Arable systems must be sustainable too

In the third instalment of our series trying to define what “sustainability” means in modern agriculture, we take a look at familiar aspects of arable farming and ask if more emphasis on traditional husbandry is called for. Ian Ashbridge reports

Adam Henson is busy with filming commitments, so our third visit to Bemborough Farm, near Kineton, Gloucestershire, finds his business partner Duncan Andrews planning major changes to the farm’s arable rotation.

Bemborough Farm, and nearby Guiting Grange estate, which Mr Henson and Mr Andrews operate on a contract-farming operation, has successfully grown good milling wheats and barleys regularly achieve malting spec.

But, as we explored in our last visit, the decisions over how to implement a new agri-environmental scheme will have significant implications for the farm’s arable enterprise.

Mr Henson and Mr Andrew’s current Environmentally Sensitive Area scheme is set to come to an end in September 2014, and they have recently gained agreement from their landlord to move into a Higher Level Stewardship scheme.

It’s likely that this change may see a lot of land that was in arable reversion under ESA come back into the rotation as short-term grassland – providing a valuable contribution to the livestock enterprise as well as the arable one.

“Our current arable rotation is based on winter wheat, spring barley, oilseed rape and back into winter wheat,” says Mr Andrews. The 900ft-plus mainly Cotswold brash soils have successfully grown milling wheats and Mr Andrews has found definitive markets for Cassata winter barley and the malting variety Maris Otter. “Winter barley as a first cereal is important to us as we can cut it earlier in the season, particularly if we’re waiting for milling wheats to get fit.

“We need over-wintered stubbles as part of our ESA agreement, and also because our landlord has an established shoot on the estate, so spring barley is important to us as well.”

But Mr Andrews is now planning how to reintroduce two-year grass leys into his rotation, and admits this move to a more traditional system feels more sustainable. “Ongoing discussions with our landlord over future agri-environment schemes could mean 120-150 acres coming back into the rotation,” he adds.

“As well as taking the pressure off our fairly tight arable rotation and giving us a nitrogen boost before wheat, it will allow us to make forage from more productive grassland. At the moment we have a contractor mowing and baling grass of extensive ground and we’re talking about five large bales to the hectare instead of 20. The quality of the forage we’re making isn’t so good and so we’re supplementary feeding anyway. More productive grassland should allow us to reduce some of our use of concentrate feed and minerals, as well as benefiting the arable operation. So it’s a win-win situation.”

More than a few farmers may be curious that our theme of sustainability should be so prevalent in Mr Andrew’s decision-making, while others may be looking on current commodities prices and long-overdue arable profits as the main priority.

“The reality is that here, we’re 900ft above sea level and until just after the war, this ground had never been ploughed at all. So fundamentally we’re trying to grow arable crops on ground that is marginal when compared with deep, fertile soils in other parts of the country.

“And we’re trying to make long-term decisions against higher and certainly more volatile prices for outputs. So we’ve got to take decisions that are sustainable for the future.”

For Mr Andrews, for these decisions to be sustainable they have to be taken in view of the principles of Integrated Farm Management. “Ten years ago we were drilling Claire at 80-120 seeds per sq metre in August, and we broke through the 3t/acre barrier and were getting 3.5-4t/acre. We thought we’d cracked it by extending the growing season, but the open canopies quickly caused problems with grassweeds.

“So now we’re drilling later, at higher seeds rates of 300-350 seeds, and one of the first things we look for in a variety is how competitive it is against blackgrass.”

Cultural controls – such as the introduction of short-term leys into the rotation – are a more sustainable approach to defeating blackgrass, reckons Masstock agronomist Ollie Fairweather.

“It’s often said that 100 blackgrass plants per square metre can mean a tonne of yield lost. Notwithstanding the possibility that chemicals like propyzamide and carbetamide may be withdrawn, and that there are already problems with resistance to Atlantis, graminicides are some of the most expensive agrochemicals. If you go through rape with, say, cycloxydim at full rates it can start to affect margins.”

Two-year leys of productive grasses will, it is hoped, out-compete blackgrass or allow several attempts at topping it before it can flower and set seed. “It will also bring the benefit of longer gaps between herbicide applications, making it more difficult for resistance to develop,” Mr Fairweather adds.

