Opinion: Lazy farming has caused the blackgrass crisis

Farmers need to take more responsibility for the predicament they currently find themselves in with weed control, argues Leaf chairman and Yorkshire farmer Stephen Fell.

Have we forgotten how to farm properly? With all the concern and discussion about the ravages of the blackgrass invasion it is perhaps timely to consider why I pose this question.

Has everybody forgotten about rotations or remember what they were? In my agricultural education, rotations were absolutely at the core of the teaching. The Norfolk Four Course Rotation, totally unfashionable in the modern era, was a foundation stone for good farming. Good farming in my upbringing equated with good soil management. Different crops in the rotation not only improved the soil structure and organic matter content, but they broke the cycle of pests, weeds and diseases.

Growing up and learning from my father and his wise old foreman, the heavy land in the Ancholme Valley of North Lincolnshire had to be respected to give of its best. A rotation of combinable crops, vining peas, and critically, a two- or three-year grass ley transformed a heavy unmalleable clay into a friable growing medium, which you did not cultivate into submission if it was wet.

Where did we go wrong? The cereal growing revolution of the ’80s and ’90s when we had improving varieties, the knowledge to combine ever increasing amounts of nitrogen fertiliser with growth regulation technology, and chemical means of disease control, meant that every year we improved our yields. We thought we were great farmers and clapped ourselves on the back over our evident expertise.

“Quite simply, we have failed to look after and respect our most precious asset – the soil”
Stephen Fell

“Let’s grow more cereals and rape – much easier than peas and beans which can be difficult to harvest. And let’s definitely get rid of that livestock unit – all those animals which get out on Sunday morning, or die, and even worse, require attention every day of the year. We can get rid of the staff and just buy bigger tractors and cultivators and simplify the system.”

And for several years everything seemed to be going well. There was a bit of disquiet that yields didn’t seem to be increasing any more, which was going to have an effect on the margin, but there was a solution to that – spread the mounting costs over a larger acreage. Farm Business Tenancies offered the opportunity to take on extra land in the short term. Bigger machinery with astonishing technology could cover a bigger acreage.

“Simplify, increase acreage, invest in bigger and better machinery,” became the new mantra. But what are the results of the wonderful new age of agriculture? FBT rents are escalating as more farmers compete for a limited resource. Machinery costs are going through the roof, encouraged by capital taxation allowances, and both rent and machinery increases being fuelled by single farm payment income.

Mother Nature is fighting back and blackgrass is sweeping through the eastern counties, imposing huge costs for its control, gaining ascendancy in its resistance, prompting desperate pleas to the chemical industry to develop new products. The declining cereal margin figures produced by Andersons at the recent Cereals event spelt out the situation starkly. And yet, there was optimism at that event with a burgeoning world population, that there was going to be a growing demand for our products which should see us right after a few lean years. I hardly need to mention current cereal prices to amplify the irony of that state of mind.

Quite simply, we have failed to look after and respect our most precious asset – the soil. We have abused it in our race for simplification and “efficiency”. We have relied on the fertiliser bag and chemical can to try and beat nature. This is not good farming – this is lazy farming.

However, this is not to tar everyone with the same brush. I have been privileged to visit many Leaf Demonstration Farms where the farmers really care for their soils. Friable, warm and teeming with earthworms and other organisms, these were truly living soils that looked so good you were almost tempted to eat them. The thought that goes into their rotations, the care in which they prepared seed-beds, produced truly excellent crops which required less inputs than their “conventional” neighbours.

There are signs of an awakening in the minds of some more thoughtful farmers. Grass leys are being planned in rotations, a most efficient way of not only breaking the blackgrass menace, but of increasing soil fertility which will lead to greater microbial populations and reduce input requirements. How to use this grass efficiently and profitably is the subject for another day, but suffice it to say that it presents great opportunities for young entrants to work in partnership with landowners and occupiers.

Can we learn to farm properly again? Yes we can, but we need to learn to respect our soils again, and educate those advising farmers and landowners that a short-term approach to returns on land occupation is no answer to long-term prosperity.

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