Here’s my final Nuffield report. Just need to do the presentation in November and I’m free.
This is roughly speaking where I’ve travelled. It’s a little abbreviated in Brazil since that got too complicated to map easily. My time in South America is almost up, but there are a few more things to say, and random pictures to insert.
I met a guy from Embrapa yesterday who is running a program near Brasilia where they are comparing conventional and Organic dairy grazing systems. It’s only been going for three years, and I haven’t seen the data (he will email it to me apparently), but they are finding hugely more efficient fertiliser use under Organic management. At the start of the trial both treatments were given the same amount of NPK fertilisers. In the conventional system these came from urea, triple super phosphate and potassium chloride. The Organic sources were animal manures and soft rock phosphate.
In each of the three years there has been a 20-30% yield penalty (measured by tonnes of dry matter produced per hectare) with the Organic management. However, the critical point is that every year the conventional fertiliser must be reapplied in the same amounts, whereas the Organic field is maintaining its yields with only what was put on at the beginning of the trial. How long will that go on for? Who knows, but already after three years it’s a very interesting result. Whether it could be more profitable to grow crops like this, even without an Organic premium, I couldn’t say; it’s going to depend a lot on the value of the land you’re farming. But it does make you wonder how much of the artificial fertiliser we apply is just being wasted.
At a previous Embrapa meeting I was given some scientific papers to take home, and have only just had a chance to read them. One is particularly worthwhile, it’s called “Integrated crop-livestock system in Brazil: Toward a sustainable production system”. The data comes from a 16 year experiment comparing these treatments,
- CS – Conventional System using disc cultivation, growing soybeans with a winter cover crop
- NTS – No-Till System, growing a soya and maize rotation with winter cover crops
- ICLS – Integrated Crop-Livestock System growing two years of soya & cover crop and two years of pasture
- PP – Permanent Pasture
Here are some of the results that I think are notable. I’ve tried to keep it slightly readable.
- “the ICLS system treatment yielded soybean production that was greater than or equal to that of CS and NTS. This higher efficiency of ICLS system may be related to availability of P in organic form” – this tallies with the experimental results found by Embrapa Cerrados
- “Systems with livestock grazing had significantly greater MWD [this is a measure of how stable the physical soil structure is] compared to other systems (ICLS: 4.12mm, PP: 4.93mm, CS: 2.19mm, NTS: 3.18mm) … Ultimately, soils with greater aggregation characteristics are considered of better quality than similar soils with weaker aggregation, mainly because TOC [Total Organic Carbon] becomes physically protected in stable aggregates.” – see the famous Slake Test
- “Concentration of TOC, TOC storage, and POC stock were increased under grazing by livestock at the following order: CS<NTS<ICLS<PP … The labile fraction of organic matter was also greater in ICLS and PP, than in NTS indicating greater energy flux in the soil system. Greater SOM lability was attributed to the presence of the forage, which adds a greater amount of organic matter to the soil than cropping alone. Moreover, there is a continuous exudation of substances from grass roots to the soil during growth which is stimulated during grazing.” – Not very surprising. But it must be noted that of all the systems, it was the NTS which actually lost the most carbon overall. CS was stable, and the other two increased.
- Total microbial activity was greater in the order you would expect, PP>ICLS>NTS>CS – I’m paraphrasing here a bit.
- “Density and taxonomic richness of the invertebrate macrofauna [i.e. worms, beetles etc] community in soil differed among management systems. Lowest values were observed in CS, while ICLS was equivalent to that of NTS and PP and greater than that of CS … Soil macroinvertebrates perform numerous essential functions, including decomposition, nutrient cycling, SOM mineralisation, soil-structure modification, atmospheric-composition regulation, and biological control of pests and diseases.” – I think it’s fairly obvious by this point what direction this paper is heading in…
- Hold on, this is a long one: “Weed community analysis showed that areas without pasture and grazing generally accumulated more weed mass than areas that were periodically or continuously grazed. The area of soil covered by weeds was 87% greater in CS compared to the average of the other treatments. Generally, areas that were continuously or periodically grazed by livestock had fewer weeds than areas where only grain crops were grown. Livestock grazing also affected seed germination: weed seedlings from treatments that included grazing took longer to germinate and emerge from from the soil surface. Regardless of the presence or absence of tillage, crop-only systems exhibited larger areas of soil covered by weeds.” – Phew. I’ve never actually seen this information in a scientific context, and the figure they come up with (87%) is huge. Very interesting.
