Here’s my final Nuffield report. Just need to do the presentation in November and I’m free.
It’s over, and I’m ready to go home. 4 weeks is really too long for me to be away, so I am happy to be sitting in Minneapolis waiting for my flight.It’s been a fun trip, but what have I learnt? I think the answer is “a lot, but also not very much”, which probably makes me sound like a bit of a prat. Of course, I have seen loads of people who are thinking about soil health, and trying to improve their farms. Some in a small way, and some going crazy [“so far out of the box they can’t see it any more”]. Compared to NZ, there seems to be more people here who are trying to break out of the mould.
I think the reason for this is that in the US the trend has been towards slimming down farm operations to growing only maize and soybeans. Most people seem to be happy doing this, it’s certainly where the $$$ is found. But there are some who value rotations, and try to take the long term view, even if it may be less profitable to begin with. This does not appear to be such a problem in NZ, as they are able to grow a more diverse rotation whilst making good money, and they utilise livestock much more frequently as well.What it comes down to is local conditions. It is a fine line between realising this, and falling into the “that’s great, but it won’t work on my farm” trap. The climate over here is so incredibly different, at least in the centre where I have been, that it is really very difficult to take any specific and directly relevant ideas home with me. They get VERY cold in winter and VERY hot in summer, which has pluses and minuses, but it is undeniably different. This is why I said I haven’t learnt a lot.On this note I have been a bit disappointed with the attitude of some people who consider their way to be gospel, and everyone else has to do it like that as well. I’ve heard Americans telling Europeans they are wrong, Australians telling Americans they are wrong, and Europeans telling Indians they are wrong. All without any concessions that things may be a bit different over there; it’s a bit sad really in my opinion.
But that’s enough of the negative. I really valued getting into some of the theory about how and why increased soil biology can help to improve crops, and ultimately profits. Admittedly, hard data is hard to come by, but there is good anecdotal evidence. And besides, any scientific data would be fairly irrelevant to us; in the same way the decades of research showing no-till to be better is totally inapplicable to our climate. It would be good if we had the same long term experiments in the UK, but it’s too late. Do we really want to wait 10 years to find out something we can do ourselves much quicker?
Something that has been reinforced in my mind is that diverse cover crops are a real benefit, and it was interesting to hear that soil improvement can be boosted by grazing them. I do believe that we can generate significant amount of plant available nitrogen like this, but it will not be a quick fix.
The big unanswered question is how do we increase soil organic matter, when we need 185t/ha to gain a solitary 1%? Even 0.1% per year seems like a hell of a lot, and there are guys claiming to get a lot more that than. Is it because of soil stratification, and sampling technique ? Seeing Gabe Brown’s and David Brandt’s soils, I don’t think so. They don’t look layered to the eye, but that could of course be deceptive. Does it really matter? If it’s there who cares where it came from?! Something to ponder over the Atlantic.
Here are the trip stats:
- Distance driven – 4,588 miles
- States/provinces visited – 10 (that’s a bit disappointing, I was very close to some more, does that count?)
- Farms visited – 31
- Number of sheep seen – 0
- Number of cows seen – ~12,000, almost all in a 48hr period
- Proportion of meals that involved frying – >75%
- Proportion of meals including vegetables not in a burger – <10%
- Level of addiction to mobile data now I’ve discovered local sim cards – 100%
I’m fairly certain it is a legal requirement of a Nuffield Scholarship to visit at least one of Dwayne Beck, Gabe Brown, or Neil Dennis. I feel now that my life is complete, as I have accomplished the trifecta. Why bother with anything else?
Neil Dennis is a grazier who lives just south of Wawota, in Saskatchewan. He farms 1200ac with his wife Barbara, and the occasional helping hand from a summer intern. But Neil is no ordinary grazier, he is an über-mob-grazier [For a very detailed, and readable, explanation of mob grazing, I would suggest reading Tom Chapman’s excellent Nuffield Report]. In brief, it is the practice of grazing cattle in a tight space, but then moving them frequently before all of the grass is eaten. Most importantly, and what really differentiates it from standard rotational systems, is that the pastures are left to recover for a relatively long time after they have been grazed. The exact period depends on a number of factors, such as climate, time of year, and what plants are present. It could be as little as 50 days in perfect conditions, or over a year in a brittle climate. Neil will not return within 60 days at a minimum, and preferably 80. The reason is because it takes this amount of time for the ammonia to dissipate from the urine patches, and so the cattle will be happy to eat all of the grass.
