Tag: soil

Open for entries: Carbon Farmer of the Year

Announcing the launch of the 2024 Carbon Farmer of the Year Competition

February of this year sees the launch of the 2024 Farm Carbon Toolkit’s Carbon Farmer of the Year Competition. This competition champions UK farmers who are leading the way in adopting farming practices and developing new technologies which reduce farm emissions whilst optimising output, and adapting to climate change. 

After the success of last year’s competition we are delighted to announce that the 2024 competition is now open for entries. Click here to learn more.

Five farms in Cornwall on a journey towards Net Zero

We’re excited to share a series of five new videos that showcase some of the farms in Cornwall that are part of the Farm Net Zero project.

Each video shares a different farm’s journey as it works to improve the environment, produce nutritious food, while also responding to climate risks, such as flooding. There is a specific focus in these videos on how the farms are engaging within their local communities, to help tackle these issues. The Farm Net Zero project includes practical advice for farmers on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, showcases innovation, provides robust science through soil testing and carbon footprinting, and inspires other farmers to tell their stories to consumers on the steps that they are taking to address climate change and protect soil health.

The full-length video below includes all of the following five stories. If you prefer to view each story separately, please simply click on each of the links here:

The importance of managing manure on-farm 

Written by Becky Willson, Business Development & Technical Director.

Manure is a fantastic on-farm resource. This is because it can deliver a source of nutrients that can be used to grow crops, as well as enhancing soil biological activity, feeding the soil microbes and helping provide a steady supply of organic matter. This can ensure that soils are in the best condition structurally, chemically and biologically. Manure is one of the most important resources that is produced on-farm, and should be valued rather than seen as a waste product. 

A key way to be able to reduce reliance on fertilisers is to develop efficient and effective strategies for managing nutrients and manures on-farm. 

Nutrient management planning

Managing nutrients in a systematic way through planning is a vital aspect of sustainable farming. It is a ‘win-win’ practice which generates advantages across economic and environmental parameters, and allows for the creation of a sustainable agricultural system which is resilient to climatic and economic change. 

Nutrient management planning facilitates optimal use of nutrients from all available sources. Matching inputs of nutrients (from fertilisers and organic manures) to the demand from the crop will allow for an optimal yield, minimise the use of nutrients (which saves costs) and minimises the risk of losses to the environment from nutrients.  

Slurries and solid manures are valuable fertilisers but may also be potential sources of pollution. Within increasing economic and environmental pressures on farm businesses, it makes sense to exploit the fertiliser value of manures while taking action to prevent pollution. 

Most farm assurance schemes require a manure management plan to be completed as part of the certification process. However even without the compulsion of a scheme, having a plan which marks out any environmental features, watercourses, sloping fields which may cause run off and any areas will be a useful resource to consult before applying manures.  

The need for effective manure management

The most effective way of dealing with livestock manures is to apply them at appropriate rates to agricultural land for the benefits of soil and crops. Getting manure management right allows for sustainable use of resources which provides economic savings and reduces the amount of artificial fertiliser that is required. Manures, when stored and applied correctly have fantastic benefits in building resilience within your farming system, cutting costs and lowering your carbon footprint, however if they are applied in too high a quantity or at the wrong time of year then they are an environmental risk. So it is the job of farmers to maximise the benefits that can arise and minimise the risks.

Nutrient management planning to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions

Nitrogen emissions to the air from farms include greenhouse gases, the most potent of which is nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide is one of the biggest contributions that agriculture makes to climate change. Soil nitrous oxide emissions originate from three sources, soil microorganism activity (55%), organic manure applications (18%) and Nitrogen fertiliser applications, (27%). As such, careful management that maximises the efficiency of any fertiliser applied, takes account soil and climate conditions, and uses the nutrients within manures for crop growth will help to reduce the amount of nitrous oxide lost. 

Nutrient and manure management planning will also help reduce ammonia emissions. While ammonia isn’t a greenhouse gas, it negatively impacts air quality and human health. The amount of ammonia which is lost depends on a variety of factors including manure type, the method and timing of applications, soil pH, the weather conditions at spreading, the soil moisture content and how the manure is stored. As such there are a variety of mitigation options available that are made easy by planning how manure is managed to reduce these risks. 

