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Soil health vital to long-term success

With changes on the horizon regarding support payments, Tom Tolputt has looked at various financial models to ensure his business will stack up in the future. Rebecca Jordan reports. 

Tom Tolputt
Tom Tolputt

Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) has provided, on average, £185/hectare (£75/acre) direct payment to each UK holding since 2015. From next year, this support is reduced in stages, with none available after 2028.


The Environmental and Land Management Scheme (ELMS) replaces Countryside Stewardship from 2024. It is likely to be based on a tiered system, with the highest tier a whole-landscape approach to land management reflecting the strongest commitment to the seven public goods the Government expects landowners to provide for public money.


In light of these forecasts Tom Tolputt has worked on a number of financial models to ensure his business survives and provides an income and future for his family based at Lesquite Farm, Lansallos, Cornwall.




“Just one projection seems to stack up using current data,” says Mr Tolputt, who came into farming after a career in consultancy which he still runs alongside an organic farming enterprise incorporating just short of 344ha (850 acres).


“When my wife, Nicola, and I started farming we could only afford to buy 24ha (59 acres). We borrowed to put up sheds and buy machinery, so we are by no means looking at a rosy future without the support of BPS.


“Currently we receive approximately £247/ha in subsidies and support. I set a budget of £124/ha into a formula where I aspired, post-BPS, to achieve an annual profit of £250/ha.


“We must adapt to a grazing system which improves soil so it, in turn, looks after crops and stock. That way we reduce prohibitive outgoings yet still achieve yield and growth. The only way I can make this work is if we up stock numbers, out-winter mature cattle and mob graze herbal leys.”


Currently 60 Aberdeen-Angus cross sucklers run with a Hereford bull. These calve late spring outdoors and are housed in December at weaning. Their calves are sold as stores when 18 to 22 months old at 493kg to Peter Jones Livestock.




A further 50 six-month-old organic dairy cross Hereford calves are bought in each year. They, also, are sold as stores. The cattle are rotationally grazed across 24ha (59 acres) of herbal leys which are also cut for winter forage.


Sheep are brought in on winter keep to graze 40ha (100 acres) of red and white clover leys which are used within the arable rotation to provide 1,000 bales of wholecrop and silage on contract for an organic dairy farm.


The arable rotation is across 121ha (300 acres). It comprises 48ha (120 acres) spring barley and oats (50:50 split), 60ha (150 acres) wholecrop and 12ha (30 acres) fodder beet. The structure is three years red clover, a year of spring barley and one year oats. A fertility-building cover crop follows the oats and then either fodder beet or spring barley. A three-year white clover or herbal ley completes the cycle.

Soil health


Most of the soil’s fertility is sourced through clover leys. Farmyard manure and bought-in organic chicken manure are used if required.


This autumn Mr Tolputt hired an electromagnetic soil scanner which produced a detailed map of the variation in the soil properties across the field at depths of 30cm (12 inches) and 140cm (55in). Despite the farm’s organic status, the results revealed a slight dip in the farm’s inherent fertility over the past 10 years, as well as a significant molybdenum deficiency.


Scanning costs between £12/ha and £35/ha (£5/acre-£14/acre). Mr Tolputt, however, calculates he could save between £74/ha and £124/ha (£30-£50/acre) each year after a couple of years when applying P and K only where necessary.


He says: “Permanent pasture, under a Higher Level Stewarship agreement, receives no additional potassium or phosphorus. Yet two of the farm’s highest readings for these elements are where cows ‘cart and carry’ nutrients to the sleeping area of the field. Elsewhere those fields are short of P and K. This is partly why we have decided to intensify the grazing part of the business – to cycle nutrients rather than sell them off.”


Shortfalls in phosphorus are rectified with 247kg/ha (100kg/acre) of rock phosphate at £300/tonnes and the same rate of application applies to polyhalite to restore potassium deficiency at £150/t.


Organic matter


But Mr Tolputt adds the most exciting use of the scanner is the ability to understand the soil’s limiting factors.


He says: “When you are aware of the soil’s major and trace element make-up it is possible to improve the soil’s biology. And by doing this I believe we can increase forage output by 20-30 per cent. A £350/ha to £600/ha increase in income.”