I’ve been doing some mob grazing at home, and am pretty sold on the benefits, having compared it myself with more traditional methods. But I am an amateur compared to Neil; I move the cattle once a day, Neil will do it 6 times. If this sounds like a lot, it is. However, the process is pretty streamlined, and normally he will have all the day’s moves set up in a couple of hours each morning, and from then on the automatic gate openers do the hard work.
The two most important factors for Neil are the rest periods, and the amount of animal impact. Longer rests mean healthier plants that grow faster and more efficiently, and recover quicker. Animal impact is basically the density of cattle at any one point, and the higher the better. Higher stocking densities mean that urine & dung is more evenly spread, and the uneaten leaves are pushed effectively into the ground, which increases soil quality and plant health – a great, positive, cycle. Most farmers will look at this system and see the trampled grass as being “wasted”, as it has not gone through a cow. But consider that Neil manages to stock his farm with almost twice as many animals per acre as his neighbour, and achieve almost the same growth rate. When you’re being paid a daily rate to look after cattle, this is a good thing. Bear in mind also that he uses effectively no inputs at all, including any type of fertiliser.
Unfortunately my visit didn’t follow the script it was supposed to. As I’ve mentioned in the last couple of blog posts, this area of Canada is very wet at the moment. The day I arrived it started raining, and kept on all day, and all night. We went for a drive around in Neil’s UTV (no doors or windows), and within an hour or so my wellies needed the water emptying out of them – and my feet were probably the driest bit of my body. The next morning there was 4″ of rain in the gauge, and a LOT more water everywhere. Time to call Noah.
I had come hoping to see some stocking rates of over 1,000,000lbs/ac (that’s around 3,500 animals per hectare, or one animal per 3.5 square meters), but the farm was, to quote Neil “wetter than I’ve ever seen it”. All plans went out of the window, and instead of 6 moves a day, they went to one. I guess it goes to show that flexibility is important – there’s no point sticking to a plan too dogmatically if the situation changes; a good lesson for life. Actually I was lucky that this rain didn’t come 5 days earlier – the main road across Canada was closed due to flooding, so I would have been stuck in Winnipeg.
Despite the weather not playing ball, it was still a useful visit. Neil makes it look easy, but he obviously has a natural, and unusual, talent for working with cattle. He makes use of a lot of his senses (although not taste as far I can can tell) to monitor how things are going. The paddocks will smell just right after grazing when the protein levels are correct, and the cows’ digestive systems are in order when “the shit sticks to the wheels” just so. I don’t think I will ever be at this sort of skill level, or have the dedication to stock at such intense levels. Even though Neil says he has a lot of spare time, I suspect it would be a difficult system to manage without one’s full attention. But, as with Gabe Brown, I love to marvel at what is possible, even (especially?) when most people say it isn’t.
So that’s a full month of travelling for Nuffield, only a few more left.I’ve stayed for a couple of nights with a Nuffield Scholar from 1976, Jim Halford. He might be known to some people because he invented the Conserva Pak drill, the design of which was sold to John Deere in 2007. Jim is a no-till (or zero-till as he calls it) pioneer, and now everyone in the area is using the technique he developed.
I would not say that it is minimum disturbance no-till, as the drill is made up of two tines, the first of which places fertiliser, and the second one seed. The first tine is set a bit deeper, and serves to cultivate a strip for the seed to go into, and the packing wheel means that it leaves very distinct ridges. This is seen as a benefit as the seedlings are protected from wind until they grow bigger and poke out the top. Jim had tried disc drills to begin with, but found they did not work on his soils – hence he developed the Conserva Pak. I wonder if they might work better now the soil is in better condition?