Soil Testing

Although not always considered as linked to nutrient management planning, monitoring and controlling the pH of soils on-farm is the first step toward good nutrient management. If soil pH is not correct then any nutrients that are applied through fertiliser or manure applications will not be available to the crop and may be lost from the soil incurring costs, reduced yields and pollution issues. 

Effective use of manures – Storage

Having sufficient slurry or manure storage means that effective nutrient management planning is much easier. With sufficient storage capacity, slurries and manures can be applied at the optimal time for plant growth and crop uptake, as well as being applied when the soil and field conditions are right and damage (including compaction and run off) is minimised.  However for some farmers who don’t have enough storage, slurry has to be spread in less than ideal conditions, when there is little crop growth and nutrient uptake. It is in these situations where environmental losses can be the highest. 

Thankfully there are ways that storage can be optimised. This can include minimising the amount of rainfall that is able to enter the store. Rainfall can dilute the nutrient content of the slurry but also costs more in manure application – more water is held within the slurry leading to a higher volume to be spread. Mending guttering, diverting clean water away from stores and covering yards to minimise the amount of water that is entering the store are all low cost ways to help maintain the nutritional value of the manure and also reduce costs. Covering stores is also an option and there are various cover options that are available depending on the store type and design. Floating covers will also reduce the amount of ammonia which is released into the atmosphere which has air quality benefits. 

With solid manure it is important to consider the siting of field heaps and managing the heap to ensure that Nitrate leaching is minimised. Composting of FYM will provide a more stable and uniform material which will have benefits for soil biology, but will not provide such a high readily available Nitrogen source as fresh manure. 

Effective use of manures – Application 

Ensuring that manures are applied at the right rate and the right time is the most important step to reducing environmental risk and improving economic performance of the farm.  The method of application can affect the amount of nitrogen that is available to the crop. Although the total nitrogen content within the manure cannot be altered by the method of application, the proportion of the nitrogen that is available to the growing crops is improved by using low trajectory machinery.

Spreader technology has developed over recent years so that now there are numerous options available for spreading slurry (where losses are potentially higher). Broadcast spreaders will waste nutrients, but this can be minimised by using injection or band spreaders which put the slurry directly on the soil surface or into a narrow slot. For solid manures, the evenness of spreading is far improved by using a rear discharge spreader. If manure or slurry is to be incorporated, ensuring that it is done quickly after application and not just left on the surface where the nutrients may well be lost is important.

Optimising the use of manures and slurries on-farm will provide benefits through improving profitability, resilience and soil health. For more information on manures and nutrient management planning please visit the FCT toolkit pages to access a range of resources.  

A Day in the Life of… Liz Bowles, Chief Executive

Being Chief Exec of the Farm Carbon Toolkit is a privilege. I have a team of committed, enthusiastic and supremely knowledgeable people working with me who are dedicated to supporting farmers to understand their farm carbon footprint and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon sequestration, whilst maintaining thriving, biodiverse businesses.  

We are a relatively small organisation, but I always love it when people tell me that they keep coming across the team as this means we are being noticed and, even more importantly, that people like what we are doing. Last week was just such an example. We were involved in a number of sessions at the Oxford Farming Conference including showcasing Farm Net Zero Cornwall and the great strides farmers involved in the group are making towards Net Zero. We also featured in the premiere of the film “Six Inches of Soil”  and were mentioned by a number of other speakers at the conference whom we work with.

There is no such thing as a typical day for me.

I do start off with a list of what I would like to get done during the day and highlight the tasks which are important/ urgent, but then things happen, such as people making contact with me to discuss exciting new activities with which we could get involved. It is just about impossible to know which opportunities are the best to take forward from the great number which come our way every day, but my watch word is to pursue working with like-minded organisations whose first instinct is to think about what they can do to support reducing the greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and who, like us, believe that farmers are supremely well-placed to remove carbon from the atmosphere through how they farm.

Over the last few months I have been developing relationships with other popular Carbon Calculators to enable us to work together where possible to harmonise Calculator methodologies, so that farmers’ Carbon Calculator results will be more comparable in future. This, I believe, will increase the uptake of their use. We know that the requirement to provide information on farm emissions and removals will increase over time and we are committed to continually improving our Calculator so that farmers who are taking action to reduce their carbon footprint can see this fully reflected in their reporting. We are also committed to providing our Calculator directly to farmers for free.

