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Arable growers are being encouraged to make sure they choose the right options available under the new Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI). More than 150... How to choose SFI options that fit your farm

Arable growers are being encouraged to make sure they choose the right options available under the new Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI).

More than 150 growers attending a recent open day in Cambridgeshire examined the latest opportunities within the SFI – and ways to select the options that deliver the greatest benefits to individual farm businesses.

Organised byagronomy company Hutchinsons, the event was hosted by PF England & Son on the family’s 180ha farm at Warboys. Growers were advised to approach the SFI by keeping it simple at the start and build things up gradually.

“There are many SFI options that can help mitigate the loss of BPS, but you have to do what’s right for your farm and not just chase the payments on offer,” explained Hutchinsons environmental services specialist Matt Powell.

“Begin by looking at what you are doing on the farm already, and then identify where it might be possible to integrate options that align with the aims of the business, whether that’s soil health, the environment, or crop productivity.

“Be clear about what you’re doing it for, and what you want from it, rather than simply doing the bare minimum to tick a box that will get you the most money.”

Easy wins

There could be some easy wins though, especially where SFI options cover things that farmers are – or should be – doing already. Red Tractor standards, for example, require an Integrated Pest Management Plan to be in place.

“The SFI offers £989 per year towards this,” said Mr Powell. “Likewise, for farmers already assessing soils on a regular basis and doing a soil management plan, there’s £5.80/ha, plus £95 per agreement, available towards that.”

Mr Powell acknowledges that the soils payment has been reduced from previous rates. But he says it is still worth doing, not least because understanding soils is fundamental to growing productive crops.

“Don’t forget, payments are often designed to subsidise the cost of doing various options, rather than being set at a level where it’s a money-making exercise.”

While some payments would go towards things that farmers are doing already, other options could be used as a catalyst for change, to deliver wider benefits for soil health, the environment, or crop yields.

Careful thought is needed though, to select options that maximise these wider benefits, said Mr Powell.

Weighing up options

Cover crops are a prime example of why it is important to target measures to individual situations.

Multi-species winter cover crops are likely to be a popular SFI option among arable farmers. they attract an annual payment of £129/ha under the 2023 scheme. But again care must be taken to decide the most appropriate eligible mix.

“If you’ve not grown cover crops before, it’s worth trying a small area first, and maybe experiment with two or three different mixes to see what works in your soils and growing conditions

“Multi-species mixes are best, because if you compromise on the number of species, there is a greater risk that you don’t achieve the cover required if there are problems during establishment.”

Hutchinsons technical manager Dick Neale says anyone considering SFI cover crop options must be clear about what they want to achieve – and their own growing conditions – before deciding on the most species mix and management approach.

Cover mixes

Leguminous plants, for example, often struggled to perform immediately on soils that had not grown legumes for a number of years, due to the lack of rhizospheric bacteria needed for nitrogen fixing symbiosis in the soil, says Mr Neale.

This has been seen at the Warboys site. It features field trials of several cover mixes eligible for SFI options, such as legume fallow, which is worth £593/ha.

In such cases, Mr Neale says it is better to introduce legumes slowly to let bacteria populations build, rather than going all-in with a legume-based option that may then struggle to establish, potentially jeopardising the payment.

There are also key differences within individual plant species that areimportant to recognise. Mustard, which is in many cover crop mixes, is just one example, explains Mr Neale.

“Both brown and white mustard are brassicas, but brown mustard produces softer stems that generally snap easily when you drill into the cover; whereas white mustard produces more lignified, upright stems that can be problematic if not managed correctly.

“Nutrients in brown mustard may also be released more readily than in white mustard due to the latter taking longer to breakdown. Both have a place, but must be used appropriately.”

Fodder and tillage radishes are another example, added Mr Neale.

Both produce a punchy tap root that could penetrate the soil profile, but tillage radish generally has a shorter growth habit than the tall stems of fodder radish Tjos could pose issues for those looking to direct drill into cover with a tined machine.

“Again, these examples highlight the importance of taking your time to get any SFI option right, rather than just doing the minimum to chase the money available,” said Mr Neale.

Other benefits

The annual payment available via the SFI is just one of many wider benefits that cover crops can offer to soil health, nutrition and following crops. Quantifying these is challenging, but a cover crop assessment can give a valuable insight.

Analysis of a MaxiCatchCrop mix grown at Warboys found that it had put on 22.8t/ha of freshweight between the end of July and September, equivalent to 5 t/ha dry weight.

This contained 1.6 t/ha of carbon, equivalent to around 20 t/ha of farmyard manure, said Mr Neale.

“It just shows, that even with a relatively short-lived catch crop, it is possible for an arable farm without livestock to grow large amounts of its own carbon, which is so crucial to feeding healthy soils.”

The analysis also revealed that the cover contained 143 kg/ha of nitrogen, 115 kg/ha potassium and 15 kg/ha phosphate.  Mr Neale says the plants took a lot of that nutrition out of the soil – but it isn’t being lost.

“It’s surprising how quickly that material will breakdown and release nutrients back into the soil, providing you’ve chosen the right mix and manage it correctly from sowing through to termination.

“The economic value of cover and catch crops can be significant, but it’s difficult to demonstrate, so if you’re growing a cover crop, it’s worth getting it assessed to see what the cover is delivering.”