This dry spring has identified questions over the sustainability of some of the existing systems at Bemborough. What might seem easy in an average year should be capable of resisting the challenges of dramatically different weather patterns, if it is truly sustainable. “For instance, one of our problems with oilseed rape establishment on this brash land is moisture loss. So we have to ask how sustainable it is to grow OSR here. Could we move to a one-pass cultivation system to conserve moisture?”

Incorporating more organic matter into these fairly thin limestone brash soils has been a priority, not just for its water-retaining properties, but its ability to hold on to trace elements like manganese, for which arable manager Martin Parkinson has to make regular applications.

Mr Andrews says: “We’ve used sewage sludge in the past, but not now, with our focus on milling wheats. And we’ve experimented with compost, but the quality has varied considerably and contaminants like plastic, metal and other litter have made us think again. And now that many of these sources of organic matter require us to either go long distances to collect it, or pay for it to be delivered, it makes it economically questionable.”

Were the government to give green energy production from on-farm anaerobic digestion a significant shot in the arm, readily available supplies of digestate could fill the gap. But at the moment there is no shortage of land to spread it on and no obvious anaerobic digestion plant on the doorstep for Mr Andrews.

Herein lies the dilemma, though. Mr Andrews and Mr Henson know that investing in soil structure, fertility and organic matter is the right thing to do for the long term. As Mr Andrews says: “I want this land to be in good condition for my kids and Adam’s kids to be able to farm it one day, so we have to take a long-term view.” But maximising profits and the opportunities current cereals prices offer is important for the short term. “After all, we’re tenant farmers, and we can’t afford not to focus on farming as profitably as we can.”

The kind of dilemma this presents is evident when it comes to straw. Baling and selling straw is consistently depriving the soil of not just significant phosphate and potash but the structural benefits of organic matter. But cashflows require husbandry too and it’s a welcome dose of income at a time when fertiliser bills start to arrive, Mr Andrews says.

“It’s difficult. We have a good market for straw locally and we’re not too far from the West Country and Wales. It’s balancing the short-term attraction of having that cheque in your hand now compared with the long-term benefits of nutrients and organic matter in the soil.”

For senior Masstock agronomist Jim Hynes, there’s little doubt that most modern arable systems could be more sustainable. “Soil management and soil fertility systems have to be addressed nationally. There are big problems with soil structure and fertility. If you’re only topping up with N, P and K then soils will degrade over time.

“Incorporating more organic matter will address this lack of structure and problems with moisture retention – particularly in a season like this one. It also encourages earthworm populations, which aid deep nutrient cycling and bring those nutrients back to the surface. And higher organic matter content means more friable, workable soils, so less cultivation costs.”

If the HLS scheme proceeds as planned, Mr Andrews’ rotation will go from winter wheat into either winter or spring barley, followed by oilseed rape, another wheat, and a two-year ley. Arguably more sustainable, and hopefully, more profitable too.

• You can share your views on what sustainability means in farming on our forums

Adam Henson is Lloyds TSB’s 2011 Farming Ambassador

Adam Henson farms 1565 acres near Kineton, Gloucestershire, with business partner Duncan Andrews, but is better known for presenting BBC TV’s Countryfile programme.

He is a customer of Lloyds TSB Agriculture and is the bank’s 2011 farming ambassador, working with the organisation to promote a better understanding of financial and environmental sustainability in a farm business context.

In this role Adam will attend a number of events including Scotland Beef Event, Beef Expo 2011, Cereals Event, the Royal Highland Show, Royal Welsh Show, the Dairy Event and the South West Dairy Show. He will be pleased to meet farmers and rural professionals on the Lloyds TSB Agriculture or Bank of Scotland stands at these events.


Ask the... Breeder

Register now

Online grain trading made easy with Farmers Weekly Graindex

It takes just a couple of minutes to create a listing on Farmers Weekly Graindex and you’ll get a range of prices to compare from active buyers who want your grain.
Visit Farmers Weekly Graindex

Farm succession planning during the Covid-19 crisis

Register now
See more