Productive agriculture and environmental conservation are at the heart of Richard Bramley’s farming ethos. Chloe Palmer finds out more.
Achieving enviable cereal and potato yields and boosting bird numbers year on year are just two of Richard Bramley’s achievements at Manor Farm.
Add to this a host of conservation awards, including last year’s Yorkshire Agricultural Society Tye Trophy, and it is clear his strategy is successful.
Richard began asking questions and looking at how things could be done differently even before he took over the family farm in Kelfield, North Yorkshire, in 2000.
He says: “I went to our local training group in 1997 and asked why we farmed the way we did. I decided to take the FACTS and BASIS exams to find the answers and this is where it all started really.”
Cereals and potatoes have always been the mainstay at Manor Farm although the different soil types – ranging from heavy, silty clays to light, loamy sands, much of which is grade one and two – mean the farm can grow a variety of crops.
“We have always grown potatoes at this farm and supply to Walkers Crisps. We have always grown up to 25 hectares of sugar beet but this year, due to the British Sugar surplus, we reduced the area and are growing a large premium pea instead.”
Significant acreages of milling wheat, winter malting barley, spring barley and oilseed rape are grown and cover crops are now central to the rotation.
Richard is pragmatic about the balance between commercial farming and conservation.
“We are using cover crops to add value to land which would otherwise be bare over winter. Initially I would grow them only on lighter land but last year I grew them on a small area of heavier clay land.
“We sowed a tract of heavier land with oilseed radish at the end of August and incorporated it at the end of February. The soil was dry and crumbly and I was surprised at how well it ploughed.”
Richard has experimented with a variety of different species and finds each has its own merits.
“I am looking for plants which will flower late in the season, so I will provide nectar and pollen for pollinating insects. Phacelia has a deep root which helps create better soil structure and vetch traps the nitrogen which is then slowly released to the following crop.”
He calculated the use of cover crops reduced inorganic nitrogen inputs by up to 20 per cent and the oilseed radish has also helped in the battle against potato cyst nematode. There are other benefits too, he says.
“I trialled the use of cover crops prior to potatoes, comparing yields with an adjacent area where no cover crop was grown, and found there was a yield increase of up to 10 tonnes per hectare.”
The cover crops also provide a vital source of organic matter which helps replace the straw, which is now too valuable to plough in.
“On our heavier soils, the organic matter content is about 5 per cent but on the sandier soils it is from 2.5-3 per cent. I am aiming for a higher figure but it is a long-term process and the cover crops help.”
Reducing cultivations to a minimum has contributed to this aim and, with the exception of the root crops, Richard uses a variety of cultivators followed by a combination unit, no longer ploughing unless conditions dictate it is necessary to do so.
He is keen to experiment with new crops and methods and the latest addition to the rotation came about through a surprising urban connection.
“A friend of mine is the managing director of Harrisons Spinks Bedmakers in Leeds. He wanted to buy a farm but did not know anything about farming so he asked me to advise him.
“He was thinking about growing fibres for the bed products they manufacture so we decided to grow a crop of hemp. This was a steep learning curve as I had never grown fibre before but it is a fantastic crop.”
Richard is now responsible for the strategic management of his friend’s farm, located at Tadcaster, a short drive away.
“The fibre grown is used in the mattresses sold under John Lewis’ premium Natural Collection brand and a flock of sheep are also kept on-farm to provide wool for the same products. It has proved successful and we are now looking for more growers for 2016.”
Richard says the hemp fits in well with the remainder of his rotation. He drills it in the second week of May, after the risk of severe frost has subsided, and says it grows rapidly until harvest in the second week in August.
“The crop only needs a small amount of fertiliser and at harvest it can reach a height of 3.5 metres so it out-competes the weeds. We need a licence to grow it because it is classified under the Drugs Act as it is related to cannabis, even though the variety we grow contains none of the drug.”
Richard has also grown flax as another fibre plant. While he describes it as ‘a lovely crop’ which is fast growing, he says initial difficulties cleaning it prior to sale mean there is still work to be done before it can be grown commercially.
Alongside the cropped area, he has established an extensive network of margins which have contributed to an impressive increase in bird numbers.
He says: “Before I embarked on a programme of conservation work, I wanted to know what wildlife we had already. So the RSPB Volunteer Alliance carried out a survey in 2005 and recorded 54 species of birds. Now we have 65 species, even after several hard winters and poor summers in succession.”
The farm now supports all but one of the RSPB’s amber-listed farmland bird species, with numbers of corn buntings, yellow hammers, skylarks and grey partridges all increasing markedly in recent years.
Richard is pragmatic about the balance between commercial farming and conservation. “For us, taking a large area of good land out of production is not necessarily the best thing to do for wildlife. Changing the way we farm to boost biodiversity has been our goal.”
The use of cover crops with several late-flowering species, coupled with flower-rich margins has had a positive impact on bird and insect numbers.
“I wish I had known about the option of floristically enhanced margins when I entered Entry Level Stewardship in 2005. We established these on the farm at Tadcaster in 2010 and they are now a riot of colour. The insects love them.”
Water is the biggest environmental challenge facing the farm as it is 50 miles from the sea – but a third of the farm lies at just four metres (13ft) above sea level.
“I am the third generation of the Bramley family here. My grandfather experienced one major flood, my father saw four and there have been seven large flooding episodes since I took on the farm.
“The frequency of flooding is a real constraint as we store floodwater to protect Selby. This is just one of the ancillary services we supply which has a direct impact on our business, but there is no recognition or payment for it.”
Despite his impressive environmental track record and role as chairman of the Campaign for the Farmed Environment in East Yorkshire, Richard is not enthusiastic about greening.
“We will easily meet the three crop rule here and we have got far more than we need to meet the threshold for Ecological Focus Areas. But the regulations will do nothing for the environment because it is all about the paperwork.”
He believes environmental regulation has failed to deliver because farmers were not involved at the outset.
“Regulation has increased year-on-year so it is obviously not working. If farmers were approached by policy-makers and told about the problem, they would come up with a practical solution which would work at farm scale.”
Increased regulation has not deterred Richard from continuing to do more for the environment. “My aim is to have productive, profitable farming alongside the best environmental practice. We rarely make a large margin on a single crop but hopefully there will be a bit in everything.”