Farm manager’s drought action plan results in 15% yield lift

Simon Eddell has spent the past seven years looking to improve his light Suffolk soils to cope with summer droughts, and the result is healthier crops and wheat yields up by nearly 15%.

Hefty doses of manure, cover crops and grazing livestock have lifted the inherently low organic matter of his sandy land, resulting in more resilient soils which are better able to grow crops in dry summers.

He has devised a strategy to use neighbouring farmers’ livestock to drive up his soil’s fertility and prepare crops for an early harvest, rather that watch them die on their feet in a July heatwave.

“We have gone from a purely arable farm to a more mixed farm, but we still do not own a single animal,” he tells Farmers Weekly.

See also: Light land cereal grower always plans for summer drought

Rougham Estate Farms

  • Winter wheat: 320ha
  • Winter barley: 145ha (two-thirds Maris Otter)
  • Spring barley: 81ha Propinio
  • Oilseed rape: 150ha
  • Sugar beet: 133ha

The rest of the land is rented out for potatoes, used for free-range pigs or in a Countryside Stewardship scheme.

High seed rates

This strategy – allied to a growing regime of high autumn cereal seed rates and very early nitrogen fertiliser – has helped him grow successful crops in this part of Suffolk, where five out of the past six years have had very dry springs.

The result that is wheat yields are 1t/ha higher than seven years ago and sugar beet yields – even on some of his lightest Breckland soils – top 100t/ha in a good beet growing year.

So, if global warming is leading to warmer summers and more unpredictable rainfall, then Mr Eddell is already looking to adapt his cropping regime to these changing weather patterns.

With spring work starting one month later last season and harvest commencing two to three weeks ahead of normal, the farming system needs to have great resilience for his light soils to be able to cope with this shortened growing period.

When a 23-year-old Mr Eddell arrived as farm manager at Rougham Estate Farms near Bury St Edmunds in April 2011, soil organic matter levels were low, water retention levels minimal and some blocks of land were in continuous wheat and continuous rye.

© Jason Bye

Low organic matter

That year was a particularly dry season, and with soil organic matter at a chronically low 1.4%, crops simply ran out of water and senesced early, with a big tumble in harvested yields.

He vowed to change that with lots of organic matter – sewage sludge, chicken litter and cattle manure – as well as widening the crop rotation and using the plough less.

The policy has added 0.5% organic matter to even his lightest sandy land and improved phosphate and potash soil indices from inadequate levels: phosphate applications have stopped and only variable rates of potash are used.

So now a 31-year-old Mr Eddell can look back and see his winter wheat yields averaging 8t/ha in the ultra-dry summer of 2018, while 2011 yields were just 7t/ha.

“Our soils are now easier to work and crops hang on a bit longer. The whole farming operation is more resilient. Overall, our soil indices and organic matter levels are up, and there is the benefit of better soil health and fertility,” he says.

Less ploughing

After the increased manure use over the 1,100ha of arable cropping at Rougham, next came a move to less ploughing to cut fuel use and encourage more organic matter to build up from disturbing the soils less.

Now ploughing is limited to between winter wheat and winter barley to control volunteer wheat, while heavier land is still ploughed ahead of sugar beet to allow it to weather over the winter.

Rotations were widened: three different schemes were devised, with the lighter soils dominated by winter rye, the medium ones by winter wheat, winter barley and sugar beet, and the heavier land led by wheat.

Next came cover crops, which are grown ahead of about half of the farm’s 150ha of sugar beet. Here, a simple rye/vetch mixture is used, but there was a problem incorporating all the biomass even after spraying off the crop with glyphosate.

“Sheep seemed to be the obvious answer to act as mobile lawnmowers and to speed up the breakdown of the material,” he says.

Sheep flock

Heavy grazing with a neighbouring farmer’s sheep flock created a good entry for sugar beet, and in the spring that land was sprayed off with glyphosate, disc-cultivated and then drilled.

Other livestock also helped to add organic matter and heart back into his soils, with another neighbour renting land for his pigs housed in tents on straw to boost fertility of the arable soils. In addition, a straw-for-muck deal was formalised with a cattle-farming tenant on the estate.

The next move was to encourage more resilience to crops to help them through a dry spring, when winter wheat would often lose lots of tillers.

The first step was to increase the winter wheat seed rate from a traditional 220 seeds/sq m up to 320-340 seeds for drilling in mid-September on non-blackgrass land, while for wheat drilled in November and December rates are push as high as 500 seeds.

Plenty of tillers

With the wheat crops set up with plenty of tillers, attention switches to the spring and getting nitrogen applied to feed the crop as soon as a tractor can travel across his 320ha of winter wheat.

The aim is to get 80-100kg/ha of liquid nitrogen plus sulphur on to the crop in late February. Here, liquid using the farm’s self-propelled sprayer is used for accuracy as there are plenty of small fields and so lots of headlands on the estate.

“We aim to apply nitrogen as soon as you can travel as that is when the plants need it to start growing. If you are not quick enough, you may have problems if conditions turn dry in mid-March,” he adds.

When the self-propelled machine is needed for early T0 fungicides, spring herbicides and insecticides, there is then a switch to solid urea and some 100-120kg/ha is applied about mid-March.

Feed wheats

These early doses are deemed largely adequate for feed wheats such as Gleam, Graham, Shabras and Santiago – that latter being still good for blackgrass control as it is a good tillerer in late-drilling situations after sugar beet.

A third of the wheat is Skyfall, grown for breadmaker Warburtons, so an additional 40-50kg/ha of ammonium nitrate is applied at the flag leaf stage.

This growing regime, allied with lots of manure and more non-inversion tillage, is producing results with healthier soils and higher yields.

“We believe we are one tonne of wheat better off between the two dry springs of 2011 and 2017,” he adds.

Rotations

  • Light land: winter rye x2, oilseed rape, winter rye x2 (plus cover crop) sugar beet, spring barley.
  • Medium land: winter wheat, winter barley, oilseed rape, winter wheat, sugar beet.
  • Heavier land: winter wheat, oilseed rape, winter wheat, sugar beet.