Strategic thinker – protecting your assets

A friend of mine has just bought a vintage sports car, spending £25,000. He said that he bought it as an investment. I then discovered he didn’t have a garage to park it in and instead had bought a £55 tarpaulin to cover it during the winter. He said it would protect it from the sun, wind and the rain and that the investment in his eyes was worth making to protect his pride and joy asset. Was he wise or stupid, thinking something so cheap could protect something so expensive and fragile?

I would say wise for trying. I have the same thinking regarding cover crops. They have become fashionable over recent years in UK agriculture but we are lagging behind many other countries with the utilisation of them. Cover crops or catch crops are plants which farmers grow in between their main crops to capture unused nutrients in the soil before destroying them to plant their main crop. They protect soil from erosion by water or wind and increase the organic matter which holds the ecosystem of our soil together. So like the £55 tarpaulin, they too protect farmers’ prize asset: the soil, through the winter.

Scavenging roots of radish - Brian Barker

Scavenging roots of radish

This year, 70% of my spring crop land has been planted with a cover crop. This land traditionally would be land that we would plough over in the autumn and leave as bare brown soil until spring. Open to the elements, the sun in late autumn, rain, snow and wind do their worst to the bare soil, remembering we have just turned that soil ecosystem upside down by ploughing. Nutrients would be leached out by rain water, down the drain and out off the farm, never to be seen again.  This has been brought even more to my attention by capturing and analysing what nutrient levels are coming out from underneath my fields in drained water.

Cover crop species and rooting - Brian Barker

Cover crop species and rooting

Nitrate in drinking water (recommended level is 50mg/l) causes billions of pounds worth of problems for water companies to manage. Farmers are restricted by how much nitrogen they can apply to crops but some still remains unused in the soil through winter after harvest.

Drain sample 2 - Brian Barker

Drain sample

The drain sampling I have done this year shows the staggering result of what just growing a cover crop does and what ‘public good’ could come of it. In my fields left as bare soil, the results show the soil is releasing on average 130mg/l of nitrates every time the drains are running, which has been pretty constant 24/7 since mid November. Our fields with a cover crop growing in them since August, however, are only releasing on average 5mg/l of nitrate. The cover crop of oats, mustard and radish has grown and absorbed so many nutrients, which are now held in the organic matter.  As we destroy the cover crop by planting our spring crop, this will be providing the food source for the soil’s ecosystem to kick start and recycle this nitrate and other nutrients back into the soil to be available for our spring crops.

Water samples from field drains - Brian Barker

Water samples from field drains

Cover crop destruction - Brian Barker

Cover crop destruction – Brian Barker

A hectare of farmland is more than vintage.  Developed over thousands of years and in good condition it’s worth a similar amount to that of my friend’s car. The seed and planting of this cover crop costs me about £55/ha, so relatively cheap, but what I’m trying to find with the AHDB Strategic Farm is the NET worth of this investment. In my opinion, like the tarpaulin for my friend’s sports car, our main assets are worth protecting and cover crops are a simple and very effective way to protect our investment. Protecting land from erosion, saving nutrients that would be lost by leaching and building organic matter is so important; we can’t put a set value on what it does for our soil.



Brian and his cousin Patrick run E.J. Barker & Sons, a family farm partnership and contracting business in Suffolk dating back to 1957. The 667ha arable farm business is farmed on 12 - and nine-year rotations, incorporating winter wheat for feed, spring barley, herbage grass seed, oilseed rape and a break crop of beans, linseed or peas. Environmental consideration is crucial to the running of the business, and remains a key factor in all decision-making on farm.

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