Harvest and soils: Brigg Monitor Farm

Please don’t mention harvest: best to say it has finished. From winter barley onwards it became a salvage operation. Some lowlights include five weeks to harvest 150 acres of winter barley with two big combines. OSR was okay, but spring barley and some wheat had shed before we could get to them. Peas were a nightmare and spring wheat took three weeks post spraying off to harvest. All yields were average to below average. 400mm of rain fell in four months spread equally from July to 1 October, with September delivering 200 per cent of average and only two full dry days!!! We had our year’s average rainfall of 645mm of rain by 1 October. We have been tested to the full this year with serious considerations to our future in farming if we have to follow similar years.

So this leads to our first Monitor Farm meeting on soil health. How do you farm in conditions like we have just been through? We would like to attempt more direct drilling, but the damage done by our harvest has meant doing cultivations to counter soil damage. In reality the damage would have been less if we had direct drilled already! This year has meant re-writing the book on everything we already knew: it seems the more I learn about farming the less I actually know!

We have some really interesting speakers to kick off our season and I know that they will challenge our way of thinking about the soil we all depend on. Ultimately, though, this year has taught us that mother nature knows best and no matter what or how you do things the weather still rules. How we cope with that going forward that will dictate our future strategy. Soil is our key to better crops: it means that wet, compacted soils (that we have from this year’s rain) will, without care lead to a worsening black-grass situation which we can no longer control through chemicals.

On our lighter soils we are actively seeking a build-up in organic matters by means of cover cropping and use of solid digestate. We can so far conclude that after only a couple of years we have raised the levels from 3.1% to 3.9%, but by further analysis we can also show a  need to apply foliar nutrition more as the soils have a lower cation exchange capacity, and thus readily leach soil applied nutrients.

On the heavier soils we a similar problem to John Miller at Newark, where the clay naturally releases nutrients such as potash, but with extreme magnesium levels (indices above 6) and high calcium levels locking the magnesium out foliar nutrition is again required. The soils here have the ability to quickly dry but once wet and due to a high water table (the local River Ancholme runs at the same height as the surrounding land) once wet in the autumn stay that way until early spring making land work difficult. High iron levels lock out manganese which appear to be increased due to black-grass amounts of soil applied pre-ems!  Maybe an increase in soil health will lower levels of grass weeds, reducing the need for chemical intervention and thus naturally restoring the soils balance.

At our first meeting Phillip Wright will pass comments on how to work such soils and it will be fascinating to hear his take on direct drilling. Which then leads on to at least one (hopefully two) local guys that are direct drilling and actually lowering black-grass levels in their soils.

I’m looking forward to challenging pre-conceptions on a lot of things from soils to pollution, to analysing budgets and machinery investments.

More about the Brigg Monitor Farm

Colin Chappell

Colin Chappell

Colin Chappell farms with his family at Gander Farm near Brigg, Lincolnshire. The lowland mixed arable and beef unit has 615 ha combinable crops and 32 ha permanent pasture. Colin’s arable rotation is normally peas or oilseed rape, followed by two wheats. He recently replaced his second wheats either with spring wheat due to black-grass pressure, or maize on lighter land for a local AD plant. During the three years of the programme Colin hopes to look at succession, joint venture farming and how his farm can survive in a post-EU Britain.

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