Meet Mike, self-proclaimed farm manager, decision maker, cow man, sweeper upper, mechanic, electrician, plumber, and the newest lead of the Sustainable Landscapes Shipton innovation group. 

Having graduated from Harper Adams University in 1987 with a degree in agriculture, Mike returned to Yorkshire to take over Elm House farm in Green Hammerton. He began with 130 acres, ten cows and a second-hand tractor.

Fast forward to 2023, the farm now spans 220 acres of arable land, on heavy clay Yorkshire soil – perfect for growing grass.

We chatted with Mike to learn more about his regenerative agricultural (regen ag) journey and how he came to be part of our programme. 

Tell us about your crop rotation.

We have an eight year rotation; for the first three years we grow a mix of red clover and ryegrass, then an annual rotation for the next five starting with winter wheat, then winter barley, cover crop, spring beans, and then over to winter wheat and winter barley again.

The first three years are about trying to kick-start soil biology. By using no fertiliser, and no grazing, it gives the soil time to recover, with huge fibrous and tap roots establishing themselves in the ground. It puts a significant amount of carbon back into the soil, and after those three years it’s almost back to a permanent pasture soil structure that the plants crave – and with huge worm numbers, it’s ready to begin growing crops. 

We utilise the straw as bedding for the cattle, and about a third of the winter barley and beans as a protein source for their feed. The farmyard manure goes back on to the ground as worm food and soil conditioner. 

South Devon cattle and bull on Mike’s farm

We also feed the red clover to the cattle, which is full of nitrogen. We spread their manure ahead of the cover crop, so it picks up the nitrogen and locks it back into the plant, feeding the soil and improving the soil biology. This is how we capture the nitrogen that we have already used and hold it in the soil so it doesn’t run off into local water courses. 

It sounds like an incredibly circular process. Where did your interest in farming this way begin?

I’ve always been very aware of the soils that we have here at the farm, and how we treat them and grow crops with them. We began by using low-ground-pressure tyres, and we started to notice that the soil was improving all the time. So, I began to ask myself, “Why were we ploughing and cultivating the soil? If the seedbed is established before I plough it, why not put the seed into what’s already there?

We were then fortunate to travel to America with Asda (who we supply our beef to), to visit Gabe Brown, and other top US farmers who were looking at sustainable farming.

It was great to hear directly what their experience of change was and then bring that learning back to our farm in Yorkshire to see how we could make it work over here. That trip helped us to transition to no-till and other regen ag activities. 

Mike, kneeling centre-right, visiting Gabe Brown’s farm in America.

What led you to join the Sustainable Landscapes programme?

I’ve known Steve Cann (Director, Future Food Solutions) from work in previous years. After bumping into him again and getting chatting, with a shared admiration of Gabe Brown, I jumped on the bandwagon and became part of the Sustainable Landscapes programme.

The programme gives me access to knowledge from Neil Fuller (Soil Scientist, Future Food Solutions) teaching me how to interpret what is happening in the soil, and how that informs what to do next.

We benefit from joint experiences and learning – the best place for farmers to learn is from other farmers, and that’s what the programme provides. The most important thing is they’re in a similar area to you, with similar weather patterns and similar soils, so you learn a lot more, a lot quicker. 

Yorkshire Water sponsors Sustainable Landscapes, providing us farmers with 25 acres worth of cover crop seed every year. They are fully engaged with the programme, recognising that by working in partnership with farmers the close correlation between soil health and water quality can benefit everyone. There is reduced runoff from fields because we infiltrate all the water. Any excess moisture goes straight into the soil so we don’t have ponding, which also means less sediment in water and less money spent on purifying it.

If rain falls on our ground, it probably takes two to three weeks for the water to get through the soil profile and run off into York. Whereas when there’s a big downpour on a field of potatoes, it could run off the field into a stream and be into York within 24 hours. The way we farm hugely reduces the flood impact – we literally don’t have run-off. 

Similarly, because of our soil structure, we are able to sequester excess rainwater in the soil, as we continue to get these abnormally hot, dry spells, our crops will stay greener for longer.

What would you say to other farmers who were considering regen ag?

I would encourage everybody to try this. Whilst it won’t work on every farm, and it isn’t a one-stop solution, the benefits are so huge and we all need to become more sustainable. All the arable ground that has been conventionally tilled is losing its carbon, and at some point, the soil is going to give up.

It’s not rocket science; it’s a different sort of mindset and a contrasting way of farming. Whilst there’s a blueprint for traditional wheat production, regenerative agriculture is not as prescriptive. It’s not so easy, and it’s not quite as tidy either (residual cover crops and other things), but that’s actually what you want, because that brings the diversity and improved soil biology – which is beneficial to you as a farmer. 

You’ve also got to be inquiring; I’m constantly asking myself, “Is this the right thing to do, is it the right time of year, is the soil in the right condition? If it isn’t right, how can I get it to a state where I can drill into it successfully?

Being a part of Sustainable Landscapes is an ideal opportunity to meet a bunch of like-minded farmers trying to do the same thing. Regen ag needs guidance – and that’s where the groups are really good. Once you get enveloped into the group, and the group starts to talk and share ideas, and you get on the farm and dig holes and look at crops, the learning and changing happens.

The biodiversity on my farm has greatly increased. We have 27 hives on our land and most of the bees will be buzzing among the spring beans – you can physically hear it and feel it humming there are so many bees there. The beans provide a feed source for soil biology and the wider population of insects. Then you get birds there feeding on the insects, so you really are starting the food chain.

Regen ag brings costs down on the farm; we use little to no nitrogen, less diesel because of ploughing, low food miles by supplying beef locally, and the free cover crop seeds we receive from Yorkshire Water. 

There’s the time cost too. I can drill in an hour and a half with my no-till drill, which used to take me all day to do when I was ploughing and rolling it. So now in one long day, I can cover what used to be a week’s work.

But it’s not just about reducing costs, it’s about learning the bigger picture stuff,  the environmental benefits you can achieve. 

Mike’s father, Tom, who still works on the farm, and their family dog

Do you see opportunities for further improvements to the sustainability of your farm?

In the future, if we can prove that we are producing low-carbon beef, we can sell that benefit onto the supply chain. It’s estimated over 70% of the carbon footprint of beef is from the farm. So if we can prove ours is lower, we can help supermarkets to reduce their carbon footprint. 

We’d also like to sow mixed varieties of wheat and barley, as that will considerably help disease resistance. I’m not going organic – I just want to try and make it a more natural system. The more I can help soil biology to help me, the better it is.

As Gabe (Brown) said, he wakes up in the morning and begins working to keep things alive on the farm, whereas conventionally you wake up and think, what am I going to kill today? Be it a pest, a weed or a disease, you’re always battling against nature. Instead, we are now trying to get nature to work with us. 

It’s just a switch in your mindset. If you really want to improve things, change can happen.

Mike’s top five regen ag benefits:

  1. We produce our own feed for cattle on farm
  2. We grow beans rather than soya
  3. We keep our food miles low
  4. We have higher-yielding crops and faster-growing cattle
  5. Our costs are lower and we have less impact on the environment as a whole.