top of page
Search

Starting over with what I know


A first-generation farmer, Michael Kavanagh, who manages the 700-acre Church Farm in Shropshire and has recently undergone significant expansion of 1000 acres, was the only one on his agricultural course at Newcastle University, in all three-year groups, not from a farming background.

 

He learned a lot in his first job after graduating, managing a large, well-run arable farm in Essex before taking on the role at Church Farm in 2014, a 600-acre predominantly arable unit. The challenge was for him to run it single-handedly and it was looking at how to do this that initially took him down the regenerative farming route:

 

I almost fell into regenerative farming. I moved to strip tilling so I could minimise cultivations and establish all the crops on my own on the farm. It was becoming clear that more and more chemicals were being banned, so it made sense to start reducing reliance on them so we’d be one step ahead when they did go. As we changed how we did things, the more I then saw the happy consequence of improving nature at the same time. Now we farm without almost no chemical inputs, our costs are down and our yields are improving year on year. The wildlife and birdlife is also visibly so much more.

 

Michael, who was a finalist of Soil Farmer of the Year in 2020 and also for Farmers Weekly Farm Manager of the Year in 2022, has recently taken on the contract farming for a further 800 acres of land 2.5 miles away. This has been conventionally farmed until now, and Michael will be using his experience over the last eight years to regenerate the land and bring it in line with the home farm as a thriving hub of biodiversity, wildlife and healthy soils.


“I know from when I first started exploring farming with a more regenerative approach that it’s easy to be bamboozled by the experienced, but it’s just about trying a bit at a time, not all at once. Farming regeneratively is an art and a science and it needs faith. If you stick at it, it works.”

 

This will be a really interesting exercise and we’ve certainly got our work cut out to knock it back into shape and make it profitable again. The soils are in poor condition, there’s been no diversity of crops and there are biblical levels of grass weed due to the poor rotation. The previous farmer used a zero till drill but didn’t adopt any other regenerative techniques, sending the soil health and yields rapidly backwards. This is the danger: farmers can be put off when they see this sort of thing happen, but it doesn’t have to work like that.


The transition to zero till on the mix of sandy and clay loams at Church Farm has cut the costs of establishing wheat - machinery, labour and fuel - to just £25/ha. Fuel usage is now just six litres/ha using a 130hp four-cylinder, lightweight tractor and a 4m drill. Michael aims to get the new farm to where Church Farm is now in 4-5 years. He will start by strip-tilling to get air into the soils and will be easing the farm into further regenerative techniques including cover cropping, livestock integration and weaning the farm off synthetics.


We’ll have to proceed with caution. I’ve learned not to rush things because you can go backwards. I know the pitfalls now and I’ve definitely learned from mistakes, like the year we were short of forage so I left the sheep on the ground for too long. It was wet, the soil slumped and I couldn’t direct drill.


Michael has learned how to best graze and utilise cover crops through experimenting. He uses 8-10 species, 50% for sheep and 50% for soil health, and has refined the grazing management to one-third grazed, one-third trampled and leaving a third behind. He has a flock of 650 Lleyn sheep with all lamb sold through the local farm shop where he receives a good price. Michael uses no concentrate feeds across the flock and has also started January lambing to fulfil supply year-round.

Organic matter in the soil has increased from 2.5% to 3.25% over the last six years of soil sampling. Having achieved a good PH balance in the soil, as it’s no longer ‘bombarded with’ nitrogen, Michael isn’t spending money on lime/P&K, and he farms without insecticides, fungicides (except one at T2 timing) and plant growth regulators. A straw-for-muck deal with a neighbour keeps dung in the rotation, and yields are up.


Yield has been variable over the past eight harvests with spring rainfall being responsible for a large proportion of yield, however Michael says when the weather plays ball, he is seeing superb yields of up to 10t/ha in wheat and 4.6t/ha in OSR, far exceeding the farms pre-regen performance with significantly lower input and capital costs.


"My goal is to avoid a yield dip on the new land, and so far things look very well.”

 

To mitigate this, the focus will be the soil health, with strip-tilling to boost the air and worm life in the soil and planting cover crops to bring greater diversity. Michael plans to reduce the grass weed burden with spring cropping, including beans which will also add nitrogen to the soil, and he won't be scared to double break a couple of fields initially to conquer the weeds.


The main aim will be to move away as quickly as possible from synthetic chemistry to nutrition and biology to feed the crops, which include milling oats, feed wheat and oilseed rape. Michael will also be looking at how to grow potatoes, which can be hard on soil, more sensitively, including planting wildflower margins and strips in fields to create a natural biological eco-system to minimise pest damage.


Another powerful tool he’s bringing to the new land in-hand is his biological brew for disease prevention. Learned from fellow GFC farmer, Tim Parton, he brews up a six-way bacterial mix using a 1000l IBC and a fish tank bubbler. At £1.50/ha - £3/ha, depending on the mix, it is a very cheap and essential piece of the regen jigsaw, fending off disease such as fusarium, as well as capturing nitrogen from the atmosphere. Read more


I know from when I first started exploring farming with a more regenerative approach that it’s easy to be bamboozled by the experienced, but it’s just about trying a bit at a time, not all at once. Farming regeneratively is an art and a science and it needs faith. If you stick at it, it works.”

 

Michael manages 1700 acres in Shropshire. His emphasis is building plant health and minimising synthetic inputs. He grows milling wheat, malting barley and quinoa, and has 500 ewes. The lambs are fed on a grass-based diet and are sold through a local farm shop. The farm sequesters a lot of carbon and his aim is to build as much soil life and organic matter as he can.


Other articles you may like:

Have you read the Q&A with Jake Freestone and how he got into regen farming? Read more here.

Find out more about how bird life has thrived on GFC farms here

Find out more about brewing up your own biology here

 

Want to become a member and receive regular updates and exclusive access to articles? We set up The Green Farm Collective to support other farmers to adopt a more regenerative farming approach on whatever scale and at whatever stage they’re at. The mission is two-fold: to sustain the farm through regeneration, with a view to also building in financial reward for the work we are doing to enhance carbon capture and biodiversity to help compensate against the loss of BPS. We openly share what we are doing with integrity, acting as a trusted voice for farmers. We are currently working on a constitution for growing regenerative food that we would like to see in the future provide an assurance for consumers who want to select healthy, nutrient-rich foods grown from this source. Join now.

 

56 views0 comments
bottom of page