Stop the pigeon

Back in August we drilled four fields of rape, all with a companion crop mix of one sort or another. For my money the most interesting is where we planted a mixture of lucerne, buckwheat and fenugreek; the lucerne is planned to stay as an understory in the following crops that will supply some “free” nitrogen. This particular field is looking good, the lucerne seems to have established well.

Left: October 16th | Right: February 2nd

But that’s not what I want to talk about here. One of the other fields had a mix of vetch, buckwheat and lentils. You can see the results above – it’s looked great all year. Incidentally, this field was drilled without neonic seed dressing, and although it was “hammered” by flea beetle in September we left 25% unsprayed, and the result is the lefthand picture above.

Anyway, there are a couple of hectares at the end of the field that are a trial without companion cropping (OK so I ran out of seed early) and today I went down to take a look. It’s an incredible result, and one I hadn’t anticipated at all.IMG_6235IMG_6237IMG_6238

So spectacular is it that I’ve had to post three (ok, four) photos. On the left is the companion cropped, where only the vetch has really survived the winter, and on the right is plain. What’s amazing is that the plain rape has been hammered by pigeons, and they (literally) haven’t touched the companioned bit.

One of the theoretical benefits of companion crops has always been how they could confuse or distract pests, but only in the context of slugs or insects – I’ve certainly never heard of a pigeon effect. Long may it continue – who likes gas guns, flags etc etc; they don’t even work anyway.

I was even so excited I made a video, for the first and perhaps last time. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending in your viewpoint, it was too windy and so most of what I said was lost. But still, the effect is obvious. Enjoy.

Day 54 – Lucerne, Lupins & Lablab

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Another two visits today. The first was to Rob Egerton-Warburton, who farms 5,000ha near Kojonup. He always thought that a career in IT was going to be his future, and his brother would be the farmer. After travelling he came back home and found he enjoyed it, and for a while the two of them farmed together – and bought some more land. After a few years the brother decided to go and work as a computer programmer, and left Rob to do the farming. Funny how these things work out.

The farm is split roughly 50:50 between livestock and sheep at any one point, which Rob reckons is about the sweet spot for profitability. Like a lot of Aussie farmers he thinks that you get more from a mixed farm than the sum of the individual parts. It’s a lot of work, but amazing that they can crop 2,500ha and look after 13,000 head of sheep with only two full time employees.

Lucerne understory in wheat

Lucerne

On one new bit of land, which was very unproductive, they spread lime, and then ploughed it in. Into this they drilled lucerne, and left it for a few years to be used as grazing for the sheep. Now that the soil has been improved, Rob can drill wheat directly into it when the lucerne goes dormant over winter, and he is finding that he needs no extra fertiliser at all to get the same yields as his other crops – that’s a saving of around 100-150kg of urea, which is pretty significant.

There are a couple of interesting things happening here with the actual crop drilling. One is that Rob is going against the trend of having wider rows – most people I have seen are at 300mm. He is planning on going down to about half of this, which is more European. The reasons are increased yield and also better weed competition for the ryegrass. There’s a lot of conflicting information on this subject, I think it really needs on farm trials to see what works where. The other technique he’s using is to sow the rows east-west when possible. The idea here is that it allows less light to get down between the rows and on to the weeds. He claims a 5-10% increase in yield, and a 50% reduction in weeds. Big numbers!

Lupins

Lupins

Next up I headed back north again, almost to where I started the day with the Pascoe’s. Rob Rex is another sheep/cropping farmer, I won’t go into all the details again. They grow a few lupins, which is a good crop, but somewhat risky with the climate. After harvest the sheep are let out onto the stubbles. Apparently 20ha of lupin stubble will maintain 4,000 sheep for a month; I find this pretty incredible. Surely there must be a lot of losses from the combine to provide that much food?

Lablab

Lablab (and sorghum)

This is the first cover crop I’ve seen in Australia. There was a bit of spare moisture, and a degraded pasture that needed a little refreshing, so Rob (Rex) whipped out the drill and put in some warm season plants – sorghum and lablab, which is a new one on me. The lablab is a member of the bean family which has been brought over from Africa. It seemed to be growing pretty well, although it had no nodules at all. I wonder if perhaps it needs inoculating with a specific rhizobium which isn’t naturally present in these soils.

This is also one of the few farms I’ve found which has got some perennial warm season grasses to grow in the grazing paddocks. There is a common theme though everywhere that they seem to be successful: long rest times between grazings. No brainer.

Day 44

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 11.20.40When I was in Canberra for the Nuffield CSC in March, there was a drinks reception where I met someone who was the head of agriculture, or something similar, at one of the big universities. I asked him what he thought of Pasture Cropping and the answer was “it’s rubbish, it doesn’t work”. This was a signal to me that there was probably something interesting going on, and I resolved to find out some more about it.

Colin Seis is a 4th generation farmer who produces Merino wool, and also a bit of grain. Like a lot of other farmers that have come up with very novel ideas, it all started with some extreme hardship. In the ’70s the farm had been going well, but in 1979 there was a severe bush fire which burnt all the pasture, all the crops, all the buildings, and killed 3000 sheep. With almost everything lost, it was time for desperate measures as there was not enough money to just continue on with the high input system that had been standard up until then.

A field of oats ready to harvest

A field of oats ready to harvest

What came out of it eventually evolved into Pasture Cropping. In the traditional system, pastures were established, grazed for 3 years, then ploughed up and drilled with a cereal. The problem is fairly obvious – getting a pasture going is expensive and quite time consuming, so it seems a waste to kill it off after such a short period of time. The answer is to not kill it off at all, but to drill straight in, and then let it regrow after the cereal is harvested.