The scanner also records soil organic matter.


“Improving soil organic matter is critical to achieving five of ELMS’ objectives,” says Mr Tolputt, who found organic matter results for his permanent pasture scored more than seven; readings more than three are healthy.


Research by the US-based National Resources Defense Council has shown increasing organic matter by 1 per cent can result in an acre of soil retaining 233,750 litres/ha (25,000 gallons/acre) more water.


Australian soil specialist Christine Jones has further proven the same percentage increase can absorb 89t of carbon from the atmosphere and George Hepburn (AIVA) states each 1 per cent active organic matter can release up to 20kg N/ha/year (8.1kg N/acre/year) into soil available for plant growth.


“Grazing leys within an arable rotation undoubtedly improves soil health. It has been proven that doing so trebles the worm population,” says Mr Tolputt, who intends to introduce more herbal leys into the arable rotation to improve soil organic matter across the whole farm. Mob grazing at high stocking rates, which involves moving stock at least every third day, leaves behind a proportion of sward to rot down into organic soil matter before stock return.



Mr Tolputt adds: “Ryegrass and white clover are shallow rooting, so we have added deeper-rooting grasses such as cocksfoot, Timothy, fescue and festulolium to the herbal mix,”

He says their root systems cover a greater surface area so improve soil structure. They also increase the interface around the roots where up to 7m/ha (2.8m/acre) beneficial bacteria and fungi influence a plant’s growth, respiration and nutrient exchange. Increasing grass varieties also extends the grazing season.


Deep-rooting legumes, such as red clovers and lucerne, provide a bounty of benefits to soil health. Again, their root structure mobilises nutrients further down, improving soil structure and fertility. And, along with other legumes such as alsike, trefoils, sainfoin and barseme clover, fix nitrogen.


Herbs such as plantain and chicory, also deep rooting, are proven to reduce soil compaction. The latter also has anthelmintic properties and Mr Tolputt, year in year out, has only needed to treat a handful of cattle for parasites. Sheeps parsley, salad burnet and yarrow significantly improve sward palatability.


“It has been seven years now since we introduced herbal leys and I can honestly say the cattle, achieving 0.8kg daily liveweight gain with no concentrates, are more settled,” says Mr Tolputt, who is hopeful liveweight gain will increase to 1.35kg/day following research results just released from Precision Grazing.




“We have had some very dry springs and summers in that time. At no point have we been short of growth. The ley definitely contributes to drought resilience. I have found roots growing down 30cm deep.”


Mr Tolputt’s ELMS-resilient business plan will keep suckler numbers at 60 head, but stocking rates will increase when he buys-in 200 one-month-old dairy calves annually. Half will be housed on arrival in spring until March/April when the milk bar feeding system moves outdoors. Another batch will arrive each autumn and spend their first winter indoors. The spring intake will spend one winter in. The autumn calves two.


Out-wintered stock will be rotated at a high stocking rate (400 head on 100ha [247-acres] of herbal leys), plus winter access to stubble turnips and fodder beet. Depending on the strength of the market, the plan is to sell finished animals at about 22-24 months old at £4/kg.


Mr Tolputt says: “We do have relatively high rainfall here but are free draining and I do not believe cold is as much of an issue to livestock as tends to be interpreted.


"This system will require a different mindset. We will need to keep the stock moving frequently. If the weather really comes in there is just about enough shed space but when ground is poached, just once, it can heal itself. Once the grazing platform is set up the daily moving of electric fences more than pays for itself.


“My plan is a step back from what we have been encouraged to do since there was a surplus of fertiliser at the end of the war. For too long we have been looking at agriculture for a quick return. We need to work for a longer term gain if we are to survive.”



Farm facts

  • 218ha (540 acres) managed organically. 10 per cent owned, rest Farm Business Tenancy
  • Further 121ha (300 acres) contract farmed on annual basis
  • Farm management and practice revolves round long-term objective of improving soil fertility and health, as well as reducing outgoings
  • All ground within four miles of Cornwall’s South Coast
  • Tom Tolputt also runs a consultancy business – South West Farm Consultants

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