Getting started with foliar feeding – with Tim Parton and Nick Woodyatt

Thursday 11th January 10 – 2pm, Trewidland Village Hall (with an opportunity to go to Anthony Ellis’s farm Pensipple if the weather permits).

Tim Parton is a world-renowned regenerative farmer and Nick Woodyatt is a soil health consultant with a wealth of experience. This meeting will focus on the finer details of how you can get started with foliar feeding to improve yields, soil health, and reduce input costs.

This event follows the meeting on Wednesday the 10th at Chapman’s Well and will focus on the practicalities of foliar feeding.

Please meet at the village hall PL14 4ST: (What3Words///headset.producing.tasters)

Lunch will be provided, so booking is essential.

To book your place, contact Hannah Jones ([email protected]), Alex Bebbington ([email protected]) or James Harbord ([email protected])

Soil Farmer of the Year 2023 – Farm Walk with Bronagh O’Kane

Written by Emma Adams on behalf of The Farm Carbon Toolkit

In a first for the Soil Farmer of the Year competition, in October 2023 our series of farm walks took place in Northern Ireland. A group of farmers, academics and industry professionals met at Drumard Farm, just outside Cookstown in County Tyrone, to hear from Bronagh O’Kane on how she is transforming her farming business with resilient soil at its heart.

Bronagh introducing the farm to the group

Having come back to the farm in 2020, Bronagh began a journey to transform the soil. Historically the farm supported continental cattle breeds with a high reliance on imported feed, Bronagh has transitioned this system to more traditional breeds managed on herbal leys and ever-increasing diversity grasslands. Utilising a rotational paddock system she has extended the grazing period so that cattle can be out by 4 weeks and soils are more resilient to the extremes of dry and wet weather. Bronagh has started producing vermicast and composting to improve soil biology; focusing on natural inputs and a softer approach with foliar fertilisers where needed to manage historically compact and imbalanced soils. The walk will provide the opportunity to discuss and demonstrate the practices undertaken at the farm and the ongoing challenges and successes that Bronagh sees in her system.

The beginning of the farm walk

At Drumard Farm, Bronagh was told she had poor soils and no doubt they are a challenge, with testing suggesting an average of 45% silt and 45% clay they are tight and sticky, with little aggregation or infiltration. As such, understanding what was needed for the soil to function better was a priority for Bronagh, with a great deal of research it was understood that the high magnesium, bacterially dominant soils were being held back by a mineral imbalance, compaction from big tractors and heavy cows. 

Inspecting the soil condition following the autumn rain

Changing the livestock system at the farm has been central to Bronagh’s evolving management. The cattle business has been streamlined, and as such the previous finishing and store systems have been stopped instead to focus on a suckler system with pedigree Charollais sheep. The sheep are high value stock, as Bronagh suggests there isn’t the acreage for a larger flock, instead, she buys in September before selling the ewes with lambs at foot in the spring and runs the rest of the flock throughout the year. This system works well as there is the housing space available over winter and also the sheep provide a good opportunity to clean up the last of the grass when it is too wet for the cattle to graze. Previously the farm also had Charolais cattle, but these have been restocked, reducing numbers from around 80 to 50 on a sucker system focussing on more native breeds such as Speckle Park, Shorthorn and Hereford crosses with an Angus Bull. Even with these changes, Bronagh found that those animals with a Limousin cross within the breeding still comparatively lost condition on the new system which is thought to be from underlying epigenetic traits. This has led Bronagh to source more local Shorthorn heifers which are better adapted to a grass-based system. 

Bronagh utilises plant diversity as an indicator of the status of the soil. The species that may dominate in a field or area can suggest what the underlying composition may be – chickweed for excess nitrogen, low calcium or high potassium or creeping buttercup thrives where there has been poaching, bare soil and a low pH. Like many farms, docks have historically been widespread at the farm, often indicating compaction and an anaerobic soil environment. Bronagh’s approach to dock management is to change what has historically not been working – sprays and topping – and instead let them grow and allow the dock beetle to get to work combined with a cut for silage around June. This understanding of what the plants are indicating has led Bronagh to stop spraying and minimising fertiliser use to zero, instead focusing on balancing the soil and improving the health of the biome. She explains:

“Biodiversity, long rest periods and grazing management can change soils – you’re not stuck with what you have”

Grassland management is central to how the business is now run. Bronagh has diversified existing grasslands into multi-species swards despite the testing conditions and low pH of the farm. On the walk, the group visited a newly established herbal ley that had been planted in a field that was pH 5.8.  

