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Better Farming Delivering Net Zero in South Wales

News - 16.12.21

Net Zero has never been a primary goal for Richard & Lynn Anthony and their team at Tythegston Farm near Bridgend on the South Wales coast. But the latest Farm Carbon Toolkit calculations show the 1200ha they own and manage under a range of agreements across the Vale of Glamorgan are annually sequestering more than 21,000 t CO2eq.

More than anything else, such a positive contribution to carbon capture results from the progressive farming improvements made over the past 10 years, in particular, with the accent firmly on soil health.

“It's really not complicated,” insists Mr Anthony.  “You need to grow something to take in CO2. Then you have hold it in your soil.  Essentially, this means two things – keeping as much green cover as possible throughout the year; and doing everything you can to build and maintain soil organic matter. At the end of the day, it all comes down to soil health. Which is, after all, the key to our overall resilience and financial sustainability too.”
This philosophy has resulted in a six year rotation involving nine separate crops on ground that can grow maize and a five year rotation with six separate crops on particularly heavy, wet land.

Winter wheat is central to both rotations, upwards of 450ha being grown alongside around 300ha of maize, 200ha of OSR and 250 ha of grass. Good local markets and the need for resilience means all the wheat is grown for feed with a five-year average of just over 10t/ha.

On more favourable ground, wheat is followed by a mixture of winter rye and Westerwolds ryegrass grazed by sheep then cut for silage ahead of maize planting in April. This sequence is repeated, followed by another crop of wheat, winter OSR and a catch crop of phacelia before going back to wheat.

Where maize can’t be grown, the wheat/winter OSR/phacelia/ wheat recipe is followed by two years of Italian ryegrass for silage then back to wheat.

“Having our own flock of 880 Lleyn-cross ewes as well as winter grazing agreements with local sheep farmers and a business supplying winter forage dairy farms across south and west Wales has allowed us to make the most of grass in both rotations as well as developing a substantial maize enterprise,” Mr Anthony explains.

“As an Agrii iFarm, we have also had the advantage of being able to test out a wide range of catch and cover crops, companions for our OSR, and different cropping and soil management opportunities, not to mention exploring the best wheats for our high Septoria environment.

“We have found winter rye and Westerwolds fit really well between our wheat and maize. They take-off rapidly to give a strong soil cover and both their deep and surface rooting is fantastic. Sheep grazing adds to their contribution to organic matter improvement and a cut of silage ahead of maize drilling is the icing on the cake.

“Phacelia has been our go-to catch crop for a while now. Its brilliant rooting works wonders for the soil and worms.  And the biomass it puts on in just 6-8 weeks means excellent nutrient capture. Having trialled a whole host of other species with Agrii, we’ll be adding vetches to it next year. While they don’t put on much top growth, the extent and sheer depth of the rooting they achieve in the time is incredible.”

“We’ve really stepped-up our OSR companion cropping in the past four years mainly to find the best way of maintaining mycorrhizae and building other elements of soil health through the rotation,” adds farm manager, Dan Moore.

“We’re not there yet, but our current combination of spring beans, buckwheat and purple vetch is looking good. Especially now we’ve adapted a second hand Mzuri drill to sow all the species at the right depths – the beans to around 10cm beside the legs (which go deeper), the buckwheat mixed with the OSR, and the vetch broadcast behind with a BioDrill.

“The companions have certainly helped limit flea beetle problems but their real beauty is that the way they work together to support the rape. The beans and the vetch do a great job in rooting and nitrogen capture while the buckwheat mines phosphate. With their support all our OSR averaged around 5t/ha last year.”

The Tythegson team have been quietly reducing tillage for a good 15 years now and would like to do so even further. Soils ranging from pure sand to heavy wet clays with silt contents of up to 70% plus 1250mm of annual rainfall, however, limit their no-till opportunities.

