Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Agroforestry with Kellogg's

Agroforestry Oats and Fruit Trees
My introduction to Agroforestry was a great experience and one that has opened up my eyes to viewing farmland in a very different way.  As part of the Kellogg’s origins group (link) we were very lucky to be given a tour of the Agroforestry enterprise at Blue Bell farms, by Steven Briggs.  Steven farms as an organic farming tenant growing wheat, oats, and some vegetables on some very good soil near Peterborough.
The 125 acres of agroforestry is laid out across six fields in 3m bands of fruit trees separated by 24m of cropped land.  The trees are on shortish, root stocks so the fruit can be picked, and the fruit trees pruned by hand and so that the roots don't get deep enough to interfere with the land drains.
Agroforestry Fruit Trees
The system looks at the land in a 3D way.  The trees are able to put roots down below the crop root zone to capture nutrients and moisture lower down in the soil profile. Most arable crops root between 1-2m whereas the trees go down to 10m so there's little competition for these plant essentials.  The tree divisions increase the crop edge effect and the leaf mulch falls onto the cropland, returning nutrients as they decompose.  The trees also act as a wind-break; for every 1’ of tree height you get a 10’ wind reduction effect, very important in the flat fen lands.  This reduction in wind also reduces the notorious ‘fen blow’ of topsoil across the fields and enables more spray days.  Spray days on an organic farm you ask?  Steven's soil is short of manganese so regular applications are applied to supplement the soils deficiency to the growing crops.

Ploughing Overwintered Stubble
The strips that the trees are planted on can be planted with pollen and nectar so that in the short term will provide brilliant insect habitat.  Overtime these will turn into brilliant beetle banks providing habitat and food for beneficial insects helping control pests.  The system is run with a 6m Controlled Traffic Farming layout to keep machinery wheelings running in the same place, except where the overwintered stubbles are ploughed.

So are there any down sides?  To be honest there we’re too many. Yes it ties up the land for a long period of time as you need to write down the cost of the trees, so OK if you own the land but difficult if you are a tenant and a 3 year FBT makes this impossible.  There is a large capital cost, even planning at 120 trees/Ha.  Over time the yield from the crops reduce as the yield from the trees take over but if you have a market for the fruit then the output is significant.  It makes a lot of sense.

Everyone who visited was really impressed with the system and it certainly made everyone think a little more about some of these techniques could be employed on their own farms.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Glyphosate - A Key Ingredient

Over-winter Ploughed field
Not that long ago, the land at Overbury would have been ploughed over the winter time to prepare it for the next crop.  This is a destructive process for all of the organisms; bacteria, nematodes, fungi and earthworms that live in the soil.  It was the only way farmers had to control weeds and create a seedbed suitable for our equipment to plant the seeds into.   Many fields destined to be planted in the spring would have been left in this ploughed state over the winter period.  We now know that is method of land preparation; and we are catching up with the rest of the world, is a very bad practice for many reasons.

The most significant reason is that we are adding air to the soil, which reacts with the carbon locked in the soil, releasing Carbon Dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, a significant ingredient in global warming, adding to the changing climate threat.  The tractors that we use release Nitrous oxide as they burn the diesel, (just like diesel cars) and ploughing uses a lot of diesel.  Moving the soil also destroys its structure, meaning that small particles of silt, are washed through the soil taking pesticides and fertiliser with them.  They wash down to the depth of the cultivation and fill in the pores resulting in the surface level water logging.  This water logging means that any subsequent rain can't infiltrate into the soil and so runs off causing surface erosion. Soil erosion can be reduced by 90% buy not cultivating and using Conservation Agriculture techniques. The soil particles end up in the streams and water courses silting up the stream beds, reducing water flow capacity and can potentially lead to flooding further down stream.  
There are the soil inhabitants to consider as well.  Cultivation destroys their habitat and their food supply and we need them to help our plants (and therefore our food), to collect nutrients from the soil.  Worm populations can be reduced by 50% by ploughing.  We need the worms to aerate the soil, digest the soil and restructure it, adding glomalins (glue) to stick the particles together and recycle dead and decaying plant materials.  A healthy soil is one that can sustain itself with as little human interference as possible and that means not cultivating.
A field after winter with cover crops
Soil is also greatly improved by keeping it covered, using plant material or previous plant residue, a theory nicknamed 'soil armour' in the U.S. This concept uses plants to intercept rain droplets, keeping the soil surface open and aerated.  The plants in the picture above have been growing all winter, capturing available nutrients, taking carbon from the atmosphere and locking it up in the organic matter of the plant, restructuring the soil, feeding our soil biology and providing a brilliant habitat for birds and mammals, Our cover crops this year have hosted brown hares, starling, redwing, field fare, lapwing, meadow pipets, yellow hammer, chaffinch, linnets, snipe, woodcock and many others across these fields.  Compare that to the ploughed field above where it is mainly lifeless.

