Wednesday, September 26, 2018

LEAF farm opens gates to show and share

September 3, 2018 by  
Filed under Profiles

Judith Tooth visits a new LEAF demonstration farm in Essex where sustainability takes centre stage.

When EW Davies Farms was LEAF Marque certified in 2012, the primary motive was financial: the farm was growing a lot of oilseed rape and food processor ADM was offering a premium to farms signed up to the environmental assurance system.

But it was also about a shared ethos, and now the business, centred at The Hydes, near Thaxted, has become a LEAF demonstration farm.

“As a business, and individually, we share a lot of beliefs about sustainable farming,” says farm manager for the past nine years, Jeremy Durrant. “Environmentally, financially, socially, we were already ticking a lot of the boxes.

“As we’ve always been early adopters of technology – certainly since I’ve been here – we’ve always had farmers and different groups coming round. For the past five or six years we’ve been working with Writtle College and, most recently, with schools. So we thought, let’s do it properly, let’s make it official.”

Starting with Thaxted Primary School, children from further afield have since visited the farm via education charity the Country Trust. The programme, supported by Warburtons – for which milling wheat is grown at the family’s Waltham Abbey farm – helps bring disadvantaged young children into the working countryside.

‘Massive support’

“We had our first group of children from Colchester in June, and there was a really noticeable difference in their knowledge of the countryside compared with those from the local school. They had definitely not been on a farm before.

“What they like to see varies every time – sheep, machinery, environmental features… we do a lot of hands-on activities, including pond dipping from a platform we built at the edge of one of the reservoirs.

“The farm staff get a real sense of giving something back. And we’ve now hosted two Open Farm Sundays, with massive support from the farming industry. The most recent one attracted 900 visitors.”

As well as welcoming visitors, Jeremy is keen to visit other farms, both in the UK and abroad. He’s part of a small group of farmers who, together with agronomist, Prime Agriculture’s Steve Baldock, make regular study trips. Following a recent tour of France, he is planning to experiment with companion cropping oilseed rape with spring beans.

“We also meet on each other’s farms throughout the year to compare performance. We really trust and value each other’s opinions, and that’s especially good during difficult times.”

A big take-home message from a visit to Canada was that the more diverse he could make the business, the stronger it would be, and this led to reintroducing livestock to the farm.

Coming from a mixed dairy and arable farm in Dorset, it had always struck Jeremy that farming was easier, and more sustainable, back home. Here, the infrastructure for cattle was lacking, but keeping sheep was possible.

Flock managment

“We started five years ago with 30 ewes, and we’ve built up gradually to 300. As a predominantly arable farm we chose Poll Dorsets so that lambing wouldn’t clash with spring drilling and spraying, we would make better use of the cover crops we grow on the light land we contract-farm at Spains Hall, and we would have lambs ready for the Easter market.

“Having sheep also helps with labour costs: we’ve been through trying to reduce labour as tight as we can, to the extreme of having me and one full-time operator, and it might save money but you don’t get the performance.

“The farm needs running through the winter months. We have three full-time staff now, with one man spending 15-20 per cent of his time with the sheep, which pays for his salary.

“One problem is that we’re not in a typical livestock area, and finding fenced fields of grass is hard. We only have one grass ley at a time so that’s where cover crops come in. Our highest feed demand is in January and February, when the grass is not growing, so we have 60ha of rye and vetch, stubble turnips and multi-species mixes on light land at Spains Hall.”

A box scheme guarantees the price of around 50 lambs sold locally, but sales via a local butcher to premium markets such as London restaurants are the main focus now.

The farm has four Countryside Stewardship mid-tier agreements, and more in the application process. They are used as a way of taking out non-productive land and “doing something better with it”.

All the land is yield-mapped, and all loads measured on the weighbridge at harvest. Any area under-performing consistently is investigated, rectified if possible, and, if not, it’s not cropped. So awkward corners or whole fields are sown to wild bird seed, pollen and nectar and herb-rich grass mixes, or might go into permanent grassland for the sheep.

“We’re not trying to crop for the sake of cropping it,” says Jeremy. “It’s as much not wanting to lose money on non-productive areas. We’ve seen a lot of environmental improvements on the back of it, recorded by a photographer who spent a year monitoring wildlife on the farm.”

The first steps towards a 12m controlled traffic farming system, now well-established across the 1200ha of owned or contract-farmed land, were taken in 2011.

“I’m not saying we don’t have problems, but as a system CTF enables us to cut cultivation costs while maintaining and improving soil structure. When we were driving on every inch – we’re on clay soils – we were having to cultivate to nine or 10 inches and subsoil regularly to restructure the soils and remove compaction. We were building up cloddy soils and slug populations.”

Looking forward

“For the past five years we’ve used a very shallow tine cultivator and I can see the soil improving. Average yields longterm are upwards and our fuel bills are significantly lower: before we were working flat out 18 hours a day to do 30 or 40ha of work, and now we can cultivate 100ha in a 12 hour day.”

Rather than a strict rotation, crops are now grown according to each field’s merits. The aim is always to try and get back to wheat, and to grow second wheats where possible, with break crops based on location, soil type, weed background and seasonal conditions.

Jeremy has been trialling the first Chaffdeck in Europe in collaboration with Australian manufacturer Emau and Frontier. It’s a simple modification to the combine, replacing the chaff spreaders with two conveyor belts that deliver the chaff into two narrow rows that correspond with the controlled traffic wheelings. There the seeds are less likely to germinate.

“The idea is that weed seed management begins at harvest. Results so far are limited for blackgrass because it starts shedding seed before harvest, but certainly for the first half of harvest we are collecting seed in the wheelings. But for other grass weeds, yes, we’re seeing the benefit.

“It’s a very affordable option and it doesn’t have to add a lot of value to pay for itself.”

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