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Sustainable Solutions: Stewardship at Gatley Estate

News - 17.04.24

Assuming his role at Gatley Estate in Leominster, Herefordshire, in 2020, just before the onset of the Covid-19 lockdown, James Oliver prioritises efficiency in his management approach. This efficiency aims to sustain the estate's support for its staff, their families, and its own development.

Farm Management Efficiency Amidst Covid-19:

Situated amidst diverse landscapes, the estate traditionally engages in mixed farming practices, encompassing arable cropping, grassland, forestry, and a suckler beef herd, primarily of the Stabiliser breed.

Central to the rotation is potatoes, cultivated one in every six years, primarily for processing. The cattle, raised on grass and supplemented with Total Mixed Ration (TMR), also consume stockfeed potatoes, fostering a circular system, as described by James Oliver.

Traditional Mixed Farming Practices:

Implementing changes upon assuming his role, James opted to disperse the 1200-head sheep flock and increase the number of cattle. He explains that integrating cows into the arable system is beneficial, as farmyard manure serves as an excellent soil conditioner before planting potatoes.


Operational Adjustments:

Cover crops play a pivotal role in James's strategy to maintain potato viability. Utilising a mix of Westerwolds ryegrass and vetch, half of the cover crop is harvested for silage, supporting the cattle, while the remainder provides grazing for contract sheep.

James underscores the benefits of cover crops in preserving soil integrity, particularly on fields prone to erosion due to steep gradients and silty-clay-loam soils.

Role of Cover Crops in Soil Preservation:

Moreover, James adopted strip-till techniques, transitioning away from conventional ploughing, with the introduction of a Mzuri system. This change aims to mitigate soil compaction, reduce diesel consumption, and enhance soil health, particularly beneficial given the estate's silty soil composition.

Cover crops are planted ahead of potatoes with half cut for silage and the rest left for contract sheep grazing.

Cover crops are planted ahead of potatoes with half cut for silage and the rest left for contract sheep grazing.

Transition to Strip-Till Techniques:

Investing in suitable equipment, such as a John Deere Hillmaster combine, further enhances operational efficiency. The combine's adaptability to steep terrains and reduced losses translate into improved productivity and reduced volunteer crops in subsequent rotations.

Investment in Equipment and Technological Advancements:

While embracing technological advancements in machinery, James maintains a conventional approach to crop inputs, supplementing with newer technologies such as biostimulants. These practices support plant health and resilience, particularly in non-irrigated potato fields.

Ongoing Challenges and Diversification Efforts:

Challenges persist, notably with pest management, particularly deer populations impacting forestry and arable areas, alongside concerns regarding bovine tuberculosis in cattle. Finding skilled and committed staff also poses a continual challenge, although James acknowledges the dedication of the current team.

Diversification efforts, such as cultivating peonies for the cut flower market, represent a promising venture for the estate. Leveraging existing potato equipment minimises risk, while plans for a display garden aim to further enhance the estate's appeal.

Incorporating Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) measures across various aspects of operations underscores the estate's commitment to sustainable practices. James emphasises the feasibility and returns of these actions, with future plans to incorporate variable rate technologies for enhanced efficiency.

James Oliver's stewardship at Gatley Estate exemplifies a holistic approach to sustainable agriculture, balancing traditional practices with innovative solutions to ensure the long-term viability of the operation.

Gatley Estate and Agrii's iFarms Initiative

Since 2009, the Gatley Estate has been actively involved in Agrii's iFarms initiative, initially as a venue for conducting variety trials encompassing wheat, barley, and oilseed rape.


Site Characteristics and Trial Focus

Facilitated by Agrii agronomist Digby Oliver, who boasts a 35-year association with the estate, Gatley's suitability as a trial site is underscored by its representation of the local agricultural landscape. The estate's expansive yard and diverse outbuildings make it an ideal venue for open days, complemented by its characteristic steep terrain and valley topography. Currently, the focus lies on winter wheat trials, with 39 replicated varieties under assessment for yield potential across Groups 1-4, both with and without treatments.

Insights and Adoption of Promising Varieties

James Oliver, the farm manager, underscores the value of the iFarms programme in providing early insights into variety performance on their land. He cites examples such as Fitzroy (Secobra) and DSV Oxford, both Group 4 varieties, selected based on their promising trial yields and subsequently adopted for commercial cultivation alongside Group 2 KWS Extase, a variety discovered through iFarm trials. Moreover, James recognises the significance of untreated plots in elucidating disease impact, offering valuable insights for farmers in similar geographical contexts.

Fungicide Trials and Crop Management Innovations

In tandem with variety trials, the estate is conducting fungicide trials, specifically assessing new products' efficacy against septoria, including biological alternatives. Elation (Elsoms), a Group 4 wheat variety, serves as the test subject for this evaluation. Ben Burgess, assisting Digby on the agronomy front, highlights the pivotal role of receptive farm managers in iFarms' success. He emphasises the importance of exploring innovative practices such as variable rate seeding and optimizing nutrition to enhance crop performance, underpinned by rigorous data analysis.


Social Interaction and Community Collaboration

Digby accentuates the social dimension of iFarms events, highlighting the opportunities for networking and knowledge exchange among the local farming community, fostering camaraderie and collaboration. Alongside this there's a real benefit to stepping away from your own farm and spending time with the community. 

The Mzuri strip-till has been a major change for the farm but has meant significant reductions in horse power, diesel and workload requirements.

The Mzuri strip-till has been a major change for the farm but has meant significant reductions in horse power, diesel and workload requirements.

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