It’s the first non Nuffield Travel blog post. Hurray. I thought both my readers may be interested in what we have going on at home this year. Here are five little experiments, listed in what I would consider increasing order of potential for peril.
1) Cover Cropping
This is our third year of cover cropping. The first year I tried two fields, last year four, and this year almost 1/3rd of the entire farm’s area will have covers grown on it. Obviously I like them. I changed the mix we had previously used, and dropped out buckwheat (went to seed too quickly) and peas (expensive per seed, and we grow them in our rotation already). I kept in millet, but, for the third straight year, hardly any of it seems to have grown. It may finally have had its final chance.
Harvest had a really early start this year, which was great for planting cover crops. Almost everything was in by August 2nd. Unfortunately the good weather turned cold and grey, and it took a long time for the seeds to germinate. When they finally did (I may have planted them a bit too deep as well), they grew very, very slowly for the rest of August. It has also been a bad year for slugs, and quite a few hectares have been lost to them.
Luckily the start of September has been warmer, and the growth has sped up quite significantly. I have put a few trial strips of nitrogen fertiliser on three of the cover crop fields. For the fist month nothing showed up, and I thought the money was wasted. But now that they are actually growing, everything is changing.
Before the sheep get here in a month or two, I will take some samples and get them tested for dry matter content, to see whether it is worth applying fertiliser or not. My suspicion is that it will not be, but who knows. Whatever happens, it will not be a bumper cover crop season like autumn 2013 was.
2) Companion Cropping
I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of years, but finally got kicked in to action because of the new ban on using neonicotinoid seed dressings (an insecticide that stops flea beetles from eating tiny rapeseed plants). The theory is that by growing a mix of plants in with your rapeseed, the insects will be confused, and may eat the companions in preference to the rapeseed.
The traditional (if there is such a thing yet) plant to use as a companion crop in the UK is vetch. This is well suited to our climate, and will fix some nitrogen. The main problem is that it will not die over winter, and so must be sprayed off in the spring. I thought I would go a bit different, and so chose buckwheat, lentil and fenugreek.
The idea here was that the buckwheat would get going early, and I had heard flea beetles liked to eat it. The lentils and fenugreek are both legumes, and so would fix some nitrogen. The real benefit is that all of these crops are very sensitive to temperature, and should easily be killed off by our relatively mild winters. I also decided to go with no pre-emergence herbicides on the companion crop field, which is a gamble. All of our rapeseed is direct drilled this year which I hope will mean we have less of a weed burden going in to winter.
So how has it worked? Slugs have been a problem, it seems to be just one of those years. It turns out that they will eat all four types of plants in the field, although buckwheat is not as tasty as the others. And the bigger question – is it deterring the flea beetle? No. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be having much of an effect. Looking at our cover crops, all of the brassicas are relatively unaffected, it’s the vetch which has taken the brunt of the attack. I wonder whether next year this should be in the companion crop mix, as a bit of a sacrifice?
3) Very early drilled wheat for grazing
Now we are getting in to the realms of potentially very stupid ideas. In New Zealand they graze ryegrass crops that will then be harvested for seed. A lot of farms in the UK used to, or still do, graze their wheat crops in the spring. If you plant wheat too early, it gets too big too soon, and will suffer badly from diseases. Add all of these up and what is the logical conclusion?
Drill wheat very early, allow it to form a huge and potentially very useful root system, and then graze in the late autumn so the plant is not too big going in to winter. Free grazing, improved yields?
This is what we are trying. 5ha of a 25ha field was drilled with wheat on August 29th, roughly three weeks before it would normally be done. The previous crop was rapeseed, and I left the volunteers to grow freely, and then drilled straight into it, as in the photos above. I decided to wait as long as I dared after drilling before spraying off the volunteers with glyphosate, and I also decided to not use a pre emergence herbicide; the idea being that any further rapeseed plants that grow will make good food for the sheep. I am also hoping that the dying volunteers will create a sort of mulch, which will keep weeds from germinating.
In the end I held off for six days before spraying, which seemed to be about right. I went on holiday immediately afterwards, and when I got back the field looked like the photo above. Actually it looks a complete mess as it is just full of dying plants, but when you look closer it is excellent. Let’s hope the aphids don’t spoil the party.
4) IRG silage & grain maize
I’m quite excited about this one. Next spring we will be planting some maize (corn to Americans) that will be harvested, hopefully in early October, for grain. The thing about maize is that it is not planted until April at the earliest, and sometimes May. This leaves a big window for growing a cover crop. After my visit to New Zealand I was keen to try out an Italian Ryegrass (IRG) cover crop as it has an excellent and prolific root system. I decided to include a little bit of vetch in the mix too, which increases diversity and fixes some nitrogen. But when the economics of grain maize were investigated further, they did not look so pretty. The plan was changed accordingly, and instead of grazing the IRG with sheep, I have sold it in advance to a local dairy farmer for silage.
Hopefully the silage will be cut in late april, and the maize planted in immediately behind it (no-till of course) with a starter fertiliser. If this works it will be great, as double-cropping like this keeps the land productive for twelve months a year. I’m also hoping that because the field will be killed off with glyphosate in April, the blackgrass problem that is starting to form there can be nipped in the bud.
I’ve considered this scheme as fairly perilous due to two factors: Firstly sowing grass seeds seems like it could come back to haunt us in years to come, and secondly grain maize is a pretty marginal crop in this country. It is the second smallest field on the farm though, so even if it is a disaster I may escape being fired.
5) Mob grazing & a 3 year herbal ley
Last but not least, the biggest and longest experiment we have. How can I make one field yield more like its neighbour (I’ll need to increase its productivity by 20% to get there)? A year ago I planted a legume rich herbal ley after a crop of rapeseed. It contained ryegrass, timothy, cocksfoot, chicory, white clovers, red clovers, trefoil, sainfoin, and probably a few others that I have forgotten.
The field is 18ha in size, and I have about 30 animals grazing it. It is chronically understocked. In about two weeks I will have completed one circuit and they will be back at the start, having been moved in to a new grazing cell every day or two for the last five months.
It has actually gone very well so far. When the cattle density is this high (nowhere near where a professional mob grazier would be) then every type of plant is eaten, and the rest is trampled. Even the really bad blackgrass patches were grazed, and as we all know, cows don’t eat blackgrass.
It’s lucky that I have not spent any money on the field, as it hasn’t produced any either (no cash anyway). The plan is to keep this ley in for three years, and then go back into normal cropping. To break even, I need to increase its yields by 3% over the following 20 years. I believe this is feasible (in fact I would hope for more), but whether it happens or not is anyones’ guess. What I am really worried about is all of the grass seed that is being shed by the plants, and what it will mean in those 20 years. Will I be cursing this experiment for the rest of my life?