Day 64 – How no-till soils are different in Brazil

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Sao Paolo airport has four terminals. In the hour and a bit I spent trying to find a sim card, some reasonably priced Brazilian currency, and a bus to the Ibis hotel, I visited them all, some more than once. It’s a fun way to end the day, especially at 11pm. The next morning I had to fly out early to Brasilia, and luckily I set my alarm as the hotel forgot the wake-up call.

In the afternoon I visited the Embrapa Cerrado centre for a very quick but still useful couple of hours. Embrapa is the Brazilian government run agricultural research organisation, which is apparently very well thought of by the farmers – probably a world first?

The distinct stripes on the left hand plant are due to a Sulphur deficiency. The soil that grew the right hand plant has been treated with gypsum (calcium sulphate) and does not show the same signs

The distinct yellow stripes on the left hand plant are due to a sulphur deficiency. The soil that grew the right hand plant has been treated with gypsum (calcium sulphate) and does not show the same signs

The land here has come out of what they call Cerrado, which is a type of scrub land, but with some tall trees as well. The soil is very deep (they have found roots going down over 4m) and physically well structured. However it is naturally pretty low in fertility, with a natural SOM level of 3-3.5%, and very little in the way of nutrients. It’s also got a pH of 4, and some problems with aluminium toxicity. As a result of this, there are large responses to the standard NP&K fertilisers, and gypsum also has a large beneficial effect both on soil structure & rooting, as well as feeding the plant sulphur. If you ignore these chemical inputs, and farm with tillage, it’s possible to drop the SOM to under 0.5% within five years.

They’ve done quite a bit of work on no-till, which has produced an average yield benefit over the long term of 10%. In some years, growing soya, it has been as high as 40%. They put this difference down to the increased SOM levels under no-till; after 11 years, the tillage plots have 25% less carbon per hectare. This makes a difference with nutrient uptake efficiency in general, but they have specifically tested what happens to organic phosphorus levels – this is the type of phosphorus that is easily utilised by the plant. After 10 years of no-till the organic P is 6% higher, and after 17 years that goes up to 26%.

When this trial started, 17 years ago, it was given 240kg/ha of phosphate. Since then it has had none, and each year the crop has become worse and worse. At this point it is hardly produced any plant at all, let alone a harvestable crop. As a side effect, the organic matter is rapidly disappearing because there is so little plant residue being returned to the soil

When the trial started, 17 years ago, this plot was given 240kg/ha of phosphate. Since then it has had none, and each year the crop has become worse and worse. At this point it is hardly produced any plant at all, let alone a harvestable crop. As a side effect, the organic matter is rapidly disappearing because there is so little plant residue being returned to the soil

Like in Argentina & Uruguay, here in Brazil they are just starting to wake up to the idea of cover crops. One trial compared a standard tillage and summer fallow method (the traditional way) against using no-till and a winter cover crop. The traditional method required 25t/ha of carbon to be put onto the surface to retain 1t/ha in the soil. No-till with a millet cover crop needed 12t/ha to retain the same 1t/ha, and using mucuna (a legume you will no doubt remember from Day 61) meant that number dropped to 7t/ha. The theory here is that because the creation of SOM needs nitrogen, the process is more efficient when there is a legume in the ground. However, the millet produced over double the biomass of the mucuna, so although it is less efficient, if you want to build SOM fast, that (and probably added fertiliser) would be the way to go. It might seem fairly obvious that trying a mix of the two plants might be a good idea, but I’m not sure South America is ready for that concept just yet.

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Eucalyptus trees with an understory of Brachiaria, a widely used type of C4 grazing grass

That was the first half an hour outside, the second was spent looking at an interesting agroforestry scheme. Some of the land has been very badly degraded by over-grazing and poor pasture management, to the point where it is hardly productive any more. One of the solutions Embrapa is looking at is to use crops, grass and trees to turn it around. Also, since us Europeans chopped all our trees down long enough ago that it doesn’t count, we’ve told the Brazilians they can’t do the same to the Amazon. Now they need to find other ways to make their flat pack furniture, and this might be a solution.

