Farmer Focus – Neil White

Farmer Focus – Neil White

2021 has seen me, after 5 years, drill into cover crops for the first time. I had a big volunteer oat crop due to cutting wet oats at harvest, which I left into winter. Every cloud has a silver lining though as this then provided some winter grazing for a neighbour’s sheep. The field was then limed, snowboarded on (behind a speeding pick-up), sprayed off and finally in March, we sowed Diablo spring barley. I must admit the winter’s heavy rain combined with the grazing did result in some capping prior to sowing, which combined with the subsequent dry weather after sowing, did play a part in the slower emergence of the crop, so I wonder if it was a good choice? I have also sown spring rape into a cover crop for a neighbour. While the cover was not that thick, the root system in the top layer did cause some open slots and a folding under the turf from the cover crop roots. My neighbour and I are a bit worried as the slug and beetle activity looks to have already decimated the crop. The spring rape crop I did for the same neighbour last year, without the cover crop, was a great success, so it is interesting to see the good and bad effects of cover crops first-hand and whether the cover provided a slug habitat through winter. Cover crops are difficult to grow here in Scotland and over winter cover crops are probably the most popular and effective. I am still going to try a bean, buckwheat and phacelia mix ahead of my spring oats this winter. We need soil to dry and create tilth for spring sowing, however I am nervous that the cover prevents the top drying enough to sow into without smearing. I have chosen spring beans and the buckwheat as they may not require glyphosate to kill them off, just some good hard frosts and this will thin the cover and allow the top layer to dry.

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This spring I have used the Mzuri to sow Diablo spring malting barley on some ploughed ground and over wintered stubble and it has made an interesting trial. The advantage of placed/ banded fertiliser was obvious in the barley where it resulted in a far stronger, thicker crop especially in the first month. The Mzuri + fertiliser on ploughing looks the best crop as of May 30th, then the Mzuri seed only and combi look similar, with the direct Mzuri with fertilizer crop a little backward as I described earlier. But it may improve now the weather has warmed up!

I have gone to variable rate on the bean, oat and barley crops this spring and it seems to be worth the effort, crops look uniform across the fields. Applying VR has not been too difficult in the cab, although I thought Isobus was a 1 cable fits all solution. I was wrong! I have very variable soil types at home, so I hope the variable seed rate will allow me to continue non variable fertiliser inputs if I can get even establishment across the fields and then just treat the crops needs. I used the dual coulter this year when sowing my beans after a chat with Ben at Mzuri we felt the extra soil movement may be a benefit in the sticky conditions. I think this worked and the spacing looks to be better even at my higher seed rate. The beans have had a huge amount of insect damage, but I have resisted insecticides as I’m hoping the beneficials will save the day!

I have purchased a refractor with the intention next year of testing then tailoring my nitrogen to the crop requirements. I am a low nitrogen inputter and tend to use harvest protein results to gauge whether my inputs were correct but hopefully the refractor will help me adjust as I go and achieve the full potential of some wheat and barley crops. The wheat is looking full of potential here this year despite difficult growing conditions. The rake did its job of reducing slug numbers and the second pass destroyed some of the volunteers even before spraying so a good start was had. The Extase then Barrel/Elicit mix are probably the front runners so far.

I think the last few years have shown that good drainage is the most important start to any system. I regret letting some of my small drainage issues become bigger, assuming they will be ok. I now plan to do drainage jobs on my ground annually and will budget for it.

I don’t think I need to mention the weather ‘events’ that have affected this last growing season, but I will say, I believe moving to reduced tillage through strip till has made a noticeable difference in the soils ability to cope. This will be my sixth year of using a Mzuri Protil to establish my crops and I have measured an increase in the organic matter from around 3.3 to almost 4%. The workability, water and machinery carrying potential of my soils has also improved noticeably and recent repeat testing showing a good C:N ratio. In Scotland we are trying to influence the Scottish government to recognise that farming can be the solution to many climate issues while remaining very productive. There is a fear in the cropping sector meetings that we will be forced to reduce or remove cultivation and all our crops will suffer because of it. The plough, power harrow or combination drill system never fails we are told. I still have that system on a tiny percentage of my ground, and it has the same problems of flooding, compaction, slugs and baked or smeared soils, so I think we must be honest about the failings of both systems. The fact that direct drilling may seem riskier could be because the soil has been beaten into submission over the years from that previous failsafe method. I hope the improvement of soil features in the new guidance, and without using capital grants, we can still nudge people to try and reduce their tillage for the long-term gains. We all believe we do the minimum tillage required on our ground until we try something different. Up here we are in a very strong starting position as most still have a long and varied crop rotation and the soil organic matter levels are still very good.

I did notice at home this year that some overwintered stubble had a large amount of fungus/mushroom growth in the soil. I do not know if this means that the microbial activity was low due to an imbalance of bacteria, perhaps due to the spring oats straw being chopped? I am hoping to find out more as the spring barley strip tilled into it this spring has had a more uneven emergence despite the variable seed rate!

I will never learn all the lessons, but I will try to keep listening and learning. I think there is a lot of good farmer led discussion out there and it is a very valuable and a sometimes underrated resource. On farm experiences of others with field size trial areas on real farms are important. I did a lot of online research before I began with my Mzuri, and I found all of it, the good and the bad, very helpful. If only there was a forum or magazine for such a thing?

 

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Five nature-recovery projects spanning 100,000ha launched

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Written by Michelle Martin from Agriland

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Five nature-recovery projects spanning nearly 100,000ha across the West Midlands, Cambridgeshire, the Peak District, Norfolk and Somerset have been announced by the government and Natural England today (Thursday, May 26).

This is the equivalent in size to all 219 current National Reserves.

The aim of the projects is to deliver nature recovery at a landscape scale, helping to tackle biodiversity loss, climate change and improve public health and well-being.

All five projects will make a significant contribution towards the national delivery of the international commitment to protect at least 30% of land and...
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