Farmer Stories

Ana Reynolds - Reduced soil disturbance and livestock integration on a 200ha arable farm

Case Study

All photos: Ana Reynolds

Manor Farm is situated on the gently undulating slopes of Northamptonshire between Wellingborough and Kettering. Its 200 hectares are mainly used for growing arable crops, but livestock are also on-site. As a family farm, its nature-friendly journey has been an intergenerational one, with new entrant farmer Ana Reynolds and her husband Henry currently working alongside Henry’s parents.

Ana initially didn't set out with the intention of starting farming. She read law at Cambridge but quickly realised the legal profession wasn’t for her. Instead, she started her career in the automotive industry, working in roles that included analysis, consultancy, marketing, and PR. During lockdown in 2020, she became increasingly interested in market gardening at home using no-dig methods. Thinking about how this would work on a farm level led her and Henry to take an increasing role in shaping the future of Manor Farm.

“We started growing a lot of vegetables at home,” Ana recalls. “Adopting no-dig, composting and organic methods really early on led to my interest in regenerative agriculture. I was imagining what it would be like to do that on a really big scale, reducing reliance on inputs and tillage. For example, would my hoverflies and ladybirds, which were so successfully controlling aphids in the garden, do so at scale?”

“My vision is for the farm to function as an ecosystem. Rather than having flowering strips here and grass margins there, woodland in one place and hedges in another, we’re rationalising it as one system so everything works together fully and connects properly."

Ana Reynolds

Despite his own career taking him elsewhere, Henry never stopped helping his parents at Manor Farm, and Ana joined in with the work soon after the couple met. When they started thinking about how they could contribute to the farm’s future, they were building on established nature-friendly foundations. “Woodland management has always been really important to my father-in-law,” Ana says. “We’ve been chopping straw on the farm for about 40 years and doing minimum till for about 20 years. The passion for nature has always been there.”

Ana is now combining her work at Manor Farm with a job in arable knowledge exchange at ADHB, and she has also completed a number of BASIS qualifications. This, together with seeing and discussing examples of good agricultural practice as part of her job, is allowing Ana to help speed up the process of Manor Farm becoming even more nature-friendly.

Arable crops grown on the farm include wheat, barley, beans, and oats, which are grown in an evolving rotation system. The cover crops are diverse but usually based on black oats, phacelia, and clover. Other plants in the mixes include vetch, buckwheat, linseed, volunteer cereals, and brassicas. The farm has also used sunflowers as a cover crop, which Ana says were enjoyed by walkers on the adjoining public footpath as well as by worms, bees, and other insects on the farm.

There are now more than 100 sheep at Manor Farm, too. The majority are mules, with about 17 Romneys and 20 or so Hebrideans. “Bringing in different genetics is allowing us to explore what works best on different areas of the farm,” Ana says. “The small black Hebrideans with their distinctive horns are ideal for conservation grazing and should do very well on poor land. We are also looking at how we can make better use of the wool.”

The animals are now integrated into the arable rotation, grazing on the cover crops, which ensures the soil is always covered. The farm’s drill points have been changed to lessen soil disturbance and allow cover crops to be direct drilled when conditions allow. 

"We try not to use insecticides but haven’t yet eliminated them completely. We are considerably below the standard recommendations, though, which is really positive. We’re having ongoing conversations about managing the risks when pressures pop up. We’re hoping that adding the sheep grazing will enable us to terminate cover crops."

Ana Reynolds

“Making relatively small changes, with resilience and flexibility in mind, can lead to bigger shifts and benefits which multiply all over the farm,” Ana says. “Although we originally changed the drill points to reduce soil disturbance and diesel use, in the very dry summer of 2022, it allowed us to successfully establish cover crops, which we couldn’t have done with our traditional method of cultivation. We were then able to graze the cover crops for the first time and rest permanent pastures which had suffered badly in the heat.”

Manor Farm has also been experimenting with infield flowering strips, which have been a huge success and boosted insect populations, including moths and ladybirds. This was initially something of a trial to make sure it wouldn’t hinder the tractor or combine harvester, but it has gone so well that it's encouraging the team at the farm to roll it out further.

"I see a farm as something that produces food alongside other public goods and natural capital, with lots of benefits for society.  I’m really excited to be on this journey and to work with other people who share some of the same ideas and direction. I think that community is really important, and with nature-friendly farming, farmers have a real opportunity to work together.”

Ana Reynolds

So far, nature-friendly farming has significantly reduced diesel use and synthetic inputs. Ana also hopes to be able to stop providing the sheep with supplementary feed and that planting herbal leys and more summer cover crops will enable the farm to finish sheep for lamb rather than selling animals in stores. Currently, the sheep are rotated around paddocks spread over around 10 hectares of pasture and allowed to graze the cover crops, but Ana’s ambition is to mob graze once the necessary handling equipment is in place. She admits, though, that she and Henry both working full-time leaves little time to help with the sheep, which makes moving them so regularly a problem at the moment.

Ana’s ultimate vision for Manor Farm is for the whole site to function as one ecosystem, with cropped land, flowering strips, grass margins, hedges, and woodland all integrated and connected. Tree diseases such as Dutch elm and ash dieback have taken their toll at Manor Farm, so Ana is interested in increasing diversity in the hedgerows and using agroforestry in fields. She also thinks silvopasture would work well for the sheep, saying they love to browse trees and hedges and would benefit from the shade. Other ideas in the pipeline include direct sales to customers and finding ways to supply the local community with farm produce.

Ana says: “Continuing to experiment and trial to find out what really works will allow us to implement those things across the whole farm. I’m excited to be on this journey and to work with other people who share some of the same ideas and direction. I think that community is really important, and with nature-friendly farming, farmers have a real opportunity to work together.”