Eucalyptus are planted in rows, and for the first two years they can grow three crops per year between the trees: first comes soya, and then maize, both of which can go from planting to harvest in 100 days. A cover crop is planted into the standing maize, so it is ready for grazing immediately after harvest. The same thing happens the second year, except the cover crop then becomes a permanent pasture, as in the photo above. Cattle will graze this for 10-15 years, by which time the trees are tall enough to cut. Eucalyptus has two characteristics which make it ideal for this application. It is very fast growing (in this climate it can average 6m per year), and it will also regrow after the wood has been harvested. Man-sized-cut-and-come-again. Now that the shade has been temporarily removed it’s possible to get in another year or two of cash crops before the trees are too big, and it turns back in to grazing. So the cycle continues…

On a different subject, if you’re looking for something cheery to watch, don’t go and see I Am a Girl, although it is a good documentary. If you do see it, and still feel a bit too upbeat, maybe try Once Were Warriors.

Day 61 – Jesus: Rice Superstar

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I’d only ever spent 3 hours in Uruguay before this trip, but for some reason I’ve always liked it. This time there was no queue at customs, my bag was the first off the plane (that’s a new one for me) and I could buy a cheap local sim card at the airport. A great start. Unfortunately I had not been able to arrange anything constructive for the weekend, so it was tourist time. After mucking around for a couple of days I headed to Treinta y Tres (which means thirty three), and spent the night in a hotel which was perfectly comfortable, but wouldn’t have been out of place in 1964 Bulgaria.

This morning I had an appointment with Jesus Castillo, a rice agronomist working for INIA. He had been recommended to me by Michael Eyres as someone who knew all about improving soils.

I've eaten plenty of rice, but never seen it growing

I’ve eaten plenty of rice before, but never seen it growing

INIA is partly funded by the government, and partly by the farmers, through levies on their sales. They perform trials in both cropping and livestock management, as well as having big labs which will test grains, forage, or whatever the farmer needs. Their building was quite new, and very smart, in stark contrast to similar government organisations over the river in Argentina.

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Angus x Hereford steers, finished on grass, almost ready for the freezer

They’ve got some of the best soil in the country over here, but it’s only 30cm deep, with a clay subsoil. That means they don’t have a huge water holding capacity, and so are normally either too dry, or totally flooded. Traditionally there has been a lot of grazing, and that continues today. It’s one of the few places in the world where it is standard practice to graze both sheep and cattle in the same field at the same time. I’ve always thought this sounded like a pretty sensible idea, but all my (super conservative) vet friends start having a fit when you mention it.

Some general rice photos, because its novel

Some general rice photos, because its novel

They have two research stations near Treinta y Tres, for upland and lowland systems. The upland system is dry land farming, and they are testing three rotations. All the rotations have two years where they grow soya beans – wheat – sorghum – oat cover crop. At this point they differ: one starts all over again, and the other two go into pasture, either for two years or four.

On the lowland farms, the main crop is the rice. Uruguay is the second most productive rice growing country on the planet – only the USA averages a higher yield per hectare. On the low land INIA station they also have rotation trials, ranging from intensive rice – cover crop – soya – cover crop, to the traditional rice and perennial pasture.

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The cover crop they tend to use in this lowland trial is Italian ryegrass. What’s really interesting is that they put it on with an airplane, both into the soya and the rice. Uniquely, in my experience, they are happy with the results, and say it gives a good even germination. This is understandable in the rice, as they put it on just after the field is drained, so there is plenty of moisture in the soil. In the soya it goes on about a month before harvest, timed just before the leaves start to fall off. When the leaf does come off, it covers the ryegrass seed and provides humidity to help germination. In both cases, after harvest the grass is 5cm or so tall, and gets going very quickly – to be grazed before the next cash crop is planted.

The trial results are interesting – SOM is maintained in all the rotations that include pastures, and degraded in the ones that don’t. However, they have only just started using cover crops in the last couple of years, and the hope is that this may make the continuous cropping more sustainable.

A cover crop trial of different warm season legumes. Mucuna, Crotalaria Spectabilis and Crotalaria Juncea. they seem to like straight cover crops here more than blends

A cover crop trial of different warm season legumes. Mucuna, Crotalaria Spectabilis and Crotalaria Juncea. They seem to like straight cover crops here more than blends

In the ’50s & ’60s no-till had not been adopted, and traditional farming methods were terrible at controlling erosion. The average farm lost 20-30t/ha of soil each year, into the rivers. Since the ’90s this has improved a lot, but in the last three years the government has decided it had to do something about the country’s soils – agriculture is a big proportion of Uruguay’s GDP. What they have come up with is a system whereby the landowner (and farmer if it is a different person) must submit their long-term cropping plans for approval. Trial data from INIA is used to predict how this rotation will affect the soil erosion, taking into account topography, soil types, climate, use of cover crops, pasture phases etc. The magic number is 7t/ha. If you lose more soil than this each year, you will not get approval to go farming (or else there’s a big fine). It sounds like a pretty sensible way of protecting the country’s asset, although given what has happened in the UK with the three crop rule (no one is telling ME how to farm!) I don’t think it would be a popular move – especially because here they often stipulate at least some pasture.

