Winter musings

It has been a fairly wet, horrible start to January so far and with it being such a quiet period on farm, it’s been a good opportunity to reflect upon what I have seen and learnt over the past 10 months.

2015 being the “year of the soil” couldn’t be more appropriate, after some of the inspirational people I have met over the past year.  It has certainly made me take a deep look at what we are trying to achieve on farm and how we should approach improving our soils.

Sheep -grazed Cover Crops , RMcK

Above: Sheep-grazed cover crops

Cover crops are the ‘must-have accessory’ at the moment and there are already some out there who have made great strides with their understanding and utilisation of them. Two good examples are fellow AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds Nuffield Scholars Tom Sewell (2013) and Andrew Howard (2015). Andy’s blogs will be well worth reading when he starts his travels.

I have always considered growing cover crops and spring direct drilling to be a huge potential challenge on our heavy soils.  However, what I have seen this year has really illustrated which direction we need to be taking with our business, and it certainly has backed up a lot of the soil health and soil improvement theories outlined to me by Dwayne Beck and Jay Fuhrer when I was in North and South Dakota.

The fields that have cover crops on have had a 6-way mix, with the deep rooting radishes to punch through tight layers and the more fibrous, shallow rooting materials such as linseed and phacelia to maintain the structure.  Nothing was more evident than when I field walked our land destined for spring cropping recently. The cover-cropped and grazed covers walked amazingly well, and the structure underneath was better than we could achieve with any piece of machinery.

Soil Structure Benefits From Cover Crops RMcK

Above: Soil structure benefits from cover crops

Not only are we hopefully increasing our soil organic matter and traffic ability; we will be in a position to direct drill straight into these fields this spring, rather than losing moisture in the process of preparing a seed bed – always a concern for us in a dry spring.

We will certainly be looking very closely at which system we should be considering as we pursue this route more extensively on farm.

Next I’m off to Brazil, hopefully to learn more about no-tillage with high levels of residues. It is with a tinge of sadness that I will be compiling my last couple of Nuffield blogs in the next few weeks – I’d  better make them good ones!



Russell McKenzie farms 750ha on predominantly heavy clay on the border between Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire. He grows seed on contract as well as soft and feed wheat, and his usual rotation is wheat, OSR and spring beans. A Nuffield Scholar, Russ has been researching direct drilling in extreme weather in 2013 and 2014.