A focus on soil health and minimal cultivations led to Balbirnie Home Farms, at Freuchie, being selected as one of three finalists for the award of Scottish Arable Farm of the Year, organised by AHDB, sponsored by Soil Essentials and presented at Agriscot.

Manager of the 1165 ha estate for the last 9½ years is David Aglen, who, with the support of owners, the Balfour family, has revolutionised the way the soil is managed.

He impressed the assessors – last year’s winner, Donald Ross, Rhynie, Tain and AHDB Cereals and Oilseeds board member, Andrew Moir – with his use of new and innovative techniques to establish crops and improve soil structure and health.

Around 600 ha is sown in cereals, with spring beans, rye, potatoes, vegetables, cover crops and kale or fodder beet making up the remainder of the cultivated land, about 300ha.

David said: “We are fortunate to have the opportunity of lucrative vegetable production on our doorstep, as well as the soil type to allow this.

"However, growing vegetables too often in the rotation was not good for our soils and we now aim to have at least three combinable or grazing crops between vegetables.”

There has been a complete change of mindset at Balbirnie, which was traditionally profit driven, using conventional cultivations and tight vegetable rotations, but the business is now driven by soil health.

David said: “For too many generations we have been slowly killing the life and biology within our soils. In recent years, soil health has been gaining strength as the guide for our management decisions.”

The simple plan is to disturb the soil as little as possible. There is no plough at Balbirnie now, with a contractor brought in if ploughing is required. Even after potatoes, wheat is direct drilled using a Sumo Trio cultivator, which has been adapted in the workshop at minimal expense.

Some 200 ha of winter cover crops are sown. Predominantly rye-based, these provide vigorous green cover with a deep rooting system that is beneficial to the soil. David believed that the benefits it delivered are many, including providing a good mulch for weed control in a following crop of beans, meaning spring beans are now grown successfully with only a pass of pre-emergence glyphosate.

It also provided cover for wildlife over the winter, prevented soil erosion and soil nutrients being washed away. It is also useful early spring grazing for cattle and sheep.

There is a suckler cow enterprise on the farm, which is also in the process of change from traditional indoor, cereal-fed finishing to being wintered outside and finished on a forage-based diet, or selling calves store.

There are also 900 sheep wintered on the farm, which recently have been used as an experiment to graze established cereals in late winter/early spring. This has had the effect of David being able to reduce fungicide and PGR applications.

He said: “I firmly believe that we need to look at other ways to maintain crop health and maximise yield as the armoury of chemicals available to us is steadily reducing.”

He is a member of a local benchmarking group, which developed from the nearby AHDB Monitor Farm in 2015. The group of around eight farmers meets three times a year and also keep in contact through a ‘Whatsapp group’ and are fully supported by AHDB’s knowledge transfer manager, Chris Leslie.

David added: “We find benchmarking very useful and it is great to share ideas and discuss and compare data and management techniques. Through this we have seen the value of having livestock in the rotation to keep soil in good health.”

In 2010, coming from a managing a farm in East Anglia where he had used independent agronomic advice, David was looking for a similar option in Scotland. He started with the Scottish Agronomy’s Knowledge Hub information-only advice to test the water before Balbirnie Home Farms joined as a group member a year later.

David is now a director of Scottish Agronomy. “The interaction and discussion of the group agronomy is really important,” he said.

“You hear about similar problems that you can then prepare for or offer solutions to others from your own experience. We are really guilty in the UK of seeing neighbours as competitors but that’s how as farmers we can be picked off by the supply chain.

“Working together and more openly is key and peer-to-peer learning is so valuable. You don’t get paid for it, but it’s two way as you harvest a lot of knowledge in return.

“With Scottish Agronomy there is no pressure to use a product and the value comes in the back up of the trials data which allows you to make informed decisions. The annual fee is good value for the decades of experience both in the trials and the agronomists available.”

He is also a member of BASE (Biodiversity, Agriculture, Soil and Environment), and is not afraid to experiment with different technology and techniques to improve the soils. He is still learning!

One technique tried this past autumn was to broadcast rye into a standing crop of spring barley before

harvest, which he reckoned could be the way forward as it doesn’t impact on staff trying to establish cover crops during harvest or regular autumn drilling.

Managing partner, Johnnie Balfour and the team of five staff at Balbirnie, are fully engaged in the new system and David said: “It is testament to their abilities and skills, both collectively and individually, that we have pushed on to try more and more new ideas and the evidence is growing that these methods of farming have the potential to be cost effective and efficient.

“I was delighted for their sake that we were nominated for Scottish Arable Farm of the Year and made the final three.”