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Cover crops: the route to sustainable farming?

Given the increasing focus on soil health, erosion, and pollution, as a result of current agricultural practice, cover cropping is now being used across all sectors of crop production to save nitrogen and agrochemical inputs, increase yields and boost soil sustainability. Is cover cropping the route to sustainable farming? Agri-EPI Business Development Manager Duncan Ross dives into the topic for us highlighting the benefits to farmers to embrace a cover crop farm strategy:

Cover cropping means different things to different people, and the reasons for adoption of cover crops into a farming regime are very diverse and often specific to a particular farm. The transition from Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) as a support mechanism for agriculture to one based on environment and soil management (DEFRA’s Agricultural Transition Plan) will no doubt encourage wider uptake of cover crops.

Cover crops are often referred to as over-wintered, fast growing annuals planted between two cash crops. However, in certain circumstances a cover crop could be considered to cover a complete 12-month cycle due to geographical location, or a short-term grass ley.

The benefits can be many, such as:

  • Increasing levels of soil organic matter, as green manure is incorporated into the soil. increasing biological activity and water retention capacity.
  • Capture of vital nutrients that are made available to the subsequent cash crops rather than lost due to leaching.
  • Improve soil structure as vigorous root activity can be used to break up compaction.
  • Reduce pollution of nutrient and pesticides into water courses and erosion of soil.
  • Habitat creation which can be included in agri-environment schemes to generate additional revenue and can improve pest management by encouraging beneficial insects.

Healthier cropping sequences on the farm

Financially, it may be difficult to quantify the benefit, as any potential reduction of inputs or increase in yield of the following crops are offset by the cost of establishment and destruction of the cover crop. Cover crops, though, should be treated as an integral part of the rotation and good establishment is imperative, drill rather than broadcast, small nitrogen and slug pellet applications will result in a higher level of biomass, more nutrients being captured, more root activity, less pollution/erosion.

Which cover crop should I use?

The correct choice of cover crop will vary from farm to farm and will be dependent on many variables such as: what is trying to be achieved? Things to consider would be:

  • Soil type
  • Geographical location – less likely to get good autumn establishment in Northern parts of the UK.
  • Rotation – not using brassicas in a rotation containing OSR
  • Sowing dates – sooner after harvest of previous cash crop as practical to maximise biomass potential
  • Following plant timings – not to compromise future cash crop
  • Previous herbicide usage – residual herbicide could affect cover crop

Farm Business strategy

Seeking expert agronomic advice is key in making the correct decisions on cover crop strategy and type of seed to be included within the mix. For example, if the aim is the long-term management of arable weeds, where there are fewer active ingredients available, and herbicide resistance is to be considered, the weed challenge must be managed across the whole rotation. The cover crop chosen should be established and then destroyed along with the target weeds before it is able to re-seed, and over time the seed bank can be reduced. This method would rely on use of glyphosate as a control method so as not to disturb the soil as deep cultivation would mix the soil profile and reduce the effectiveness of the strategy.

Putting this into practice, some growers are having success with crimper rollers to destroy the cover crop and do away with the use of chemical control and should glyphosate be banned this may be the best option for conventional no-till farmers.

An Introduction to the new Agricultural Transition Plan

As a member of the British Agri-Tech community, Kasi McReddie has literally been on the edge of her seat waiting for DEFRA’s announcement which sets out Government’s plans for the transition from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The announcement, of which details can be found at The Path to Sustainable Farming: An Agricultural Transition Plan 2021 to 2024, lays out plans for adaptation in the English farming community over the next seven years. Kasi is Agri-EPI’s Business Development Manager Livestock and Aquaculture and has formulated what this means for farmers and the agri-tech community and what opportunities there are for agri-tech companies going forward.

Farmers in England will see a phased-out reduction in Direct Payments over 4-years starting in 2021, with money saved in reduced BPS payments being used to fund grant and schemes to boost farmers’ productivity and reward environmental improvements.

What does the announcement mean for the agri-tech community?

One of the main barriers to the uptake of technology on farm is cost. In my experience, farmers are very good business people and, quite rightly, are rarely convinced to purchase a novel or innovative piece of equipment. The Agricultural Transition Plan gives us more details of some schemes which aim to financially incentivise farmers to look towards technology to improve the sustainability of their production.

Looking forward, the Environmental Land Management (ELMs) will include the Sustainable Farming Incentive (beginning 2022), which will support approaches to farm husbandry that deliver for the environment, such as actions to improve soil health, hedgerows and integrated pest management.

Future plans will also include the Farming Investment scheme, which is aimed at improving productivity in agriculture, addressing the underlying causes by supporting businesses to invest in equipment, technology, and infrastructure.

This will include:

  • Farming Equipment Technology Fund – small grants to contribute towards the purchase of a list of specified items
  • Farming Transformation Fund – larger grants towards the cost of more substantial investments in equipment, technology or infrastructure

The Farming Investment Fund for Equipment and Technology and Transformation will be open for applications in autumn 2021. From 2022, farmers will also benefit from an increased investment in agricultural Research & Development that will enable more farmers and agri-food businesses to drive innovation.

What does the announcement mean for farmers?

Under the new plan, farmers will be encouraged and incentivised to embrace changes to production techniques and practices which will reduce any negative environmental impacts. Significant emphasis is being put on innovation over the several years ahead. Farmers will be incentivised to explore how technology can be used to improve productivity whilst simultaneously delivering for the environment.

Agri-EPI have a unique network of 27 ‘Satellite Farms’ – a group of forward-thinking farmers who have welcomed the use of technology on farm and are paving the way for a more sustainable future. From milking robots to animal health sensors, and from infrared technology to drones, Agri-EPI have delivered innovation to the British farming community in this way. The Satellite Farm network is a thriving example of how the adoption of technology can support the productivity, efficiency, and sustainability of food production.

How can Agri-EPI support tech companies?

The report states that, by 2028, all farmers should be “managing their whole business in a way that delivers profitable food production and the recovery of nature, fusing the best modern technology available today with the rediscovery of the traditional art of good farm husbandry”.

As an example, technology to improve animal health will be eligible under the new Farming Investment Fund. Agri-EPI are working with a number of innovators to enable the development of solutions for monitoring the health of calves, adult cows and pigs using motion sensors, 3D imagery, augmented reality and more. Such solutions allow ‘early detection’ of health issues before a farmer could with the naked eye, thereby enabling early intervention leading to improved animal welfare, improved productivity, and efficiency. and cost savings on-farm.

Agri-EPI combines technical expertise, technology, and on-farm ‘test beds’ to provide a unique offering to support tech developers and farmers alike to co-develop solutions to some of farming’s most prominent challenges. The Government have now clearly laid out plans which will underpin our mission, by providing grants to farmers to purchase innovative solutions.

Agri-EPI also provide business support, project management and access to world-class research and innovation facilities and research assets, and builds links between research, agri-tech innovation, industry and the value chain, through its membership of >150 companies across agriculture, technology and the value chain.

The announcement should be welcomed by the farming and agri-tech community alike, with shifting policy clearly focussed on incentivising the use of innovation on-farm.

The industry faces unprecedented challenges, the likes of which some will only experience once in a lifetime. During the coming period of change, Agri-EPI will continue to support innovation in agriculture.

More information

If you want to learn more about how we you can get involved in R&D, learn more about our Satellite Farm network, or simply contact us to find out more about how we can support your own business.