May 2020 Update from Backboath

A busy period at Backboath has resulted in many on-farm trials as Hugh Black continues to experiment with cereal production. From new establishment techniques to new crops and different crop combinations, there is certainly a lot to see at Backboath Farm! Below are is an update from Backboath from May 2020.

Permanence in a rotation

Never one to make it easy for his agronomist, Hugh is trying to establish a crop of clover within his winter wheat crops. Hugh is aiming to keep this clover growing in the bottom of his crops for the next 5 years, providing a significant challenge for herbicide selection! Hugh is planning the following rotation: Winter wheat, beans, winter wheat, winter oats, winter wheat. Choosing a mixture of subterranean clover, Hugh said the clover has been slow to establish this spring, possibly a result of the dry weather. He hopes that the clover will supply both ground cover and a steady supply of nitrogen to his crops. Hugh broadcast the seed onto the established wheat crop, opting for this method as he was concerned about poor establishment of clover in the autumn.

Small clover plant established in the bottom of a standing crop of winter wheat at Backboath

Spring Beans – a new venture

As with many in the Soil Regenerative Agriculture group, Hugh has been looking for crops which will allow him to extend his rotation, grow more nitrogen fixing crops and reduce his reliance on spring barley. This year Hugh is growing spring beans for the first year after securing a contract to grow beans for seed. Hugh planted C1 beans to produce a crop of C2 seed. Hugh established all of the beans using a Claydon drill and is pleased with the results. Prior to bean emergence Hugh sprayed the beans with a glyphosate to clean the field, giving the beans the best possible start. If the beans are successful this year, Hugh plans to grow them one in seven years.

Companion Cropping experiment

Throughout the winter of 2019/2020 Hugh grew faba beans in companion with his oilseed rape (OSR), hoping that the beans would provide some nitrogen for his crop. Hugh has been establishing OSR in wide row spacing for approximately 10 years behind a subsoiling leg, providing the plants with room to branch out. He decided that establishing the beans in these rows would be the best option for the bean establishment. However, although the beans established and grew well, they were killed by a number of successive hard frosts in March. Hugh noticed that the bottom of the plants went black after the first frost, and after another two frosts below -4oC the plants were completely dead. Hugh thinks that they will have still provided some benefits, so all is not lost.

Strip drill

Another trial at Backboath this year has been the use of a Claydon strip drill. Impressed by the performance of the machine at another group members farm Hugh decided to trial the drill on his own farm. Hugh found that the deep tines were quite aggressive on his soil and they pulled up a lot of stones. This surprised Hugh and his machinery operator, Hugh said, “We have been destoning here with the potatoes for years, so we were surprised that the Claydon managed to find any!” Despite the extra work lifting stones, the fields which were sown with this drill are performing well. Hugh said that his operator was concerned at first using this new machine, but Hugh said this method of establishment is essentially like grubbing a field, and perfect uniformity is not the aim, rather, reduced soil disturbance. Hugh added that we need to remember that seeds will survive and don’t always need perfect conditions to grow.

Additionally, Hugh has established an area of wheat in three different ways. This side by side comparison is also used for the clover trials described above. The following photos explain the methods of establishment.

Bees for OSR pollination

Although not a direct on farm experiment, Hugh has also collaborated with a local bee producer to get beehives on his land. Hugh has hives in 3 locations across Backboath to promote pollination in his OSR crops. The hives are all located close to flowering crops and says that there isn’t really any downside to having them on the farm.

Grazing Trials

A trial which got Hugh neighbours talking was his grazing of cereal cops. Hugh asked a local sheep producer to come and graze his cereals in return for a weekly rent. Hugh grazed almost all of his cereal crops, using electric fencing to rotationally graze them. This links with another Rural Innovation Support Service project which has been investigating the integration of sheep on cereal crops and has just been successful in securing Horizon 2020 funding for replicated trials to look into the yield effects of grazing cereals. Hugh grazed sheep until the end of March before he thought the crops were beginning to grow too quickly and didn’t want to reduce his yields.

Bio-bed and wash down area

As part of an AECS scheme Hugh entered in 2019, he has built a bio-bed and wash down area for his sprayer. The bio-bed is made from a lined pit with straw and soil mixed together which will filter out chemicals. Additionally, there is also a new concrete pad with secure drainage for washing down his machinery.

Find out more about what the other Soil Regenerative Agriculture Farmers are up to.

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