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The latest news from our Green Horizons Farmer Network - March 2022 | Green Horizons Blog

Blog - 25.03.22

Cover cropping, efficient use of nutrients and improving soil resilience have been just some of the topics discussed at our Green Horizon farmer days this spring. 15 pioneering farmers involved in our sustainable farming initiative came together from Northern and Southern regions in the UK this March to share ideas, learn from Agrii trials data and discuss potential solutions to agronomic and environmental challenges.

Discussing cover crop establishment techniques in Northumberland

 

Our first event near Evesham was hosted by Tom Hughes, who since returning to the family farm in 2013 has been working to improve soil resilience through a combination of reduced tillage and compost additions to tackle the high blackgrass and brome problems.

Rod Smith from Beal farm, Northumberland, hosted the event for farmers in the North stretching from Moray, Scotland and Yorkshire. Since winning the world wheat yield record in 2015, Rod has been focused on getting ‘more from less’, with a mindset that a healthy soil supports a healthy crop. Like Tom, the use of compost, cover crops and targeted cultivations have helped improve the resilience of his heavy Northumberland soils.

Since the launch of the farmer network in March 2021, discussions predominantly focused on methods of improving soil resilience, particularly by using compost with both Tom and Rod, seeing great improvements from different combinations and methods.

Manure management and cover cropping

Bokashi anaerobically fermented manure (green bucket) v aerobically composted manure (yellow bucket)

This spring, the group saw Tom’s most recent method of composting, with the added pressure of avian influenza requiring the covering of poultry manure in the area. The group were very keen to hear from the team at Agriton the benefits of Bokashi to ferment the manure and speed up the decomposition process using biology. Not only has this provided a solution to manure management on the farm, but Bokashi also has the potential to reduce GHG losses from the process, with the CO2e per tonne of starting material being almost 10x less than that of traditional compost.

The composting process in Northumberland

Looking beneath the sheets at the Bokashi-treated manure

 

 

This is an important factor when we are all looking to achieve net zero, and for Tom, can enable him to further reduce his on-farm emissions. This year, Tom participated in the ADAS Yen Zero pilot to benchmark 6 of his crops against 274 other entries. Due to the improvements in soil resilience and reduction in tillage, Tom performed very well against the average with his winter oats, wheat and maize. We'll be posting more information about YEN Zero in our next blog, coming soon.

Looking at cover crop rooting and soil structure under two different establishment methods in Northumberland.

However, not every farmer has access to organics as a way of increasing soil organic matter levels. This is where the conversation of cover cropping came into sharp focus. Establishment techniques, mixes and destruction methods were all discussed among the group, with an array of approaches being adopted throughout the country. Understanding the C:N ratios of mixes was evidently important in the management process, and if not managed correctly, can significantly impact the establishment of the following crop.

Although the application of organics has the potential to increase soil carbon nearly 5x faster, cover crops offer great potential for improving soil organic matter and overall soil resilience. The biggest challenge is to identify the best establishment technique and mix for your system!

 

Nutrient use efficiency

With the economic and environmental costs of inputs, the targeted use of nutrients has been a hot topic in the group. To open our event at Beal Farm, we discussed results from this year’s nutrition trials, highlighting the importance of keeping on top of other major nutrients to maximise nitrogen use efficiency. This year, the use of potassium had a clear impact on yield and protein across multiple crops. The addition of K also had some huge emission savings; with the ability to reduce N by 50kgs where K was applied, 90kg CO2e was saved on the carbon balance sheet (you can read more about the breadth of our Green Horizon trials here). This certainly spurred on the thought process of the group, with questions being asked such as; Does that mean even when you have enough soil reserves, the crop won’t necessarily benefit? Am I reacting enough to the weather with my application planning?

All of these approaches are being encouraged throughout the industry to improve the sustainability of our food production system, but the variation of discussion just within this group of 15 farmers demonstrates the importance of adopting what is best suited to your own farm. There is no blueprint to becoming more sustainable, but there are certainly some trends to take away to help improve our resource use efficiency alongside farm productivity.

 

What’s next?

Discussion groups like these are vitally important with all the changes we are faced with currently. What could be learnt in 5 years can be reduced to 2 simply by hearing about the learning journey from others. The discussions amongst the group is also enabling us to continue evolve our Green Horizons work by understanding the knowledge gaps and barriers to adoption.

Large scale trials are also underway on some of these farms, to compare different approaches and obtain data which can be shared with the wider group. This will bolster our series of Green Horizon trials and provide evidence on a larger scale to support small plot trials. On top of this, the group will continue to participate in collaboration projects and internal developmental work where suitable.

Keep an eye out for our upcoming Green horizons CPM articles to hear more about the different approaches each of the farmers  in our Green Horizons Farmer Network is adopting to become more sustainable.

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