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Make stewardship work for your farm business – Agronomist & Arable Farmer – Matt England, Will Foyle

The phasing out of the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) over the next few years and switch to environmentally focused support means many more growers will be taking up stewardship options...

To help ‘bridge the gap’ in farm incomes. For some it will be a natural progression of existing stewardship agreements, but for others, bigger changes to farm practices and rotations may be required.

In either case, it is vital farmers plan stewardship options carefully so that they meet the requirements of new schemes, and deliver maximum benefit to the farm business, Hutchinsons environmental specialist Matt England says.

“Ultimately, if you’re going to put a percentage of your farm down to any kind of stewardship mixes, then you’ve got to select the most appropriate options for your situation and manage them well to get the most out.”

Evaluating some of the many stewardship options to help farmers make more informed decisions is one aim of the Hutchinsons environmental services trial site at Mr England’s 180ha family farm near Warboys in Cambridgeshire.

The site showcases many traditional and exotic species that make up different stewardship mixes within the Countryside Stewardship and forthcoming Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), alongside work investigating their establishment and impact on biodiversity and soil health. The heavy land site was assessed before plots were drilled in the spring to provide a baseline analysis from which changes can be measured.

Indeed, soil health is a cornerstone of ELMS and next spring’s launch of the first ‘standards’ within the new sustainable farming incentive (SFI) – one part of ELMS – is another good opportunity for growers to access new income sources.

But, as with stewardship options, it must not be seen as a tick-box exercise, Hutchinsons farm business consultant Will Foyle says.

“Yes, there are good payments available for meeting the different levels of ambition, but it shouldn’t be a case of just doing the minimum to get a payment. Use this as an opportunity to help improve your soils and make them work better to raise productivity across the farm business.”

For example, rather than just conducting a basic soil assessment of structure, biology and organic matter, it may be a good opportunity to carry out a detailed analysis of all the main soil parameters, as there could be areas restricting productivity, he says.

How to make stewardship work

Below are three key areas to focus on to get the most out of environmental stewardship options:

Undertaking any stewardship option should not be a ‘tick box’ exercise to claim a payment, says Mr England. Instead, tailor options to specific situations and end goals, considering factors like soil type, weed pressure, grazing requirements, provision of flowers/winter bird food/habitats/game cover, the need to build soil health, and whether the stewardship is rotational or will remain in one location. The most appropriate option, species mix and management will vary greatly depending on what you want to achieve.

A basic seed mix for the Mid-Tier AB8 option (flower-rich margins and plots), for example, is based on a limited number of species that typically last four to five years, so may suit more temporary positions. In contrast, where growers plan to keep stewardship in the same place for a number of years, selecting mixes containing more true perennial species to maintain flowers throughout the life of that option may be preferable.

Mixed farmers wanting an extra source of grazing or forage may consider options such as the GS4 legume and herb-rich sward, which can be grazed throughout the year, apart from during a five-week gap at some point between May 1 and July 31 to let plants flower, he continues.

Alternatively, those without livestock just wanting a mix for soil conditioning may prefer the AB15 two-year legume mix, containing a range of herbs, legumes and grass. A grass-free mix is also available.

Establishing stewardship mixes well and at the right time is fundamental to ensuring they deliver maximum benefit.

Mr England says good weed control is one of the most important considerations, as keeping mixes weed-free promotes better biodiversity by allowing flowering and seed-producing species to thrive, rather than having them outcompeted by weeds.

He recommends controlling weeds with stale seedbeds before drilling stewardship mixes to reduce the potential weed burden, and in high weed pressure situations, consider delaying drilling or fallowing areas for longer periods to achieve this.

Once established, annual weeds in grass mixes can be controlled relatively easily with regular cutting, especially in the first year, but perennial weeds like creeping thistle and docks could be more problematic and may require spot spraying or other control, he says.

The Warboys site includes a herbicide trial featuring 19 different pre-ems, post- ems and combinations of both to see what chemistry works on different species. It effectively provides a ‘weed screen’ to investigate the crop safety of different chemistry options when establishing stewardship mixes containing multiple species, and shows what products will and will not work when it is time to spray them off.

Hutchinsons plans to repeat the herbicide trial next year and further investigate the legality of what growers can do on-farm through the use of EAMUs (extension of authorisation for minor use).

It is essential that stewardship mixes germinate and establish quickly to outcompete weeds, so soil must be warm and moist, Hutchinsons agronomist Jane Cambridge says. Warm-season species used in wild bird mixes, such as millet, require soil temperature to be at least 10C, but ideally 15C, for rapid emergence and establishment.

Later drilling usually means warmer soils, and gives plenty of opportunity to achieve a stale seedbed, she adds. This was neatly illustrated at Warboys with two adjacent plots of winter bird cover, one sown on May 5, the other on May 31. Although the earlier-sown plot had more time to grow, it came under noticeably higher weed pressure as there was less time to control weeds before drilling.

Later drilling does run the risk of dry conditions compromising establishment though, and Mr England stresses that drilling into moisture is essential. “It is always best to wait for rain and then drill, rather than putting seed into bone dry seedbeds and hoping for a rain.”

Seedbeds should also be fine and firm to maximise seed-to-soil contact of seeds which can be very small.


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