Monday, July 15, 2019

Thelveton Farms: Short-term cropping for long-term benefit

December 3, 2018 by  
Filed under Profiles

Capturing nutrients is a key priority for farm manager at Thelveton Farms, Oliver Scott. Judith Tooth went to meet him.

It’s the last day of drilling winter wheat at Thelveton Farms near Diss. Almost half of the sugar beet fields have been lifted and the next crop sown. What’s left will go into spring barley: the days of late sowing, slower growing, lower yielding winter cereals have gone.

“We’re definitely in a process of transformation,” says farm manager, Oliver Scott. “When I first took over two and a half years ago, a large part of the rotation was in second wheats, or late drilled wheat after sugar beet, once every four or five years. Now it’s gone, or it will only be grown one year in seven.

“It’s been replaced with winter or spring beans on the medium land, giving us a break crop after a straw crop. Beans may not produce the best gross margin, but they are a good tool for controlling black grass and extending the rotation, and they fix nitrogen.

“The principle is the same on the light land, but we’re letting it for vegetables – mainly potatoes and carrots – instead of growing beans. We have a 12 million gallon reservoir for irrigation and have just got a DEFRA grant for a second, which we hope will be built by spring 2020, to expand the potential for growing vegetables, and for the longevity of the estate.”

In practice, it’s quite flexible as to whether a winter or a spring crop goes in, depending on soil type or particular issues. For example, three fields with a heavy black grass burden were fallowed after wheat last winter, lightly cultivated, left to green up, sprayed off and then sown to spring beans. Winter wheat was drilled again but, with a lot of black grass still, half of one of the fields was foraged as whole crop for the cattle in the spring rather than using a lot of chemicals. As it turned out the extra forage was very useful in the drought, and points to the valuable relationship between arable and livestock on the farm.

The remaining half of the field was combined as usual, then cultivated and drilled into home-saved oats in mid-August. With the rain that followed the black grass smothered the oats, so the field was sprayed off and drilled again with oats in mid-October. They will act as a cover crop overwinter before being sprayed off in the spring and the field sown to spring barley.

“It’s short-term cover cropping for long-term benefit,” says Oliver.

Oliver, who learned the value of cover crops in his previous job at the Holkham Estate in North Norfolk, has used them to replace much of the ploughing on the farm. Grown in front  of spring cropping, they provide green manure, hold on to nutrients and improve soil structure – soil that could otherwise slump and wash into the River Waveney.

“Not all farmers believe in cover crops, and there is no direct payback – it’s not like combining a wheat field – but it’s another part of the principle of longevity. There are costs to growing them, but then we’re saving on cultivation costs. With more extremes of weather, and farming as we do in a nitrate vulnerable zone, the more land that’s capturing nutrients – nutrients we’ve paid to put on – rather than them leaching into ditches and the river, the better.

“We’re growing a mix of BCN-reducer varieties of oil radish with oat and vetch. The deep-rooting oil radish breaks up the soil and holds on to nutrients while the oat and vetch spread their roots closer to the surface.

“My long-term goal is to graze off the cover crops with sheep instead of spraying: we can use glyphosate for now but will the licence be renewed in five years’ time? I’d rather be proactive: I think cattle would be too heavy, and in any case they come in for the winter, but if I could find someone to work with, sheep would be a good option.”

The cattle, 390 commercial suckler cows and a small pedigree Charolais herd for breeding bulls to cross with them, graze permanent pasture along the River Waveney and overwinter and calve indoors. After weaning in the autumn, the youngstock are finished indoors at around 14 months old, while heifer replacements are bought in for the suckler herd.

All straw crops are baled for the cattle, and the resulting farmyard manure, as well as chicken or turkey muck and Limex, spread on the arable land twice in the seven year rotation.

Moving away from a plough and power harrow-based system for later drilled or spring crops has meant investing in new machinery. The Vaderstad Cultus has been replaced by a Vaderstad Opus, a big tine cultivator with a press, which mixes the top 15cm or so of soil. More horse power has been introduced to pull the Opus more quickly, covering more ground and enabling more timeliness of operations – ‘fast cultivations’, as Oliver calls them. In place of three tractors ranging from 160 to 360hp there are now two 260-300hp models. And the prime moving machine for the Opus, in place of the 340hp Claas crawler, is a secondhand 550hp Quadtrac.

“The Quadtrac gives maybe more horsepower than we need but we’re using fewer engine revs, less fuel and we’re more in control of the job. And of the three tractors we sold, one was used with a trailed sprayer, so we sold that, too, and built an 18,000 litre bowser with its own mixer hopper that now follows the self-propelled sprayer. While we can carry 40ha [worth of treatment] on the sprayer, the bowser holds 180ha worth, so it saves us four journeys back to the farmyard.

“I’ve been very lucky to be able to come in and within a month to be selling the main cultivation equipment. There was an openness for change.”

The whole farm has been mapped with SoilQuest and the results used for variable seed rates with potential yield gains of 0.5t/ha for winter wheat and winter barley on the heavier soils. Yield mapping is adding a further set of data, but it will take five or six years to develop a comprehensive picture. In time soil maps and yield maps will be overlaid for even greater precision.

The estate has invested in a community broadband project through not-for-profit organisation B4RN East Anglia. With land surrounding several local villages, and nearly 90 properties in its portfolio, a lot of trenching has been needed for the 1000 megabit per second fibre optic service. It should reach the farm office by December and all the cottages by early 2019, and will be a welcome upgrade from the hitherto “dreadful” connection.

Small arable fields surrounded by hedges characterise the 2430ha estate. As well as pollen and nectar and wild bird mixes, floristically enhanced margins, uncultivated field corners and cereal plots under ELS and HLS, there are nearly 300ha of woodland, and 180ha of fallow land to help with the family shoot and benefit wildlife in general.

“I think conservation is going to be a big part of future income on big estates,” says Oliver. “There will be a 100 per cent focus on it.”

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