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Agroecology on a farm scale

A whole farm approach to Agroecological farming practices is the premise of the Helix Agroecology Farm hosted by Harry Heath of Whitley Manor Farm, Newport, Shropshire ...

As an industry we are still not in a position to be able to clearly define the benefits of many of the practices or technologies that we associate with Agroecology, believes Stuart Hill, Hutchinsons Head of Innovation and Technology.

“The Helix Agroecology farm allows us to trial and evaluate these and new evolving practices or technologies on a farm- scale level so that we can determine measurable benefits they offer in particular situations.”

Agroecology or Regenerative Farming is a method or practise of farming that has come increasingly into the limelight as growers look for ways of working with nature on their farms – driven by the need to follow a more holistic, environmentally-focussed path.

“Helix Agroecology is a long term project that allows us to look at the whole farm as a biological system, not just certain fields or parts of the farm, and that’s significant. All the key areas of focus are intrinsically linked and will produce data to allow the farmer Harry Heath and his agronomist Ed Brown, make the best decisions in an agroecologically sympathetic, but profitable and sustainable way ” he adds.

Five key focus areas across Whitley Manor Farm
  • How can data improve farm sustainability
  • How do we measure and improve soils
  • How do we manage nutrition
  • How do crop genetics benefit the grower
  • Delivering tangible Integrated Crop Management

Harry Heath took over the running of the family farm in 2010. Pigs were the mainstay of the business with between 550-600 breeding sows producing 17,000 pigs a year and a small arable area of 200 ha’s including potatoes and sugar beet.

Today there are no pigs and combinable cropping and contracting dominates the farm business.

Harry Heath

“Our soils had a legacy of overcultivation and were not in a good way – worm counts were down, the soil profile was slumping, erosion was increasing after big rain events – we were taking more out of the soils than we were putting back in,” explains Harry.

“It was definitely time to re-evaluate and look at a long term strategy that would help restore soil structure. This was our platform into agroecology, so we began to look at which practices we could adopt – whilst also keeping a firm eye on profit. ”

“Now crops are established with minimal cultivations. Our rotation has broadened to include winter wheat, winter oilseed rape, spring beans and oats and we are trialling hybrid rye to help us with the timing of drilling OSR. Most seed is farm saved.

“Ground is not left bare, we use cover and catch crops are grown wherever possible and livestock has been introduced to graze these off. “

Omnia is integral to all crop and nutrition planning and cost of production analysis is crucial.”

“Most importantly what we have learnt about agroecology is that it’s all about keeping an open mind and challenging every decision. We are on a learning curve and it’s important to remember that agroecology is not a religion and sometimes plans need to change – ultimately the crop has to be as profitable as possible,” summarises Harry. “Patience is king.”

Challenges at Whitley Manor

Harry hopes that his association with the Helix project will help to address specific challenges at Whitley Manor such as controlling resistant populations of rye-grass, additional ways of building back up lost soil structure and looking to reduce inputs without compromising crop performance.

Addressing these challenges within an agroecological remit involves several key principles, says Ed Brown.

“Whilst a core principle of agroecology is minimising soil disturbance, controlling a challenging weed burden within a min-till system can be difficult. In this situation, where we have resistant rye-grass, we have had to bring back the plough – but what is important here is that the depth of the plough is kept to minimum. Sometimes it is necessary to re-set and start again,” he says.

“After ploughing, any emerging ryegrass has been sprayed off with glyphosate, and cover crops established to help stabilise the sandy soils. This means cover crops with lots of fine hairs that will hold the sand together – such as vetch, linseed and oats.”

Adding in radish and cereals that have bigger roots helps drainage.”

Ed continues: “Winter cereals are not grown in the fields with bad rye-grass, we are trialling a mix of spring beans and spring oats. We have found this mix to be a competitive spring break crop.”

“Integrating livestock where possible is a cornerstone of agroecology, so sheep are brought in to graze off the cover crops.”

“Our aim is to change the biological balance of the soil, so we are constantly measuring this alongside the different approaches for controlling the rye-grass.”

Glyphosate trial

A split field trial has been set up to evaluate how the farm can cope without the use of glyphosate, and allow us to start to look at other options we have for control, says Ed.

“Whilst one side has been sprayed off, the other has been lightly cultivated. Currently the soils which have been cultivated look darker and healthier, which we put down to more organic matter being incorporated from the cultivations. But we shall see what plays out in the longer run.”

Rebuilding soil structure

Key to the Helix philosophy is the continued monitoring and evaluation of data, but tracking results begins with a baseline measurement, points out Ed.

For the soils this was done through an SSM Gold test which provides an insight into the physical, chemical and biological aspects of the soil.

“This told us that the soils are slightly alkaline with a high sand content and bulk density of 1.3 – which influences the type of cover crop we have chosen to grow.”

“An initial group of fields were TerraMapped to provide us with accurate soil type maps, from which we could pinpoint where to carry out further assessments.”

“It’s about having as much detailed information as possible to improve decision making. For example, we have identified an excess of magnesium in the soil, which is having a number of negative affects on soil function. We can now take action to correct this and use the information to make more targeted nutrient plans ”

Nitrogen

“Improving Nitrogen Use Efficiency is key; on average NUE across the UK is only between 40-60%, this means that at current prices for 200kgN costing £400/ha – as much as £200 is wasted- which is certainly not environmentally or economically sustainable,” explains Hutchinsons agronomist Richard Watkins.

He explains that the aim to build up organic reserves to a point where it is possible to pull back on N is a major focus at Helix, but to do this requires measuring and new approaches that incorporate:

  • Soil, leaf and sap analysis of N
  • Replicated farm tramline trials looking at farm standard N vs reduced N, foliar N and bacterial fixation of N.
  • Looking at mixed cropping and requirements of N, for example a crop of beans and oats doesn’t require nitrogen.
  • The impact of undersown clover on Nitrogen?

Additional areas of interest

Ed Brown recognises the increasing interest in Blends, he adds. “We are using blends on the farm to bring back some diversity first and foremost, but also trialling them to see if its possible to reduce fungicide inputs.”

“We are also trialling biologicals on a case by case basis so we have real quantifiable benefits. For example we are looking at Tiros, an endophyte seed treatment to see what difference it will make to nitrogen or phosphate uptake. ”

The Hutchinsons Helix project trials and adapts new technology developments and innovations at a whole-farm scale level to help farmers improve economic and environmental sustainability. To find out more please go to the Helix website.

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