24 May 2002

Unexpected organic input has benefits

COFFEE, anyone? For Jim Powell it is a vital ingredient in the two widely separated arable enterprises he manages for M&H Farming on the Oxfordshire/ Northants border.

A finalist in the farmers weekly/Nitram Fertiliser Award he quickly realised small livestock enterprises on each unit would have to go. But he believes in maintaining organic levels, particularly to sustain the effective minimum tillage that is seen as an economic necessity.

Fulford Farm has used sewage sludge to maintain organic level, but harvest problems and lack of availability last year caused a rethink. So another freely available material was turned to – coffee cake – the by-product of a local instant coffee manufacturer.

Delivered to the farm and mixed with 5% by weight of the farms own straw, it is composted in heaps. On a dry matter basis, it supplies eight units of total N/t. Applied to stubbles after combining at 29t/ha (12t/acre) and 25%DM, it effectively provides 30kg/ha (24units/acre) of useable N. P and K levels are negligible.

Chicken manure is also bought in from a neighbouring enterprise, with manures applied before the rotations first and second wheats.

"We try to farm environmentally, using what is available in the local environment to put nutrient back," Mr Powell says. He uses a number of databases as well as RB209, plus two agronomists, to decide nutrient policy.

One difficulty is that the rolling countryside often results in split soil types within a field – heavy clay with ironstone outcrops. He foresaw savings by avoiding flat rate applications, so got on the farms ATV and produced soil maps, field by field, for soil type.

The division between soil types is clearly visible in the field, but how could he make changes on the go? With a spinner available for each farm, he hit on the idea of mounting one at the front and one at the rear of the tractor. Each carries either P or K and is switched on or off according to location.

"It saves us money, and we are not raising soil levels higher than they need to be," he says.

Mr Powell sees the use of liquid N as part of the joint enterprises environmental and strategic policy. He considers uptake of N from liquid fertiliser is better in a dry year such as this, protecting cereals from tiller die-back.

The off-lying farm has no buildings for solid fertiliser storage, and limited lay-by or other areas meant parking space would be a problem while spreading was going on. "Wed also have needed another tractor and forklift to handle solid fertiliser," he says. &#42

Coffee addict Jim Powell demonstrates the farms novel organic compost.

&#8226 500ha clay, ironstone and limestone cap.

&#8226 pH varies with soil type.

&#8226 OSR, wheat, beans, wheat.

&#8226 Estimated purchased N cost (before application): 29p/kgN.

&#8226 Already in NVZ; no problems.