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Case Study: Ross Mitchell

Ross Mitchell, Castleton Farm, near Laurencekirk.

Ross Mitchell runs Castleton Farm in partnership with his father Murray.  The business covers over 600 ha, specialising in strawberries, raspberries, cherries and blueberries, supplying Marks & Spencers. Ross and Murray have some root crops and daffodils, although the land is predominantly managed for soft fruit production under polytunnels.

 
 

Alleviating soil compaction

Soil compaction is an issue and one Ross and his team would like to reduce or eliminate.  In 2018 Ross moved to no-tillage and is giving this a try. If successful, this could help to make the farm more resilient and help to reduce the risk of compaction whilst also improving farm soils.

Ross has been looking at various methods of establishing green cover crops in autumn 2019.

Using a mix of mustard, raddish, vetch and rye, Ross tried three different methods of establishment.

  1. Method one was to establish the crop using the direct drill to drill the green cover mix straight into the stubble after harvesting spring barley.
  2. Method two was to broadcast the green cover crop onto the stubble, followed with a straw rake. (Same day as method one)
  3. Method three was to broadcast the green cover crop into the standing spring barley crop two weeks before harvest.

In all three trials the straw from the previous crop was chopped and the green cover crops received 25 kgs/ha of Nitrogen to aid the breakdown of the straw and establishment of the green cover crops. A dressing of slug pellets was also made to all three trials.

Photos of the plots taken at the start of November are shown below.

As can be seen from the pictures this year, which has been a wet autumn, has shown that the broadcast cover crops have established much better than the drilled cover crops.

In addition getting the cover crop established a fortnight before harvest allows for at least a fortnights additional growth (probably three weeks by the time you can get the cover crop sown after harvest) at a very growthy time of year in August.

 

An Update from Castleton

2nd June 2020

Ross Mitchel from Castleton Farm is now a couple of years into his reduced tillage system. Ross has been experimenting in a number of ways with cover crops and green manures.  Below is a summary of observations from 2nd June 2020

Figure 1 - Patchy establishment following a late terminated cover crop

 

 

Sown too soon?

Not only has Ross been experimenting with cover crop establishment and cover crop mixes, he has also been testing cover crop destruction. Ross tried terminating a cover crop on the day of sowing to provide the cover with the maximum length of time to deliver soil benefits. Prior to sowing Ross sprayed off the cover crop with glyphosate, taking a risk and potentially creating a green bridge. Although the spring barley has emerged, it is patchy. Areas of the field do not look like they will perform as well as other areas on his farm. Ross thinks that there may be two issues in this field. Firstly, that the late terminated cover crop could have locked up nitrogen and secondly, that the heavier soil might have underlying compaction issues.

 

Following a cover crop

However, on other areas of Ross’ farm, spring crops following cover crops look excellent. In the autumn Ross seeded a mix of radish and mustard and has followed this with a spring crop. Ross noticed that this crop was holding the moisture under the surface, despite the dry weather. Ross decided to try to introduce livestock back onto his farm and organised for a grazier to put sheep onto his radish and mustard cover crop mixes. The sheep were grazed before Christmas of 2019, they were then removed allowing the field to green up before the cover crop was terminated.

Green manure mixtures

Ross also has an Agri Environment Climate Scheme with an option to grow a green manure. Ross has decided to trial this full summer option and has opted to try two mixes. His own mix contains phacelia, daikon tillage radish, berseem clover, spring vetch, black oats and also some spring beans broadcast onto the top. This mix comes to £60/ha for seed, but there is also an establishment cost and the loss of income from growing a cash crop. His other mix has been supplied from a seed merchant and contains 5 species. This mix is more expensive, at £86/ha and it will be interesting to find out what the differences are as the season progresses.

Winter beans

Ross is also growing winter beans this year, and, like many growers in the area has noticed how short they are in comparison to other years. Ross said that areas of the field which lay wet over the winter months have not produced plants, however, drier areas are much better. The beans are popular among pollinators and there were many bees to be found in the crop. Ross seeded the beans at 225kg/ha and hopes to sell them on for animal feed.