The newly established multi-species herbal ley

The 15-way mix contained species such as sainfoin, plantain and chicory and Bronagh has subsequently experimented with both cutting and grazing, which has led to discussions with contractors on cutting heights, timings and more to best maintain the sward. For Bronagh, managing these lays to allow the full diversity is important, with the understorey plants encouraged through the aforementioned considerations in combination with the paddock grazing system. Bronagh has experimented with the paddock grazing timings and methods, including grazing the cows on knee-high swards which resulted in moving them faster but increasing the size of the paddock as the cows were found to be trampling rather than eating following heavy rain. Bronagh suggests:

The definition of overgrazing is letting them get that second bite – it is so important for my fragile, shallow roots to rest”

In addition to the home farm, Bronagh also has a 30ac National Trust tenancy on a zero-input system supporting both a rotational grazing and cutting platform. For Bronagh, having the right livestock that will thrive on a grass based system is key to success. As such, she puts the heifers on the poorest fields to determine which animals will be kept as some breeding is adapted better to the system than others. 

The walk also incorporated learning more about how Bronagh is using vermicast to provide nutrition and balance to her soils. Vermicast, or worm castings is made by using worms to compost organic amendments such as farmyard manure, food waste, wood chip etc to create a soil conditioning fertiliser.

Worm farm whereby organic materials are broken
down to create the vermicast

On the farm, vermicast is used to provide nutrients, stabilise pH and also as a coating on any new seed that is established. Bronagh applies her vermicast through a sprayer after making a ‘compost tea’. The vermicast is added to a porous ‘tea bag’ within an IBC filled with water which is then agitated and aerated using a bubbler to extract the nutrients and beneficial organisms which vermicast contains, the resulting liquid is then applied to land to stimulate soil biology and provide nutrients. Bronagh is aiming for a 1:1 ratio of fungi to bacteria which the vermicast and good soil management will help promote.

Bronagh explains the process of using vermicast
to make a compost tea

Regularly conducting Brix testing has allowed Bronagh to understand how to best apply the vermicast and the benefit it is having to her land, with fields which have had no fertiliser, slurry or inputs other than vermicast scoring 12, with Bronagh suggesting that every 1% increase in a Brix result can give a 0.5-0.75kg improvement in liveweight gain in the cattle. Any amendments which Bronagh applied to the land are designed with this goal in mind, alongside the cost and feasibility within her system. An example of this is that she has been experimenting with using egg shells to help aid the calcium balance and flocculate the soil; this can be spread with a conventional fertiliser spreader rather than other products which can have additional costs due to the price of both material and the contractor required to apply the product. 

Since 2015, the Soil Farmer of the Year Competition has helped to find, promote and champion UK farmers who are passionate about safeguarding their soils and building resilient businesses. As part of the competition, the top three farmers host farm walks that bring farmers together to share good practice and innovations that improve soil health. The 2024 round of the competition opens on 5th of December 2023, which is World Soils Day – if you are interested in finding out more, entering the competition or nominating someone who you think is deserving of this award further details can be found on the Farm Carbon Toolkit website or https://farmcarbontoolkit.org.uk/soil-farmer-of-the-year/ 

Farm Net Zero January 2024 update

Welcome to our January Farm Net Zero update, sharing news for our farmers, growers and the wider community this project supports.

(Image above: Dr Dave Davies from Silage Solutions presenting to Farm Net Zero at our silage event)

Recent news and events

Oxford Real Farming Conference: January 2024

On the 5th of January, Farm Net Zero will be presenting in a session entitled “It Takes a Farm Community to be Net Zero: A Case Study from Cornwall” at the Oxford Real Farming Conference. We are very much looking forward to showcasing the fantastic work our Demo and Monitor Farmers are doing and look forward to seeing some of you there. Hannah Jones will be introducing Farm Net Zero Demo Farmers Andrew Brewer, Mike Roberts and Anthony Ellis, who will be speaking about their experiences of reducing their farm carbon footprint. The session will also include a recent film of some of the Farm Net Zero farmers talking about the benefits of being part of a community. The film will be available on the Farm Net Zero webpage after the conference. Learn more here

