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Conservation Agriculture the future for Whatton Farm?

Oilseed rape field at Whatton Farm Cold Pressed Rapeseed Oil
Looking after our soil for the future

Recently we have been looking into how we can withstand Brexit and the possible loss of direct payments from the government.  In short we are going to have to become far more efficient and this will mean both spending less and trying to earn more.  Make more from less?  Hmmmm.  I would be grateful if anyone has any suggestions……

Whilst mulling this over we have come across Conservation Agriculture (CA) which does seem to offer the possibility of helping us achieve this whilst also helping us protect the environment.  However it is, of course, not without its problems.

The basic concept is around improving the soil to make it way more productive, increasing organic matter and good bugs by spraying and cultivating less. CA is based on three principles.  In no particular order of importance: 

  • minimum soil disturbance (enough to get the crop established)

  • residue/plant cover (60% minimum, ideally 100%) and 

  • diverse rotations (including 25% spring crops). 

No-tillage helps to achieve these objectives but is not the system itself.

Deep tillage is a proven way of getting results in our deep and heavy Leicestershire clay. Years of farming have taught us that we can create the right soil conditions for spelt, wheat, oilseed rape and beans to grow by pulling deep tines through the ground for drainage and discing the top soil to create tilth for the seeds to chit.  However, although this gets results, it is expensive (dragging heavy metal through the soil requires a lot of diesel and horse power), does nothing to help the worm population (they don’t like their world being turned upside down) and causes carbon to be released into the atmosphere.

But, there is a but.  And a big but.  The speed at which CA can be adopted on any particular farm will be governed by soil type, rotation, previous management, topography and location.  We don’t have easy soil and no tillage will not be easy for us.  We are going to do a lot more soil testing to find out exactly how and if we can make it work, and then put a plan together.  What is becoming apparent is that we might need to invest more money into our soil in order for us to reduce tillage.  Spend money to save money.   Fingers crossed.

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