Saturday, November 28, 2020

Why on earth does soil matter?

December 21, 2017 by  
Filed under Profiles

Soil health is a major driver for Norfolk-based Albanwise Farming Ltd. Judith Tooth reports.

Soil health is bringing agronomic and environmental benefits to more than 8000ha farmed in Norfolk and Yorkshire by Albanwise Farming Ltd for its parent company and third-party landowners.

“The complexity of our soils has been underestimated for a long time,” says managing director, Tom Dye. “We know very little about the plethora of organisms in our soils and yet we rely on them. What does organic matter mean? When is it useful to the growing crop? How do you get from organic matter to humus? How do crop rotations influence it?

“Sometimes, as farmers, maybe we’re afraid of what the answers might be? Afraid that we might be seen as bad farmers? But it’s good to learn from mistakes. And we are getting much better at not simply doing what Dad or Grandad did.

“In monetary terms soil is our most valuable asset. It’s capital value, and it’s yield. So you have to get that right, and that might mean taking short term profit pain for longer term productivity. Maybe the annual model for contracting and farm business tenancies doesn’t fit: it can be hard to argue for grass or clover leys, for example. In that respect we’re in a very fortunate position in having ownership and scale to make long term decisions.”

At the core of improvements to soil health is cover cropping, in development for the past five years across the estates at Saxlingham and Barton Bendish in Norfolk, Routh in East Yorkshire and Low Mowthorpe in North Yorkshire.

“We’ve been playing with different blends,” says Tom. “We used cereal and radish mixes, but were concerned about cereals harbouring fungal spores, and we used a vetch mix, but, with vining peas in the rotation, we weren’t happy having two legumes grown in the same six-year rotation. We’re also very conscious of free-living nematode activity, and think a mix of standard and tillage fodder radish is the way to go.

“This winter we have 200ha in Norfolk following cereals and before sugar beet or vining peas, and we have introduced livestock for the first time, too, with grazing by a neighbour’s sheep. As well as adding muck to the soil, grazing will be the means of destroying the crop before cultivation instead of mowing.”

Strategic alliances

Plans are underway to bring livestock on to all of the estates, an aim driven again by soil health, and also diversified enterprises. A new contract has been signed with Packington Pork for a 7500 pig place bed and breakfast operation at Low Mowthorpe, and Tom, in a move to be more open-minded to cooperation, is keen to develop strategic alliances with other farmers and companies.

A further enterprise under consideration is a vineyard. It’s early days, but land and climate suitability, and market sectors, are being explored by the management team with expertise from the hospitality side of the parent company.

While the estates are largely blackgrass-free, glyphosate is nevertheless an essential tool of weed control along with minimum tillage and timing of operations: “At some point we will lose glyphosate, and we must aim to farm with fewer pesticides. We’ve been tissue-analysing and working with agronomic support to incorporate more micronutrition into our crop management, for example, copper for grain quality.

“We’re also looking at soil analysis, not just for P, K and Mg, but for secondary elements and for soil chemistry interactions, such as how, say, a chalk-based soil interacts with phosphate or manganese.”

Such wide-ranging analysis, in conjunction with high quality managers who still use a spade and a pair of wellies, results in powerful management decisions, he says. Research by plant breeders looking, for example, into which key nutrients affect seed growth, cell strength or ability to fight infection, or at which growth stage they are most important, also feeds into those decisions.

“I can see within the next 10 years a Google of this world working on agricultural modelling. As an industry we’re great at harvesting information and analysing forecasts, but we don’t yet have an AI model to bring that information together to produce an un-emotive and truly independent outcome.”

Specialists

Albanwise Farming employs two full-time specialists to oversee all the Countryside Stewardship schemes on the estates – five new agreements have been signed this year, replacing completed ELS ones – and liaise regularly with local authorities, Natural England and local communities. They also look after the company’s own landscape enhancement plan, a longterm strategy to improve the landscape value of the estates through tree and hedgerow planting.

“We’re not bare minimum providers of Countryside Stewardship,” says Tom. “We believe in commercial farming coexisting with an uncompromised delivery of environmental objectives. The ownership of the company believes this is something we should be doing.”

Under the new schemes, three quarters of the grass margins established under ELS have been replaced with pollen and nectar and wild bird mixes to enhance biodiversity along wildlife corridors.

Those margins left as grass act as buffers alongside watercourses. More hedgerows are being planted each year – 500-1000m on each estate, some gapping up existing hedge lines and others breaking up large fields. At Barton Bendish 1600ha under HLS to improve wild bird populations earned Albanwise Farming the 2016 Mills and Reeve Grey Partridge Award.

“We’re also developing our cropping rotation to achieve a patchwork of crops rather than large blocks. It’s hard to quantify any agronomic benefits, and it’s less efficient with large machinery, but there has to be an element of compromise to meet biodiversity objectives.”

Motivation

Staff engaged in and motivated by the aims of the company, together with a positive attitude, are what make it a success, says Tom. Being classed as a good employer is about renumeration and social awareness: making sure operators have enough planned time away from the farm, and, equally, engagement with all levels of management, of business objectives, and the uncompromising high standards expected.

“I love to understand what motivates people and what people understand as success. It’s not one cap fits all: everyone has different drivers. For example, one operator joined in 2011 and because of the engagement between us he’s now arable manager at Barton Bendish.

“I joined in 2007 as an assistant manager and now I’m managing director, not because I’m brilliant but because of opportunities presented. This is a good business for helping people to progress.

“This summer we will take on our first management trainee from university – I know Velcourt, for example, has been doing this for years, but it’s still rare within the industry. The objective is twofold: to put us in touch with the next generation of the workforce, and to put pressure on our business to expand to provide the best opportunities for candidates. There will be a healthy synergy between their expectations and ambitions and our wish to develop our business.”

The public good is an emerging buzz phrase in agricultural policy, says Tom. However Brexit unfolds, there will be a change of emphasis, he says. It’s important that the public understands that food is still a public good and has to be produced at a cost that is sustainable, but, equally, affordable. In other words, it has to be profitable.

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