Optimising Silage Production

On the 16th November, Dr Dave Davies from Silage Solutions spoke at our silage event hosted by FNZ monitor farmer Phil Kent at Higher Carruan, St Minver. Dave took us through how to optimise silage production to reduce waste and maximise the quality and quantity of feed from the amount of fossil fuel used in silage production. We were also able to look at the Kent family’s self-feed silage clamp; and how this is saving costs and reducing emissions from machinery used for feeding cattle over winter. Learn more here

Self-feed silage in action

Integrating Livestock and Trees

Dr Lindsay Whistance from the Organic Research Centre spoke at our event on integrating trees and livestock at FNZ Demo Farm, Blable near Wadebridge on the 27th September. Lindsay presented the results from a range of studies into animal behaviour in agroforestry systems and emphasised the importance of trees for optimal livestock performance through temperature regulation and feed value. Incorporating trees into the farm system benefits animal welfare and helps to reduce the farm’s carbon footprint. Learn more here

Attendees feeling the benefit of the hedgerow on a windy day

Lessons Learnt at Erth Barton

Lessons Learnt at Erth Barton” on the 18th October summarised the work of Demo Farmer Tim Williams as he prepares to move on to new opportunities. Tim gave us a round-up of the successes and challenges he encountered during his time at Erth Barton, including introducing cattle rotational grazing of diverse herbal leys, pasture cropping and the use of compost as a soil health conditioner. We would like to thank Tim for his contribution to the Farm Net Zero project. Learn more here

Tim Williams and the power of plant roots

FNZ Agronomists’ Workshop

At the end of November, we organised a workshop for agronomists at Trethorne Leisure Farm where we were able to discuss some of the findings of the Farm Net Zero trials.  This was a great chance to develop ideas and bring together the knowledge and experiences of agronomists and the Demo and Monitor Farmers. We had some excellent conversations on the results of the trials and the potential opportunities they present for farmers as the new Sustainable Farming Incentive comes into force. Learn more here

Agronomists’ meeting at Trethorne

Summaries of all these events, and many more, are available on the Farm Net Zero Project Resources webpage.

Demo and monitor farms update

Soil Sampling

This year’s soil sampling is now complete and it has been exciting to see how the soil has changed since 2021. The soil carbon results are now being used to update carbon footprints, and it has been good to see some footprints reduced through soil carbon sequestration. We have a range of farm types on the project, to reflect the variety of farming found in East Cornwall. There are  4 market gardens, 10 dairy farms and 29 mixed livestock and arable producers (ranging from pasture-fed livestock to varying levels of cropping) on the project, and we hope to be able to pick out trends in carbon footprints based on farm type as we build the database year-on-year.

Community engagement

In September, Westcountry Rivers Trust held a Beneficial Bugs ID session at Community Roots market garden, near Porthtowan. On-site, there are many wild boundaries and herbaceous borders running across the beds to encourage pollination and provide year-round habitat for beneficial predators.

Westcountry Rivers Trust – Beneficial Bugs ID Session

Project officer Zoe Smith said: “Even this late in the year, we turned up plenty of interesting specimens from different areas of the garden with our pooters.

We also looked at some companion planting within the polytunnels and participants made a bee hotel log to take home to support bees in their own gardens.”

A Soil Health Indicators session at Loveland, Penryn, in October also took place.  Several enthusiastic people brought soil samples from home to analyse, as well as digging soil pits in the garden itself and comparing compacted areas on the track with less intensively used grassland areas.

We’re still looking for new locations to run climate friendly gardening workshops.

If you have an allotment, community garden or smallholding within east or central Cornwall you are proud of, and are willing to share your story, please get in touch with Zoe via [email protected].

