Reducing your farm costs through a partnership with the environment

I make no secret of my belief that an integrated farming partnership operation with the environment and the biodiversity it supports is the way to make your farming business more efficient and resilient for the future.

This ethical realism couldn’t have come at a better time. It was around the late 1980’s that I started questioning my belief in the sustainability of farming strategies that were being used on most intensive mixed farms. From this, I was becoming totally disillusioned with farming and was looking at other opportunities.  As chance would have it, this is when I unexpectedly got offered a position with a well-known national conservation organisation.

I now realise that this was the most influential and crucial stage of my career. At the time, I was under the impression that I was now on the road to enjoying a new career. However, this road unexpectedly led me back into agriculture, but with very different ethics and ethos – an agriculture that could beneficially work for all parties even without an unsigned contract. It wasn’t organic or intensive farming, we just called it ‘conservation farming’.

From my interest in native flora and fauna and the various landscapes and tenant farms I was managing, I began to realise that an integrated type of farming was far more rewarding for all in many ways.

Through further research and cost analysis, I could see that handing over the least productive land to encourage flora, insects, spiders and beetles was actually working out to be extremely cost effective.  This paved the way forward for me to integrate my conservation and farming career and, over the following 20 years I was engrossed in setting-up, managing and advising various new farming operations which viably incorporated these methodologies to reduce their costs. They were each rewarded with better net margins and, the fascinating wildlife they see on their farm.  Indeed, these farms still continue to use these integrated farm management techniques to promote their business sustainability today.

So, is integrated pest management or, integrated farm management a new concept? Well no, it isn’t.   It’s been around for a while in various sectors, particularly horticulture and organic.  Most of you possibly will have been doing this in some form or another through greening or environmental schemes.

With the government ‘Health and Harmony’ white paper,  we should realis that IPM / IFM will have an ever increasing role to play in our future farming strategies and keeping our businesses economically viable .

Therefore, I would suggest it’s imperative that we all develop suitable strategies that promote a mutually beneficial partnership with the environment that surrounds your farm together with creating opportunities to encourage the biodiversity it supports.  By doing this, we can enhance the Natural Capital, which in turn can be used to economically promote the sustainability of our farming businesses. This will help us enhance our soils, increase plant health and resilience, reduce reliance on fossil fuel nutrients and minimise our use of chemicals for crop pests and disease protection.

Are environmental schemes worth it? Surely it’s a no brainer – getting money to implement strategies that help reduce costs and ensure legal compliance.

Environmental Schemes –   Making them work for you.

  • Use something like Magic Maps to identify important species, features and regulations for your area
  • Consider how you can protect and enhance what you already have – wildlife, heritage features, water courses, woodlands, hedges and trees, as well as any SSSI/SAC/Wildlife sites close by
  • If your current Countryside Stewardship scheme is coming to an end then, evaluate how it has worked for you
  • Could other Countryside Stewardship options benefit future farming strategies? First, look at all your fields on an individual basis to identify non-productive cash cropping areas, areas that are awkward for machinery to get into, and ways to make the whole field more efficient to manage.
  • Try and link up Countryside Stewardship options or margins around the farm as much as possible so fauna can move around the landscape.
  • CREATE your scheme but keep it simple!

Countryside Stewardship option considerations

If you feel your current scheme is fulfilling objectives then either continue or adapt by integrating a mixture of flowers and grass, nectar and winter bird food options.

If you are replacing an existing scheme be cautious about changing everything all at once. You may lose existing habitats, so it may be better to leave some existing grass margins but link these up with new ones.

  • Six meter margins are proven to be more beneficial for wildlife however, if utilising as a priority for water sediment traps or preventing erosion then 4 m margins could be considered.
  • Try and use options that bring food for wildlife throughout the year. Remember that you will need to control competition by flailing regularly in the first year. You can use flailing to also help control different flowering times if you cut margins at different times.

Possible options:

  • Rotational options e.g. rotating wildbird Food (AB9) with Nectar/ Pollen (AB1 / AB15)
  • Beetle banks (AB3): these are easy to install and maintain and can be useful when splitting fields for different crops.
  • Winter cover crops (SW6) to keep soils covered, retain nitrogen and alleviate soil compaction. These could also be used for grazing and used in conjunction with SW1/SW4