Could living mulch be the ‘holy grail’ of arable farming?

Could living mulch be the ‘holy grail’ of arable farming?

Mark Lea - clover into buckwheat.jpg


Written by Pete Williams from The Soil Association


A team of six farmers is trialling growing a living mulch under cash crops – if they’re successful, they say the practice could eliminate the need for artificial inputs, cut costs and boost productivity.

The group is aiming to discover whether cash crops can be successfully grown in a permanent clover understory (living mulch) to control weeds and fix nitrogen. A key question is whether this can be achieved without significantly affecting yields. The farmers say that if successful, what they discover could be the ‘holy grail’ for arable farming, offering a way to build fertility without livestock, tillage or synthetic inputs, while sequestering more carbon, cutting costs, and improving productivity.

Both conventional and organic farmers are involved in the trial and are pooling findings and knowledge. The trial is part of the living mulch field lab being run through the Innovative Farmers programme with the support of AHDB, Organic Research Centre and Organic Arable. “There are two starting points of the group,” says Dominic Amos, who is one of the researchers in field lab and senior crops researcher at ORC. “Some are already practising long term conventional no-till and are looking to reduce chemical inputs, while others are established organic farmers looking to reduce tillage – both farming systems can learn from each other.”

What the farmers say

Staffordshire arable grower and contractor, Clive Bailye, is involved in the field lab. Clive practices conservation farming and hopes using living mulch will allow him to eliminate synthetic fertilisers.

“I’ve never really felt able to go fully organic,” says Mr Bailye. “Without livestock in my system we’ve never been able to facilitate that circular farm approach for building soil fertility, as I don’t want to go back to cultivation to control weeds.” “So, to find out how we can do organic no till, without livestock, is like the holy grail of farming,” he says. Oxfordshire contract farmer and no-till specialist, James Alexander, has been trialing the living mulch over both conventional and organic land. He hopes the living mulch will reduce weeds and add fertility, and thereby eliminate the need to regularly plough, cultivate, and roll.

“Currently we have to take one third of the organic land out of production every year for clover leys, so we are losing a lot of productivity,” says Mr Alexander. “If the living mulch works though, we could drill directly into it.” So far, the living mulch in his organic trial is looking promising. “The organic plot is looking really good, and there are no weeds in it,” he says. “There was a very slight increase in barley yield, which was probably a bit down to the clover. At the moment we’ve got oats in the clover and the crop is looking better than on the conventional land.”

In contrast, the clover leys on his conventional land did not establish and he suspects this could be due to synthetic nitrogen residues. He plans to try again this year with a different drill. Jerry Alford, coordinator of the field lab for Innovative Farmers, adds; “It is crucial that research into sustainable farming solutions is done on commercial farms so we can see the impacts this approach might have on farm businesses.

“By combining the farmers’ real-world insights with the scientific rigor of the ORC researchers and the AHDB knowledge exchange team, this trial is establishing key practical knowledge which is being put into effect in real time on the farms.”

Clive Bailye drilling clover.jpg


Business benefits

With the demise of BPS, farming strategies will have to become more innovative and efficient at ‘getting more from less’, adds Paul Hill, knowledge exchange manager at AHDB, and the trial’s coordinator. “The living mulch methodology certainly fits this bill, helping to reduce variable costs, such as plant nutrition, weed control cost and chemical costs if running a conventional system, with a knock-on effects on fixed costs, including labour requirements, diesel and machinery costs.”

“Along with this, it would protect the environment and reduce the farm business’ carbon footprint, so it should be a win-win strategy,” says Mr Hill. The Field Lab will be benchmarking the costs of using a living mulch strategy, for both organic and conventional no-till systems.

The trial

The field lab group attempted to establish their living mulches in Spring 2020, using a seed mix comprising of 70% small leaf white clover, and 30% medium leaf white clover. “The theory is that the small leaf clover will give good ground cover, and the medium leaf will provide more competition against weeds,” says Mr Amos. There were four successful establishments, and these growers are now drilling crops into their mulches. Three mulches were not successfully established, and the growers are trying again.

Each farmer is also experimenting in their own way to maximise knowledge gathering. “James Alexander is comparing establishing the mulch through ploughing versus direct drilling, for example” says Mr Amos. “Mark Lea has trialled a disc drill and tine drill, and Jamie Stephens is looking at the impact of competition from using different seed rates.” The field lab expects to get its first yield data later this year, but learnings are continual.