Apparently this opener is very good in dry conditions. Looks a lot like a T-Sem

Apparently this opener is very good in dry conditions. Looks a lot like a T-Sem

Of course it does beg the question, why settle for any soil loss at all? Apparently even with low intensity farming on native grasslands they still lose ~2t/ha/yr, but in the past something must have created the soil. Maybe God? In my opinion, if they find out how to make soil, with profitability taken out of the equation, then maybe some of those techniques could be used in day-to-day farming. Sounds like a good topic for a Nuffield.

Day 59 – Irresistible oats

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Carmen is a huge farm – 10,000ha in an area where the average is 200. Not only that, but it is the biggest dairy in Argentina, with over 6,000 cows producing 100,000l of milk every day. It’s a massive operation, and is owned by one of the country’s agricultural behemoths, Adecoagro.

A 700ha field. The drill goes for 5km before it has to turn around and come back

A 700ha field. The drill goes for 5km before it has to turn around and come back

Eddie Nolan is the arable manager, and luckily for me he speaks great English because that’s the only way he could ask his Irish grandmother for sweets. Like everyone else in this country (continent?) they grow a lot of Soya, both on its own and as part of a double crop with wheat. The third part of the rotation is maize, which is either grown for grain, or for silage that is fed to the dairy cows.

There are two 3,000 cow units, each with an 80 place rotary parlour. The plan is to double up and have 12,000 cows within a few years

There are two 3,000 cow units, each with an 80 place rotary parlour. The plan is to double up and have 12,000 cows within a few years

As well as normal grain maize, they also grow hybrid seed for Syngenta (more profitable) and popcorn for cinemas et al (more delicious). Most of the maize is GM, and does not need to be sprayed with insecticides. Contrast this with the three sprays that the non-GMO varieties get: “I know which one I would rather eat” says Eddie.

A popcorn plant (left) vs a normal grain maize plant (right). the popcorn yields half as much but is sold for double. It is also not taxed by the government, so it's a more profitable crop

A popcorn plant (left) vs a normal grain maize plant (right). the popcorn yields half as much but is sold for double the price. It is also not taxed by the government, so it’s a more profitable crop

Eddie is mindful of his soils, and so after taking maize silage he tries to grow a cover crop. They have been doing this for about 12 years, which makes them incredibly early adopters in Argentina. The cover crop is usually wheat, but they are just starting to play around with adding vetch as well. I asked why he didn’t grow Avena Strigosa/Black Oats/Bristle Oats/whatever else you want to call them. The answer was that they are so good that the dairy boys sneak in and cut it for silage, so there is no organic matter returned to the soil, which somewhat defeats the purpose.

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The soil here is pretty sandy, but it is a very fine textured sand. Like at La Florida, there are high and low areas, called Loma & Bajo. Now I don’t speak Spanish, but I’m going to take a guess that these mean high & low… The soils are very deep; I couldn’t get an exact answer, but it is apparently much deeper than the roots will go. Eddie confirmed what I had heard a few days ago, that maize will root to 2m and wheat/soya to 1m.

Why this photo? Because I can, and it still amazes me that a phone will take these photos. On the right are a couple of aphids, slightly bigger than the ones at home

Why this photo? Because I can, and it still amazes me that a phone will take these photos. On the right are a couple of aphids, slightly bigger than the ones at home

Water is a big deal here, and the dairies use 1,000,000 litres (yes, million) per day in total. Almost all of this finds its way into a lagoon, where is waits until it can be used to irrigate the maize being grown for seed. Each pivot irrigator covers 150ha, and can put out about 10,000,000 litres of water in a day, which is 7mm over the entire area. Like I said, it’s a big operation.

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Day 58 – Tables (water & food)

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The flight didn’t turn out so badly; I was asleep before the drinks came round, and woke up 8 hours later. After watching the excellent film Boyhood, which I couldn’t figure out how they made, we landed and got in line at immigration. A few hours later, and with some black market Pesos in my pocket, I headed south towards Trenque Lauqen. It was coming up for lunch, so I kept my eyes peeled.