- “Occurence of Rotylenchulus reniformis [a parasitic nematode pest] differed significantly among management systems, with a much larger population in CS [1500x more than the next highest]”
- “In years with ample rainfall, soybean production was equal in the three grain-production systems. In years with poor rainfall distribution, with water deficits, ICLS and NTS exhibited smaller productivity losses compared to CS. In 2010/11, for example, CS yielded only 60% of crop production in other systems.” – No big shock here, there’s a reason all the really dry places in the world have gone to no-till. Although it’s amazing they get droughts here when it rains perhaps 1500mm in the growing season. In the tropical heat it doesn’t take long for it all to evaporate.
I’ve found this to be a useful paper, and to me it suggests that the oft-heard fear that having animals in a system is a drain on nutrients/soil fertility is not just unfounded, but actively wrong. Now who wants to lay some water pipe?
It’s certainly been an interesting trip, but I think I’ve run out of steam. The problem is that I’ve seen enough of the details – just look at how different the first blog posts from NZ are – and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find novel concepts. Particularly here in South America, the diversity in farming methodologies seems very limited, and largely defined by what area/climate you happen to be in. There could be two explanations for this: lack of imagination, or perhaps the farmers are more switched on to the research, and unlike back at home, they are all doing the “right” things already. It’s difficult (impossible) to tell, but I haven’t found the Gabe Brown/Coin Seis sort of guy who is trying something totally different… Well I do actually know one, the problem was that he refused to let me visit! The others are probably hiding somewhere not telling anyone about it. That’s a job for a future traveller.
It’s been great fun, but this may be the last Nuffield post. Ciao.
Fazenda Malunga is the biggest producer of Organic lettuce in the whole of Brazil. There are 200m people here, but I don’t think many of them are into Organics just yet. Still, the farm is a big operation, with about 120ha of land in total, 45ha of which is the main, original, block. As well as growing lettuce, which accounts for around half of their production, they also have tomatoes, beetroot, cucumber, coriander, okra, bell peppers, radish (plus some more, I didn’t take notes, oops).
Because it is an organic farm, they need to get nitrogen from somewhere. [I don’t get this about the Organic movement: it’s fine to mine phosphorus from the soil – rock phosphate – but mining nitrogen from the air – urea – is forbidden.] Some of this comes from leguminous green manures that are grown as every second or third crop, and the rest is comes as compost from the farm’s 70 cow milking herd.
So although I don’t agree with some of the principles of Organics, [or for that matter think it represents what the customer believes the are getting], we should still be able to learn from how they farm. The over-riding philosophy here is that a healthy plant will fight off disease by itself, with less need for artificial inputs. I’ve written before that farmers are often reactive rather than proactive, and this is made much easier by the way a lot of problems can be solved, in the short-term at least, by opening a bottle. This type of farming is the complete opposite.
The main plant nutrition comes from the green manures, home made compost and bought in peat, all of which act on the soil. In addition, they use a lot of foliar sprays, and fertigation (mixing small amounts of fertiliser with irrigation water) to add trace elements. The foliar potions are Bokashi recipes, ranging from straight mineral blends to some which have molasses added to stimulate microbial life. One particular additive, called Compost Aid, is used when they have lost the bacteria off the plant leaves (I don’t know what might cause this). It gives a quick boost to get the bugs back colonising the leaf surface, which doesn’t allow space for too many bad ones to come in and cause problems.
One of the most interesting things they were doing was living in a sealed plastic barrel, which was full of a damp sandy mixture, smelling a bit like fermenting beer. It was made by taking some of the native soils from out in the bushland, and adding extra carbohydrates as a food source. The top is then sealed and it sits around for a couple of months stewing, before being put into big tea bags and bubbled around in a water tank to extract the goodies. Now it’s ready to be sprayed on to the plants.
I like the idea of this – the native microbes are obviously going to be the best adapted to the local conditions. I’m not so sure about sealing the lid and making the whole thing anaerobic, as that’s not a condition generally associated with healthy plants. At least not the type that we want to grow. The other problem might be that they seem to be thinking almost exclusively about bacteria, and not much about fungi. That could easily be a case of local conditions being different to ours, but if you believe Elaine Ingham, most of our soils are severely lacking in fungal biomass.
