Written by: Johnnie Balfour
At Balbirnie Home Farms, we farm a large mixed lowland farm in Fife, Scotland, with combinable crops, vegetables, cattle and forestry. Our aim over the past few years has been to regenerate the soil and to work with nature to provide the nutrients our plants need to grow as well as integrating our enterprises as much as possible. We use the principles of regenerative agriculture to guide our decision making.
We reduce tillage as much as possible to keep the mycorrhizal fungi in the soil alive and we are reducing chemical disturbance across the farm too including no insecticides and only 1 fungicide on 1 of our 4 combinable crops. This all keeps the soil more active and provides food for wildlife further up the food chain.
Keep the soil covered
Soil erosion kills life. By keeping the soil covered, soil erosion is reduced and life can flourish. We do not plough and reseed our pastures anymore meaning that our pastures are always covered. Anecdotally, we see more birds when walking around the cattle.
Living roots in the soil exchange nutrients and contribute to the life of the soil. We have broadcast seeds into our cereal crops which are growing at the bottom when the crop is harvested. This relay of growing plants means that we can harvest more sunlight and water and contribute to increasing the soil life.
Photo by Johnnie Balfour
We have increased the length of our rotation and the number of break crops over the last few years. This has given us better temporal diversity. In addition, we have changed the way that we graze our pastures which has given us better structural diversity between paddocks. Finally, we have grown companion crops with our cash crops as well as multi-species cover crops which have given us better spatial diversity throughout the fields. All of these practices increase the habitats available for wildlife and the food available for insects and pollinators.
Over the past few decades, our cattle have been marginalised to less productive fields while arable fields have intensively grown crops every year. We have re-introduced short term leys and forage crops to our arable rotation so that cattle can be used to fertilise the fields and cycle the nutrients. This brings different wildlife to different parts of the farm and contributes to the overall health of the ecosystem.
Above photo by Graeme Mowat at Cinecosse
These environmental practices would not be worthwhile if they were not profitable for the business and many involve spending less money by allowing nature to do some of the work that we used to do from a bag. This holistic approach means that economic net margins are maintained, and in some cases, improved due to the savings in overheads particularly on sheds and winter feed for cattle. Nature-friendly farming means business-friendly farming to us.