Spotlight on blackgrass at Soil Association ‘field lab’ event

Organic farmer John Pawsey, of Shimpling Park Farm, explains cultural methods to control blackgrass

Organic farmer John Pawsey, of Shimpling Park Farm, explains cultural methods to control blackgrass. - Credit: Archant

Organic and non-organic farmers came together in March to share ideas and knowledge about the control of blackgrass.

A “field lab” at Shimpling Park Farm, near Bury St Edmunds, illustrated the types of on-farm research needed to help find a solution to the problem of blackgrass which is common to many arable farmers.

Field labs are open to all farmers and growers to share ideas, pinpoint practical challenges and carry out field experiments into low-input and organic techniques.

Through the Duchy Future Farming Programme the right knowledge and funding is available to run robust on-farm trials and look at practical solutions to improve production and reduce reliance on external inputs. Groups meet up to four times during the trials to track progress and compare notes working out effective practical approaches to tackling a problem.

As part of the day at Shimpling Park Farm, the group was taken on a farm walk. John Pawsey, who hosted the field lab, spoke about his experience of bringing sheep on to the farm, something he hopes may help with the control of blackgrass.

The sheep are currently being used to graze areas of winter wheat sown in September and October, and the group was able to discuss the results and likely consequences with input from technical experts including Nick Fradgley of the Organic Research Centre (ORC) and Stephen Moss, a blackgrass expert at Rothamstead Research Centre.

The hope is that bringing sheep on to the farm will enable suitable new methods of blackgrass control to be found while also giving Mr Pawsey the opportunity to lengthen the ley phase, maximising his profit during fallowing.

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Mr Fradgley, who facilitated the meeting, said: “It’s not a case of telling you how to farm or best practice. It’s about exchange of knowledge.

“We can offer research and analysis skills to farmers to work together, on the farm to look at the particular problems that the farmer is facing.

“Every farm is different and the benefit of these types of field lab gives a real indication of what works in practice.

“We are extremely grateful to John who is an enthusiastic and innovative farmer willing to try new techniques on his farm and help us research further ideas that could see huge benefits to many farmers.”

Dr Moss presented a range of non-chemical methods of control to the group. Ploughing, delayed drilling, higher seed rates, competitive cultivars, spring cropping and fallowing are all different methods available to tackle blackgrass.

He said: “The problem of herbicide resistance is a big one, especially in blackgrass. First found in 1982, some degree of resistance is now present on virtually all farms in England.

“But it isn’t about just telling farmers what to do; they need to be able to understand the underlying biological principals so that they can devise the best strategy on their own farm. Non-chemical methods really can make a difference but they often need to be used in combination to achieve adequate control and a three to five year strategy is needed to really reduce populations,” added Dr Moss.

The Duchy Future Farming Programme is funded by the Prince of Wales’s Charitable Foundation and is run by the Soil Association. which promotes and oversees organic food production, in partnership with Waitrose and the ORC.