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A quick u-turn was needed as I saw a place with loads of cars parked outside, and my Spanish dictionary confirmed “Parrilla” means “Grill”. The guy at the table next to me had a good looking rib of beef, so I pointed at it. “Asado?” “Si”. Three minutes later a piece of meat easily big enough to flip Fred Flinstone’s car turned up. It was a generous two person portion, or a stingy eight peoples’ worth. I didn’t manage to finish it.

That's a serving dish, not a normal plate

That’s a serving dish, not a normal plate

The next day I met up with Eduardo Herrmann, who runs a company which has three farms. One of them is near the small town of Casbas, it’s called La Florida.

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Eduardo started the day by giving us a short presentation on the farm. I say us because there were also teachers present from the local agricultural high school, and some of the farm employees too. Straight away he said that the most important technology on the farm is CREA. CREA is a nationwide organisation that gets small groups of 10-12 local farmers together to share ideas and problems with each other, aiming to make everyones’ farm better. It’s a spirit of cooperation that is unfortunately rare in the UK.

All the different soil types are mapped and used for variable rate seed & fertiliser

All the different soil types are mapped and used for variable rate seed & fertiliser

The farm is run with a long-term mindset, so the soil quality is considered carefully. They grow four main crops: soya, sunflower, maize & wheat (occasionally barley). Between sunflower and wheat they will sometimes use a cover crop of triticale or forage rye. The cover crop is grazed if it’s on the better soils, and left to be incorporated on the worst ones.

Rye residue in the bottom of a Soya field, left over from a cover crop. The eagle-eyed will notice evidence of grazing

Rye residue in the bottom of a Soya field, left over from a cover crop. The eagle-eyed will notice evidence of grazing

There are three main types of soil here. In ascending order of quality, Loma, Media Loma & Bajo. All of them are predominantly sandy, going from 82% in the Loma to 70% in the Bajo. SOM levels increase as the sand content goes down, but even on the best land they are rarely above 2%. Needless to say, the farm has been no-till for 18 years, but apart from a small layer at the top, it is very difficult to add OM to the soil: as Eduardo says “the sand eats organic matter”.

This is a handful of Loma soil, it is so soft that I could just scoop it up

This is a handful of Loma soil, it is so soft that I could just scoop it up

There was a good demonstration today of the perils that can await when comparing different areas of a field. These two soya plants (see below) were taken from opposite sides of a small road. One is Loma soil, the other Media Loma. In just a couple of meters the soil has changed so much that the plants it raises are at opposite ends of the spectrum. The moral of the story is, if you want to compare the soil from two different management practices, take them from as close together as possible.

The only difference between these two plants is the soil type - and about 3 meters of separation. The one on the right has good nodules, and a root that will reach down to more than a meter in depth

The only difference between these two plants is the soil type – and about 3 meters of separation. The one on the right has good nodules, and a root that will reach down to more than a meter in depth

On the very worst soils they plant a species imported from Africa, called Weeping Lovegrass, which provides some cattle grazing, and also stops wind erosion. It is unique in my experience, as it seems to have been successful at what it was meant to do, and hasn’t gone out of control. If only all the other introduced species were the same.

One of the techniques which came out of CREA was to measure the water table. There are 13 different sites around the farm which have 3m deep plastic pipes sunk into the ground. Every month the levels are measured with a dipstick and recorded.

Water table levels over a two year period

Water table levels over a two year period

This information is used to decide before planting crops what sort of potential they have. If the water levels are high, Eduardo knows that they will not need a lot of rain, so he feels confident in using more expensive varieties and putting down more fertiliser. Something I found very interesting was that this data allows them to see how deep the plants can send their roots, as they can check the water table height when signs of drought start to appear. Maize and sunflower will root to 2-2.5m, but wheat and soya will only go to 1-1.5m. That is pretty important, and has potential implications for nutrient scavenging too – I had been wondering how deep wheat roots go.