But the key to making this possible is the climate. Australia is pretty hot, it’s been 35C today. In the winter it cools down quite a bit, and critically, the difference between summer and winter just crosses over the boundary that separates cool season and warm season plant growing conditions.

Native warm season grass seeds which Colin sells to coal mines for restoring rangeland after they have finished with it

Native warm season grass seeds which Colin sells to coal mines for restoring rangeland after they have finished with it

[Brief science lesson: warm season (C4) plants use a different chemical process for converting CO2 from the atomosphere to cool season (C3) plants. The crossover point between the two types is about 27C, and although being out of the right zone will not kill a plant, it will not be able to photosynthesise efficiently]

In this region there are 2-300 native pasture plant species, of which only 10 or so are cool season. This means that during the winter, almost all of the pastures’ productivity stops as the warm season plants become dormant. This is the perfect time to plant a cool season cereal, such as oats or wheat, as there will be no competition from the perennials that are already there.

One quarter of the farm is cropped every year, and to prepare a field to go into oats it will be grazed harder than usual, perhaps three times in the autumn (normally paddocks have 120 days rest between grazings on average). The oats can then be direct drilled in May, grazed a couple of times in the spring, and harvested in November. Yields are comparable to a conventional system, and immediately after harvest there is a fully established warm season pasture ready to go. I didn’t see it this time, as the drought it so severe, but normally at harvest the underlying grasses will already be greening up and starting to come out of hibernation. Of course, this can cause problems in a warm spring if they grow too big and interfere with combining. But that is apparently a rare occurrence.

Because it is so dry the warm season grasses are still lying dormant in the bottom of the oats. they look dead, but apparently are not...

Because it is so dry the warm season grasses are still lying dormant in the bottom of the oats. they look dead, but I’m assured they are not…

I was surprised to see that Colin uses a tine drill, I had assumed it would be impossible without a disc because of the amount of plant residue he was drilling in to. He can get away with it because the perennial plants have much better rooting than annuals and so they are much less likely to be pulled out of the ground and bung up the drill. He also mitigates the problem by using wide rows (12″) and recently cutting discs were added in front of each tine.

Does it work? Colin’s brother farms next door, and still uses the system he grew up with, so there is a great benchmark over the fence line. When two 50cm deep samples were taken from 15m apart, the difference was amazing. There is roughly double the nutrient density on Colin’s land, and double the SOM. Amazingly, over a 10 year period, the levels of plant nutrients in the soil have actually increased under pasture cropping, with almost no inputs at all. And that is not just plant available nutrients, but total nutrients. So somehow, from somewhere, phosphorus and all the other trace elements are being brought into the soil. To my mind it can only be coming up from deeper down in the soil profile, which is allowed to happen because of the deeper rooting plants which are encouraged with the cell grazing. It’s an incredible result, and unsurprisingly, a lot of scientists are skeptical about it. Nitrogen is also increasing, which is interesting because there are not very many legumes in the pastures. Colin is convinced that this is due to free living nitrogen fixing bacteria in the soil, which if true, is a real incentive to maximise soil health/life/whatever you call it.

But these are just theoretical numbers, practical results are more important: Colin’s land will hold over double the stock density of his brother’s, and yield the same with grain, but with fewer inputs. Why doesn’t his brother follow suit then? “He’s my older brother, and older brothers will never listen to younger brothers”. It also brings back something Gabe Brown says, “I get visited by farmers from all over the world, but I’ve never had one of my neighbours come and see me”.

Colin's tine drill, with a few modifications

Colin’s tine drill, with a few modifications

The latest iteration of Pasture Cropping is to stop growing monoculture cash crops, and instead plant a more diverse mix earlier in the year. Oats are still the base, but legumes like peas and vetches are added, and also brassicas which provide excellent forage for the sheep. These mixes are sown in March, and are then grazed 3 times. On the last grazing, the animals are left on a bit longer, which kills off the legumes and brassicas, but leaves the oats to grow though and be harvested later. The sheep are effectively acting as a herbicide. Colin is pretty excited about this development, as it allows legumes to come into the rotation, and it also gives another boost to plant and root diversity.

There is an elephant in the room: Pasture Cropping will not work in the UK.

However, this was an excellent visit, and very inspiring. It’s a system that goes completely against convention, and steps on some toes in the process. It’s very logical (to my mind anyway) when you think about it, and it begs the question – what is our equivalent going to be at home?

What’s happening at home (First edition)

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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

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Oats, Sunflower, Millet, Vetch, Phacelia, various Brassicas, Linseed

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.

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3 weeks after drilling

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.

5 weeks after drilling

5 weeks after drilling

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.

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Spot the fertiliser

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.

The difference between bare soil and covered soil. This has a big effect on how fast a seedling will grow

The difference between bare soil and covered soil. This has a big effect on how fast a seedling will grow

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.

Germination Tests

Germination Tests

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 final mix

The final mix

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.

Everything was slow to emerge because of the cold weather in August, but it all came eventually

Everything was slow to emerge because of the cold weather in August, but it all came eventually (although no rapeseed visible in this photo!)

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?

Flea beetle damaged OSR, next to an untouched buckwheat plant

Flea beetle damaged OSR, next to untouched buckwheat and fenugreek plants

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?

 

 

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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.

11 days after drilling

11 days after drilling

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.

Both the grass and the vetch have come well, apart from here the slugs ate it all...

Both the grass and the vetch have come well, apart from where the slugs ate it all…

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.

Before and after

Before and after

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.

In the weeks after grazing all of the legumes go crazy. There must be a lot of free nitrogen being fixed here now

In the weeks after grazing all of the legumes go crazy. There must be a lot of free nitrogen being fixed here now

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.

This was the first cell that was grazed five months ago

This was the first cell that was grazed five months ago

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?