But I didn’t visit to see a drill. I came because Jim has a pretty unique (sorry mum) setup. The main farm has been in no-till for over 30 years, but in 2000 he started renting some land next door. This land had been conventionally farmed, which is to say it was cropped one year and then fallowed the next. During the fallow period it would be cultivated 4-5 times to keep the weeds under control. In 2001 Jim put it into a no-till system, where it has been ever since.
In 2002, in conjunction with the Indian Head Agricultural Research Foundation (IHARF), they put a trial site on the long term no-till land, and a few hundred metres away, another on the new land. The trial has been running ever since, in a spring wheat/canola rotation, which is standard around here. There were a few different treatments on the site, one to do with phosphate placement, and the others with varying rate of N, from 0-120kg/ha.
The first 10 years’ data has been analysed, and the long term no-till site is much, much more productive than the short term. In fact the long term produced an average of C$120 per year extra profit.
As the graph shows, the longer a field was in no-till, the higher yielding it became, for all levels of nitrogen fertilisation. I think it is interesting that the difference is more pronounced at the lower end, and that ties up with the observations that no-till soils have more available nitrate in them. Another nugget was the in these 10 years, 4 had average rainfall, 3 had above average, and 3 below. In the “normal” years the yields were not very far apart, whereas in extremes the long term was significantly better. Again this would be consistent with the theory that increased organic matter helps both drainage and moisture retention.
Now, the short term field was obviously coming out of about the worst type of treatment you could imagine; half the time it had no growing plants and constant soil disturbance. However, the difference in productivity between these two sites seems so massive to me that it makes me question whether there isn’t another factor at play. The two sites are not immediately adjacent, but the soils were tested and found to be effectively identical – although micro nutrients were not looked at. When I visited the Rogers Memorial Farm in Nebraska, and looked at the data from 34 years of tillage trials, there was nowhere near this level of difference between even full tillage (ploughing) and the no-till, even though less disturbance did consistently come out ahead. That is not to say that the results here are not correct, but I am not going to get excited and think that 20-30% yield increases are possible on our land just from adopting no-till. Which is a shame.
IHARF publish a booklet each year that outlines all the trials they have published results from, and it is an interesting read. Most of it is not relevant outside their local area, but a couple caught my eye. One was that they found a significant yield increase from inoculating peas with rhizobium bacteria at drilling time. I think some trials have been done in the UK on this, without such exciting results; I wonder what the difference is?
The second thing was a trial looking at seeding rate for canola in relation to row widths. We have some rapeseed this year planted in 50cm rows, as opposed to our normal 12.5cm. Both of these were drilled at the same seed rate, but we have been saying all year that maybe the wider rows should have had a lower rate, so that individual plants had more room. According to the IHARF results, this is not the case. It may be possible to reduce the rate slightly, but in general the same should be used regardless of row width. A good example of the quote I put in Day 29’s blog:
“If common sense always worked we wouldn’t need science”
A last minute logistics change meant an early start this morning so that I could get to Chris Thorson’s farm near Holdfast by early afternoon. He farms with his Dad and brother, over an area of 6800ac. The main crops are here are canola, wheat and linseed, but Chris also grows green peas fairly similar to the ones we farm.
I always thought canola and oilseed rape were the same thing, but it turns out that for once I was wrong. Canola was developed from rape in the ’70s, and is lower in glucosinolates and erucic acid – I think we call it 00 rapeseed in the UK.The big problem they have here at the moment is too WET. Every field has standing water in it, and some of the roads are impassable. Chris had been trying to get some spraying done in the morning, but had to pull the sprayer out with a Quadtrak; after this he gave up for the day. The soil was so saturated that even on the dry sections I could hear water squelching under the surface when I walked around.
Another plan had been to drill hemp in the afternoon, but unsurprisingly it was too wet for that as well. He hasn’t grown hemp before, but thinks it could be a lucrative crop in the future. They’ve grown quite a few exotics over the years, like coriander, camelina and caraway. Caraway was the most profitable crop they ever grew, but there was one problem. After harvest the price dropped and dropped, so they decided to wait it out. Eventually it rebounded, but by then it had spent quite a long time in their storage bin: 10 years!
