14 June 1996

Funding cuts stifle LIFE research work

EU funding to fine-tune less intensive farming methods is drying up, leaving growers who want to adopt the approach doing so largely at their own risk.

That was the between the lines message to ARIA members from Dr Vic Jordan, head of the LIFE (Less Intensive Farming and Environment) project. Phase 2 of the work, building on the first five years experience, produced its first harvest results last year.

LIFE methods, aimed at realistically achievable yields rather than maximum output, produced much better margins than a standard farm approach in drought-stressed trials at IACR-Long Ashton, says Dr Jordan.

The comparisons were measured on 23ha (57 acres) of trials using seven-course rotations. Overall the integrated LIFE system, based on non-inversion tillage, gave net margins 20% or 26% higher than the conventional system, depending on whether the wheats went for feed or milling.

Mean yields for all the crops, which include winter wheat, winter oilseed rape, winter barley, winter oats and winter and spring beans, were 3-7% higher with LIFE tactics, he reports.

Conventionally grown winter wheat after oilseed rape, targeted to yield 11t/ha (4.4t/acre) managed only 5.65t/ha (2.3t/acre) – mainly because of lack of moisture after plough-based establishment, he notes. LIFE-grown wheat, with a yield target of 8t/ha (3.2t/acre) gave 9.2t/ha (3.7t/acre).

Equally significant were the lower growing costs associated with LIFE methods. Over the whole rotation variable costs were 38-41% less. The LIFE wheat received only 120kg/ha (96 units/acre) of nitrogen, whereas the conventional crop, which senesced early and failed to fulfill the potential of its large dense canopy, had 160kg/ha (128 units/acre), he explains.

One half rate fungicide was all that was required under the less intensive approach, he adds. Five passes with a tined weeder eliminated the need for herbicide.

With results like these LIFE-style farming is attracting growing interest, claims Dr Jordan.

Much of its success rests with decisions made at specific crop stages. But Dr Jordan acknowledges that constant crop monitoring on large farms is impractical. MAFF funding to help home in on aspects such as key disease and pest thresholds and spray timings is expected to continue.

But with EU money no longer available to back farm extension trials, progress is likely to be much slower than originally expected, he believes. &#42

&#8226 Mean yields 3-7% higher than conventional approach.

&#8226 Variable costs 38-41% lower.

&#8226 Gross margins 2.3-5.8% higher.

&#8226 Net margins 20-26% higher.

LIFE-style farming can bring better profits, says Long Ashtons Vic Jordan. But cuts in EU funding mean follow-up work is being stifled.