Name: Jake Freestone
Occupation: Farm manager
Location: Cotswalds, UK
Farm size: 4,000 acres
Livestock: 1,100 breeding ewes
Jake Freestone manages a farm estate that has been in the owner’s family since 1722. Of the 1,900 ha. (4,695 ac.) on the estate, 1,600 ha. (4,000 ac.) is devoted to farm production. Freestone and his team are responsible for 1,100 breeding ewes, as well as a variety of crops, including wheat, oilseed rape, peas, beans, and winter and spring barley. He’s experimented with quinoa and soybeans as well. He started in cover crops in 2013 when he did a Nuffield Scholarship.
His definition of diversity includes animals grazing arable fields, different arable crops, companion cropping and even by-cropping. Wheat is the biggest crop on the farm.
Some 300 ha of land is devoted to permanent grass, and 40 ha is devoted to herbal rich grass leas, which improve feed quality for the sheep. Lambing takes place outdoors in April. Lambs are finished on forage crops, which include grass and red clover in the summer and fall, and stubble turnips and vetch over winter.
It’s a more exciting way to farm at the end of the day.”
The farm is a LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming) demonstration farm. As an organisation, LEAF promotes sustainable food and farming and has strong core principles around integrated pest management, said Freestone. “We’re not using insecticides on the arable crops, and we’re trying to reduce fungicides,” he says. “Everything on the farm that is bare ground for more than 4 weeks will have a cover crop planted on it.”
Land left over winter will be planted with stubble turnips and vetches as a companion crop or a mixed-species cover crop.
“This year, because we had such an awful, wet drilling period last year, we only managed to plant half the crops we wanted to,” Freestone says. “We had a lot of fallow land on heavy clay. I took the decision not to plant an average, break-even-at-best, spring crop and actually put a multi-species cover crop in there over the summer period.”
“That’s been brilliant for the soil,” he says.
Adding cover crops to the system allowed him to move lambing outdoors. Just a year and a half or so in and he’s seen great improvement both in the land and the health of the sheep. He’s saved nearly € 9,000/year in hay, silage and straw costs alone.
Soil health has improved dramatically as well. The Cotswold brash soil, for instance, saw reduced weeds and improved tilth and soil organic matter. The soil has changed colour and smells sweet, he says. It’s also alive with worms and rove and caratid beetles that were not seen before.
Changing weather patterns, in terms of variability, longevity and timing, have presented great challenges in recent years. Regenerative agriculture has helped them to better cope, though, said Freestone.
Finally, the addition of cover crops has had a marked improvement on mental health, too.
“It’s a more exciting way to farm at the end of the day,” he states. “In terms of job satisfaction and being proud of achieving something. It’s interesting and challenging; it makes you explore and try different things.”
Jake’s tips for success:
- Start slow, committing just one field
- Hire a contractor if you don’t have the right equipment
- Don’t get hung up on mixes, but go for some diversity
- Partner with a neighbouring farmer if you don’t have livestock