As farmers come to terms with the new environmentally-focused government support scheme for the UK agriculture industry, Virgin Money is supporting a growing number of clients who are planting the seeds of their future success by investing in their soil.

Michael Leyland, a Northumberland farmer who started a composting operation on the family’s farm to make better use of the manure produced by their own cattle, is one them. With the aim of reducing reliance on artificial inputs where possible and a building a stronger focus on improving soil health, five years ago Michael sourced a windrow turner and began turning manure in windrows to make a superior, more usable product much more quickly. Today they process more than 20,000 tonnes of raw material annually.

Aged 31, Michael farms a 600-acre family farm at West Kyloe, overlooking Lindisfarne, in partnership with his father Hugh and mother Daisy. The farm is divided equally between grass and arable, growing wheat and oilseed rape as commercial crops, and spring oats and peas as feed for their own livestock.

The family partnership runs 120 Angus and Shorthorn Cross suckler cows at West Kyloe, selling stores at a year old and keeping heifers as replacements. All silage is grown on the farm, and their arable straw is used as winter bedding. Manure has always been returned to the soil at West Kyloe, but in 2017 the purchase of a windrow turner was the start of adding value to manure.

Michael says: “Our farming is focused on soil health and building soil fertility. Direct drilling is used whenever possible and practical. Integrating livestock into the arable rotations using temporary grass plays a big part, and we use a mix of cover crops to have a growing plant in the soil in the winter months prior to spring sowing.

“A focus on soil health by other farms in the area has created interest in manure management and thus windrow turning. It is satisfying to be able to provide a solution for over 20 different farms to improve the integration of organic amendments.”

“Virgin Money have fully supported us, and they recognise the wider environmental potential,” says the third-generation farmer. “They completely understand the long term nature of farming and the challenges we face at the moment adjusting to current government policy and coping with rising costs.”

Farmers in north Northumberland have also been quick to see the benefits of windrow turning on their own farms as a fast-track route to reducing their artificial inputs and a natural route to soil improvement.

Gary Walton, Virgin Money's agri relationship manager business direct, said: “Michael and his family have been long term customers of Virgin Money. It’s always great to see a young farmer’s drive and enthusiasm to diversify, and in this case the focus is on soil health and helping to improve the environment. We are delighted to continue supporting them.”

Muck in a traditional midden ideally requires at least two years in a heap before it’s ready to be returned to the soil. Turning and thereby oxygenating the same muck in windrows will turn it into a useable product within ten to 12 weeks, and the process generates a whole range of other advantages in terms of quality and value.

“The main benefits are the speed of completely natural decomposition, and the improved consistency. Windrow turning reduces the bulk of your manure and reduces odours," says Michael. "Spreadability is improved, especially using disc spreaders to create wider spreading width while at lower rates to cover a larger area. Use in direct drilling, top dressing and grass applications are all possible.

“Then there are the benefits to the soil. Windrow turning sterilises weed seeds and pathogens in the manure and it improves soil nutrient cycling. It stabilises carbon in manure and improves nutrient availability while being a powerful food source soil biology and reducing the need for artificial fertilisers.

"Adding additional ingredients further enhances final product quality, which led us to processing our own garden green waste to mix in, plus other products such as rock dust and top soil are used where possible. Compost is worth more than the sum of its parts so the more ingredients the better!”

What began as a personal interest of adding value to manure has become a diversification generating an additional income stream for the West Kyloe family partnership.

“We are seeing better yields with reduced establishment costs and reduced artificial inputs. We buy in no artificial P&K and have reduced nitrogen rates. Encouragingly, our contract customers are seeing the same and are generally pleased that it is helping their systems and their soil in the same way.”

The Northumbrian coast has seen many changes in farming over the 1,000 years since St Cuthbert crossed the causeway and built the first abbey on Holy Island. This young farmer’s conviction, combined with windrow turning technology, is helping farmers to go back to their fundamental roots and restore the soil that makes it all possible.