Norbury Estate

Steve Spencer – Norbury Estate

Steve Spencer has given his story on how Precision Grazing has helped the journey to grazing success

Farmers don’t always mind being advised by someone who has actually tried it themselves, and can talk from first-hand experience. That’s why it’s been so useful and helpful having James on board.

Steve Spencer, 2022

Farm Facts

  • 32″ (800mm) average rainfall
  • Soil type: mixed, medium/heavy loams to sandy and areas of peat.
  • Height above sea level: 100-140m
  • Stocking rates on the paddocks: 1400kgLW/ha

Since arriving at Norbury 3 years ago, estate manager Steve Spencer has really had his eyes opened to how ecosystems work and how we can work with them.  Following a 20-year land management career for conventional farmers, Steve had a change of mindset since starting at Norbury, under the guidance and inspiration of his new employer at Norbury Estate, Steve started to look at the long-term effects of soil health and carbon storage.

So much of what we do is based on habit, and the estate owner’s ethos is “just because it has always been done that way does not mean it’s the right way so let’s look for a better way of doing it.”

The estate was bought in order to ‘pay back’ the carbon that had been used by Steve’s employer; this previous scientist and entrepreneur travelled the world, and the idea of planting 1000’s of trees soon turned into a passion project to learn how to sink more carbon, through the planting of intimate woodlands and grazing of herbal lays.

The estate is 1600 acres, half being woodland & forestry, and the remaining area being productive agricultural land and rough grazing. The main purpose of the estate is to maximise carbon storage, through land management, forestry and research.

The estate was bought 12 years ago, a swathe of arable land amongst an area of family run dairy farms, the soil was in a poor state with organic matter at 2-3%.  Once the arable tenancy came to an end, all the land was reseeded with grass leys. The blocks of land were let to 6 local livestock farmers, who were all encouraged to silage the grass leys 2 or 3 times a year, with slurry spread afterwards.  However, after about 4 years yields started to decrease and compaction was noticeable from the heavy machinery. At this point the estate became interested in herbal leys and how they could help improve the soil health and structure as well as sequester more carbon.

With advice and guidance from Cotswolds seeds, they chose a 24 seed species mix, tweaked to be suitable for silage, with 6 clovers for nitrogen fixation and other deep rooting plants such as chicory, lucerne and birds foot trefoil.

These herbal leys established well and kept growing in a dry summer when rye grass fields burnt off. For the first 2 seasons they continued with the silage regime, but the herbal leys started to lose their diversity as they were all ‘taking a hit’ at the same time, organic matter was being removed and the soils started to become acidic again. The owner really wanted to see his passion project of carbon storage become a reality and from reading ‘Growing a Revolution’ by David R Montgomery and ‘Dirt to Soil’ by Gabe Brown, he knew he needed to get livestock grazing the herbal leys. 

We were really scratching our heads on how to get a true mob grazing system in place, and Hannah Jones, a soil scientist for Farm Carbon Toolkit, recommended we contacted James from Precision Grazing. James was the right fit for us as he is analytical, very clear and could work well alongside our farmers.

Advised to get cattle back on the land, the estate asked the 6 farmers to once again be a part of the system change, to bring livestock onto the estate land and to move silage production back to their home farms.

Having 24 species in one mix offers great diversity, each plant has unique properties which are complemented by other plant species providing a high-performing pasture for the farmers with no artificial inputs required, which is what the Estate wished to embrace.  This ethos, of diversity, crosses over to the intimate mixes in the woodlands, where native, non-native, conifer and broadleaved trees all grow side by side, offering variable canopy heights. This allows greater exposure to sunlight, quicker growth of plants and roots and therefore more carbon sequestration and greater resistance to disease and climate change.

It’s been quite a journey for some of our farmers to move away from a “tidy” ryegrass pasture to one that is more diverse, but the benefits soon became apparent. Our farmers are working with us in partnership, with many now also establishing herbal leys on their own farms.

James met with Steve and the farmers to help implement the new changes, working with the estates desires for carbon storage and to ensure a simple, useable system for the farmers.   There are 6 blocks of land, all separated by road or woodland, so there is no contact between cattle. These blocks are then split into 16 paddocks, with stocking rates based on the area of each block of land and pasture growth potential. During the initial meeting James worked out an example, showing how the rotation would work, stocking rates and the benefits including the daily liveweight gains and less inputs into the system.

James was able to answer every question that was thrown at him about the system, the figures and when there were difficult decisions to be made, James could advise the farmers on what needed to be done, he really had their trust and they knew he was on board making the best decisions for them.

The access to these blocks of land, varying from 50 – 150 acres, has seen the family farms change how they do things, some have created new dairy beef enterprises to graze the herbal leys and others have moved their young calves and in-calf heifers to the estate, allowing silage to be grown closer to the home farm. 