Winter oats establishing in clover - James Alexander's farm 2.jpg


Winter oats establishing in clover - James Alexander's farm.jpg


Benefits of living mulch

“The two key services that need to be delivered for a living mulch system to best contribute to agricultural productivity are weed control and nitrogen supply,” says Mr Amos. But he says a successful living mulch is expected to also deliver:


Nitrogen accumulation

Weed suppression

Enhanced soil physical characteristics

Soil protection

Catch cropping function

Self-regulation of pests and disease

Increased soil fertility and increased biological diversity

A growing movement

Interested farmers from across the world have been getting involved via social media, and some are now running their own living mulch trials. AHDB has started a WhatsApp group for sharing knowledge, and 30 farmers are now involved.


mark lea harvest 2020.jpg


Example case studies - living mulch


Clive Bailye: “This could be the holy grail – how to go organic without livestock”

Staffordshire arable grower and contractor, Clive Bailye, is a conventional farmer who moved to conservation farming 15 years ago, and is a big no-till advocate. He hopes living mulch will allow him to eliminate synthetic fertilisers. “I’ve never really felt able to go fully organic,” says Mr Bailye. “Without livestock in my system we’ve never been able to facilitate that circular farm approach for building soil fertility, as I don’t want to go back to cultivation to control weeds.”

“So, to find out how we can do organic no till, without livestock, is like the holy grail of farming,” he says. Knowledge sharing between the farmers is going to be key to finding a solution, says Mr Bailye. “The nice thing about this field lab is that it’s bringing learnings from organic and conventional sides together to cover common goals, which I think is the way forward,” he says.

Already, the trial has caused him to question the impact of synthetic input residues, after another farmer, James Alexander, saw his clover establish on organic land but not conventional. Mr Bailye has also changed his machinery after other farmers shared their insights. “The machinery we had didn’t really allow us to have an understory. Now we have 25cm/10inch row spacing on combinable machinery, which gives us enough space for inter row hoeing and allows us to have an inter row living mulch,” he says. His first living mulch did not establish due to a lack of rain, but he has recently re-drilled the clover mix, inter-rowing it with a barley and wheat crop.

Jamie Stephens: “Farm productivity could rise massively”

Sheep and cereal farmer, Jamie Stephens, has been experimenting with living mulch for a few years and hopes the field lab trial offers a solution to his grass leys dilemma. “As organic farmers, we need grass leys for the sheep and fertility building, but it also seems stupid to keep killing off the grass only to regrow it again, since it all takes time, money and fossil fuels,” says Mr Stephens, who farms 850 acres in Worcestershire. His clover failed to establish last spring due to drought, and he is currently in the process of trying again with a mix that includes a higher proportion of medium leaf clovers that he hopes will aid grazing.

Mr Stephens has also adapted a CTM Weedsurfer to inter-row mow in the living mulch. He plans to undersow spring oats with the living mulch, using the oats as a nursery crop for the mulch. He’s certain that with more experimenting, the living mulch can be successful. “The principle of it is all absolutely doable, and the potential of this working is massive on all levels – for farm efficiency, less burning of fossil fuels, wildlife, and having permanent ground cover,” he says. “We could grow more crops because there wouldn’t be any dead space in the cropping cycle – farm productivity could rise massively.”

Mark Lea: “It’s the most potentially significant trial I’ve ever been involved with”

Mixed sheep and arable farmer, Mark Lea, runs trials every year on his 450 acre organic farm in Shropshire, but says the living mulch trial has more potential than anything he’s ever worked on. “I don’t think I’ve ever been involved with a trial that I thought was quite so significant,” he says. “It’s extremely difficult, and unlikely to work. But the prize is so great and so wide-reaching.”

“We’ve already done something that I wouldn’t have thought possible two years ago, and so far it’s worked.” Mr Lea managed to establish his living mulch in sandy loam and has direct drilled winter oats and winter rye into it.

“I think we’re going to get a harvest, but the yield difference is absolutely critical. If we go in and it’s half the yield, then it doesn’t matter how excited we’ve been about the clover establishment.” Regardless of the results, Mr Lea has already made changes as a result of sharing knowledge with the other farmers, and bought a SimTech tine drill. “I had attempted to inject grass into grass leys before, but I’d never done it with a cereal crop. Jamie Stevens and Jamie Hobbs [other participants in the field lab] were both adamant that a tine drill was the way to go, while James and Clive were much more disc-orientated.”

James Alexander: “We think the clover on the organic plot has helped improve crop yields”

Oxfordshire contract farmer and no-till specialist, James Alexander, has been trialing the living mulch over both conventional and organic land. Mr Alexander farms 1,500 acres of arable land, 800 acres of which is organic, and in Spring last year drilled the clover directly into two crops of barley. The mulch on the organic land has established “perfectly”, he says. But although he drilled on the same day and using the same drill, the clover on the conventional land did not establish, and he believes synthetic nitrogen residues could be the culprit. He plans to try again this Spring with a different drill.

“The organic plot is looking really good, and there are no weeds in it” he says. “When we took the spring barley off, the clover was a bit patchy, but over August and September it filled out across the ground and I’m really pleased with it. “There was a very slight increase in barley yield, which was probably a bit down to the clover. At the moment we’ve got oats in the clover and the crop is looking better than on the conventional land.”

Mr Alexander has been cutting back inputs in conventional practices as much as possible, using no-till and cover crops, whereas on the organic land he is still having to plough, cultivate and roll to deal with weeds. He hopes the living mulch could help change that. “Currently we have to take one third of the organic land out of production every year for clover leys, so we are losing a lot of productivity. If the living mulch works though, we could drill directly into it.”
 

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