Soil Regenerative Agriculture Group - a Learning Journey
Fact finding field trip - May 2022
Over the past three years, the Soil Regenerative Agriculture group have visited each other’s farms, hosted guest speakers, and focused largely on their locality. However, visiting a variety of farm types which vary greatly to their own can help to identify areas where the group can improve; stimulate discussion both within the group and with other farmers; and provide a greater depth of knowledge around regenerative agriculture. Over a period of two and a half days the group visited 5 different locations, which are summarised below.
Dods of Haddington
Based in East Lothian, Dods of Haddington supplies a range of agricultural seeds, including a variety of cover crops which the group have used in the past. Cover crops can be costly to grow and having confidence around the supply of seed is crucial to promote cover crops on farm. Alongside the seed supply, David Cunningham, the host, has been developing several inputs to suit regenerative systems such as seed coating and additives to spray tanks to improve nutrient availability. The group discussed the various merits of different cover crop mixtures with David, and how these mixes can be adapted to suit different situations.
As the tour progressed, the group witnessed the seed cleaning and processing facility which removes unwanted chaff and weeds from grain to provide high quality seed. Dods are one of only a few seed suppliers who participate in the Higher Voluntary Standard (HVS), meaning the seed they supply has a lower threshold for impurities than others on the market.
Adam and Cal Driver farm just under 2,000ha of arable land, under a range of contract farming agreements and tenancies. The business specialises in direct drilling which has provided them with a unique selling point as landowners look to maximise the current subsidy system in England. Although the business is on a large scale, their land is all within 8 miles of the home farm. The soil type is predominantly a heavy clay soil, overlying chalks, with soil pH’s ranging from 7.5 to 8.0. Like many farms in this area, the business has an ongoing challenge controlling blackgrass and as such has introduced spring barley and spring oats into the rotation to try and control it. The Drivers have found that sowing spring crops using direct establishment methods is very challenging, however, they have had great success with winter crops, a point of great discussion within the group.
Although Blackgrass is not yet a severe issue in Scotland, many share the concern that direct drilling increases the grass weed burden. The group spent a lot of time discussing the general merits and trade offs in controlling grass weeds, such as delayed sowing and use of selective herbicides.
A technique uncommon in Scotland, the group also had the opportunity to view fields which had been mole drained. This method of drainage is only suited to heavy clay soils, but it showed the importance of good drainage, and the effect weather can have on soil structure. The photo below highlights an area which has been drained, with the channel reopening due to drought.
The group also had the opportunity to view some of the oilseed rape the Drivers grew. Overall, the crop looked very good, however, there was an infestation of Mealy Cabbage Aphid, an aphid responsible for transmitting over 20 viruses and causing significant direct feeding damage. Although the aphid colonies were very clear to see (photo above) the Drivers have adopted a zero-insecticide policy and have decided not to treat the crop. The group discussed the various pros and cons of insecticide use before deciding that used in moderation they have a position within crop protection programs.
Claydon is a leading strip drill manufacture, and their drills are used by two of the group members (Douglas and James). Claydon drills offer a great level of versatility which is often required in the changeable Scottish weather. During this visit we had the opportunity to see around Claydon Farms, and then around the factory where drills are manufactured and recommissioned.
The Claydon Farm has been direct drilled for 20 years, using the Claydon strip till system. Even though this area of the country has not seen any rain for over two months, the crops at Claydon looked tremendous. Jeff Claydon, the host, and founder of Claydon drills showed the group around the farm, and his knowledge of soil management was clear. The group had the chance to dig up some of the crops and inspect the roots, showing overall soil health.
Claydon have recently developed an interrow hoe for removing grass and broadleaved weeds between the bands of crops. Although this system does not remove all the weeds, as some are left within the crop bands, it reduces the overall weed pressure and reduces the reliance on herbicides. The photo below shows a crop which has been hoed, with few weeds left in place.
Before visiting the factory, the group were shown an area of crop which had green cover growing in it all winter. This on farm trial looked at termination date of cover crop, something which the group have been experimenting with. It was noted that although it is good to have green cover throughout the winter, there can be a negative effect to the crop if the cover is terminated too late.
PX Farms is a multi-faceted agri-business with farming, haulage and storage enterprises. Farming a total of 12,000ac, this business has diversified into a haulage and storage company. The farm is situated near a trunk road in Cambridgeshire and utilising this location has provided a large success. The company now runs a fleet of 12 lorries; has a grain intake lab; can store 86,000t of grain and has recently invested in a grain optical grader, capable of correcting imperfections in grain samples to ensure their grain meets the highest specifications (such as ergot in wheat).
The group were shown around the farm steading which has grown significantly in recent years, before viewing the optical grader and colour sorter working. The business is also the largest UK producer of mustard, and the Farm Assistant, Tom, described the requirements for the harvest and safe storage of mustard to avoid contamination.
Darnalls Hall Farm
Host of the Groundswell event, John Cherry is a regen ag pioneer who has integrated livestock into his arable farms using species rich herbal leys. During this visit, the group spoke to John about some of the benefits of herbal leys including increase root exudation, which John leaves in place for 4 years and mob grazes with cattle.
The group also got to see the no till potato experiment at the farm, where potatoes are established using compost spread on the surface, before being covered in straw. Although only at a small scale and with variable results, it was a good demonstration to show out of the box thinking.
Zach Reilly, SAC Consulting
Read more about the Soil Regenerative Agriculture Group.