After a quick carbo-loading session (rice, cassava, beans, pasta & potato on the same plate) it was off to a different farm for the afternoon. It is run by a father and son team of Japanese Brazilians, and until three years ago they were a crop-only operation. But then compaction and soil borne disease problems started to appear, and they thought it would be a good idea to experiment with some cattle and rotational pastures. But this is Brazil, and a small trial means 100ha of irrigated Mombasa grass, and 1,200 head of cattle. It’s too soon to draw any conclusions from what’s happening here, but it’s safe to say that grass grows a bit faster here than at home:
I really needed a helicopter today, it was a long drive for a short distance. I’m very jealous that these guys can grow such a wide variety of fruits in their garden: apples, apricots, figs, oranges, lemons, limes, quince, mulberries, plums… I guess there are not many climates that would support all of them.
This was another last minute Nuffield phone call, but there was a double chance of success as both people living in the house are past scholars: Cathy Harvey is a trained vet, and Dave come from a farming family. They are farming 2,000ha of non-wetting sandy soils, which supports a herd of purebred Angus which they breed and take all the way to finishing, and also a 250 cow dairy.
Having spent the first part of his farming career as a high input/high output farmer, Dave tried out some biological farming techniques, and found they worked pretty well. After a few years of doing that, they discovered a demand for Biodynamic milk had opened up near by. The move from biological to certified Organic, and from there to Biodynamic, was not a huge leap, and so they went for it.
Beef production was unaffected, but milk production went down from 7,000l per cow to 5,500l, although at the same time they stopped using pure Holstein animals, and started crossing with Jerseys: the famous “Kiwi Cross”. With around a 30% premium for the Biodynamic meat and milk, it seems like a no-brainer when production levels stay similar.
Around 10% of the farm is cropped each year, normally with barley, which is then fed to the dairy cows as a supplement. Vetch is often grown before the barley, and then incorporated – they have measured up to 50kg/ha of nitrogen from this in a good year. After barley, it is common to plant a lucerne ley, which will stay in place for a decade, this is used to fatten the Angus steers on.
Dave sees the main benefit of his system as being the lower risk which comes from having much lower inputs. This is something I’ve heard before in Australia, particularly when comparing livestock enterprises with arable. He also claims a quadrupling of profit from the old system to the current one. In addition it makes them both much more content with how they are treating their farm.
We spoke over lunch about Biodynamics, and some of its stranger prescriptions. I’m still of the opinion that the techniques and formulations they use could have sound principles backing them up, but I do not buy the explanations about atoms’ vibrations etc etc. But as Cathy said “just because you don’t understand how something works, doesn’t mean it won’t work”. Just ask Gregor Mendel. We don’t yet fully understand the chemistry of soils and plant nutrition, let alone how microbial life interacts on top of that; so we should not be hasty in rubbishing different ideas.
That then brings up the question of proof. It’s fair enough if something unexplained works, but then it must be able to be measured – I do believe in the scientific principle. I’ve seen no proof here that Biodynamics works. BUT I have been to plenty of other farms (almost everywhere in fact) where at least once I have asked why someone does something, and how they know it is better. The answer is almost always that they have no proof, it’s just a feeling. It could be the type of drill they use, a grazing technique, or anything else; although rarely does it involve cows’ skulls, or stags’ bladders. Or Field Broadcasters.
In March we came to Canberra for a few days with all the 2014 scholars from around the world for a conference, and today was a bit of a flashback. Not only did I accidentally stay in the same hotel, but I also visited a sheep farmer call John Hyles, just as we had back then. John farms 5000ha at Booroomba, just south of Canberra, and has a small flock of Merino sheep (currently 18,000), and also 1,000 Angus cattle. Because this must not keep him busy enough, he also runs a quarry business selling sand, gravel, river pebbles, top soil and land fill. He’s also interested in property development, and arable farming. Many pies to be fingered. At the moment they are shearing, at a rate of about 1,700 animals per day. It’s an impressive setup. I’ll use a few photos to decorate this post, which is really about who I saw before I drove out to John’s.