One of the water table measuring sites

One of the water table measuring sites

15% of the farm’s maize, and some of its soya, goes to their on-site feedlot. According to Eduardo most of the beef in Argentina is now finished on grain. What about the grass-fed reputation? “It’s history”. One of the peculiarities of the beef market here (where the average person eats 70kg per year) is that they really like their carcasses to be as small as possible. In the government’s opinion this got out of hand as smaller and smaller animals were being slaughtered, and so it is now illegal to kill a heifer or steer which weighs less than 300kg. That really means the race is on to get to this weight as soon as possible, and the animals here are finished for 90 days on a maize & soya diet and killed before the age of two. I couldn’t believe they do not feed any fibre to the cattle; apparently this causes them to get liver problems, but by the time it manifests they are hanging from a hook anyway.

I started off talking about food, and that meal was good. But this one was even better, and what a location. The seven hour drive to Rosario after lunch was less enjoyable.

Day 55 – Worm juice & Claying

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 10.51.25I spent the night near Gingin, but I’ll come back to that in tomorrow’s blog. A bit of last minute planning was called on to arrange a visit to Diane Haggerty, who farms with her husband Ian on the more marginal land on the eastern side of the wheat belt. They have an interesting story, having run a petrol station for the first part of their marriage, before buying 660ha of run down farmland next to Diane’s parents’ farm. They put all of their money in to the land, and had none left over for machinery. Luckily being next to Dad has its benefits, so they could borrow a drill and tractor. This was in 1994, and luckily two good years followed, which allowed them to make some money. In the early 2000s they took on their first bit of rented land, and promptly had a total crop failure – but they scraped through.

Since then they have managed to buy a little bit more land, but mainly the business has grown by renting degraded land that other farmers don’t even bid for. The problem here is that the leases are short term, and once they have reversed the decline in productivity, the landlords then want more money and the neighbours come in with bigger bids. Currently they farm 9,300ha, but that changes year on year.

A 200ha field - probably the average farm size in East Anglia

A 200ha field – probably the average farm size in East Anglia

Like I said at the beginning, this is really marginal land, where 2t/ha is considered a big harvest and the annual rainfall is 100mm. The name of the game is to keep down costs and reduce risk. To achieve this, Diane & Ian have focused heavily on soil health, and nutrient cycling. It is too expensive to ship in quality compost, which costs A$200 before shipping, so they use compost extract, and also worm juice. Worm juice, delicious as it may sound, is actually what seeps out the bottom of compost heaps at special worm factories. I can’t help but think it sounds like a kid’s version of Snake Oil! These two liquids are applied at 5l/ha, normally at drilling, but the worm juice can also be sprayed on to the plant directly as a foliar application. In addition to these potions, they use some herbicide, but no insecticides or fungicides. Conventional fertilisers are placed at drilling, but in such small amounts I’m amazed they bother: 1kg/ha of phosphate and between 2-10kg/ha of nitrogen. Leaf tissue testing tells them when trace elements are needed, and they are put on as foliar sprays. Needless to say, the sheep operation uses long rest rotational grazing.

So what are the results? Wheat yields are less than conventional in a good year, but the same in drier ones. Quality though is much improved, with top level proteins being produced all the time. The same is true of the sheep flock, as they have increased lambing percentages to somewhere between 90-150% depending on the season, and the wool quality (these are Merinos) normally reaching the second highest grade, AAAM. It’s also worth noting that they don’t have to de-worm the sheep, which is very unusual.

Diane says her crops stay green a lot longer than the neighbours, and showed me some photos that were fairly emphatic. Unfortunately it’s the wrong time of year for me to see with my own eyes. SOM levels are 40-50% higher than the neighbours (at the home farm), but this must be considered whilst remembering how unreliable these tests can be.

I’ve got a lot of respect for how far these two have come from starting with very little. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted, or probably been able to, do what they have. I am noticing a trend with these sort of out-there systems though. More of that in the final Australia blog.

Tagasaste, also know as Tree Lucerne

Tagasaste, also know as Tree Lucerne. The cows live permanently in these fields, eating the bushes and also the grass for a bit of roughage

After leaving Diane I went to see someone at the other end of the spectrum. Trevor Syme runs 60 cows, which he feeds on Tagasaste (see above), but is really a specialist arable farmer. Although he farms only about 60km west of the Haggertys, there is much more rain so wheat yields can reach over 4t/ha.