Some of the neighbour’s fields were infested with a weed called Horse Tail, which I’ve not come across before. It’s a living fossil, with a different physiology to normal plants. Glyphosate does not have any effect at all, and nothing else is very effective either. If you chop it up then every piece will form a new plant. I’ve tried to make sure none stuck to my shoes.
The main reason I came to visit this farm was to see some machinery. A Canadian company called Pillar make a drill opener that they call the Laser, and the claim is that it combines the best bits between a tine (or hoe) and a disc unit. It is a pretty simple concept with few moving parts and no gizmos.
The opener is made up of a double angle disc – that means it is tilted on both the horizontal and the vertical plane. All disc drills are angled horizontally, that is how the move soil out of the way to place the seed. The benefit to having it angled vertically is that it digs in by itself, and much less weight is needed to get the machine to work in hard ground. It also means that the discs self-sharpens a bit, and therefore lasts longer. On one side of the disc is a rubber wheel. This does not actually go on the ground like on a John Deere single disc opener, it is just for cleaning dirt of the outside of the disc, and making sure it doesn’t get thrown too far. On the other side of the disc is what makes the Laser different. There is a cast iron wing that sticks out a little bit from the disc’s shadow. In the back of the wing is a hole where the seed comes out.
The end result is that the disc cuts a deep furrow, and fertiliser is placed at the bottom of this, in the same place that seed would be with a conventional disc drill. There will be some hairpinning here, but that’s of no consequence for the fertiliser. The seed is then placed on a little ledge that has been formed by the wing, and is clear of any residue. Behind this is a rubber packer wheel, which also sets the depth.
So in theory, it accomplishes fertiliser and seed separation, no hairpinning, and relatively little disturbance. There is a guy in the UK with one, and I need to try and visit him in the autumn to see it in action. Pillar say that they are developing a lower disturbance hoe that would effectively turn it into a normal single disc drill (like the Bourgault 3710) when no fertiliser placement was needed. Could this maybe make it the ideal all round drill?
I wonder how well it would work as a single disc because there is no real slot closing mechanism, nor is there a seed-fiming wheel. It would also be difficult/impossible to drill deeper than about 5omm with the hoe section – the disc does go deeper however. I don’t think it is the answer (nothing ever will be), but it’s interesting and worthy of further investigation.
There won’t be much field work here for a while longer, it’s hammering down again! Sooner them than us…
I’ve been at the World Congress on Conservation Agriculture for most of this week, hence no blog. It started off with a long and uneventful drive from Bismarck ND where road is so straight and empty that the main problem is resisting the temptation to surf the internet on my phone.The congress was OK, but not great. The talks were pitched fairly low, so didn’t come up with anything particularly groundbreaking. It was good to meet a lot of interesting guys from around the world though, especially some guys doing no-till sugar beet in Switzerland, whom I plan to go and visit.
Soil microbiologist Jill Clapperton gave an interesting talk where she pointed out that intensively tilled soils tended to have a higher ratio of inorganic:organic nitrogen, and it seemed like this favours weed species. I wonder though if by changing this you will just change the weed spectrum, rather than the overall quantity? Another of her stats is that 52% of microbial biomass is associated with roots. If microbes are the real driver for organic matter increases then it underlines the importance of constant soil cover with growing plants.
Another talk from a Brazilian worm specialist (the only one in existence, according to her) showed that we don’t do worms properly – theirs are more like snakes. A few of the panellists that day thought worm numbers were a good indicator of soil health, as they feed on soil microbes, as well as show that there is the “right type” of organic matter present. Some brief Googling shows that perhaps the best way to count worms is to douse the soil with mustard infused water. This should appeal to the inner hippy in everyone.