CSIRO is Australia’s national research organisation, and it does a lot of work with agriculture. Hugh Dove is a scientist who has spent 15 years looking in to the grazing of wheat and OSR (Oilseed Rape, or Canola as they call it here). This is of particular interest to me, as we have a wheat grazing trial at home this year. Grazing OSR is something I have thought about a little bit, especially as I reckon it may be a tool to use in our fight against the flea beetle. Having spoken with Hugh for a couple of hours, the principals are largely similar between the two crops.
Firstly, it is important to get the plant sown as soon as possible. They have actually done trials (and some farmers use the technique for real) where OSR is planted so early, and then grazed multiple times, that by harvest is has been in the ground for 15 months. That’s pretty extreme, and apparently it can allow root diseases to become problematic. There are other potential problems with very early drilling, such as aphids that cause BYDV (Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus), and fungal diseases. But if these can be avoided, earlier drilling means more biomass to be grazed. It should also mean better root growth, which could potentially be useful later in the season.
The second rule is that it is not so important when the grazing starts, but timing when to remove the animals is critical. At the very latest they must be gone by the time stem extension starts, which in the UK on wheat is probably the end of March. However, the more time the plant is given to recover the more chance it has of not losing any yield potential. Amazingly, it is possible to graze almost all of the leaf area off and still not affect yield; they have measured increased photosynthetic activity to compensate for this loss of leaf area.
One of the big benefits of this system is in weed control. Particularly when grass weeds like ryegrass are a problem, they are finding that the sheep will eat it all up, and the grazed areas are cleaner than the un-grazed. The ultimate selective herbicide! Apparently the effect is so pronounced that for some farmers it is the main reason they are grazing the crops.
The next point needs a little bit of a science lesson, which I will try not to get wrong. Back in the day, when wheat was first being bred into what we use today, the strain that became bread-making wheat (as opposed to noodle-making, or Durum) picked up a gene called Kna1. Without going in to details (because I don’t know them and the internet here is too slow to look it up), this gene means that the plant uses potassium (K) instead of sodium (Na). This is a useful adaptation to have, because it gives a greater ability to grow in saline soils; however it also means that there is almost no sodium at all in the leaves. This only becomes a problem when wheat is fed to ruminants, because they require a certain level of sodium to allow the uptake of magnesium. So, if they don’t get enough sodium, they will develop hypomagnesemia, or grass staggers as we call it. The solution is to supplement the animals with a mix of salt and magnesium oxide. This will increase growth rates by around 40%, for very little cost. No brainer.
And what about yield? CSIRO work has show all possibilities, from increases to decreases. Overall their results have shown a negative impact, of -8%, but with a very large standard deviation (25%). So basically they are not quite sure. The whole idea will live or die on this point, it will not be economical with any significant reduction.
I think it’s a really exciting prospect, which could potentially open up a new system of farming. Integrating cover crops, OSR and wheat grazing effectively could provide effectively free forage for 4-6 months of the year. [That’s free to us, not to the grazier, in case our sheep man is reading this] Tie in companion cropping, and the selective four-legged herbicide, and it looks even better.
One last thing: I finally found a good place to use the slo mo video that my phone does. I think this is quite fun.
Angus Maurice is a friend of Colin Seis, and spent over 5 years training people how to implement Pasture Grazing on their own farms. He also taught “No Kill” farming, which is similar to Pasture Cropping, but more extreme. It uses no chemicals at all, and also stipulates the cash crop must be drilled with a disc opener machine, so that there is minimum disturbance.The problem is, he now doesn’t really believe that it works. You can’t say he hasn’t tried, after 7 years of continuous Pasture Cropping and a field that he has left in the system now to see what happens in the even longer term. What Angus finds is that crop yields are just too badly effected – he reckons on average they will produce only 50% of a conventional system. This is obviously a huge drop, and the slight increase in grazing income, plus the reduction is crop growing costs, does not get anywhere near to making up the difference.
As I mentioned, there is one field that has been left in Pasture Cropping, and this year it is growing spelt. It had been attacked by insects earlier in the season and had some pretty big bare patches; however Angus did not believe that was due to the cropping system. But there was no denying that this field looked significantly worse than his conventionally cropped land. It was uneven, and looked at least 3 weeks behind. he is anticipating it will yield half as much as the other fields. It must be said that one difference here is that the fields were drilled with a cash crop every year, rather than once every 4-7 years as at Colin’s farm. Angus says he has tried all different techniques – high inputs, low inputs, but nothing makes it work. He puts this down to competition from the “dormant” grasses for moisture and nutrients.
