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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.

Measuring soil flux as a way to understand GHG emissions from soil

Meeting the challenge of climate change with soil flux analysis

For growers, agri-chemical companies, producers and food retailers monitoring and measuring positive and negative soil flux can help balance greater productivity, sustainability and improved soil health. What is soil flux analysis and what impact does it have on climate change?

Driving net zero reduction

Global Green House Gas emissions are a sensitive topic politically with international agreements of targets and the drive to a net zero status, but there is a debate going on also about who is the most culpable.

GHG emissions - IPCC 2014 | Soil Flux Analysis | Agri-EPI blog | Soil and Crop Technology Solutions

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is by far the highest proportion of GHG emissions at around 75%, but Methane (CH4) and Nitrogen Oxide (N2O), although less in proportion, are respectively 28 times and 310 times more potent than CO2. Most of these emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels for energy production, transportation, manufacturing and building but land use also plays a significant part.

In 1973, the National Soil Inventory (England and Wales) was set to obtain an unbiased estimate of soils, and their carbon content. Since the original survey, further sampling has shown that in most soil types, there has been a progressive decline in carbon content, and the inference is that other temperate regions would show similar traits.

Losses due to land use activity

Inefficient use of fertilisers results in N2O being last as emissions to the atmosphere, and nitrates being leached through the soil into water courses. By targeting applications more effectively to ensure the crop is only given what it can utilise we are able to reduce these losses. Using variable rate applications, or slow release Urea are examples of how land managers are changing behaviour.

Storage and application of slurry and manure also result in emissions. Covered stores, better timing of applications and use of dribble bars and direct injection of slurry rather than splash plates can all contribute.

Rumination results in emissions of CH4 which give cattle and sheep a particularly bad image. This is more a factor in international production than UK, where many animals graze pasture unsuitable for crop production, and that permanent grassland can also be considered a net carbon sink.

Deforestation for agriculture, although not an issue in the UK, but certainly in other parts of the globe for production of soya and palm oil amongst other commodities has a significant impact. We not only lose the of that forest to act as a carbon sink, but the felled and cleared timber both emits CO2 and subjects the cleared areas to the potential of erosion.

Cultivations result in emissions from varied sources, the tractor exhaust (combatted in recent years by addition of EGR and AdBlu technology). The soil surface, as each cultivation releases naturally occurring gases into the lower atmosphere (minimum tillage and direct drilling have had some impact by reducing the amount of soil disturbance)

Natural ecological processes in the soil sub-surface produce and consume gases, and as the soils warm due to climate change, microbial metabolic rates increase resulting in increased CO2 emissions. Gases diffused from the soil surface into the lower atmosphere is known as positive flux, and gases absorbed into the soil is known as negative flux, the balance between the two will determine whether soils are a net source, or a net sink of GHG.

Soil Flux chambers

To calculate this, we need to collect accurate data on soil respiration rates, which can be done by using soil flux chambers. There are several different manufacturers of soil flux chambers, but they can be separated into two main categories.

  1. Closed chambers where the gases accumulate in the headspace and are sampled by syringe and stored for laboratory processing and analysis.
    • PP Systems CPY-5 Canopy Assimilation Chamber (#1)
  2. Automated chambers which can provide a timely method of sampling, as when coupled with a multiplexer and an analyser, up to 12 chambers can be linked in series and be deployed over a long period to sample and analyse in the field (subject to a reliable power supply)
    • Eosense eosAC Automated Chamber (#2)
    • Eosense Multiplexer (#3)
    • Picarro G2508 for analysis of CO2, CH4, N2O, NH3, H2O (#4)
    • Picarro G2201-i for analysis of CO2, CH4 and their C13 isotopes (#5)

 

Soil Flux Analysis | Agri-EPI blog | Soil and Crop Technology Solutions

 

All of the above equipment is designed to be used in the laboratory or the field (subject to a satisfactory and reliable electricity supply). The Picarro G2201-i (#5) is particularly useful for academic research applications, as it is more robust and user friendly than typical mass spectrometry methods (McCloskey et al 2020).

Strawberry gas flux measurement research

The time saving that can be achieved by automated chamber equipment deployed in a field experiment is demonstrated by Pamona College, California when monitoring soil flux in a commercial strawberry crop. The time in the field and the interpretation was the same using both systems, but the processing of the data represented a huge time saving for the trial, reducing the days from 68 down to 1.