After a fairly poorly attended “Gala Dinner” one evening, there was a panel discussion about cover cropping from 3 American farmers. One of them farmed in what he called the “Mud Belt” – they get 38″ of rain a year and have heavy clays soils. He suggested that it was important to not sow cover crops too thick, otherwise the soil could not dry out quickly enough come springtime. This seems a good idea to me for people in the UK who are worried about exactly this problem. It would probably be easiest to achieve by using wide rows, with the added bonus of less diesel use.
One thing I have learnt is that within this little section of people there are plenty of zealots who know that they are right and everyone else is wrong – just the same as people who know that no-till doesn’t work etc etc. Conditions are different around the world and not all principles are applicable in all locations. Must remember to keep an open mind!
Here are a few quotes that I liked, but probably misremembered a bit:
“Increasing SOM from 1 to 3% doubles water holding capacity” – Dwayne Beck
“If a farmer applies 150kg/ha of N, that uses 3 times more energy than the tillage, seeding and harvest operations combined” – Dwayne Beck
“If you’re operating on the cutting edge then sometimes you’re going to bleed” – Dan Forgey
“If tillage controlled weeds they would all be gone by now” – Dwayne Beck
“If common sense worked all the time, we wouldn’t need science” – a lady on the R4 Food Programme podcast
Pelee islandis a pretty random place to end up, but thanks to Blake for taking me there. It is a 90 minute boat ride from the mainland, which means the 300 people who live there are pretty isolated. The name is well known in Canada because of the Pelee Island Winery.Bruno Friesen is the winery’s manager, and is a plant growing obsessive (hopefully he won’t mind me saying that). When he finishes the day job of looking after 600 acres of vines and 500 arable acres, he goes to his private garden where he grows 2000 strawberry plants, tomatoes, chillies, garlic, etc etc. He loves it.
You couldn’t accuse these guys of being fixed in their ways. There over over 60 cultivars of grapes being grown, both red and white. Until a few years ago most of the arable land had been rented out, but now they farm it all themselves. This land is in continuous soybean production, although it is effectively double cropped with cereal rye, which is either used as a cover crop, or sometimes kept on until harvest if it is a good stand. This way they can keep their own seed, which saves a lot of money as it does not have to be shipped in.
The theory behind this system is that the deep rooted rye extracts a lot of nutrients from the subsoil (unusually, this is made up of a 50cm layer of crushed coral), which is then available to the soybeans that follow it. Something is working, as they are getting yields 50% higher than is normal for the island.
Another effect was excellently demonstrated here – better than I have seen it before. I took two pieces of soil from 50cm apart, one from the bare soil, and one from under the mat of dead rye (as in the picture two above). The above picture shows incredibly clearly how much extra moisture is retained in the soil profile with the residue protection. This has to be worth a significant amount of yield in a dry time.
These guys also use a crimper roller to terminate the rye. It seems to work very well in thick crops, but when they are thin and short the effectiveness is much reduced.
A small portion of the vines are certified organic, and they have come up with a novel way of producing fertiliser. Fields of permanent lucerne/alfalfa are cut 2-3 times a year, and then composted. Some of these fields are also certified organic, but in Canada they can use a non-certified field as long as it has had no chemical applications in the last two months. I don’t think the Soil Association would go for that one?
It takes around 12 months for the composting process to take place, and it has to be turned and watered regularly. They weren’t sure of the exact yield, but there is only enough to use for replanting young vines. The nutrition is so good in this compost that instead of taking 6 years to start producing grapes, they now only take 1-2 years, which is pretty amazing.
The real killer for Pelee island is the shipping. Anything they produce must be very valuable compared to its bulk, to minimise the proportion of haulage cost. Grapes obviously work, as do soybeans. Maize is too bulky. They are now trying out Goji berries and Sea Buckthorn. I didn’t know that any non-leguminous plants could fix nitrogen, but there are a small number, Sea Buckthorn being one of them. You learn something every day (hopefully more than one thing actually). Here’s another fact – one Sea Buckthorn berry contains the same amount of vitamin C as a whole orange. Wait for that one in the pub quiz.