The OSR apart, Vaderstad Rapid drilling following a shallow pass with a Topdown (fitted with 50mm points for good soil loosening with the least mixing) is currently the standard practice. Sowing the phacelia with the Topdown, however, allows the following wheat to be drilled directly. And a 12-yearold Horsch Sprinter that has seen a lot of work provides a valuable wet weather drilling option.

With such a strong local demand, all the cereal straw is baled. This means the business has had to rely on local authority compost and turkey litter, together with cover cropping in building soil organic matters from around 2-3% to the impressive 7-8% of most of their ground now. The Farm Carbon Toolkit underlines the overwhelming contribution this makes to their negative carbon footprint.

Valuable here too is the contract they have to manage digestate from a major carbon neutral domestic waste AD plant right on their doorstep. It has involved a lot of investment in umbilical systems and 19,500 litre tankers with 24m dribble bar booms (justified by the substantial contracting business managed by their son, David) but this has allowed the

Anthonys to all but eliminate artificial fertilisation.

Normally around 25% on most farms, nitrogen applications make-up just 2% of the current carbon footprint at Tythegson despite wheat and OSR usage of around 280kg/ha and 200kg/ha respectively.

By capping total organic N applications to 170kg/ha, current proposals to extend NVZs to all land in Wales would, however, force a much greater use of bagged nitrogen, working against this fantastic achievement.

This and the team’s desire to keep on improving soil health, and with it their carbon footprint, is leading a number of further companion cropping, rotational and agronomic improvements to be explored with their Agrii agronomist, Chris Taylor.

Foremost amongst these are introducing white clover into the two-year IRG leys and maintaining it under the wheat and right through to the OSR, and growing a cash crop of lupins for local feed markets as a spring-sown alternative to maize.

“Like companions with the OSR, white clover as a ‘permanent cover’ is a learning curve,” Mr Taylor says. “The AberSheep we are using has established well in the Italian Ryegrass. Hitting the grass with the right dose of glyphosate at the end of its life should enable us to carry the clover through and strip till the wheat into it with the Mzuri. This will mean we never have any bare soil, preserve the best soil structure, and take advantage of clover nitrogen fixation with both the wheat and the OSR that follows.

“We’ve had two years of very positive field-scale trials with lupins so far. Even though they weren’t sown until June and harvested in early October, they averaged 3.5t/ha last season with no fertiliser or crop protection inputs whatsoever. Add in nitrogen fixing and they’re a very exciting opportunity here. We’re scaling-up lupin-growing this coming spring but don’t want to get too carried away until we’ve fully explored the implications for the rotation.”

“We have to fit everything we do into our drive to reduce our reliance on chemicals too,” stresses Dan Moore. “This is no more than the best farming practice, but again it is very positive for our carbon footprint as well as the environment.

“We’re making good progress here by prioritising wheats that have stood out for their disease resistance in our iFarm trials – especially Graham, KWS Extase and most recently Fitzroy. Together with better-balanced nutrition and growing them in healthier soils with less inorganic nitrogen, this has allowed us to cut our fungicide bill by almost 50% in the past four years, for instance.”

With a local history of brome and resistance ryegrass problems, cutting back on herbicides is a major challenge. However, using the most competitive wheats, not drilling them too early, keeping year-round cover and having maize as a spring break are proving very valuable here. As are two years of silaging everything well before heading in the heavy land rotation.

Another important step in improving the Anthonys’ farming resilience and carbon footprint is the wood chip boiler that has completely replaced gas for all their grain drying and given the opportunity to diversify into kiln-dried logs.

“Damp Augusts always used to be a big problem for us,” Richard Anthony explains. “But the sheer capacity of the vastly more efficient dry biomass heat we now have means we happily harvest at anything up to 26% moisture these days. It’s far more economic too, better for the environment and we don’t get any condensation in the sheds either.

For us, it’s all a matter of farming better. We do this by looking hard at the issues we face and the opportunities we have; by never being afraid to try new things; and by making the most of those that work. And with better farming comes better sustainability in every way.”

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