Too good to be true?

Ages ago now, I visited a guy call David Brandt in Ohio (and wrote about it). One of the things he showed me was this photo:

We dug these two lumps of soil up from adjacent fields. The bit on the right was from his original farm that he had been on for decades, whereas the left was a new bit of land he had just bought from his neighbour that year. As a very rough rule of thumb, the darker a soil the more SOM (Soil Organic Matter) it contains, and we all know that is a good thing. He claimed that it was possible to change his field on the left to the one on the right in about 5 years. I was amazed.

Later on I became more skeptical, as we had not taken the samples from a few metres apart, as would have been perfectly possible, but instead we walked maybe 100m for the second one. Did he know there were very different soil types there? I don’t know, maybe it was an innocent sampling error, maybe not.

Anyway, back to the real world. Back in 2013 I planted a herbal grass ley in one of our arable fields, and then grazed it for the next three years, using a technique called Mob Grazing. Very briefly, this means we moved the cattle every day onto a new piece of grass, and then left it a long time before coming back to graze it again – somewhere between 40 and 120 days. The idea, amongst other things, is that the plant roots can develop much more, which pumps more carbon into the soil. In a very rough sense, more carbon in the soil = more SOM, and we all know that is a good thing.

This autumn the experiment finished, and we have drilled some winter beans into the old grass, after it was killed off. This went really well, and the beans are, as I type, starting to emerge. Here’s a nice video showing the drilling in action.

We didn’t make much money from the cattle grazing, but it did have a positive margin – unlike some break crops in the last few years. However, the real return will come from any soil improvement that the grass and the grazing has given us…if it has done anything at all. Last week I was digging some soil sample in front of a camera (yup, glamorous), and we took one bit from the bean/grass ley field, and then walked about 10 m into the neighbouring field, which has been farmed “normally” for the past several decades. Most recently it was wheat, then a cover crop that has just been grazed by sheep. This was the result:

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OK, so it is not as dramatic as the first photo from Ohio, but there is a clear visible difference. On the left is the bean/grass field, on the right the wheat/cover crop. Darker = more SOM, right? I had to find out, so I came back a few days later and, took some samples which were duly sent off to NRM for analysis. Before I started with the grass, both fields were around 3-3.5% SOM, so I would expect the wheat/cover crop field to still be around this mark. I’ve just got the results back, which are:

  • Wheat/cover crop – 3.0%
  • Bean/grass – 5.0%

Wow! That is a great result, and way beyond what I would realistically hope for in three years. The water holding capacity increase alone in that would be of some serious value in dry/normal years, and then there is the increased nutrient availability as well. Amazing.

But hold on. The LOI test for SOM is a very crude instrument, and it measures anything that can burn, not just the valuable, decomposed, forms of SOM like humus. I did of course try to not include any bits of grass or root in my samples, but I still feel like the SOM % will probably fall in the bean/grass field in the next year or two as it stabilises. I’ll have to keep an eye on that, and do some wider measurements over the whole fields. I feel it would also be interesting to measure different depths, as theoretically my deep rooting ley should have put SOM further down the profile as well – this test was the top 10cm.

Of course, the only result that actually matters is the £s, and that will come later down the line as the cropping syncs up, and we see what happens with yields across all the fields. So come back in 5 years and I may have something truly interesting to report. Until then, Merry Christmas.

Days 41 & 42

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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.

Cam still has some irrigated land, which has to have the pipes moved manually twice a day. I think I would prefer a pivot

Cam still has some irrigated land, which has to have the pipes moved manually twice a day. I think I would prefer a pivot

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.

The finished compost

The finished compost

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.

These high magnesium clays set very hard when they get dry

These high magnesium clays set very hard when they get dry

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.

Not a pedigree herd

Not a pedigree herd

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.

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?

Days 32 – 34

Screen Shot 2014-06-30 at 20.59.25I’m fairly certain it is a legal requirement of a Nuffield Scholarship to visit at least one of Dwayne Beck, Gabe Brown, or Neil Dennis. I feel now that my life is complete, as I have accomplished the trifecta. Why bother with anything else?

