Monday, 18 December 2017

Grazing Ewes on Cover Crops

Ewes Grazing Cover Crops
Well the rams have really been doing their stuff in the last 4 weeks with almost all of the ewes now hopefully pregnant.  In the first week over 600 ewes were mated, as indicated by the chalk dye that the rams leave of the rumps of the ewes during mating.  The colour is changed every week so we have an idea of which ewes are likely to be lambing and when. The gestation period is about 5 months so we're on for a mid April lambing, which next year will be outside for the majority of the flock for the first time.
At the moment all of the ewes are out grazing the cover crops on the arable fields.  The cover crops are a mixture of forage rye and vetch or black oats and vetch with a few extra goodies thrown in for good measure.  These extras include phacelia, buckwheat and berseem clover.
The hard spell of weather recently, although it didn't last very long, has certainly knocked the cover crops down but it hasn't killed them and we are getting some regrowth on the rye fields.  This will hopefully continue over the winter and into the spring to enable another grazing before the ewes lamb and the fields are planted with spring cropping. The field below is due to be planted with Soya Beans in late April so we should get a second grazing before then.
Cover Crop After Ewe Grazing
The ewes are doing a great job of eating the majority of the green material. But it's not just the cover crops, volunteer wheat and some black grass as well, whilst trampling some of the material into the soil to feed the microbes and worms. This is a great news as the field/soil surface looks well protected from the heavy winter rainfall that we must surely get at some point.  We'll have to watch it on the heavy land fields so that we don't get too much surface compaction if it gets too wet, but we are not there yet.  The soil has restructured itself  beautifully on the clay soil part of the farm enough to carry stock, but it has taken 3-5 years of no till to reach this point. There is still a long way to go until the spring so we'll have to see how things progress.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Crimper Conundrum

There is so much public awareness of the perceived issues with Glyphostate at the moment even though 3300 studies have shown it to be a very benign chemical when used correctly in the field.  With any potential restriction on its use being enforced on us I wanted to have a look at an alternative method of killing a cover crop before we plant our harvestable, or cash crop, into the field.  To me a cover crop can only enhance the soil and the wider environment.  It shields the soil from rain, reducing runoff and erosion; it feeds the soil biology with carbohydrates and encourages the development of below ground microbial populations; provides winter feed for our sheep; increases soil organic matter to hold more nutrients and water-its a no brainier for the farm and the wider environment.
Black Oat and Vetch Covercrop
Without glyphosate the termination, or killing, of these crops could prove to be very tricky in our maritime climate.  The cover crop can grow rather large and I don't want to have endless passes with toppers or cultivators to kill the cover crops.  Doing this is expensive, uses fossil fuel and releases CO2, cultivations mean even more CO2 released from the organic matter held in the soil, as it is exposed to oxygen, it means more tractors on the land, causing compaction where they drive which can lead to poorer water infiltration and therefore soil erosion.  So what's an alternative?

With a loan of a crimper roller from Cotswold Grass Seeds (thank you) we had a little play in a large cover crop of black oats, vetch, phacelia and berceem clover.

The idea of the crimper roller is to lay the plants down and squash the stems with metal blades in the hope that this bends or cuts the stems stopping nutrients getting up the stem into the top of the plants, end result being the killing of the cover crop, and any nests or wildlife that gets in the way-but we'll gloss over that for now!
Crimper Roller
We tried the crimper roller on the back of a tractor at first and drove in reverse to make the chevrons point in the right direction but ended up going in round in circles!  So we unhitched the weights from the front linkage of another tractor and set off across the field at 10kph, with the crimper on the front with a bit more success!  The roller weighed in at 620Kg for a 2m machine so about 310kg/m.
Crimped Covercrop 7 Days Post Crimping
I came back to the plot 7 days later to see if it had actually worked and I am sorry to say that it didn't. The oats seems to still be alive and the vetch, which I though would have been totally animated, were still just about hanging on.  The concern for me is we need to find something that works consistently every year and as every season if different.  We need to grow significant levels amounts of green matter and these need killing-somehow.

Maybe we used the wrong machine, maybe at the wrong time  for the plants growth stage,or at the wrong speed or it wasn't heavy enough?  Maybe we need to graze some of the covers down first to weaken then plants?  Maybe it just doesn't work in our climate where we don't always have a frost to follow up and finish off the wounded crop?  Who knows and more work needs to be done, but for now I am not impressed.

Great Companions

Great Companions,

For the last 3 years we have been experimenting with companion crops in our oilseed rape fields.  The companions are mainly based around legumes to try and increase the amount of atmospheric nitrogen that we can capture and then make available to our farming system, and why wouldn’t we?  The atmosphere is 76% nitrogen and yet our cereal and brassica plants cannot use any of it.  But legumes can-and they do it very quickly.
For the first time we have been using berseem clover and vetches together, all planted at the same time as the oilseed around the middle of August.  It has amazed me how quickly the seeds geminated and the speed at which they have continued to grow.

Almost immediately the plants germinated in the no-till soil, where the surface hadn’t dried out and the vetch was soon putting a decent tap root down in to the soil.  This I think has helped the oilseed rape, slightly slower to germinate, by starting to create routes down through the soil in search of nutrients and water.

After 6 weeks I dug up some of the vetch plants to reveal that they had already started to nodulate and the bacteria has started to convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into a plant available form.  This works really well when the soil is aerated, (soil needs oxygen) there is a host and the right bacteria are present in the soil.

The oilseed rape plants look healthy, the weeds have virtually all been competed out and with no broad leaf weed herbicide,

due to the canopy development and we are producing nitrogen for free.  We will see how the companions develop over the winter before they are all terminated, releasing their stash of nitrogen for the oilseed rape plants to use next spring and summer.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Pondering Picking Peas

Peas emerging 19th April
For the first time we have no-tilled all of the hand picked peas up on the Bredon Hill.  Previously the crop had been cultivated to create the seedbed to plant into.  Historically the fields would have been ploughed in the autumn and left bare over winter, then cultivated ahead of the drill (planter).  More recently the fields were cultivated (quite deeply) ahead of the drill and then planted, but not any longer!  The picture above shows the peas emerging through a sprayed off cover crop of oats.  The oats were planted the previous autumn and left to grow over the winter.  The plants were using the sunshine and nutrients available to them to capture carbon, in the form of plant material-roots, stems and leaves and also feeding the biological process in the soil with sugars which the plant releases through the roots.
Peas in row 11th May
Once the crop was sprayed off with glyphostate, to kill all the green material, the seeder planted the peas.  It was a very dry spring this year but by not cultivating the soil we held all the available moisture-enough to get our crops to establish very evenly.
Peas meeting across the row 26th May
As you can see from the pictures above the crop established very well and continued to grow on and produce a very good yield of quality peas for the fresh vegetable market.  This year the fields designed for peas have once again been cover cropped with oats and they are preparing the seedbed for next years peas which we will start to plant from the end on March 2018.

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