Case Study: Ben Barron
Ben Barron, Leitfie, Near Alyth
Ben farms over 200 ha in Perthshire with his family. Leitfie is a mixed arable and beef unit, growing grass for livestock plus barley, wheat, oats, beans and oilseed rape, with the intention of trying linseed in 2020. The rotation at Leitfie will be a diverse 7 crop 9-year rotation with 3 break crops.
Find out more about Leitfie from host farmer, Ben Barron, in the video below.
Ben has moved to direct drilling and is now in his fourth season using this system and has learned a lot of lessons on the way but is now seeing increased numbers of earthworms and soil structure is gradually improving. Direct drilling is a low-cost method of establishing crops which also has a low impact on soil health. However, a lot is yet to be learned about direct drilling in Scotland and this method is still considered a higher risk method of establishing crops than the traditional plough and cultivation method with one of the biggest challenges being slugs.
One of the main aims Ben has is to keep something growing in the ground at all times. To achieve this Ben is looking at the following:
- Companion cropping – growing another crop or plant alongside the cash crop which can remain growing once the cash crop is harvested (e.g. growing winter oilseed rape with an understory of clover)
- Cover crop mixes between cash crops – establish a cover crop after harvest. However from other group members trials, Ben will look at broadcasting cover crops into standing cereals crops two weeks before harvest to increase the amount of growth of the cover crop in the short gap we have between crops in Scotland. Ideally, the following crop will be direct drilled into the cover crop
Ben is also altering his cropping rotation to introduce more crop diversity, moving from a predominately cereal rotation to one with more break crops having recently introduced oilseed rape and winter beans to the rotation and is now trying winter peas. Challenges so far have been the sourcing of seed for winter beans and winter peas and also finding market outlets.
The role of livestock
Another idea Ben is looking at is to have livestock grazing around the entire farm at some point in the year to put some biology back into the soil. One option is to direct drill autumn-sown crops earlier than we would under a plough based system and then graze the more advanced crops sometime between late autumn and spring to hold the crops back, remove diseased leaf material and provide a small amount of dung as well as stimulating soil mineralisation through the trampling effect.
Likewise, grazing of cover crops or crop residues with an understory of clover after harvest could take place. The main challenge here is to have the infrastructure of fences and water troughs in place on an arable farm to enable this to take place easily.
Ben's hope for the Soil Regenerative Farming Group is to work together to find a practical farming system for Scotland which is sustainable in the long term as well as resilient both in terms of finances and changing weather conditions (extreme wet to extremely dry conditions).
Going forward Ben plans to look into the nutritional side of regenerative farming in more detail using foliar feeds of major elements as well as trace elements to ensure the plants have everything they need to remain healthy.
Ben wants to see how far fertiliser and chemical use can be reduced whilst also measuring and monitoring the effects of this new strategy and says “It's going to be quite a challenge and we will need both Government and research behind us!”
Download Ben's Case Study here.
Updates from Leitfie
29th May 2020
At Leitfie Farms, Ben continues to trial crop mixtures and experiment with inputs. His ultimate aim is to increase soil biodiversity, reduce inputs and create a truly sustainable farming system. Below are a few observations from May 2020.
Winter wheat after beans
Ben seeded winter what following winter beans in the Autumn of 2019. He decided to allow the volunteer beans to continue to grow, believing that this would provide additional soil benefits to his new crop of wheat. Although there are only a few sporadic beans throughout the wheat crop, Ben thinks that increasing the diversity will increase the resilience in his system alongside fixing a small amount of nitrogen helping him to reduce his fertiliser. Having left the beans to grow for over 6 months, Ben terminated this companion crop in the middle of May to prevent them developing seed again.
Beans a little thin
Ben has also been experimenting with seed rates for his winter beans. He thought that the seed rate he used in 2018/19 has too high, so when he seeded his winter beans in 2019, he reduced the seed rate to 150kg/ha and only used alternative spouts on his drill. However, due to the extremely wet autumn and winter at Leitfie emergence has been lower in some parts of the field. Lower seed rates can reduce competition in beans, making the crop shorter and therefore the plants have more energy to set pods and produce seeds. Ben was constricted by his drill as 150kg/ha was as high as he could go while only using wide row spacing. Although some areas at the top of his bean field are thin, lower parts in the field the crop looks much thicker. Ben says, “I think the optimal seed rate is around 200kg/ha for winter beans”. Ben applied a trace element mix to his beans near the end of May as some plants were starting to show sulphur deficiency.
Spring oats looking fantastic
In a tricky field at the top of Leitfie Farms Ben has a fantastic crop of oats which he is very please with. Ben said, “this field hasn’t been looking good for a couple of years, but the oats look really good this year”. At the start of the Soil Regenerative Agriculture program, this field was extensively tested, the VESS scores at that time averaged 1.67, a good score indicating the soil has high porosity and there are roots through the soil. Just over a year later the soil was still very friable and despite the dry spring there was still moisture under the soil surface.
Spring crop fungicide trial
After observing that disease is only entering Bens crops in areas which Ben knows are already stressed, Ben is questioning if broad acre applications are really necessary. This year Ben has left a total of 10ha of spring crop, split between two fields without any fungicide treatments. He has also observed that the disease incidence is higher in his spring barley after spring barely, highlighting the need for longer and more diverse rotations. As the season progresses the treated and untreated areas will be monitored for disease. However, due to the dry weather disease is generally low in this area.
The increase in wildlife, although not formally documented, at Leitfie is truly amazing. Deer, hares and numerous birds are present on the farm and Ben believes that this is a result of a healthier soil.
Ben has many trials on his farm and although is it a significant job to manage all of these changing parts, the extra experimentation will hopefully lead to Ben producing a refined system which is sustainable and resilient to anything the environment can throw his way.