South West Wiltshire
Farm Manager - James Griffin
1500ha arable, 1000 sheep, 700ha woodland
Digging into the data
Fonthill Estate is a large 9000 acre estate in south west Wiltshire. At the heart of the estate is a busy farm - 1500 hectares of arable, 1000 head of sheep. There is also 700 hectares of woodland - both established, and managed. It's been farmed for the last 30 years by farming consultants Velcourt - whose team are full time at Fonthill and live and breathe the land there.
Just like the wider industry, farming practices have been changing recently at Fonthill. Historically farmed conventionally with extensive use of artificial inputs and deep cultivation, the team are now busy changing many of the practices in line with new techniques and developments within farming. Very rarely do they now rely on deep tillage but instead operate a direct drilling system, as well as using organic sources of fertilisers such as digestate, resulting in them being able cut fertiliser use by more than a third over the last 5 years, with benefits all round for the environment and the farm's profitability. In the last couple of years, there has also been a focus on welcoming back wildlife to the farm through buffer strips and IPM.
The team were keen to keep progressing and developing the practices at Fonthill - James Griffin is the Farm Manager.
"We were introduced to Exchange through our bank - and it looked interesting. We've had a look at a few systems out there, and Exchange was pretty comprehensive. With some of the others, they felt like a way to sell you something - Exchange didn't have that hidden agenda, and so we were excited to see what they could do".
The Exchange team spent a couple of days at Fonthill collecting data and really understanding how the farm worked. Exchange uses a mixture of data collected on the ground, through a team of technicians and advisors, as well as remotely collected data. The proprietary software blends the two together.
"What we liked was that the data was ground-truthed" says James. "Rather than just all the data being remotely gathered, the team actually walk the fields. It felt like the best of both worlds"
Once the data had been gathered, James was able to log in and see the report. "We probably came out about where we expected, in terms of scores. We broadly knew where our soils would be, but some of the other data, like hedgerow assessments and bird surveys really helped paint a fuller picture across the whole farm".
Exchange is a full farm assessment, across 6 different areas and James sees value in a measurement system that brings it all together. 'Having one place that we can login and see the whole farm has been great - rather than data being silo'd in different places"
At the end of the process, James sat down with Kate Still, his Exchange Advisor to run through her recommendations. 'We knew that reducing our carbon emissions was going to be key. But it was actually a lot of the smaller stuff that was really interesting. Practices that we could start today, with very little cost implication and that would start reducing the farms impact. Our approach to hedge cutting for instance'
The data also provides vital information for the Velcourt team to paint the case for continuing their programme of transition on the farm. It helps show how improvements in one area can have a knock on effect across the farm. Taking hedges as an example, years 2 or 3 of data collection will aim to demonstrate the impact that different management can have on future water quality, soils and animal welfare.
"We like to think that our team is fairly progressive and every year we are changing practices on the farm. Exchange allows us to actually see the impact of those changes in the data. From progress on our soil organic carbon, to the impact on biodiversity that our buffer strips are having. It changes the conversation from a theoretical one, to one that is grounded in evidence"
As a result, Fonthill is paying closer attention to hedge management schedules - allowing hedges to recover for longer and raising the cutting height, a variety of management is really beneficial for farmland biodiversity.
'Hedges are often under utilised resources in the farmed landscape' says Kate. 'Not only are hedges great for wildlife as they provide linear link ups between habitats, they also help protect against wind erosion, provide shelter for livestock and help water and nutrient retention on fields. Changes in hedge management are an efficient way for a farm to improve on impacts farming can have on areas such as biodiversity, water and carbon. It takes no extra land out of production and often reduces the time in management requirements."
For all the right reasons there are many sources of funding for different hedge management options from hedge laying, planting, coppicing, gapping up but also for extending the cutting period as James and the team are looking to do, these can be sourced through CSS and SFI. There is also now some funding for planning the cycles of hedge management on a farm through SFI, this is particularly important for ensuring a variety of hedge structures and life cycle stages within the the landscape at any one time. This will add a fantastic mosaic of resource to any farm.