The soils vary across the estate from heavy clay to sand with a bit of everything in between, which shows in the variable way the crops grow, with different species dominating different aspects.

The first grazing season, 18 months ago, saw the herbal ley grow exceptionally well on a south facing bank, with chicory dominating the block. The calves were lost within the ley and not able to get ‘on-top’ of it.  The farmer worried about losing pasture quality, so in this instance a cut of silage was taken, allowing high quality new growth and a chance to graze lower pasture covers with the smaller calves. The beef cattle and in-calf heifers have had no problems eating and trampling the taller leys, working on the regenerative principles of graze a 3rd, leave a 3rd and trample a 3rd. This is when the magic happens, organic matter is created, soil biology improves, roots establish to keep growing in droughts and the herbal leys keep providing for the stock.

The summer of 2022 was a dry one for most of the country, however where grasses burnt off the deep rooting plants within the herbal leys, especially the chicory’s and clovers kept growing, and when the rain arrived the leys quickly recovered.

This summer I have been impressed to see the herbal leys have kept on growing, even on the sandy soils, and recovered well once the rain came.

Originally the estate trialled how to get the best establishment, using the conventional plough, harrow and roller versus glyphosate and direct drilling.   They found the best establishment was via the conventional plough system, but some recent over-seeding has seen them once again trial the 2 different systems, and the direct drilled seeds have established better due to high rainfall post drilling causing a degree of soil run-off the plough field. 

For future establishment of herbal leys, the plan is to harrow and direct drill, to reduce the movement of soil and carbon release that ploughing creates.

The estate carried out a carbon accounting exercise in 2020, with Hannah Jones (Farm Carbon Toolkit), who carried out a detailed soil analysis report for the grazing fields, this report will provide a key set of baseline data to quantify the changes to soil health and properties in the future as a result of implementing herbal leys.

The changes that are noticeable within this short time is in the increase worm count and improved drainage.  Some of the farmers have spoken about previous poached and wet land, that couldn’t be driven over in previous winters was driveable within the first season, due to the deep rooting plants establishing so quickly. Soil PH has also improved from the low 5s up to 6-7.

I really thought it would be 10-12 year before we saw improvements in drainage, not within the 1st year – these deep rooting plants really are remarkable with the double benefit of improved drainage and drought resistance!

The System

For each block on the estate, the same infrastructure and grazing system was implemented, with varying stock number depending on the area available and the potential pasture growth. Each block of land, was split into 16 paddocks, with stock spending 2-3 days in each paddock for the majority of the grazing season. This provided a relatively long rest period for the herbal leys (32-48 days depending on pasture growth rates) ensuring the plants were fully recovered before they were re-grazed.

The estate saw implementing the paddock grazing system as a permanent change, introducing herbal leys and livestock to the system and investing in permanent stock fencing, mains powered electric fences, and surface fed concrete water troughs, which service 2 paddocks, has been an investment in future carbon storage.

We see this is as a permanent change, so we wanted permanent troughs and fencing, mains electric was readily available for each block and we wanted to ensure performance, so we fed into that.

The estate was fortunate enough to be accepted into the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, with a capital grant for £50,000, fencing had to be to be to a certain specification; wooden posts and 4 strands of wire. For fencing not under the grant scheme two strands of high tensile wire and wooden posts were used to reduce costs per meter.

The estate considered moveable troughs and hydrant system, but James advised that in this context a permanent set-up was recommended to make it simple for the farmers to implement the best possible grazing management with minimal labour.   

If it was our stock, labour and time we would have considered using a mobile trough and hydrant system, but we wanted to ensure a simple, low labour system for the farmers renting the blocks.

This system has already seen a financial return with an income from the Stewardship scheme and rent from the farmers, but for the estate the greater gain is in soil health improvement and carbon storage.  The farmers have been asked to supply data on growth rates of livestock, the weights recorded so far have averaged 0.75kg liveweight gained per day from a pasture only diet, with no concentrates or fertilisers being used despite the tough grazing season of summer 2022.   Steve is excited for what the growth rates of livestock will be going forward.  Other farmers have said they haven’t needed to worm this year, as the faecal egg count shows no worms; another benefit of the rotational grazing system. 

Although not monitored, the number of insects and pollinators has visibly increased in the fields as the herbs flower at different times, and pollinators are especially noticeable when the clovers get going.

Steve would certainly recommend using James from Precision Grazing, based on his knowledge and his ability to win over sceptical farmers. The owner has the scientific knowledge and ability to read research papers, he knew where he wanted the estate to get to but lacked the practical knowledge of how to do that, and James filled that important gap for them and bought the farmers along with them on the journey.