Grower Will Oliver is building resilience by using manures to increase soil organic matter
A Leicestershire farmer has boosted soil organic matter levels by using chicken muck and digestate instead of bagged fertiliser on his fields.
Will Oliver, of AH Oliver & Sons, farms 850ha in a 20-mile radius on clay loam soils about seven miles south-west of Coalville. The farm was run by his father and grandfather before him when Mr Oliver returned home after graduating from Harper Adams.
“I was never going to be the sort of son who comes home and carry on doing the same thing everyone has been doing – I wanted to add value,” he says. “So I decided to do my BASIS and FACTS qualifications and took on the farm agronomy.”
Cropping includes winter wheat, grain maize, winter beans and countryside stewardship.
The farm also has its own glamping business. The Dandelion Hideaway includes six secluded canvas cottages filled with nostalgic touches in a country house design.
When Will came home, he soon realised that the soils were lacking in organic content. “At the time, we were getting all our nutrition out of a bag. We were getting good yields but it was becoming expensive. We were very high input, high output.
“We weren’t ploughing, but we were very intensive in our cultivations. We were subsoiling and Top Downing everything. No expense was spared and we were operating a block rotation. It was very rigid, there was no flexibility and I decided we had to knock it on the head.”
Soil organic matter was as low as 2.6% in some fields. To boost it, Will did a few straw-for-muck deals. But he felt there must be a better way. “I just didn’t like them – I always felt we were on the wrong side of the deal so we decided to do something more radical.”
After looking at all the options, the family applied for planning permission to build a 200,000-bird broiler. The £3.6m investment was up and running by the end of 2019, generating almost 2000 tonnes of poultry muck annually.
Applications of poultry muck to fields are supplemented with carefully applied digestate from a local Biogen food waste digestor. More recently, Mr Oliver has also utilised processed sewage sludge from United Utilities.
“Many people in the industry see them as waste products – but they have enormous value and I’m passionate about getting the best out of them,” he explains. Success saw Mr Oliver win the Farmers Weekly Arable Farmer of the Year Award for 2022.
“When we purchased this particular farm in 2011, the indices were higher in the field where they spread muck historically. Now we are measuring indices accurately in other fields and making sure we put muck right where it is needed to get the best out of it.”
Mr Oliver says he would usually buy 330 tonnes of Nitram annually. Last year, about half was left over. “By utilising manures, we’ve still got 160 tonnes of Nitram in the shed which we bought for £272/t. We’ve since bought some more for £670/t, but the average price is still good.”
The bagged fertiliser serves as an insurance policy, adds Mr Oliver. “We’re alright at the minute, but if the weather changes and we can’t get on with organic manures for whatever reason, I can still put Nitram on growing crops of wheat because its easier to get on the field.
Although a hefty investment, the poultry enterprise is run as a separate business to the arable land. It has its own farm manager and looks after itself as a limited company. Having it has enabled Mr Oliver to make other changes too.
“Our rotation was quite tight – just three years. It was two wheat crops followed by oilseed rape. But I knew I could get more out of the manures if I changed it – so we ended up going down the maize route.”
Switching the rotation happened almost by accident when wet weather made it difficult to get a regular spring crop in the ground. Instead, Mr Oliver decided to grow 20ha (50 acres) of maize and see how it went.
“A local contractor was doing grain maize. They drilled it and combined it. We dried it and it did 9t/ha. We have a ready market on our doorstep with GLW Feeds and the next year we did 200ha (500 acres). It was much better than rape, where we are losing money to flea beetle.”
Mr Oliver has grown maize ever since. “We had overdone rape really, so we decided to give it a holiday and continue growing maize. We said last year we would put a bit of rape in if conditions were perfect but it was too dry, so we didn’t bother.”
“So the rape holiday just keeps going on and on. And to be honest, I don’t miss it. If you only do 40ha, you end up with a bit of rape in the corner of the shed and it becomes a hassle having it. It ends up taking over the whole shed, so we’ve stuck with the maize.”
Mr Oliver is still in the process of testing organc matter levels across the whole farm. But when he started applying the manures, the soil in the field where he started was just 2.6% organic matter. Two years later it had increased to 4.2%.
“It had beans on it as well. We applied poultry muck and we have also used cover cropping. We’ve gone from a quite heavily intensive cultivation system with a wheat-rape rotation to something which is much more sustainable and helps boost organic matter.
“The grain maize works too because we are only taking the cob away, rather than the whole plant too – so we’ve got huge amounts of organic matter going back into the soil and effectively acting like a green compost. It makes it harder to establish wheat afterwards but for us it works.”
Although maize is a break crop, it still has a high value, adds Mr Oliver.
“We can get a good margin with maize, especially compared to beans, which are not hugely profitable in their own right. But they bring other benefits to the rotation – and I tend to look at the rotation as a whole, rather than looking at each crop in isolation.
“We are completely flexible in what we do now, whereas before we everything we did was based on a rigid block rotation. Now we could put a crop like spring beans in and I would be happy. We would do a double break if we had to – I wouldn’t mind at all.”
This flexibility – and the lack of rape – means there are no slug issues either. It’s also better for drainage, says Mr Oliver. “At the minute I’m enjoying it. We’re not chasing pigeons off rape any more – although having maize means I am chasing more crows.”