Angus no longer works as a Pasture Cropping educator.
My second visit of the day was to the NSW Department of Primary Industries to meet one of their soil scientists, Warwick Badgery (great name!). He too is not a great believer in Pasture Cropping, and has done quite a lot of research into it. I should also mention that both Warwick and Angus do not know of anyone else who has managed to make Pasture Cropping work as well as it does with Colin Seis. Warwick puts this down to the unusual soil Colin has, which is very drought prone, and also very low in nutrients.
[It was plain to see when I visited Colin that the ground was made up almost entirely of granite, not dissimilar to some wine growing regions I have seen. The results of his soil tests did also show very low levels of total P, of around 850kg/ha.]
Warwick does not rubbish the idea of Pasture Cropping completely, he thinks it is a good technique to be able to use opportunistically when conditions are favourable and a cash crop looks like it may be profitable. This whole situation really shows up the fine line between the “it won’t work on my farm” conservative mentality, and the reality that conditions are different on each piece of land. It’s a tricky one.
Warwick has done a lot of work into farmland carbon sequestration rates, and how to maximise them. Apparently in Australia 70% of the nitrogen used by cash crops comes from SOM (Soil Organic Matter) mineralisation. This means that the organic matter is effectively burnt; the carbon leaves as CO2, and the nitrogen (and other nutrients) are left behind to be used by the crop. Obviously this is not sustainable in the long term unless there are recovery periods being used – which is where mixed farming comes in to play. A lot of farms over here incorporate grazing pastures into their cropping land, and this is how they can get away with it.
In Australian conditions, the absolute maximum amount of carbon that can be sequestered is 1t/ha/yr, which works out as roughly 0.3% of SOM. To get this figure a field must be a perennial pasture, and it must have high levels of inputs (nitrogen and phosphorus particularly). Interestingly, he claims that although it is possible to capture carbon without the inputs, it will remain in an unstable form that is easily lost again. On a similar note, I’m told that there are indeed bacteria that will fix phosphorus from the soil, but they only work when the levels are so low already that it would not be possible to grow a profitable crop.
One of the trials that is just finishing now is comparing different grazing methods, and different stocking densities. There are treatments ranging from low intensity set stocking, through to high intensity, long rest systems. The longest rests are around 120 days, which Warwick used to check the claims that this would allow better nutrients cycling and availability. He thinks they are wrong; 120 days appears to be too long for this climate, which is much more temperate than that at any of the other farms I have been to in the last few days.
One of the trials had severe over grazing last year, it was set stocked at a high animal density. The big surprise is that for some reason this year it has come back with incredible productivity, much higher than most of the other treatments. It looks as if either better nutrient cycling (through the sheep numbers), or a plant response to being grazed so heavily, has kicked them into overdrive. Not so surprisingly, the results are showing that with longer rests and higher stocking rates, feed quality and animal performance goes down. This is mitigated though by more efficient plant growth, so more animals can be farmed on a given area. Swings and roundabouts? But more animals and more plant matter must also mean more carbon going into the soil?
There’s no point living in an echo chamber and only speaking to people who agree with everything you already think. I think today was an good one, and although I didn’t hear what I “wanted” to, it has to be better to get the full picture. Even if it does make things more complicated. Excellent.
When 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.
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.
[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.
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”.
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?
I stayed with Cam for a few days, and on Sunday visited a couple of his neighbours (in Australian terms).
Craig Carter started off life as a farmer, worked in Sydney for a long time, but then came back to his roots in 2001. The farm he bought had been used for both arable and livestock production. Both of these enterprises had used the traditional methods, and as a result the land had degenerated and lost a lot of productivity.
What did he do? Easy to guess – he binned the arable side and went to time-controlled/mob/whatever you want to call it grazing. I won’t go into it again, but the results have been impressive. The stocking density he can achieve has increased by 250% compared to how it was before, and he now does not need to supplement feed in the winter either, which is a massive cost saving. SOM levels have doubled between 2008 and 2011, up to about 9%. Perhaps more interestingly, there is still a large difference between the land which prior to this had been arable, and that which was always pasture. Even after 13 years, although the old cropped land has also improved, it still only has half the carbon of the long term pasture. I guess that goes to show what sort of damage the conventional cropping systems had been wreaking.