Current farm field trials

A little insight into some of the fab field trials currently underway as part of the FNZ project:

  • Targeting pathogens and weeds with compost managementThe first year of the compost field lab has produced some exciting results.  Making compost on site can help growers capture carbon, retain nutrients, and reduce the dependence on bought-in fertiliser.  But there is always a fear of spreading disease and weeds within the compost. To see if they could safely compost weed seeds and diseased material, one trialist tried burying them in the compost in bait bags. After 12 weeks they found that composting had killed the plant pathogen and turned weed propagules (bindweed and oxalis) to dust.  For more information on how the trial was carried out, and other results, have a look at the Innovative Farmers website: Optimised compost management for productivity and soil health (innovativefarmers.org)
  • Update on Innovative Farmers field lab looking at reducing tillage in maize trialBy testing alternatives to ploughing, farmers are hoping to reduce the harmful impact of maize growing on soil structure, causing less erosion and runoff and reduce costs by using less fossil fuels. Results from the trial are still being processed but our initial thoughts are noted here. There are 3 fields with different systems:
    • The first set of results comparing strip till with ploughing showed that a strip till system didn’t result in visibly lower yields than a standard plough based system. When the weight of the yields were compared they showed that strip tilled plots had 5% less yield than ploughed strips, but with a significantly lower cost of production with less time and fuel use. There were more weeds present in the strip tilled area despite the same herbicide treatments on all plots. However, this was mainly grass weeds and biennial crops like thistles which were not effectively controlled by the pre drilling glyphosate.  
    • In the second field the comparison was between a strip till, light cultivations and direct drilling. Drilling system and pre drill cultivation did have some effects, with the highest yield being a strip till plot followed by Min-till , and the lowest yield being direct drilled although differences were not large. There was again little to see from what the crop looked like to determine which was better without the weights.
    • The third set of results are still to be analysed.

    For more information please see here: https://www.innovativefarmers.org/field-labs/fnz-maize-field-lab/

What next?

Upcoming events:

  • Oxford Real Farming Conference, Oxford (various locations)4th-5th January 2024FCT is proud to be presenting at the famous Oxford Real Farming Conference next January. FCT’s Liz Bowles joins the panel for the ‘Capturing Carbon: Joining the Dots Between Policy and Practice’ session at 11am on Friday 5th January. At 2pm, FCT’s Hannah Jones chairs a panel session with farmers Mike Roberts, Andrew Brewer, and Anthony Ellis, asking ‘How can a farm reach net zero?’, along with a 20-minute video that features 5 farmers from the Farm Net Zero project FIND OUT MORE
  • Rootstock, Westpoint Exeter, Devon14th February 2024Organised by the Devon County Agricultural Association charity and hosted at its headquarters at Westpoint Exeter, Rootstock is a one-day, forward-looking conference for farmers in Southwest England. In its second year, this new conference brings farmers and researchers together to explore how farmers can build sustainable profitable businesses in tune with natural processes. Full details of the 2024 conference will be available shortly, including the topics for discussion and speaker announcements. FIND OUT MORE

You’ll find a full range of relevant events on our website.

Click here to view our full events page

We will be continuing to run a series of Farm Net Zero events in 2024, drawing on the needs and interests from the community of farmers. These will be advertised on our website and through this newsletter. If you have any suggestions for events we could run, please let us know.

Getting in touch

As ever, if you have any questions or ideas that would further support the community of farmers that we are working with, please get in touch with the project team (contact details below).

All information about the project including upcoming events and resources are available on the Farm Net Zero website. If there is anything you would like to see featured please let us know.

This project, funded by the National Lottery Community Fund, is a partnership between Cornwall College, The Farm Carbon Toolkit, Duchy College’s Rural Business School, Westcountry Rivers Trust, Innovative Farmers and Innovation for Agriculture.

FNZ Agronomists’ Workshop – 28th November 2023

This event was designed for agronomists to learn about the results of some of the Farm Net Zero (FNZ) trials. Dr. Hannah Jones of the Farm Carbon Toolkit was joined by the farmers who hosted and designed the trials to discuss the findings. This event was made possible with thanks to the National Lottery Community Fund who fund the Farm Net Zero project.

Throughout the discussions, the new Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) payments were referred to as a potential method of reducing the risk of adopting the practices trialled by the Farm Net Zero demo and monitor farms. This report will summarise the trials presented and the discussions that followed, including the views of the agronomists present at the workshop.

Outwintering on Cover Crops

Cover crops can be useful for protecting soil by reducing erosion and nutrient leaching and preserving soil carbon stocks. In Cornwall’s mixed farming systems, cover crops can provide an opportunity for outwintering livestock in a cost-effective manner. Therefore, it is pertinent to think about the plant species included in a cover crop mix and balance up their soil health benefits with the potential feed value.