The delver - it takes 450hp to pull at 8km/h

The delver – it takes 450hp to pull at 8km/h

It’s still an unfriendly place to farm though, as the top soil is non-wetting sand, which means it is coated in a waxy substance which makes water either sit on the top as a puddle, or just soak through incredibly quickly. His solution is to bring up some of the subsoil clay and mix it in with the sand. There are three ways to do this,

  1. Mouldboard ploughing – doesn’t work too well on these soils as the clay depth is too variable.
  2. Delving & spading – a huge set of legs are pulled very deep through the soil (see photo above), which brings up the clay, and mixes it through the soil profile. After this a spader is used, which is a bit like putting it in a cement mixer.
  3. “Claying” – here several pits are dug in the field, and clay is mined out of them. It is then spread out over the rest of the field at a rate of…250t/ha (not a typo). A set of discs are then used to mix the clay into the top 10″. This costs almost A$1,000/ha in total.

Obviously none of these are what you might call low disturbance, but the payoff can be big. Delving and spading can give a 1t/ha increase in wheat yield, and Claying up to 1.6t/ha. It only takes 3 years or so to pay back, and should last for at least 10.

This field has been delved, but not yet spaded. The pink rock is clay that has been brought up - it has a lot of sand mixed into it

This field has been delved, but not yet spaded. The pink rock is clay that has been brought up – it has a lot of sand mixed into it

Trevor is unusual in that he grows lupins as a full season cover crop – i.e. he plants in the autumn and then sprays them off before reaching maturity. He doesn’t use sheep or cattle to graze the plants as I expected, but he just leaves them until the next autumn and sows directly into it with his NDF disc drill. The reason he does this is mainly for weed control (the dreaded ryegrass), but it also allows him to grow a fertiliser-free wheat crop afterwards.

Two farms and two very different philosophies. Which is better? Who knows?

This is an NDF drill, made in Australia. It is a single disc with a compound angle, which means it pulls itself into the ground. It's a serious bit of kit, and rivals the Cross Slot for sturdy construction - and price. Each opener is A$4,500

This is an NDF drill, made in Australia. It is a single disc with a compound angle, which means it pulls itself into the ground. It’s a serious bit of kit, and rivals the Cross Slot for sturdy construction – and price. Each opener is A$4,500

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?

Day 40

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 20.44.45Just a quicky today, whilst en route from Copenhagen to Legoland. A couple of years ago I went to visit a Danish farmer called Søren Ilsøe, who imports and sells Canadian drill openers made by GEN. Although I was impressed by the hardware I never ended up getting them, but that’s another story.

Oil radish and vetch

Oil radish and vetch

Søren reckons he is the only farmer in Denmark who is 100% no-till, and now he has moved on to cover cropping as well. Denmark is interesting as they are very politically sensitive to nitrate leaching, and there are a lot of regulations. For a starter, the maximum amount of nitrogen that can be applied to a wheat crop is 138kg/ha – some people in the UK use double this. It is also a mandatory requirement to have a minimum of 10% of the farm in cover crops every winter, or else you lose another 50kg/ha of N off next season’s allowance. The government is also totally prescriptive on what the cover crop can consist of: there are two choices, neither of which I asked Søren about today, but if my memory serves me correctly from 2 years ago, one is ryegrass, the other is a brassica. No legumes are permitted, which seems a bizarre oversight if you are worried about artificial N getting into water supplies.

Cover crop trials

Cover crop trials

The first field we walked in to had a border of a legume rich cover crop. It was made up of vetch, phacelia, crimson clover, and one plant that I didn’t know, but looked like a very small leafed vetch. It turns out that it was in fact Serradella – a plant that I had been told about, but found impossible to get hold of in the UK. It is a small seeded legume (good), but according to Søren, quite slow to get going (not so good). I will try to buy some off him to try at home next season.

In the middle of this field were several strips of different cover crop mixes that Søren was experimenting with. The plots were

  • Oil radish
  • Winter vetch
  • Summer vetch
  • Black oats & summer vetch
  • Oil radish & summer vetch

Spring barley will be going in as the cash crop, and then the yields measured from each individual treatment. It looks an interesting experiment.

The neighbouring field was drilled on August 6th with a mix of oil radish, peas (a small seeded German variety) and vetch. I was complaining to Søren that our cover crops were seriously lacking in nitrogen this year after the wheats yielded so heavily. Given that they use less N than us, and also got good yields, I had expected the same problem here. I think the best indicator of low nitrogen is a brassica: they just don’t seem to grow when it is lacking.IMG_3805I think it is fair to say that’s not a problem here! How can he get plants like this??? It’s a real head scratcher, but there is obviously excellent fertility in the soil.

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?