• Long-term strategy for whole farm
• Fewer cultivations bring dividends
• Profit remains key to farm success
A Shropshire grower says a whole farm approach to crop management is helping his business become more resilient.
Harry Heath took over the running of Whitley Manor Farm, Newport, in 2010. Back then, pigs were the mainstay of the business. Some 575 breeding sows produced 17,000 pigs annually with 200ha of arable land including potatoes and sugar beet.
Today, the pigs have gone and the business is dominated by combinable cropping and contracting. Keen on agro-ecology, or regenerative agriculture, Mr Heath says the goal remains to be profitable.
“Our soils had a legacy of over-cultivation and were not in a good way – worm counts were down, the soil profile was slumping, erosion was increasing after big rain events. We were taking more out of the soils than we were putting back in,” he explains.
“It was definitely time to re-evaluate and look at a long term strategy that would help restore soil structure. This was our platform into agroecology, so we began to look at which practices we could adopt – while also keeping a firm eye on profit. ”
Now crops are established with minimal cultivations. The rotation has broadened to include winter wheat, winter oilseed rape, spring beans and oats. The farm is trialing hybrid rye to make it easier to adjust the timing of drilling oilseed rape.
Most seed is farm saved. Cover crops and catch crops are grown where possible and livestock has been introduced to graze these off. Crop and nutrition planning is crucial – as is analysing cost of production.
“It’s all about keeping an open mind and challenging every decision. We are on a learning curve and it’s important to remember that agroecology is not a religion and sometimes plans need to change – ultimately the crop has to be as profitable as possible.”
The business is also the Helix agro-ecology host farm for agronomy company Hutchinsons. It involves testing and trialing different management practices to find which work best on Mr Heath’s farm – and elsewhere.
Hutchinsons head of innovation and technology Stuart Hill says: “It allows us to trial and evaluate new evolving practices or technologies on a farm-scale level so we can determine the measurable benefits they offer in particular situations.”
A long term project, Mr Hill says the idea is to look at the whole farm as a biological system, rather than focusing on certain fields or areas. The goal is to make more profitable and sustainable decisions, he adds.
On the farm itself, Mr Heath hopes Helix status will help him control resistant ryegrass populations, build back up lost soil structure and encourage input reduction without compromising crop performance.
Agronomist Ed Brown agrees – and suggests flexibility is key. “A core principle of agroecology is minimising soil disturbance [but] controlling a challenging weed burden within a min-till system can be difficult.
“In this situation, where we have resistant ryegrass, we have had to bring back the plough – but what is important here is keeping the plough depth to minimum. Sometimes it is necessary to re-set and start again.
After ploughing, any emerging ryegrass is sprayed off with glyphosate, and cover crops established to stabilise the sandy soils. This means cover crops with lots of fine hairs that will hold the sand together – such as vetch, linseed and oats.
Adding in radish and cereals with bigger roots helps drainage. Winter cereals are not grown in fields with bad ryegrass. Instead, the farm is trialing a mix of spring beans and spring oats as a competitive spring break crop.