A Farm Net Zero trial was set up in winter 2021-2022, where five cover crop mixes of varying complexity were grazed by beef youngstock. Full details of the trial can be found on the Farm Net Zero Project Resources page here. The most diverse mix had the biggest improvement in soil quality, reducing compaction and attracting the most earthworms. In terms of feed value, any mixes containing black oats were the most popular with the cattle and had high dry matter, crude protein and sugars.

It was suggested that the SFI SAM2 “Multi-species winter cover” payment of £129/hectare could be used to support this practice.

Maize Establishment

FNZ Monitor Farmers, Malcolm and Catherine Barrett, have trialled different methods of establishing maize crops. In spring 2022, two fields were taken and divided into thirds – one where maize was established conventionally (plough, power harrow, drill), one cultivated with a Sumo machine, and one direct drilled with a Mzuri drill. The direct drill had the lowest fuel requirement and therefore cost. Cob weight assessments found that cobs were smallest in the ploughed area and highest where the crop was established after the cultivator. Soil sampling showed that organic matter levels dropped following ploughing, with worm numbers also reduced.

One further area of interest developed when Malcolm and Catherine noticed that the sprayed-out clover regrew in the direct drilled area. This could potentially provide nitrogen for any following crops, and so a trial was designed for the barley drilled after maize harvest. In this trial, part of the field had no nitrogen applied in order to observe any influences of the clover. Quadrat yield assessments found no significant difference between the full nitrogen fertiliser regime and the no nitrogen area and further analysis of grain nitrogen found that both the full rate and zero nitrogen well exceeded the recommended level for feed barley. This prompted discussions on the opportunities for reducing nitrogen fertiliser (and therefore reducing carbon emissions), with most of the agronomists present agreeing that this is achievable, particularly on mixed farms where livestock contribute to healthy soil. One suggestion from the group was that where soil is in good condition, nitrogen could be applied as a foliar feed direct to the plant because the healthy soil is providing good support for the plant roots.

Soil Rejuvenation after Potatoes

On FNZ Demo Farm, Ennis Barton, some ground is let for vegetable production, when this comes back in hand Andrew Brewer wants to find the fastest method of restoring soil health and returning the fields to cattle grazing. In one of the potato fields, a variety of cover crops (eligible for SAM2) were undersown with ryegrass, clovers and plantain, these were then grazed over winter. Soil quality assessments found that mixes containing Westerwolds ryegrass had the most positive effect on soil aggregate stability. However, in the following summer the Westerwolds rapidly went to seed, which made managing grazing quality a challenge. Therefore, the next best cover mix was forage rape or rye and vetch. This is another example of considering the trade-offs of mixed farming when designing systems that optimise soil quality.

Inter-Crops for Cabbages

Some of the ground rented out at Ennis Barton is used for Savoy cabbages. Following a Farm Net Zero meeting looking at managing these “risky crops”, Andrew and the cabbage growers were keen to develop methods of reducing soil erosion between the cabbage rows. A trial was designed where a mix of low-growing, deep-rooted species (chicory, plantain, white clover and buckwheat) were intersown between the cabbage rows at the beginning of October after all cabbage hoeing was completed. This trial is still being monitored, but there are hopes that intercropping will protect soil from erosion, provide feed for livestock and also reduce the amount of disease/damage to the cabbage leaf from “soil bounce” after rain. Again, this could be eligible for the SAM2 SFI payment.

Grazing Winter Cereals

Grazing winter cereals was a common practice to manage plant disease, growth rates, fertility and livestock wintering. FNZ Monitor Farmer, Anthony Ellis, tried a return to this practice on his family arable and sheep farm during winter 2022-2023. Part of a field of winter wheat was grazed with ewe lambs, with the wheat grazed right into the ground. This allowed Anthony to reduce growth regulators and fungicide and slightly reduce the nitrogen applications compared to the ungrazed remainder of the field. Septoria was reduced early in the season, but there was less difference closer to harvest as the grazed wheat caught up with the ungrazed. Some discussion followed concerning how although this is an old practice, it is now possible to put some firmer figures on the carbon savings of reduced inputs from grazing cereals.

Conclusion

Overall, this workshop for agronomists provided an excellent opportunity to share some of the project’s results so far, and to learn from agronomists who work across the project region and further afield. The ability to work collaboratively with the wider agricultural community is very valuable and helps to ensure the Farm Net Zero project reflects as many farming systems as possible.