Neil Dennis is a grazier who lives just south of Wawota, in Saskatchewan. He farms 1200ac with his wife Barbara, and the occasional helping hand from a summer intern. But Neil is no ordinary grazier, he is an über-mob-grazier [For a very detailed, and readable, explanation of mob grazing, I would suggest reading Tom Chapman’s excellent Nuffield Report]. In brief, it is the practice of grazing cattle in a tight space, but then moving them frequently before all of the grass is eaten. Most importantly, and what really differentiates it from standard rotational systems, is that the pastures are left to recover for a relatively long time after they have been grazed. The exact period depends on a number of factors, such as climate, time of year, and what plants are present. It could be as little as 50 days in perfect conditions, or over a year in a brittle climate. Neil will not return within 60 days at a minimum, and preferably 80. The reason is because it takes this amount of time for the ammonia to dissipate from the urine patches, and so the cattle will be happy to eat all of the grass.

Notice the layer of decomposing plant material under the surface. Soil building in action

Notice the layer of decomposing plant material under the surface. Soil building in action

I’ve been doing some mob grazing at home, and am pretty sold on the benefits, having compared it myself with more traditional methods. But I am an amateur compared to Neil; I move the cattle once a day, Neil will do it 6 times. If this sounds like a lot, it is. However, the process is pretty streamlined, and normally he will have all the day’s moves set up in a couple of hours each morning, and from then on the automatic gate openers do the hard work.

The two most important factors for Neil are the rest periods, and the amount of animal impact. Longer rests mean healthier plants that grow faster and more efficiently, and recover quicker. Animal impact is basically the density of cattle at any one point, and the higher the better. Higher stocking densities mean that urine & dung is more evenly spread, and the uneaten leaves are pushed effectively into the ground, which increases soil quality and plant health – a great, positive, cycle. Most farmers will look at this system and see the trampled grass as being “wasted”, as it has not gone through a cow. But consider that Neil manages to stock his farm with almost twice as many animals per acre as his neighbour, and achieve almost the same growth rate. When you’re being paid a daily rate to look after cattle, this is a good thing. Bear in mind also that he uses effectively no inputs at all, including any type of fertiliser.

A paddock after grazing. It will now be left to recover for at least 80 days

A paddock after grazing. It will now be left to recover for at least 80 days

Unfortunately my visit didn’t follow the script it was supposed to. As I’ve mentioned in the last couple of blog posts, this area of Canada is very wet at the moment. The day I arrived it started raining, and kept on all day, and all night. We went for a drive around in Neil’s UTV (no doors or windows), and within an hour or so my wellies needed the water emptying out of them – and my feet were probably the driest bit of my body. The next morning there was 4″ of rain in the gauge, and a LOT more water everywhere. Time to call Noah.

If you click on this photo to enlarge it, you can see the top of a fence post sticking out of the water. Bearing in mind that this is an electric fence, the problem is fairly obvious

If you click on this photo to enlarge it, you can see the top of a fence post sticking out of the water. Bearing in mind that this is an electric fence, the problem is fairly obvious

I had come hoping to see some stocking rates of over 1,000,000lbs/ac (that’s around 3,500 animals per hectare, or one animal per 3.5 square meters), but the farm was, to quote Neil “wetter than I’ve ever seen it”. All plans went out of the window, and instead of 6 moves a day, they went to one. I guess it goes to show that flexibility is important – there’s no point sticking to a plan too dogmatically if the situation changes; a good lesson for life. Actually I was lucky that this rain didn’t come 5 days earlier – the main road across Canada was closed due to flooding, so I would have been stuck in Winnipeg.

Soil from a no-till arable field next to a mob grazed paddock. The arable soil would not hold together in a lump. When we inspected them up close, Neil said "I can see they are different, but I don't know how". Join the club!

Soil from a no-till arable field (left) next to a mob grazed paddock (right). The arable soil would not hold together in a lump

This was the arable field that soil sample came from. I've never seen such soft ground in a field. Lucky I didn't lose my boot...

This was the arable field that the soil sample came from. I’ve never seen such soft ground in a field. Lucky I didn’t lose my boot

Despite the weather not playing ball, it was still a useful visit. Neil makes it look easy, but he obviously has a natural, and unusual, talent for working with cattle. He makes use of a lot of his senses (although not taste as far I can can tell) to monitor how things are going. The paddocks will smell just right after grazing when the protein levels are correct, and the cows’ digestive systems are in order when “the shit sticks to the wheels” just so. I don’t think I will ever be at this sort of skill level, or have the dedication to stock at such intense levels. Even though Neil says he has a lot of spare time, I suspect it would be a difficult system to manage without one’s full attention. But, as with Gabe Brown, I love to marvel at what is possible, even (especially?) when most people say it isn’t.

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Neil’s modified UTV. The front attachment means it can be driven over electric wires, and fence stakes are always to hand for setting up new paddock subdivisions