Welsh farmer finds sustainable farming practices also productive

Monday 20.02.2023 , News

John Yeomans began his farming career with a challenge. He was taking over a hill farm with very wet soils, low fertility rates and land which runs to just over 1,400 feet (426 m) above sea-level. But through diligent grassland management and by introducing sustainable farming practices, he’s discovered environmental stewardship and profitability can work hand in hand.

Image credit: British Farming Awards

John farms with his wife Sarah and three sons at Llwyn y Brain farm near Newtown, Powys – 275 acres spread across three fragmented blocks, 132 of which are reclaimed hills.

The sheep spend the bulk of their year grazing on the hills – coming down only for tupping and lambing. The cattle have a shorter grazing year due to the wet conditions. They come in for TB testing in the first week of October and stay in until early May.

 Farm facts 

  • 550 ewes, 170 ewe lambs - Beulah crossed with Beulah or Blueface Leicester rams plus some Texels 
  • Lambing end of March with a tight window 
  • 70-80 sucklers, 12-15 replacement heifers - pedigree and crossbred Limousin alongside British Blue cross and Canadian Speckle Park Cross
  • Spring calving over 16 weeks, ending late April or Early May
  • Winter feeding straw, silage and blend plus cattle boluses due to being in a poor trace element area. Sheep also have fodder beet 
  • Finalist in the 2022 British Farming Awards Grassland Farmer of the Year

Reseeding without ploughing 

“We stopped ploughing 10 years ago to reduce our impact on the soil. Now, we reseed with a surface treatment air seeder and regularly use a sward lifter to improve soil structure.

“We soil test every three or four years to keep an eye on P and K levels. Not only is this a sustainable farming practice – it’s free in Wales through Farming Connect.

“We started rotational grazing in 2014 and we stock heavily – up to 58 sheep per hectare during the peak grass season. It’s worked well and we’re now creating smaller fields, which complements rotational grazing and high stocking densities.”

Experimenting with seed varieties

John uses Germinal’s Aber HSG 3 long-term grazing mix with additional timothy and white clover on his lower pastures. The mixture’s intermediate and late grass varieties fit well in John’s system.

On the hill, John uses a mixture of Germinal varieties which combines a meadow fescue with timothy, AberGain and two Germinal white clovers.

“Timothy has always been present on our farm but recently we took part in trials aiming to extend our grazing season by increasing the levels of timothy in our seed mixes.

“We’ve seen great results with our dry matter (DM) increasing from one or two tonnes per hectare to almost 13 tonnes on the best-performing blocks, even at the highest altitude.

“We’ve also historically used clover but given current fertiliser prices we are trying to optimise its use – mainly due to the nitrogen fixation.”

John has also experimented with multi-species swards, testing the performance of plantain and chicory in grass and clover leys on his soils.

“When the drought hit in 2022, we were pleased to find the herbal leys coped better than our other swards.”

“We have more to learn about improving their longevity but won’t graze sheep on them during the winter to protect the crown of the plants. We’re also keeping costs low by scratching the seeds in, rather than doing a full reseed.

Reseeding plans

“We reseed responsively on the farm by monitoring our swards to know where and when a reseed is needed. In our commitment to sustainable farming practices, we carry out carbon monitoring on the hill and have found the more recently reseeded pasture has a higher level of sequestered carbon than the older swards – even when it’s been intensively grazed!

“I see reseeding as an important part of our winter-feeding plan too. We currently have about 60-70 acres of one-cut silage land which I plan to reseed gradually to improve its quality.

Production and sustainable farming practices 

“There is a prevailing opinion you either farm productively or regeneratively – that you can’t do both. This is false in my opinion. You need both, and it’s how we operate. My favourite saying is ‘if you’re in the red, you can’t go green’, and it’s true.

“We’ve worked hard to find the forage crops best suited to our farm – and that work continues as grass seed genetics improve, our knowledge grows and the weather changes.

“We’ve boosted our DM production, we have much better fertility rates and the farm has expanded. At the same time, our soil health has improved, insect levels on our heavily stocked leys have rocketed and we’ve seen hares, lapwings and curlews on our land which weren’t here 10 years ago. You absolutely can farm productively and benefit the environment.”

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