Sorry for the lack of detail here, but due to jet lag and generous hospitality I’m a bit behind on blogs so having to wiz through them a bit…
This trip didn’t get off to a good start, and I hadn’t realised until just now it was the 13th day of my travelling. The following annoyances occurred the evening before my flight,
- US sim card failed to turn up in the post (ordered three weeks previously)
- New phone case was delivered – but was for the wrong phone (my fault)
- Departure terminal changed – my bus ticket was now for the wrong place
- I realised that I booked a rental car to be returned on July 3rd not July 4th when my flight returns. As July 4th is the biggest holiday in the US, Hertz want another £700 to extend for one more day. Interesting, and currently unresolved.
Anyway, the flight was fine, and customs was painless. One small hitch came when I picked up my rental car and the cigarette lighter didn’t work, so my sat-nav was non-functional. There was another car at hand though, and I swapped into that one.
My stay in the US was short lived, as I immediately crossed the border into Canada and drove two hours east to see a fellow Nuffield Scholar, Blake Vince. This again was a painless journey. Unfortunately my bad luck had not quite run out. After getting out of the car and saying hello to Blake, I went to get my bags out, only to find an empty boot. What kind of an idiot swaps rental cars and takes only one of their bags with them? (Me). I decided against a 4 hour round trip to get the suitcase back, and went to buy some clothes to tide me over until I pass Detroit again in a few days. Hopefully that is enough cretinous behaviour, for this trip at least.
Blake is a 5th generation farmer, who is working with his dad and uncle on 1200ac of pretty heavy, wet clay. Their typical rotation is maize, soybeans twice, and then winter wheat. They have been almost exclusively no-till for the last thirty years, and recently started experimenting with cover crops. The climate is very continental – extremely cold in the winter and extremely hot in the summer. This shows itself fairly clearly in the yields they get; 11.5t/ha of maize and 6.5t/ha of wheat (and 4t/ha of soybeans). Rainfall is the limiting factor, made especially acute with such hot periods during summer.
Wheat is harvested in July, and maize is only planted in late April or May. This 9 month window is a perfect spot for cover crops, but on most farms the fields are left bare. Blake is experimenting with several different mixes, but on most of the farm he has used an 11 way blend consisting of
- Hairy vetch
- Cereal rye
- Crimson clover
- Austrian winter pea
- Faba beans
- Sun hemp
- Daikon radish
- Wheat (volunteers)
Because of the hot temperatures when this is drilled, the warm season plants grow very fast to begin with, but then die over winter. In the spring all that is left is the rye, clover and vetch. We are often told that vetch will die at -8C, but it never seems to happen on our farm; this vetch survived -20C for several weeks, which explains a lot.
These three surviving species come into spring at about ankle height, but as soon as it warms up, the rye will grow 2-3 feet in six weeks, whilst the legumes bulk out again. Incidentally, Blake reckons on them fixing over 50kg/ha of nitrogen in the 9 months they are in the ground.Next the cover is sprayed off with glyphosate, atrazine, and another one I can’t remember. Don’t forget, all of these guys are using roundup-ready maize & soybeans, so they need to stack herbicides just to clear the field. The maize is then planted straight into the green cover with a standard double disc opener. Slot closure perhaps left something to be desired, but they don’t seem to worry so much about that over here.
Finally, the field is rolled with a crimper roller to lay the cover into a protective mat over the soil, and also help to kill any plants that were missed by the spray. The roller is a great idea, but it really only works on plants that have started stem extension, which we cannot always count on. This system is really crying out of the rollers to be mounted on the front of the drill tractor so it can be done in one pass.
Blake has tried out a few different mixes for his cover crops side by side. In one trial, which contained radish and peas, the seed ran out before all the ground was drilled, there is a picture of this above. In the un-drilled section there is significantly more volunteer wheat, which is presumably due to the lack of shading from the radish leaves. To me this is a possible reason for using placed started fertiliser on OSR at home – even if it does not result in higher yield, the leaf cover may help to significantly suppress weeds.
By this point it’s 2am in the UK, and time for my bed.