Another interesting technique that Craig had started was to plant warm season annuals into his cool season pasture. This year he has tried sorghum, Sudan grass, peas (not sure of the type) and beans (I assume soya). The idea is to give extra grazing capacity, and also to try and improve soil life and nutrient cycles by increasing plant diversity.
The second visit was to a fellow scholar called John Traill. He is another guy using cell grazing, but this time with sheep instead of cattle. He’s actually the first person I’ve met using these types of techniques who has something negative to say about them. His complaint is that the system of intensive grazing with long rest periods is excellent for controlling annual weeds, as it promotes perennial plants to grow, but for that very reason it also can allow perennial weeds to get out of control as well. It’s a logical point, and one I had not considered before. John generally grazes a paddock for around 3 days, I wonder if tighter grazing, with more impact (i.e. cattle) may mitigate this problem? I don’t know the answer, I wonder if other people are finding this to be a problem as well.
Obviously though he likes the system overall as he has been doing it for years. One of the benefits is a much lower worm population (that’s sheep worms, not earthworms), to the extent that they only drench sheep every year or two, compared to 6-8 times a year in a conventional system. He also has an arable operation growing wheat and oats, both of which are dual purpose, so can be grazed in the spring before being harvested in the summer. The cereals are direct drilled into old pasture land, which usually has enough fertility in it from the grazing cycle that it requires no inputs at all to get a standard grain yield.
Some of the fields have permanent subdivisions in them which are laid out at widths that match up with the farm’s machinery. So if the drill is 12m wide, and the sprayer 36m, the subdividing fences could be 108m apart. This allows and arable crop to be grown and farmed conveniently without having to take down the fences each time.
John’s certainly got lots going on, and plenty of ideas. One of them is a farming skills school, where people (backpackers mainly) come and do a 4 week course, at the end of which, assuming they haven’t been expelled, they get a qualification and a guaranteed job on a farm somewhere in Australia. Sounds like fun, but I think I would kill myself on the motorbikes if I did it.
Google wouldn’t let me draw a line from Hong Kong to Sydney, which was sad: you will have to imagine that bit. Hong Kong airport is great because if you take the very quick train from the centre of the city to the airport, you can actually check your bags in at the station and then not have to worry about carting them on and off the train. At least it would have been good if my pea-sized brain had not forgotten after half an hour that I had done this: when the train arrived at the airport I spent 10 seconds getting panicked as I genuinely thought someone had stolen my bag.
I have known Cam McKellar since I was 9, as he spent a lot of time at my parents’ house when he was doing a Nuffield Scholarship. Until recently he was an intensive arable farmer with a few cattle, but 2 years ago he made a big switch, and became a big cattle farmer with a bit of arable.
On his last farm Cam was heavily into home made compost. It was such a big operation that he actually had a full time employee just to make it. The ingredients were simple; straw, manure (cattle and chicken) and water. Within 24 hours the mixture, laid out in strips, will reach 70C. From here on the moisture and CO2 emissions were measured daily, and it was managed to certain tolerances by either adding water or turning it over. After 3 weeks a special blend of microbes is added, and then by 10-12 weeks it is done. Simple.
Although the traditional chemical analysis won’t show a lot of nutrients in here, Cam is convinced that as it is all in a plant available form, then it produces a disproportionately large effect. By spreading 4t/ha he could cut bagged nitrogen inputs by 30%, whilst maintaining or increasing yields. Of course, there is a lot more than just NPK in this sort of thing, and these micronutrients could be what is making the difference. I didn’t see any trial data, but it is still an interesting idea, especially if you have access to cheap straw and muck. After moving farms Cam has stopped producing compost, but he did bring 2,500t with him, which is going on to his new land, mixed with chicken muck, to kickstart the soil biology.
As I alluded to earlier, there has been a big change in mentality, and the core farm business. Although Cam still farms about 750ha of arable land (400 dry, 350 irrigated), the main business now revolves around cattle. There are actually two farms, separated by a 30 minute drive. Both are on what they call black ground, which is some of the best farmland in the country. It is a very heavy, 80% clay, high magnesium soil. This means that although it is very moisture retentive, the plants can have a hard time actually getting hold of the water. This was pretty clear by how brown and dry the landscape is, but then you do not have to dig deep to find moist soil. It’s a little counter intuitive.