From the environments point of view cultivation's are not a good idea.

So why the long blog about protecting the soil?  Well this method of farming, called no-till or zero-till, is under threat from misinformed lobby groups trying to get the active ingredient 'glyphosate' banned from all of our European crop production systems.  It is a very safe herbicide, (weedkiller) that we use instead of cultivation to kill weeds and cover crops, prior to planting our next crop.  It has been a valuable tool available to farmers for the last 40 years. Without glyphostate there will be serious implications to our food security and the negative effects of cultivation, (listed above) in terms of mechanical weed control will return.  It is used across the world and is one of the most rigorously tested of any pesticide, that is currently registered for use.  An EFSA (European Food Safety Authority), concluded in a peer reviewed report (published EFSA Journal 2015;13(11):4302in) 
"glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans and the evidence does not support classification with regard to its carcinogenic potential".
The only body to conclude that glyphostate might pose a health risk is the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) who concluded it is "probably carcinogenic to humans".  According to the IARC's own classifications glyphostate is in the same category as drinking very hot drinks, working as a hairdresser and working night-shifts.  Glyphostate is safer than orange juice, bacon and indeed coffee, so we need to keep it in perspective and look at the benefits it delivers in globally feedin the world.

Without glyphostate, as part of an Integrated Farm Management approach  UK yields of wheat and oilseed rape (canola) will drop by about 20%, primarily due to weed competition.  We will need to use 546,000 Ha more land to replace this lost production.  Our farms will not be able to compete with other growers using it around the world. Profitability would fall and cheap food imports will be sucked into the country; in many cases produced to lower environmental standards. Mechanised weed control, including ploughing will return; reducing our soil organic matter, biological life, disruption to ground nesting birds and fewer environmental benefits. It will be a gloomy picture.  

We need to look at the whole system to appreciate how decisions impact on each other and if the cause and effect can be beneficial or not.  Nothing is simple or black and white.  I know that not being able to use this proven, safe chemical will impact severely on what we do and how we do it; eroding the positive environmental benefits of no-till farming.

No-till planting Into Cover Crops

Monday, 23 January 2017

A Shout Out for the Worms!

