Thursday, November 15, 2018

Mixed operation increases cover crops to 200ha

September 3, 2018 by  
Filed under Crops

Cover crops will play an increasingly important role in improving soil composition and fertility at the 3000ha South Pickenham Estate, near Swaffham, Norfolk.

The 80ha sown last year will rise to 200ha this autumn if weather permits with mixes designed to add structure to the operation’s light brackland soils playing a key role, says estate farm manager Richard Cobbald.

“It just doesn’t makes sense to leave soil bare over the winter with all the associated problems such as run-off and erosion when we could be adding significantly to its organic matter content and improving drainage at the same time with a cover crop.

“We have a complex rotation with many different demands on resources so putting back what we can into the soil whenever we can fits into the business’s long-term objective of a more integrated farming approach whilst delivering noticeable benefits year on year.”

The approach also has a vital role to play preparing land to be rented out for vegetable production, says Mr Cobbald.

“A significant part of our business is renting out around 550ha for potatoes, onions and carrots and the associated water sales from the reservoirs and bore-holes we have on the estate.

“After our own cropping, the cover crops get the soil in the best condition possible for handing over for the next year’s spring cultivations and sowing.”

Rotation and stewardship

The estate’s own rotations are currently based around 550ha of winter wheat for feed, 350ha of oilseed rape, 130ha of winter barley and 130ha of spring barley for malting. Around 250ha of sugar beet and 100ha of vining peas are also grown.

Alongside the arable cropping, there is also land in higher level stewardship, a 600 head organic beef herd, a growing vineyard and wine business – plus grain storage and log supply operations.

“It’s all a bit complex and we don’t have a set rotation or blueprint for any crop. My thinking is to approach each field as a separate little business and do what is best for it.

“Consequently, we’ve got a range of equipment and while some fields will be strip-tilled, others will be direct drilled and another might be ploughed or sub-soiled – we do whatever is right for the land in question.”

This thinking extends into the choice and management of the cover crops. “We’ll use something cheap and cheerful like oats and rye vetch mixes if it’s just to provide a cover crop for drilling sugarbeet into or if soil improvement is the objective, we’ll use a more complex mix.”

Rooting structure

In recent years mixes have included DSV Terralife BetaMaxx DT to provide rooting at different depths to break up and condition the soil and the company’s Rigol DT is now extensively used.

Emma Bedford of seed breeder DSV says the rooting structure of Rigol DT is ideally suited to breaking down compacted soils. “It’s a multi-species mix designed to condition the soil through different modes of action of its constituents.

“Deeptill radish, serradella, flax and sunflowers till the soil biologically so the follow-on crop can use the ready-made root chambers to penetrate deep into the ground whilst the other plant species in the mix provide rapid shading and a network of fine roots nearer the surface.”

As well as the obvious benefits of improving soil structure and adding fertility through nitrogen fixation and the addition of organic matter, such advanced cover crops have other significant advantages over less sophisticated options, she believes.

“For a start, it’s been shown that nitrogen uptake in multi-species mixes is up to a third higher than in mixes with just two constituents.

Further benefits

“Mixes that produce fine rooting in the upper layers of the soil as well as deeper down, can have a significant effect on stabilising soil pH. Soil pHs less than 5.5 stress plants making them more susceptible to fungal diseases and growth checks.

“The fine roots produced by Rigol DT stop the upper soil layers becoming anaerobic and this can have a major impact on plant health in subsequent crops.”

Covering the soil also reduces the temperature of the ground, says Ms Bedford.

“Water infiltration is influenced to a degree by the amount of folic acid in the soil and this reduces the hotter the ground gets so if you can lower temperatures you’re keeping your soils much healthier than if they’re exposed to too much sun.

“Another key benefit comes from the vetch in mixes like BetaSola which has been shown to have a significant effect in reducing disease levels and blight in particular in following crops of potatoes.”

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