Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Sharing no-till experience encourages resilient approach to farming

May 31, 2018 by  
Filed under Profiles

The latest advances in no-till agriculture will be showcased at this month’s Groundswell event in Hertfordshire.

More than 1000 visitors are expected to descend on a Hertfordshire farm this month to learn more about no-till agriculture – and how it can benefit their business.

The third annual Groundswell Show takes place at Lannock Manor Farm, Weston, near Hitchin, Hertfordshire, on 27-28 June. It has rapidly become a must-attend event since it was first held in 2016 – attracting visitors from across the world as well as from all four countries of the UK.

Brothers John and Paul Cherry have been farming together here since 1984. Starting with 320ha, they have seen the family-run business increase to some 1000ha – comprising 800ha of arable crops plus approximately 200ha of grassland.

The Groundswell event came about almost by chance, explains John. But the brothers don’t claim to have all the answers when it comes to no-till – despite being strong advocates of the system which is proving popular with an increasing number of growers.

“We had experimented with different ways of reducing inputs for a long time. We’re not on prime land here and we knew we had to make our business more resilient if we were to remain profitable. We tried the high-input high-output system for a while and it wasn’t always successful.”

Making the switch

John and Paul had direct drilled in the 1980s using a neighbour’s disc-based Bettinson drill. But they had also returned to ploughing after the stubble burning ban came into effect in the early 1990s before eventually switching to minimum tillage and finally no-till.

“We’re on chalky boulder clay and we were often making mud rather than seedbeds,” says John. “And once we started using isoproturons (IPUs) it got harder. It became obvious we were fighting a rearguard action and we knew things had to change.”

Visits to no-till pioneer farmers Tony Reynolds and Simon Cowell in Essex persuaded the brothers that no-till might be the way forward. “Once the idea got in our heads, we couldn’t get it out – so we decided to give it a go,” says Paul. And now they are sharing their experience with others.

Lannock Manor Farm was taken on by the brothers 8 years ago and converted from a plough based system to no-till, the rest of their land hasn’t seen a plough for 20 years. Rather than burning straw, today half of it is baled and used for the farm’s 150-head beef suckler herd, the rest chopped and returned to feed the soil. Cover crops are plentiful and inputs are kept to a minimum – although only when sensible.

Luck and experience

Luck played a big part during the first two years of the switch to no-till – largely due to good weather. Then things started to go wrong and the brothers realised there was a lot more to no-till farming than simply not cultivating – including careful management of crops and soil.

Paul’s son Alex Cherry came back from a job in the City to help organise the first Groundswell event in 2016. He has stayed ever since – establishing the event and ensuring its appeal to a broad range of farmers, from dedicated no-till specialists to those considering making the switch.

“You don’t have to be 100% no-till to do it – it’s the sort of thing you can dip your toe in,” he says. “I wouldn’t say we have cracked it – Groundswell is not about preaching, it’s about sharing advice and bringing people together so we can all learn from each others’ experiences.”

Now fully no-till for seven years, the arable rotation at Lannock Manor Farm differs from field to field – but is based around first wheats, followed by cover crops where possible, spring crops such as beans and a range of other cereals, such as oats and barley, according to the weed burden.

Wheat this year is all Crusoe, yielding about 8t/ha with 12t/ha being unusual but achievable. Some spelt and other heritage varieties are grown on the basis they are low-yielding and require few inputs but are high value crops with a ready albeit specialist market.

Building fertility

Agrochemicals such as glyphosate have a key role, but John and Paul aren’t afraid of borrowing a trick or two from the organic sector – including establishing a four-year herbal ley to suppress weeds and build soil fertility.

“We are not organic but we firmly believe that healthier soils grow healthier crops. We grow traditional wheats that aren’t addicted to bagged nitrogen.We don’t like bouncing around on tractors much – and we don’t like spending money either.”

The thinking is that if costs are lower, then the business is more resilient. “Once you start obsessing about soil, you become more interested in it. And it’s good not to be skinning knuckles any longer undoing nuts and bolts on a cultivator.”

Rape is grown – although the farm is in a hotspot area for cabbage stem flea beetle. The pest is combatted using a companion crop mix that includes buckwheat, berseem clover and vetches. “If flea beetle does take the rape, then at least we’ve got a cover crop,” says John.

Despite being seven years in, however, both brothers say their system is still very much in transition. “Until we visited Kansas on a no-till tour last year, we hadn’t realised how hidebound we have become as on wheat-wheat-rape,” says Paul.

Flexible approach

The key to success is being flexible. Spring was so late this year there was no opportunity to grow spring beans so a multi-species cover-crop was sown instead. It will be grazed and then go into wheat the following season.

Crops are established using a tried and tested John Deere 750A drill. “Farmers love shiny kit but when it comes down to it, all you have to do is cut a slit, drop in the seed and press it down – and hold your nerve in the spring.”

Soil health has improved – and although blackgrass, brome and slugs remain a challenge at times, a more balanced approach has and the move to spring cropping has meant they can be more effectively managed than in the past.

“The longer we carry on, the softer the soil becomes, says John. “Sometimes it’s hard to believe how much farming has changed in the 40 years since we’ve been doing it – but then again, I think it will change much more again in the next 40 years.”

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