Cam has decided that he is going to graze in small cells, with long rest periods. This may sound familiar. The big problem with this, as anyone who has considered it will say, is water infrastructure. They are working hard to put in enough extra troughs to allow cells small enough for daily moves, but it’s a multi-year project to get the entire acreage up and running like that.
This herd is not going to win any beauty prizes, and I doubt the meat that comes out of it will be too exciting either. But the system must be about as good as you can get for grazing management and soil improvement. There is no breeding herd, everything is bought from the local market, normally from an east coast farmer who has run into drought problems (“It’s always dry somewhere on the east coast”). They tend to be old cull cows, which then stay on the farm for 60-90 days to put on a bit of weight, before being shipped off to the abattoir.
This has two major advantages. Firstly, because they are there for such a short time, it is possible to say with certainty that they will not run out of food. Cam is not afraid to have an empty farm if either the market isn’t right, or the weather means he does not have forage. Secondly, it retains ultimate flexibility. Pastures can be hit hard, with high grazing intensity, when there is a lot of food, but without any risk of over grazing because de-stocking is an easy and acceptable thing to do. If you subscribe to Gabe Brown’s idea that “cows are a tool” then this must be the gold standard.
I can’t imagine many big arable farmers in the UK switching to the dark side and becoming graziers, but according to a quick-and-dirty calculation Cam did, he is better off now that he was before. That’s in cash terms too, and does not take into account how he is now regenerating rather than degrading his soil. It’s an exciting project.
It’s the first non Nuffield Travel blog post. Hurray. I thought both my readers may be interested in what we have going on at home this year. Here are five little experiments, listed in what I would consider increasing order of potential for peril.
1) Cover Cropping
This is our third year of cover cropping. The first year I tried two fields, last year four, and this year almost 1/3rd of the entire farm’s area will have covers grown on it. Obviously I like them. I changed the mix we had previously used, and dropped out buckwheat (went to seed too quickly) and peas (expensive per seed, and we grow them in our rotation already). I kept in millet, but, for the third straight year, hardly any of it seems to have grown. It may finally have had its final chance.
Harvest had a really early start this year, which was great for planting cover crops. Almost everything was in by August 2nd. Unfortunately the good weather turned cold and grey, and it took a long time for the seeds to germinate. When they finally did (I may have planted them a bit too deep as well), they grew very, very slowly for the rest of August. It has also been a bad year for slugs, and quite a few hectares have been lost to them.
Luckily the start of September has been warmer, and the growth has sped up quite significantly. I have put a few trial strips of nitrogen fertiliser on three of the cover crop fields. For the fist month nothing showed up, and I thought the money was wasted. But now that they are actually growing, everything is changing.
Before the sheep get here in a month or two, I will take some samples and get them tested for dry matter content, to see whether it is worth applying fertiliser or not. My suspicion is that it will not be, but who knows. Whatever happens, it will not be a bumper cover crop season like autumn 2013 was.
2) Companion Cropping
I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of years, but finally got kicked in to action because of the new ban on using neonicotinoid seed dressings (an insecticide that stops flea beetles from eating tiny rapeseed plants). The theory is that by growing a mix of plants in with your rapeseed, the insects will be confused, and may eat the companions in preference to the rapeseed.
The traditional (if there is such a thing yet) plant to use as a companion crop in the UK is vetch. This is well suited to our climate, and will fix some nitrogen. The main problem is that it will not die over winter, and so must be sprayed off in the spring. I thought I would go a bit different, and so chose buckwheat, lentil and fenugreek.
The idea here was that the buckwheat would get going early, and I had heard flea beetles liked to eat it. The lentils and fenugreek are both legumes, and so would fix some nitrogen. The real benefit is that all of these crops are very sensitive to temperature, and should easily be killed off by our relatively mild winters. I also decided to go with no pre-emergence herbicides on the companion crop field, which is a gamble. All of our rapeseed is direct drilled this year which I hope will mean we have less of a weed burden going in to winter.