Preparing to count worms
At long last we have finally managed to get some time in the field to do some worm counting.  I have been trying to find a few hours for quite some time BUT at long last we have created a bit of a benchmark.  It should have been done at the start of the switch into no-till farming but as always its not until you start something that you realise what is important and believe me-these guys are important! So what did we find out?  Firstly that there are many factors that have an effect of worm numbers.  The first field we sampled was on our sand and gravel fields with a high sand content.  
We randomly sampled 4 separate areas within the field, each sample measured 20cm wide x 20cm across and 30cm deep.  This field is only into year 2 of no-till farming and as you can see from the photograph below the worm numbers are quite low.  On this field we had an average count of 11 worms/sample section with a minimum number of 6 and a maximum number of 15.  Our target is 16 worms in a spade full, so roughly our sample size.  We measured the soil temperature as a point of reference to see, when we re-sample, what effects this might have on the population and all sample points were geo-tagged so we can return.
This field averaged out at 268 worms/m2 which is slightly short of our target population of 400 worms/m2.  So there is some work to be done!  By reduced cultivation or no-tilling our fields and by returning crop residue, or by adding compost as worm feed we should be able to build populations over a relatively short period of time.
Worm count form Bottom Heath-Sandy field
The next sample field was up on Bredon hill at an altitude of 900ft above sea level in a field planted with winter wheat, after oilseed rape (same rotation as the sandy field).  Up here the worm populations were very pleasing with some sites hitting 45 worms/sample.  Most of them were epigeic worms, which move around in the upper surface layers of the field feeding on crop residue and will help to recycle the decaying material.  The counts ranged form 12-45/sample area.
Worm count from Shaldons-Cotswold Brash
But why bother, what is the point of having more worms, what do they do for us in the middle of an arable field?
Worms are important for many reasons; their burrows aerate the soils, moving fresh air (oxygen) down into the plant rooting zone, breathing life into the deeper layers of soil.  We must not forget that soil is made up of 25% air.  Worms also feed on soil, reformatting its structure in the form of casts on the soil surface.  These casts are rich in available plant nutrients held in a stable organic state, unlikely to leach through the soil surface.  These castings can contain 7 x more phosphorus, 10 x more potassium, 5 x more nitrogen 3 times more magnesium and 1.5 x more calcium than the surrounding soils.  Recycling the dead plant material is also a key role played by these sub terrain dwellers, coming up to the surface and dragging down plant material such as straw, leaves and any organic material we may add.  They are also key when it comes to field drainage.  The burrows of Anecic worms can go down 2-3 meters which are very helpful for taking storm water down into the subsoil and stopping it running off from the fields, helping reduce flash flooding events further down the catchment.  Worms are also food for others, so a good supply can only benefit the populations of birds and small mammals increasing overall farmland biodiversity. 
Worm Cast in Shaldons
There is more to do.  I will be sampling the heavy land fields (4 years no-tillage) and some other areas of the farm that have recently been cultivated to see what numbers are lurking in the soil.  We will be looking at increasing the feed for worms to continue their growth in some areas.  Can we get too many worms or will dry summers and cold winters even out the populations?  Only time and monitoring will tell.  If you want to find out more information then please consider joining the Earthworm Society of Britain who are looking for new members and people to search for and record their worm populations.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Open Farm Sunday Reflection

Open Farm Sunday in numbers
The New Year is a great time to look back at the achievements of the previous year and cast an eye to the coming year and what might be coming over the horizon.  Open Farm Sunday is always the first date that goes into our farming diary at Overbury and although our visit is quite low key and limited in numbers, it's a great opportunity to talk real farming issues to those guests who book onto our tractor and trailer rides.  Our contribution is small, but collectively our industry, when it puts it's mind to it, can achieve great things.
I had a quick look back to 2011, when it was a wet and cold event at Overbury and nationally 120,000 people visited events.  Staggeringly 2016 saw in excess of 260,000 people visiting our open farms. Some of the quotes from host farmers in 2011 still ring true today:

"highly rewarding and the feedback has been extremely positive",
"I feel really proud to talk about the food we produce and the work we do for the environment".

Those messages are still so true today.  Our food and the environment, in which it is grown and nurtured, are so important and in the coming months and years we must not loose sight of this important message.  As negotiations take place about how we exit from the European Union (Brexit) it is a matter of national importance to secure a safe supply of home produced high quality, nutritious food from a protected but managed environment.  Our countryside is under pressure from more houses, more people and more access, it's something that won't change or reverse so we all need an understanding of how our countryside works.  Farm visitors also get so much out of the events, it really is a two way conversation:

"Wow, absolutely superb day.  Thoroughly enjoyed every part and my children had a great time"
"Showed a good insight into live on a working farm"

In the great world of on-line social media to get #OFS16 trending is a great achievement and it really does help to spread the word to see what we actually do. In 2011, 362 farmers opened their farm gates.  In 2016 this number had risen to 382.  My challenge to our industry is to get out there, welcome people and get involved before it is too late.  Now is the time to add June 11th into your diary, the next Open Farm Sunday event. If you are unsure about what is involved or concerned about any aspect of becoming a host, there are free training sessions run by LEAF to give you all the information you need.  So there it is, an easy New Years resolution, host an Open Farm Sunday event, make a difference to your industry and have some fun!