that would give consistent results regardless of soil conditions.
“We needed to break down the soil more in each slot, leading us to a rotovator. We took a 60-inch wide Howard rotovator and extended it out on both sides using old irrigation borehole pipe, allowing it to work at three metres. “Because we want to move the soil just behind the leg, we removed all the rotor blades, except those that are directly behind the leg. Four blades now work behind each leg.”
At the rear of the machine is a Monosem planter, with hydraulic driven fan.
Mr Temple says the unit can cover about 1ha per hour, operating at speeds upwards of 3.5kph, depending on how aggressively the soil needs breaking down, while consuming about 18 litres/ hour. The legs typically operate at a depth of 300mm while the rotovator works at 100 to 125mm deep.
Blades on the rotovator have to be changed after about 80ha as the worked zone becomes too narrow for the planter’s depth wheels, which then ride on the harder unworked area, meaning the planter is working too shallow.
Not content with establishing the maize in a more environmentally friendly way, Mr Temple uses cover crops to ensure the soil is always working. He is currently trialling different species to determine which has the best effect on the soil’s biology and structure.
Cover crops are desiccated just prior to planting. In addition, this year he is trialling growing climbing beans as a companion to the maize, with the hope the protein content of the forage increases.
Overall, Mr Temple has been happy with the results of workshop created strip-till planter, leading him to look at the farm’s other crop establishment methods.
The arable side of the business has also moved to a low disturbance establishment method, with the use of Weaving’s GD and Sabre Tine drills. The latter is a new addition to the farm, which Mr Temple hopes will have lower running costs than the disc version on his harsh soils.
The farm also grows 20ha of lucerne, a crop that is very beneficial to the farm’s philosophy, says Mr Temple, reducing the requirement for bought-in protein.
“The carbon budget of lucerne is the best for all the crops we grow on-farm. It is harvested between three and five times per year, with just one application of herbicide per year. It stays in the ground for four years, all the time capturing nitrogen and building soil fertility.
"Compared to beet which used to be a mainstay on the farm, it is night and day on the carbon budgets, so we rarely grow beet anymore. Maize sits between the two, but has a high energy yield and can be grown in a low impact way,” he says.
While lucerne used to be baled, Mr Temple is conscious of the farm’s plastic usage. Instead, it is now clamped, reducing the need for difficult to recycle wrap and net. Likewise, washable udder cloths are now used in the parlour, rather than disposable wipes.
Digestate from the AD is used throughout the farm, with solids being transported to the furthest fields and liquids staying around the homestead.
A trailing shoe is used for precise placement and reduction in ammonia losses, although in the future, Mr Temple says he would like to inject digestate into the ground and plant into the slot created, but RTK steering is needed for this. A lagoon in the centre of one of the main blocks of land has been built as extra storage, near to where it needs applying. It is pumped to the lagoon using the farm’s underground irrigation main, using an electric pump powered by the AD.
Previously diesel irrigation pumps would have been used, but the farm is now converting to electrical power where possible.
Farm vehicles have been swapped for electric derivatives, while the farm also runs an electric John Deere Gator, more commonly found on golf courses, but adapted to farm life with a galvanised chassis. An electric loader is also on-farm, which was intended to be used for scraping out the cows, however, it does not have a driven front axle, something Mr Temple is keen to remedy in the workshop.
“I now consider myself a farmer of microbes. Every facet of the farm now relies on microbes to make us profitable; the silage, the cows’ guts, the digester, the cheese making and most importantly the soil.
“By reducing the amount of tillage we are doing, the soils are healthier and more resilient. The strip-till planter is just one piece of the puzzle, but an important one. It is quicker than a traditional three pass planting system, kinder to the ground and ultimately better for our future and our bottom line.
“In addition, we are looking at every part of the business, to make it more sustainable and profitable. Each element of the farm compliments another, benefiting each enterprise and the farm, the land and the environment as a whole,” adds Mr Temple.