Monitoring soil flux in Pamona College in California | Soil Flux Analysis | Agri-EPI blog | Soil and Crop Technology Solutions

Soil commercial and research enquiries

For further information on this equipment and the possibilities of incorporating into commercial or research studies with the Soil Flux 360 solution, please contact Duncan Ross, Business Development Manager Crops at Duncan.ross@agri-epicentre.com or fill out our online contact form.

UK Agri-Tech Centres showcasing latest agri-food innovations

From a robot that can ‘swim’ through grain stores to the ‘wonder’ technology cold plasma, the UK Agri-Tech Centres’ most exciting collaborative projects will be showcased at their joint conference, ‘Innovation for Food Resilience’, this Thursday, November 19.

Experts from Agrimetrics, Agri-EPI centre, CHAP and CIEL will discuss a host of new technologies and techniques helping farming and food production to become more resilient and sustainable. They will focus on advancements in four key areas: Net Zero; sustainable production; crop and animal health; and food quality and provenance.
The free, virtual event will also feature sessions from keynote speakers NFU President Minette Batters; Chatham House Director of Energy, Environment and Resources, Prof. Tim Benton; and Microsoft’s Sustainability and Smart Cities Lead Ellen Wilson.

Speaking on behalf of the four Agri-Tech Centres, Lyndsay Chapman, Chief Executive of CIEL said:

“As the UK’s four Agri-Tech Centres it is our mission to support collaboration and innovation right across the food supply chain. Our aim in holding this conference is to bring together all those with an interest in food resilience to discuss the opportunities, challenges and priorities for action during this unprecedented time.

“We’ll be highlighting some of the latest developments in agri-tech that the Centres have achieved in collaboration with our wide range of partners. This is helping to support sustainable and profitable farming and food production.”

Agri-Tech Centres Event | 'Innovation for Food Resilience' | 19 November 2020

Driving agri-food innovations

The four Agri-Tech Centres of Agricultural Innovation are the result of a unique collaboration between UK Government, academia and industry to drive greater efficiency, resilience and wealth across the agri-food sector. A £90 million investment from the UK’s strategic innovation agency, Innovate UK, is enabling the Centres to harness leading UK research and expertise as a well as build new infrastructure and innovation.

Together, the four Centres aim to:

  • Join-up existing excellence and invest in new innovative research and resources that don’t exist elsewhere
  • Address challenges that no single part of the sector can address alone
  • Open up opportunities for transformational change
  • Position the UK as a global leader in sustainable food production

For more information about the UK Agri-Tech Centres of Agricultural Innovation, please visit www.agritechcentres.com

 

Innovate UK is the UK’s innovation agency. It works with people, companies and partner organisations to find and drive the science and technology innovations that will grow the UK economy. For further information visit www.innovateuk.gov.uk

A3 Scotland 2020 rescheduled due to COVID-19

A3 Scotland is postponed to 2021

As a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the Organising Committee for A3 Scotland 2020 has made the difficult decision to postpone its inaugural event, which was due to take place from 30 September to 1 October 2020. Given the ongoing uncertainty, the Committee took the view that it would be impossible to go ahead with international gathering, built around face-to-face networking and site tours.

We are hugely disappointed to have to postpone the inaugural A3 conference but take comfort from the fact that the fantastic support shown by our sponsors and delegates will be maintained for the rescheduled conference. Depending on progress in easing lockdown restrictions, we now plan to hold the event on 21 and 22 April 2021.

It is with great regret that we have had to reschedule what promised to be a fantastic international gathering bringing together key organisations across animal health, agri-tech and aquaculture. We know there has been huge enthusiasm for the event but the health and safety of our speakers, sponsors and delegates is of our highest priority.

We are pleased to say that the rescheduled event will offer the same strong programme based around the theme of ‘Transition to Net Zero’, with an exciting and engaging line-up of committed thought leaders from across industry, science and policy. If you are interested in being involved as a speaker, sponsor or delegate, do not hesitate to get in touch and be sure to follow on social media for the latest updates.

In the meantime, the Committee will be working hard to ensure they maintain momentum in planning and promotion. We are confident that the delay to the event will not dent what promises to be a highlight of the 2021 conference calendar.

Future updates about A3 Scotland can be found online at www.roslininnovationcentre.com.

Thank you for your understanding and continued support. We look forward to seeing you in 2021!

The A3 Organising Committee
Lawrence Brown (Consultant and Veterinary Surgeon), Richard Mole (Moredun Research Institute), Neil Clelland (Scotland’s Rural College), Lyndsay Chapman (Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock), Andrea McColl (Highlands and Islands Enterprise), Yoni van Breukelen (Agri-EPI Centre), David Telford (Knowledge Transfer Network) and John Mackenzie (Roslin Innovation Centre).

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