Lessons Learnt at Erth Barton

Wednesday 18th October 2023

Tim Williams has now completed three years of a contract farming agreement with Antony Estates, working to convert Erth Barton into a regenerative farming system, rebuilding soil fertility. This event was a chance to hear about some of the successes and challenges encountered during the transition. This event was made possible with thanks to the National Lottery Community Fund who fund the Farm Net Zero project.

Tim took on the 300-acre (121 hectare) farm in two halves, arriving with very little kit and limited funds for inputs. This has meant he has built a simple, zero-input system focusing on restoring and feeding the soil microbiology in order to provide fertility.

A very diverse cover crop/herbal ley was drilled to increase rooting depth and diversity and then grazed with beef cattle (averaging 0.8 Livestock Units per hectare) with the aim to eat a third, trample a third and leave a third. Tim has learnt that it is best to focus on managing grass to build up a reserve rather than eating into it. Frequent moves leave grass to regrow, meaning there is always grass ahead of the livestock throughout the rotation.

Another method Tim has trialled to improve soil microbiology has been applications of compost created using a system called “complete microbial composting” developed by the Land Gardeners. This involves mixing brown (cattle dung, soil, straw) and green (fresh cut plants) material from around the farm in long windrows and turning. Three methods of application were trialled – direct spreading, compost tea brewing and “biopriming” (mixing compost with the seed prior to drilling). Tim felt that the biopriming technique has the potential to be the most successful. However, soil microbial testing conducted by the University of Exeter showed no difference so far between areas with and without compost application.

Tim has also experimented with pasture cropping alongside WildFarmed, this involved using a Moore Unidrill to direct drill a heritage wheat blend into a hard-grazed herbal ley. The aim was for the existing ley to provide ground cover and nitrogen-fixation. Tim described the first attempt at pasture cropping as a “disaster”, with chicory swamping the wheat and making harvest impossible. A second attempt meant tweaking the herbal ley mix to make it less competitive, grazing tight, sub-soiling and spring tine harrowing for seed/soil contact and then direct drilling. This appeared to have good establishment up until May, at which point Tim noticed that about two-thirds of the crop was Westerwolds grass. Again, harvest was abandoned and the field grazed instead to utilise the crop and keep organic matter in the field. In future, Tim plans on removing grass from the mix and replacing with a species that has more winter-kill such as sunflowers/millet/sorghum.

As Tim’s time at Erth Barton draws to a close, we would like to thank him for his work on Farm Net Zero and wish him all the best for his future endeavours.

Key takeaways:

  • Bringing pasture and livestock back onto the farm has helped to improve soil quality.
  • Fertility extraction should be balanced with fertility building. This can be done as part of a rotation.
  • Even when experiments do not go the way we first thought, we can still learn valuable lessons from them.

A Day in the Life of… Becky Willson, Technical Director

One of the wonderful things about working for FCT is that no two days are the same. I am incredibly lucky that I get to work with such a brilliant group of colleagues and some fantastic farmers.  Everyone brings new skills, knowledge and interests, which allow us to learn from each other and share ideas which is really rewarding. 

This week has been an interesting week. I am currently delivering a new course which is being run by the University of Cumbria entitled Upland Farming for Net Zero. We have a great cohort of 15 students who are either directly farming or involved in supporting our upland farmers in the South West. This week, we have had online sessions focussing on storing more carbon in upland environments and measuring emissions from livestock, alongside a farm visit on Monday to discuss what it all means in practice.  What’s great about this course is that it also feeds into a project we are just completing, which has built a version of the carbon calculator specifically for upland farmers to be able to take account of carbon on-commons, which is a welcome step forward. 

I have also run a couple of training sessions for groups within the Royal Countryside Fund, providing an introduction to managing carbon on the farm. Although I do a lot of these types of talks, they never get boring as each session yields a different set of questions. What I get most enjoyment from is the interaction with the farmers and helping them to see how what I’m saying could be put into practice. It’s so rewarding to be able to help in some small way, even if it is just to help empower them to feel part of delivering the solutions. 

Alongside talks, I have been finishing off a couple of reports for projects that are coming to an end: a dairy footprinting project combining farm footprints for the supplier farms with the operational footprint of the processing site, and writing some factsheets for farmers around the importance of managing manures and the opportunities with cultivation. There is always more to do and new projects and ideas to explore.