Many growers are keen to bridge the gap between organic and conventional farming, with one Wiltshire organic farmer adopting a non-plough approach to establishing cereals while a conventional Leicestershire farm manager has turn to sheep to battle blackgrass.
Non-plough cultivation techniques often require help from herbicides, but there are ways to avoid using weedkillers, while sheep and grassland is one way of coping with the arable farmers’ worst grassweed problem.
Richard Gantlett – Wiltshire
Organic farmer Richard Gantlett gave up ploughing in 2003 and despite abandoning this traditional weed control method, his cereal yields have prospered.
His heavy clay Wiltshire soils can often set like concrete blocks once ploughed. He had turned organic 20 years ago, and giving up on ploughing on his 650ha beef and combinable crop farm was a further step on the journey towards long-term sustainable farming.
“Ploughing upsets the soil profile, taking the life out of the soil by inverting and then burying it,” he says.
Now organic matter has nearly doubled in less than a decade, making his soils more friable and a darker, richer colour, with better water retention than when he farmed “conventionally” with agrochemicals.
Yields of autumn-sown spelt wheat can reach 6t/ha, with winter and spring oats also pushing towards 6t/ha, but crops still need feeding – not with artificial fertilisers, but through the soil biota (life) that in turn is fed with cover crops, chopped straw and cattle manure, he says.
His soils, which he describes as silty clay loams over lower chalk, have really improved and now he can be more exact with his cultivations rather than struggle with a plough.
“The soils are easier to work, so we can be more timely with cultivations and cover the ground more quickly,” he says.
Of course, there are some problems and wild oats are often his biggest concern, so hand-rogueing is a key control method. Docks can also cause concern in a wet summer following cattle poaching.
Mr Gantlett has developed his own system at Yatesbury House Farm, some four miles east of Calne to cultivate his grassland leys and prepare for cereals.
Rather than using glyphosate herbicide and then a direct drill as a “conventional” agrochemical user might do, he uses a spring tine cultivator and then wider tines to a depth of 75mm to prepare a seed-bed.
He uses a number of passes to create stale seed-beds between the start of cultivations in the late summer until drilling his spelt wheat or winter oats in October.
By this month, his soils are cool enough to slow weed germination and so give his autumn-sown cereal crops a good start to compete against the inevitable weeds.
After cropping with cereals, Mr Gantlett returns the land to a diverse grass ley containing 32 varieties from 23 species to feed his 280-head pedigree Aberdeen Angus suckler herd.
He has now produced a virtual closed farming system with only three main items brought into the farm – Aberdeen Angus bulls, cereal and herbage seed and woodchip for cattle bedding.
Phil Jarvis – Leicestershire
One heavy land Leicestershire farm manager has turned to grass leys to get on top of a bad blackgrass problem and is starting to win the war against the pernicious grassweed.
Phil Jarvis is using three-year leys as part of a package of measures to control blackgrass, which also includes improved drainage, using stale seed-beds and keeping any weed seed near the soil surface.
Grassland has been part of the farm for five years and along with the introduction of cover crops seven years ago, they have helped improve his soils, which can change from sludge to concrete in a few days.
“We are looking to build fertility to create more resilient soils and help reduce compaction as well as control blackgrass,” he says.
Wildlife and environment
Mr Jarvis is farm manager for the Allerton Project at Loddington, some 10 miles east of Leicester, and the project has been working for 25 years to research the effects of different farming methods on wildlife and the environment.
He is farming about 1,000ha along with a neighbour, farming conventionally with agrochemicals and growing crops such as winter wheat, oilseed rape and spring beans profitably, but also looking at ways to care for the environment.
Winter cereals are now established with reduced tillage, first using a low-disturbance sub-soiler and then a disc cultivator drill, which leaves the seed-bed looking very similar to a stubble field.
A lighter tractor was introduced to allow travel with 4t less weight across the fields.
This has helped to improve his heavy soils and make them more productive as he is aiming for a 10t/ha wheat crop from a current average of 9t/ha.
Roots with a little iron
So rather than follow the mantra of many no-till growers of “roots rather than iron”, Mr Jarvis believes in “roots with a little iron”, and so his soils have improved with better structure and the fields “walk a lot better”.
This is part of his strategy to follow the principles of agricology – following sustainable farming practices based on good ecological principles. For him this means more grass and cover crops, reducing tillage and introducing a wider rotation.
The introduction of grass leys has helped in his blackgrass battle. Once established, the grass is cut once for silage and then topped twice in the season while being grazed with his neighbour’s sheep flock.
The campaign against blackgrass is a long one, but by trying to prevent any blackgrass from heading and producing seed he is starting to win the war.