Farmer Focus: How much are cover crops giving back?

I was apprehensive to walk our winter cereals last week to complete plant and tiller counts in order to start planning our next interventions.

As expected, the results followed drilling dates, with 20 September-drilled Extase having 864 shoots/sq m, 20 October-drilled Siskin with 790 shoots/sq m, and 30 October-drilled Firefly with 592 shoots/sq m.

Even with the later-drilled wheat (which is not even that late), I’m happy there are enough plants to produce a sensible crop.

See also: How to maximise spring barley yields after a wet winter 

We have applied 40kg/ha ammonium nitrate on a small block of wheat with less than 650 shoots/sq m.

Early-October-drilled Craft winter barley on our easiest chalk land has a pleasing 1,300 shoots, so no intervention is required yet. Winter oats also look well.

Low biomass

Cover crops this year have produced 20t/ha of biomass, which is only two-thirds of the 32t/ha produced last year.

Dry weather in August and September hit initial growth, but in-lamb ewes and last year’s lambs have done well.

Nutrient capture was lower than expected, though. However, when I convert the Lancrop tissue analysis and multiply against p/kg of nutrient, they still returned a healthy £113/ha of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK).

A carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of less than 10 should allow recycled nutrients from the sheep to become available to following crops within three to six months.

We are trying to estimate what percentage of fresh weight is removed by sheep in condition score, what is trodden into the ground as fertility-building matter and what will be available to the next crop.

And, most importantly, what inputs can we reduce in the following crop and what total value can be estimated here.

I attended a meeting as part of the national food strategy and was fascinated by the complexities of our food system.

This was well presented by Henry Dimbleby at both conferences in Oxford. I can only sit on the panel as a farmer and disseminate what I feel is achievable on farm and work with others to enhance our food system.

I had a second go at filling out the farm carbon calculator, which is much improved from the original version. Very interesting results and a great starting point.

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