Otley: Projects start to deliver benefits for cereal growers

Ron Stobart, left, head of agronomy for NIAB TAG, and David Jones, Morley Farms farm manager, checki

Ron Stobart, left, head of agronomy for NIAB TAG, and David Jones, Morley Farms farm manager, checking the oil seed rape plant, roots and soil. Picture: Denise Bradley - Credit: Archant 2013

Two long-term practical research projects in East Anglia could give farmers the right tools to care for their soils.

Ron Stobart, head of agronomy for NIAB TAG, checking the oil seed rape Plant roots and soil. Pictur

Ron Stobart, head of agronomy for NIAB TAG, checking the oil seed rape Plant roots and soil. Picture: Denise Bradley - Credit: Archant 2013

A sustained programme to improve the “bedrock of good farming” is starting to deliver some modest benefits for cereal growers in the first five years of a research project.

Two of only three projects in Britain are being carried out at the home of the Morley Agricultural Foundation, near Wymondham, and at Otley, near Woodbridge, and also outside Edinburgh at the James Hutton Institute.

Ron Stobart, head of knowledge transfer and training for NIAB TAG (National Institute of Agricultural Botany and The Arable Group) leads East Anglia’s projects. Farming charities provided initial funding but furrther backing from industry will enable the impacts across the whole rotation, he said.

“We’ve never had the opportunity to do his sort of work before. It is fantastic. We’ve just recently received funding from the HGCA (Home-Grown Cereals Authority) to carry out more detailed soil assessments not just in single crops but also right across the rotation,” added Mr Stobart.

There has been growing recognition that farmers may have been too heavy-handed in managing soils over the past couple of decades, partly because of the financial pressures on the industry in the past quarter of a century. Now, farmers are more aware of the need for more “tender, loving care” for soils and structure. The early trial results have shown it also makes sound financial sense too.

In a briefing to specialist barley growers at Morley’s Manor Farm, Mr Stobart said that as soils deteriorate, cultivation costs increase and then it is more expensive to reverse the damage. “And yields go down. The returns to the grower - the bit left in the pocket – will continue to fall. What it does show is that soils, excusing the pun, are the bedrock of good farming and could be the key to build yields in crops,” he added.

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The trials aim to help farmers understand how slight changes to systems can pay dividends. Mr Stobart said that in New Zealand, it had been possible to assess the financial damage caused by “structural soil degradation” and show the impact on crop production costs.

Mr Stobart said that farmers should consider their energy production. Calculations from Cranfield University on growing a crop of spring barley indicate that fertiliser accounted for 41pc of the energy used with 27pc for field diesel, machinery 14pc, storage and processing 12pc and pesticides 6pc.

“Energy also has implications for things like costs of production, the returns from that production. It has impacts in a number of ways, both in our pockets and what we do in the field,” he said.

But farmers must also consider the impact of a broader rotational system. “We’re really lucky at Morley. We have some long-term rotational systems work – the New Farming Systems project - funded by two agricultural charities, the Morley Agricultural Foundation and the JC Mann Trust.”

“This is looking at the range of systems and how production systems are structured. It looks at cultivation and establishment systems. It is looking at cover crops and how do we build fertility,” said Mr Stobart.

Typically, farmers can cut costs by switching from ploughing, which involves moving massive tonnages of soil, to various shallower cultivations. By shallow cultivation of the top few inches of soil, it can save about two-thirds of the energy. However, this is not always possible, particularly because the plough sometimes give better control of some weeds.

While the overall yield impact of different systems must be considered, sometimes the ultimate savings might be more modest. “To be fair a 20pc saving is still quite appreciable. You have got to look at the yield output as well the energy going into production,” said Mr Stobart.

The New Farming Systems is one of three long-term rotational projects, which Morley started five years ago. In central Suffolk, on a heavier land site, the Star (Sustainability Trial in Arable Rotations) project at Stanaway Farm, Otley, near Ipswich, has been running since autumn 2005. Funded by the Felix Cobbold Trust and also the Chadacre Trust, it is managed by Mr Stobart. The third, which has been running for 10 years, is at the James Hutton Institute.

The trials also look at cover crops. “We have used cover crops for what you might call bio-cultivation. Planting deep rooting cover crops will put structure deep into soils and get roots deeper than they would normally reach with standard cultivation techniques.” If plants can create cracks and fissures deeper into the soil structure, it improves conditions to grow crops, improves drainage and natural moisture retention, he said.

“When we used shallow tillage with a (fodder radish) cover crop it was the highest yielding and least variable. So we are getting some soil conditioning effects by using deep-rooted cover crops,” he added.

Further, these cover crops help to build fertility. When crops were grown without nitrogen fertiliser, the average yield was almost one tonne per hectare higher at 3.33t to 4.16t per hectare.

The trials included cover crops, some with a special legume mix including trefoil, and another with a non-legume seed with fodder radish. “We’ve looked at this in wheat and barley and in different crops. We are seeing quite tangible improvements in our soil condition.

“The cover cropping is getting more moisture into the soil more quickly. This has got several benefits and on the lightest soils at Morley moisture is being retained. It is being kept in the soil and then it is available for when the crop needs it.

“I think it is part of the reason why we’re seeing yield responses and secondly, from a diffuse pollution point of view that water is going in and going down. It is not running off and taking nutrients with it as well.”

There are also longer-lasting benefits for successive crops. “That is giving an increase, typically about £60 to £80 per hectare improvement in margin,” said Mr Stobart. But, he warned: “Arguably, this probably just covers the extra cost of putting in the cover crop system.”

Other trials examined way to improve the soil by incorporating green waste compost, turkey manure, paper crumble and straw. Spreading compost has improved phosphate, potash and soil organic content on the surface. In the top 10cm of soil, organic matter level increased from 2.57pc to 4.2pc while in the next layer between 10cm and 20cm, there was a very modest improvement of about 0.25pc.

An open day at the STAR project takes place on Tuesday, July 9 at 2pm.