Talking Arable with Jim Bullock: An opportunity to learn


With little activity taking place on-farm, bar loading the last lot of beans and oats along with taking delivery of spring seed, it has been a good opportunity to attend as many meetings and conferences as possible.

I find talking to other growers about their thoughts and plans as useful as the actual subject matter one has come to listen to, along with the collection of NRoSO points.

We had our local AHDB winter meeting at the Three Counties Showground and, as we are only a mile from the venue, there was little excuse not to attend. I am pleased to say the AHDB has listened to ‘those which fund them’ and was not rolling out the usual speakers encouraging the ever upward spiral of inputs, chasing every ounce of yield.

The message is getting through that yield may not be king, but cost of production and profitability is now the name of the game. We had Sarah Cook, of ADAS, who gave an interesting paper on weed control without the use of herbicides, very useful when we look at the problems of resistance. Probably things we ought to have been doing for years, such as more diversity in cropping and rotation, mechanical weed control and so on, but the chemical alternatives have up until now been much easier and more profitable.

The speaker who caught the attention of most attendees was Joel Williams, whose paper entitled ‘Healthy Soils for Healthy Crops’ made you realise that perhaps some of the fungicides we apply to our crops might not be doing our soils much good.

We were introduced to the soil food web and the importance of carbon in our soils. I had not appreciated the delicate balance between bacteria and fungi in our soils. Although we apply as much organic matter as possible it might be the wrong sort, encouraging excess bacteria at the expense of fungi which are more beneficial to long-term natural soil fertility. Apparently we need to apply more woody high carbon organic matter which is converted into long chain carbon molecules which are more stable than the carbon fixed by bacteria which are easily broken down.

Continuing on the biological theme, I have just returned from the two-day annual Base UK AGM and winter conference. Base UK is a member-funded organisation like NIAB, so information gathered at its events is confidential, therefore I cannot divulge much of the detail.

However, we had two packed days discussing many aspects of conservation agriculture with five farmer members sharing their experiences of the transition from plough-based systems to some form of direct-drilling along with industry experts and scientists.

Now, with in excess of 150 paying members from as far north as Scotland through to Kent, it is obvious conservation agriculture is the future and will perhaps become the new conventional agriculture of the 21st century, as was chemical farming for the 20th century.

Conservation agriculture bridges the gap between conventional farming and organic production. But it still depends on agrochemical inputs, especially glyphosate, so we need to do all we can to influence those making the decisions on its future. As I understand the situation it is up to the politicians now and they need facts from us, the users, as to how it is going to affect our businesses and ultimately food production.

I do not see too much urgency to apply any nitrogen too early this year, as the crops are still very green and with a reasonably dry winter we should not have seen too much leaching. The first job we do need to do as soon as possible is to spray off the remaining cover crops and all the land destined for spring cropping. If we can get on in the next week or so there could be an opportunity for a second application if drilling is delayed until late March or early April.

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