So how has it worked? Slugs have been a problem, it seems to be just one of those years. It turns out that they will eat all four types of plants in the field, although buckwheat is not as tasty as the others. And the bigger question – is it deterring the flea beetle? No. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be having much of an effect. Looking at our cover crops, all of the brassicas are relatively unaffected, it’s the vetch which has taken the brunt of the attack. I wonder whether next year this should be in the companion crop mix, as a bit of a sacrifice?
3) Very early drilled wheat for grazing
Now we are getting in to the realms of potentially very stupid ideas. In New Zealand they graze ryegrass crops that will then be harvested for seed. A lot of farms in the UK used to, or still do, graze their wheat crops in the spring. If you plant wheat too early, it gets too big too soon, and will suffer badly from diseases. Add all of these up and what is the logical conclusion?
Drill wheat very early, allow it to form a huge and potentially very useful root system, and then graze in the late autumn so the plant is not too big going in to winter. Free grazing, improved yields?
This is what we are trying. 5ha of a 25ha field was drilled with wheat on August 29th, roughly three weeks before it would normally be done. The previous crop was rapeseed, and I left the volunteers to grow freely, and then drilled straight into it, as in the photos above. I decided to wait as long as I dared after drilling before spraying off the volunteers with glyphosate, and I also decided to not use a pre emergence herbicide; the idea being that any further rapeseed plants that grow will make good food for the sheep. I am also hoping that the dying volunteers will create a sort of mulch, which will keep weeds from germinating.
In the end I held off for six days before spraying, which seemed to be about right. I went on holiday immediately afterwards, and when I got back the field looked like the photo above. Actually it looks a complete mess as it is just full of dying plants, but when you look closer it is excellent. Let’s hope the aphids don’t spoil the party.
4) IRG silage & grain maize
I’m quite excited about this one. Next spring we will be planting some maize (corn to Americans) that will be harvested, hopefully in early October, for grain. The thing about maize is that it is not planted until April at the earliest, and sometimes May. This leaves a big window for growing a cover crop. After my visit to New Zealand I was keen to try out an Italian Ryegrass (IRG) cover crop as it has an excellent and prolific root system. I decided to include a little bit of vetch in the mix too, which increases diversity and fixes some nitrogen. But when the economics of grain maize were investigated further, they did not look so pretty. The plan was changed accordingly, and instead of grazing the IRG with sheep, I have sold it in advance to a local dairy farmer for silage.
Hopefully the silage will be cut in late april, and the maize planted in immediately behind it (no-till of course) with a starter fertiliser. If this works it will be great, as double-cropping like this keeps the land productive for twelve months a year. I’m also hoping that because the field will be killed off with glyphosate in April, the blackgrass problem that is starting to form there can be nipped in the bud.
I’ve considered this scheme as fairly perilous due to two factors: Firstly sowing grass seeds seems like it could come back to haunt us in years to come, and secondly grain maize is a pretty marginal crop in this country. It is the second smallest field on the farm though, so even if it is a disaster I may escape being fired.
5) Mob grazing & a 3 year herbal ley
Last but not least, the biggest and longest experiment we have. How can I make one field yield more like its neighbour (I’ll need to increase its productivity by 20% to get there)? A year ago I planted a legume rich herbal ley after a crop of rapeseed. It contained ryegrass, timothy, cocksfoot, chicory, white clovers, red clovers, trefoil, sainfoin, and probably a few others that I have forgotten.
The field is 18ha in size, and I have about 30 animals grazing it. It is chronically understocked. In about two weeks I will have completed one circuit and they will be back at the start, having been moved in to a new grazing cell every day or two for the last five months.
It has actually gone very well so far. When the cattle density is this high (nowhere near where a professional mob grazier would be) then every type of plant is eaten, and the rest is trampled. Even the really bad blackgrass patches were grazed, and as we all know, cows don’t eat blackgrass.
It’s lucky that I have not spent any money on the field, as it hasn’t produced any either (no cash anyway). The plan is to keep this ley in for three years, and then go back into normal cropping. To break even, I need to increase its yields by 3% over the following 20 years. I believe this is feasible (in fact I would hope for more), but whether it happens or not is anyones’ guess. What I am really worried about is all of the grass seed that is being shed by the plants, and what it will mean in those 20 years. Will I be cursing this experiment for the rest of my life?