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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.

Holistic farming platforms to support agri-businesses

Three years ago, Glas Data founders Rob Sanders and Colin Philipson saw a need to help farmers produce larger quantities of better produce in a sustainable and cost saving manner. They tailored an existing platform to the agricultural industry and launched software system GlasCore. This system was specifically designed to help farming businesses control and monitor all aspects of their farm and process, ensuring they capture and isolate any potential problems before they became major issues.

Agri-EPI met with member Glas Data to find out more about their technology supporting farming businesses, the collaboration with hardware providers and their plans for the future:

 

Q&A with agri-tech innovator Glas Data

This high tech system, can be explained in three stages:

  1. Hardware – form of installing sensors that captures real-time data (example: Temp of milk)
  2. Gateway – Wirelessly and securely collects the data.
  3. Software – GlasCore displays this data in a readable and easy to understand manner.

With this whole system being wireless and automated, all our client need do is log on to their dashboard from the comfort of their home or on the go on their phone to see all the real-time readings and track their farming data.

The great thing about GlasCore is that yes it aggregates data from sensors, but it can also  aggregate data from other sources, such as the NMR (National Milk Records). This allows for the data to be imported really easily and displayed, for example, by cow. We have current users who can now access and review the protein, fat, milk levels etc in individual cows. Then, with one of our most recent exciting updates, they can visualise these cows in one graph all separately and be able to easily track the highest performing, and different levels in comparison to one another.

Depending on the business targets and aims our system can help in a myriad of ways. We sit down and talk with each potential client and customer and ask them for their targets and goals, this way we are able to customise their dashboard to achieve this. From monitoring key metrics to alerting someone of a potential issue, GlasCore, is customised to the clients needs.

What is key to note is that GlasCore draws together all of your business data, from freezer and fridge temperatures, to water and energy usage, to monitoring whether a door is open or closed, GlasCore brings this into a easily accessible versatile dashboard.

This year has proven the importance of the UK farming industry and how we need to ensure the best care of our animals, produce, and entire process from the feed we provide our animals to the best quality in processing products. UK farmers work tirelessly long days and harder than ever to ensure this and we want to help them. Our software is designed to provide business and personal reassurance and peace of mind which I think is important now more than ever. Farmers care so much for their animals and farms, we need to help care for them but giving a little help where we can.

The various features within the system, and can be really tailored to the clients needs and use. Some tools and aspects may not be as essential depending on the usage.

  • Mapping: Through the RPA, map out your land parcels, hedges, field boundaries and names into one easy to use map. Visualise your buildings, landmarks and then pin your sensors to their specific locations. (Expand)
  • Real-Time Alerts: Setting up specific alerts from your live data incase a temp goes too low, or a large amount of water is used to prevent failures, leakages and ensure your business is looked after 24/7. You chose the parameters and create the alerts to what you need. Receive a text or email when something spikes.  (Expand)
  • Visualisations: Real-time data is great, but here you can visualise this in a helpful way that allows you to notice spikes, compare data, and track its progress. (Expand)

The UK farming industry is becoming more and more important with everything going on in the world. Something we have been working thoroughly on is water monitoring and early leak detection. Through monitoring key metrics and providing a substantial overview of usage, we can detect leakages early and also find ways to conserve water and form a more sustainable way of farming. There is much more detail to this, but our system presents all of your data in a way that you can use it to take action.

The farming industry has taken incredible steps over the last decade and is reaching for a low carbon and sustainable way of working, providing more produce of better quality. Through this many people have IoT devices (Internet of Things) and smart sensors all collecting data, but no platform to review, track and notice trends for this. This is where GlasCore comes in! Working with companies that allow us to provide over 70 different LoRaWAN sensors and gateways to collect the data, we have the whole package.

Our development team work continuously to develop and provide more and more exciting features. One of my tasks is to ask our customers and clients what they want from their dashboard and if we cannot already provide that service, work with the development team to create a solution and place this in to our development pipeline. We have actually just had a large update over the weekend, that I will be creating tutorial videos for to showcase the new functions.

Our aim as a team and company is to help farmers take control of their data, massively increase the data they manage so that the decisions they make are as informed as possible, and in the long run analyse all the data and generate insights that are completely tailored to them.

 

More information

If you would like to understand more about the on-farm software solutions on offer, please contact Glas Data by using the following contact details:

Email: hello@glas-data.com
Phone: 07485 017650

45 Lemon Street
Truro, Cornwall
TR1 2NS
United Kingdom

The best Farm Business Managers review and plan ahead

In farming circles, November is normally the start of the winter round of conferences, events and a wide range of meetings from Business Groups and Monitor Farms to commercial companies showcasing their products for the coming season. Not so this year and farmer’s diaries will instead be filling up with invites to webinars, podcasts and virtual events – including Agri-EPI’s own webinar showcasing the benefits of technology at Parkend with Satellite Farmer, Brian Weatherup, on the 25th November.

Personally, I miss the face to face interaction of a “live” meeting, particularly in a smaller workshop format, where body language can signify so much and pull in completely different threads to a discussion. However, we are where we are and as Farm Business Managers it is vital to gather as much knowledge as possible from our peers and colleagues by whatever means are available.

In the last update I said that harvest has been varied across the country, but I hadn’t appreciated how varied until recently. NE Scotland has had a record harvest with average spring barley yields of over 8.5t/ha not uncommon and autumn drilled crops looking exceptional – yet a very different story in the south of the country. Whilst I have no doubt the weather is the main factor in this difference, I wonder if it’s the only one. Farmers in Aberdeenshire, where harvest moisture for wheat is regularly well above 20%, are used to growing cereals under challenging weather conditions – so are they routinely doing something different to mitigate the weather impact?

Perhaps the focus on virtual communication is an opportunity to “visit” a farm geographically remote from your own, see what they do differently and what areas could be applied to benefit your own farm. So when trawling through the on-line lists and invites, perhaps look to subjects and areas which may seem less relevant to your own farm.

November is also the time of year to carry out an in-depth review of the past season, whether it be crops or livestock – what worked, what didn’t work, what could have been done better and apply that to the planning for next season.

Opportunities for farm business managers

Another opportunity created by virtual communication is to use the time freed up to take this review and planning process a step further and look 5 years ahead. There will be significant changes taking place during this time initiated by Brexit, climate change and consumer habits.

Get your close advisors involved and have a think about what the farming environment might be like in 5 years’ time, how fit will your business be and what might you have to change to ensure you maintain a resilient business.

As the business environment will change, the level of technology available is likely going to change at an even greater rate and will be a key tool in maintaining a resilient business. You need to marry up technology to what you think your business will need to look like in 5 years’ time, investing in areas of your farm and business that you may not have considered in the past, but which opportunities have arisen through the combination of emerging technologies and changing circumstances.

There is one constant in business and that is change – you are either moving forwards against your peers or moving backwards against your peers – there is no such thing as standing still.

Change will create opportunities and by taking time to think and plan ahead now, you will be in the best position to capitalise on these opportunities when they come your way.

 


Gavin Dick

Gavin has a broad working experience in agriculture, having managed a large farming enterprise in Aberdeenshire including combinable crops, seed potatoes, pigs, poultry and 650 dairy cows producing milk for ice-cream through a robotic milking system. He then moved to manage an estate in Perthshire specialising in pedigree beef and combinable crops, as well as a country house hotel with shooting and fishing interests. Gavin worked at SAC before moving to AHDB where he worked with farmers in a Knowledge Exchange role to broaden their business management skills and, as he joined Agri-EPI, oversees all Satellite Farm Network activity.