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Case Study: Hugh Black

Hugh Black, Backboath, Near Forfar

Hugh farms in partnership with his father James.  The business extends to around
400 ha, 50 ha of which is rented ground.  Although there is some variation in soil type, most soils at Backboath are sandy loams.  James and Hugh produce winter wheat, winter and spring barley, oilseed rape and potato crops.  They operate a six to seven-year rotation with two breaks.

Hugh already carries out full GPS soil analysis on a 6-year rotation and uses precision agriculture techniques such as variable-rate spreading for lime.  Hugh imports manures and digestate, both to supplement inorganic fertilisers and improve soil organic matter.

Find out more about Backboath from farm host Hugh in the video below.

What's next?

Hugh would like to maintain outputs but cut back on inputs, for example, reduce chemical use.  Hugh is interested in monitoring the variation in soil health experienced across his rotation, especially before and after the potato crop.  Hugh said Potatoes are the most invasive crop to the soils here and this means the soils are cultivated more often to establish a good growing environment for the finished fresh potatoes on the shelf. We want to guarantee we are regenerative in our rotation of soil health and structure in order to produce in future”.


Potatoes are a key aspect of the farm business.  Hugh acknowledges that intensive cultivations associated with producing potatoes mean farm soils can be more vulnerable to damage.  Maintaining and protecting soil health across the farm will be one of the areas Hugh will be focusing on through the group.

This Case Study is available to download here.


Updates from Backboath

July 2020 Update

As part of an SRDP AECS scheme, Hugh has sown a field of green manure mix. At the start of July this crop has been mown down to feed the soil; improve the nutrient status in the top profile layers, increase the organic matter and help sequester carbon.  NB:  Backboath is currently taking part in a green manure trial which has allowed a dispensation to allow the crop to be mulched earlier than normal.  Under the SRDP AECS scheme most green manure crops cannot be mulched until later in the summer.

We have more information on growing cover crops, including  meeting notes from a previous farm event held by the Castlemains Climate Change Focus Farm project on the links below:

29th May 2020

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 a few observations 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.

Young spring beans growing at Backboath Farm

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.  

Oilseed rape crop in full flower at Backboath Farm

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 cropHugh 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.  

pring barley at Backboath sown with a Claydon strip till drill

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.  Three beehives sitting in front of a gap in a hedge at Backboath 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.  

a shed in the foreground with a self propelled sprayer sitting at the gable end, all next to the newly installed biobed as part of an SRDP AECS scheme.

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.