There is a growing trend in the UK towards conservation agriculture. This is a “Sea change” in how farms have been farmed for hundreds of years.
Conservation agriculture involves working with the environment to improve the structure, health and vitality of the soil. The Sea change is to use strong rooting cover crops to penetrate the soil in order to improve soil structure and drainage. This means that the soil does not need to be ploughed in the traditional manner. Ploughing has a dramatic effect upon soil life. It is the easiest way to kill earthworms that one can possibly imagine. The worms are the farmers best friends as they move old crop residue from the soil surface to the lower layers. Whilst doing this they create channels in the soil that improve aeration and drainage. The movement of the crop residues to the lower layers then provides soil invertebrates, microbes and bacteria with a food source so they too thrive.
At Fullers Hill a watching brief has been maintained on these possible changes. It is a big step to completely change the whole way in which you think and farm. But in the dry autumn of 2016 meant that plans had to be brought forward. The plough was making an awful job in the hard baked conditions of that autumn. It was simple bring up huge lumps of dry, iron like soil. The next field that was scheduled to be ploughed was the largest field on the farm. The previous crop was Oilseed rape. The stubble had “greened up” with the seed that was lost during the harvesting process. The roots of this so called “volunteer crop” had broken up the soil and actually retained moisture from the daily dews. The was the complete opposite to the ploughed field that was dry, dusty and lumpy.
The ploughed field required many more cultivations to make a seedbed whilst the former Oilseed rape field had no further cultivations before seeding. When the next wheat crops were planted into the two fields the outcome was predictable. One grew readily and the other didn’t. During the course of the winter one field was dry and easy to walk and the other was soft and boggy. The difference between the 2 fields continued throughout the growing season, with the conservation agriculture field always looking better. Harvest 2017 was the final proof, with the ploughed field preforming poorly.
Moving forward to this autumn. A cautious further step has been made to convert the farm towards conservation. Cover crops of mustard have been planted following harvest with the aim of replicating the beneficial effects produced by the volunteer oilseed crop the previous season. In one case the mustard seed was broadcast into the standing crop of wheat in mid July. The frequent showers during the course of the summer has meant that these crops have thrived. Their roots have broken up and dried out the soil as the growing plant draws the moisture out of the ground. Other fields on the farm have been sown with cover crops in preparation for spring sown crops. Linseed is a crop that has particularly vigorous roots. These leave to the soil very crumby and dry. Absolutely ideal for direct seeding with wheat. So this was done.
The structure of the soil in the conservation fields has improved. The soil life, measured simply by counting the number of worms. Other benefits of this change are a significant reduction in labour and diesel. This represents a huge reduction of carbon emissions produced by the farm.