New pipework keeps arable farm competitive

Nearly a fifth of Farmers Weekly’s eastern Barometer farm has received new drainage in 18 months. Andrew Blake reports

Without fully functioning drains, arable production on the warp soils at Fleet Farm, West Butterwick, near Scunthorpe, would soon become impossible.

That’s why brothers Chris and David Moore have invested £80,000 recently to ensure they can continue growing profitable crops.

Given uncertainty surrounding the Environmental Agency’s policy on protecting the low-lying areas from flooding they had already decided to reduce the farm’s acreage of root crops, mainly potatoes.

But after their combine got stuck six times last harvest in wet patches from the breakdown of an earlier drainage system, the outlay was easy to justify. “We’d have to go ahead even if we weren’t growing roots,” says Chris, who sits on the Isle of Axholme Intenral Drainage Board.

But the economic climate for today’s operation is very different from that of the late 1960s and early 1970s when the previous clay tile system was installed. “In those days there was a 60% grant. Maybe if we have to start borrowing money to do it, we may have to think again. But for now we’ll carry on replacing the old system.”

As grain prices slide, many of the 200 or so farmers in the IAIDB’s catchment, about 12 miles by five, may be hard put to follow suit, he believes. “So far we’ve done about 200 acres of our 1200 of arable, mostly after winter barley harvest. We’ve done 150 this autumn. Until recently all we did was perhaps 10-20 acres a year plus odd wet patches.”

The big difference, apart from the use of 80mm diameter plastic pipes, is that the work is always done by contractor, in this case A Grice. in Lincolnshire. “In the old days, before the collapse in farm staff levels, it was often an over-winter job that kept the men busy.”

Nowadays winter operation charges need to reflect the damage done to growing crops, which, given fluctuating grain prices, can be hard to determine, he notes. “Until recently there were some pretty good deals around for working in January to March, saving £50-60/acre.”

Eliminating main drains, into which laterals used to run before water was discharged to the dykes, has been the other main change. Under that arrangement it was impossible to jet the laterals to clear iron ochre, which could build up and cause blockages.

“Now we just set the pipes about 20m apart, about 1m deep, and run them straight into the dykes, from where we can jet up to 400m. If they’re any longer we struggle to get enough fall. Where the land doesn’t allow it, we go just a bit shallower and reduce the spacing slightly.”

Fortunately, the soil type, unlike clay, means there is no need for backfill. “With the price of limestone and gravel as it is, that can add £200/acre.”

The main reason for the old system failing is pipe movement as the underlying peat shrinks, he says. “Our concrete roads laid in the 1940s are now a couple of feet higher than the surrounding land.”

The shrinkage has also exposed bog oaks, semi-fossilised trees, which can play havoc with machinery. “We get a lot of them and always have to use a break-back plough.”

Root processing material increasingly valuable

It’s not just drainage that’s keeping the Moore’s land productive. The by-product from a nearby factory processing their beetroot is a relatively cheap source of nutrients and a useful conditioner for their lighter soils.

About 250t of the slurry-like material, mostly peelings and washing water, is applied in an “at-cost understanding” each week to a maximum of 100t/acre a year.

“In the past we didn’t rate it particularly highly,” says Chris. “But with the way fertiliser prices have risen, it’s becoming much more valuable.”

Under Environmental Agency rules it must be proven beneficial to avoid being classified as waste and so needing a more costly disposal licence. Even so the rules governing its use are stringent.

“We have to have it analysed independently twice a year. Its nutrient content varies quite a lot, but generally the 100t provides 50 units of phosphate, 80 of potash and a small amount of long-term residual nitrogen. We must also make a new application to continue using it each year.”

One practical proof of its non-fertiliser benefit was a split field trial on blowing sand in a dry year when it effectively doubled linseed yield by conserving soil moisture, he believes.

Avoiding compaction from the 12,000-litre application tanker is the main downside. “In winter sometimes we’ve had to resort to putting it on with an irrigator fitted with a chopper pump.”