Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Lampits Farm: learning the pluses of fewer passes

December 3, 2018 by  
Filed under Profiles

It takes time to develop new farming systems. Judith Tooth talks to one Suffolk arable farmer about his journey.

Richard Scott doesn’t remember ever growing spring barley before last year. But the days of wheat, wheat, oilseed rape on the 640ha of free-draining sandy clay loams and clays he farms between Eye and Debenham are in the past. Making a comeback are ‘farming’ methods.

“Black grass is really driving everything,” he says. “It is manageable with the right rotation,  but with no new active ingredients on the horizon for black grass control, and the threat of losing current ones, we can’t use agrochemicals to get us out of jail so we’re having to use rotational and cultural control.

“We already have spring cropping with sugar beet and vining peas, but adding spring barley to the rotation spreads the autumn workload and reduces the pressure of having to drill winter wheat earlier. It’s well documented that where you drill earlier you get more black grass.

“While drilling dates are important, the key to spring barley is to spray off with glyphosate before drilling, and then use a pre-emergence herbicide and increase seed rates in the black grass areas to encourage more tillering and competition. So far that’s giving us a good level of control, in conjunction with variable seed rates using the SOYL system.”

Yields are probably down seven to 10 per cent on last year, closer to nine rather than 10t/ha. But, with no drying costs, the yield penalty from earlier harvesting was partly offset by savings in diesel and very good land conditions in the autumn. And, farming on heavier land, Richard would rather drier than wetter conditions.

“I don’t remember a better autumn where the rain has come, and in such a timely fashion – even on a Sunday! What is interesting, though, is the overall deficit in rainfall this year against the longterm average. According to my neighbour’s records, between 1998 and 2014 we had one July with only 5mm, but we made up for it the following month. This year we haven’t made up for there being no rain in May, June, July or August.”

With sugar beet and peas in the rotation, and the expense of investing in machinery of compatible widths, full controlled traffic farming is not possible at this stage. But, along with attention to detail, farm policy is to minimise passes in the field, and, in particular, to pay close attention to tyre pressures and developments in tyre technology. Richard is particularly impressed with the Bridgestone tyres – VF650 65 R38Ds – he’s using on the farm’s trailed sprayer.

“They can run at low pressures, down to 13psi, and you can go from field to road without adjusting them. That’s helped us a lot as before we would probably have just gone for the average, so we’re improving what we do.

“We’re also trying to reduce the weight of the machines we use. The two Fendt 724 tractors, when they’re not weighted up, and with half a tank of fuel, each weigh 8t. That’s not a lot. We also have a John Deere 7250. So rather than one heavy machine, we spread horsepower across the equipment.”

Workability of the soil is improving from a longterm policy of leaving all crop residues in the field. Organic matter content is tested rotationally at the same grid references every three years, and so far it is not going down. A more recent development, in line with minimising passes, is to reduce tillage.

“I know a lot of others are further down the road than me, but I didn’t want to rush in. You need to work out what’s right for your farm. The one thing you mustn’t do is compromise yield. But we’ve been direct drilling oilseed rape for four years now, applying liquid fertiliser at the same time as drilling, using a HE-VA Combi-Disc cultivator with Accu-Discs fitted directly behind the legs and points.

“It takes a long time to establish a system, but we have now tried it over four different years from very wet to very dry and can now say it works. I can see how well the crop does in very dry conditions if you don’t disturb the soil structure, compared with where the soil has been disturbed and has lost moisture and structure, and the plants can’t establish as quickly.

“Fertiliser – 14 14 0 – is placed directly on the drill rows from a front-mounted tank on the Fendt. We finished sowing on 24 August and the crop established well and survived the flea beetle onslaught.”

Now, with the low disturbance system for oilseed rape establishment in place, Richard is experimenting with direct drilling wheat into oilseed rape stubble. Last autumn, he compared performance of variety Siskin in one field where he used a direct drill on demonstration, with another field of similar soil type cultivated, drilled and rolled.

“It wasn’t a scientific trial, just on-farm observation, but there was a yield improvement of 0.33t/ha in the direct drilled crop, in a dry year. Where we didn’t disturb the soil, the crop held on longer, and that’s where the extra yield came from. Is it a one-off or can we repeat it? For me, the important thing is that we didn’t lose yield.

“This autumn we’ve had two further models on demonstration and we’ve expanded the area direct drilled. I’ve learnt that if a field is in good enough order direct drilling is a real possibility. We will probably end up with a ‘hybrid system’. If we could get a grant for a direct drill, as some farmers have already, it would help us reach a decision.”

New this autumn is the first cover crop Richard has ever sown: a mix of oats, vetch and phacelia from Walnes Seeds. Grown principally to ensure he had comfortably met his Ecological Focus Area target, the two fields established so well that they could be grazed by a flock of sheep owned by neighbouring farmer Stuart Eglington, before being ploughed in preparation for drilling sugar beet next spring.

“I was looking for something to offer a bit of soil conditioning as well as just ticking the EFA box, and where the seed cost wasn’t prohibitive. We’re not losing nitrogen from the previous crop, we’re harvesting sunlight for organic matter, and we have the manure value from the sheep.

“The AHDB has been doing a lot of good work on this, and their good work helps us make decisions here. We’re all at a crossroads, really, and ultimately I think we will all be pushed down the road of catch/cover crops anyway.”

The farm moved this year from ELS into Mid Tier Countryside Stewardship. Under the scheme the farm has two fields sown to a two-year sown rotational legume fallow, flower rich margins and grass buffer strips, winter bird food and a watercourse buffer along a tributary of the River Dove. Coppicing and gapping up of hedgerows is due to begin this winter. But problems with paperwork and late payments are “a bit of a disaster”.

“It was May before I knew we’d been accepted on to the scheme, and by then it was difficult to establish all the options in the drought conditions. We should have had six months’ payment in June and we’re still waiting.

“But it’s the right direction to go: we have to take some responsibility for the environment. It’s just a shame it’s being so mismanaged.”

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