Soil-boosting trial takes farm 'back to the future'

Sheep grazing on clover mixes at the Holkham Estate

Sheep grazing on arable fields sown with grass and clover at the Holkham Estate - Credit: James Beamish

A major Norfolk farming estate has planted grass and clover for grazing sheep on its arable fields in a trial to boost soil health. 

The Holkham Estate, near Wells, is exploring new ways to extend its six-year crop rotation, to find alternatives to high-risk oilseed rape as a break crop, and to build the long-term resilience of its agricultural operation.

James Beamish, farm manager at the Holkham Estate

James Beamish, farm manager at the Holkham Estate - Credit: Chris Hill

Rather than a traditional arable crop, a legume-based mixture of grasses and clovers has been planted on 60ha of land to "rejuvenate" the structure and biology of the soil, and boost the yields of the following crops.

Farm manager James Beamish said the idea harked back to the principles of the agricultural revolution which the estate pioneered 200 years ago.

"The key word in our farming system is rotation," he said. "This kind of rotation is what Holkham was built on in the 1800s, so it is 'back to the future' in some ways.


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"Soil health is our mantra, and there is no doubt that a diverse mixed-species grass ley with a diversity of roots has benefits to the soil.

"We have got a very successful and viable potato business, but although potatoes can be detrimental to the rotation because of the intensity of the cultivations, it would be a big decision to take potatoes out of the rotation on an estate that is so well suited to them, and has invested a lot of money in water infrastructure.

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"So we want to keep potatoes in the rotation, and the clover leys come in as a healing process for the soil afterwards. It has a rejuvenating effect, improving the soil structure and building soil organic matter back up."

Meanwhile the estate's flock of 70 breeding ewes grew to 450 last year, and next spring the estate hopes to be lambing 600 ewes to help graze the clover leys, which are also harvested as winter forage for cattle.

Multi-species grass and clover mixes have been planted on arable land at the Holkham Estate

Multi-species grass and clover mixes have been planted on arable land at the Holkham Estate - Credit: James Beamish

Mr Beamish said while the one and two-year leys do not bring the same revenue as a high-value arable crop, they generate income from Countryside Stewardship payments and from the animals themselves. But their real value is to soil health and the resilience of the whole rotation.

"When you look at the other six years of the rotation and the uplift in yield, it balances itself out," he said. "We always take the long-term view and look at our gross margins over the whole rotation. It is a holistic look at keeping soil in the right condition."

Sheep grazing on clover mixes at the Holkham Estate

Sheep grazing on arable fields sown with grass and clover at the Holkham Estate - Credit: James Beamish

Clover mixes have been planted on former arable land at the Holkham Estate

Multi-species grass and clover mixes have been planted on arable land at the Holkham Estate - Credit: James Beamish


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