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Talking arable with Sophie Alexander: Best informed predictions way off the mark

Sometimes I really think we know nothing. Speak for yourself, I can hear you all say.

Sometimes I really think we know nothing. Speak for yourself, I can hear you all say. At the National Organic Combinable Crops conference, soil biologist and head of farming systems at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, Dr Liz Stockdale candidly said: "‘Scientists’ understanding of the impacts of management on soil health is incomplete and, where it does exist, fairly sketchy." I rest my case.

 

Harvest results at Hemsworth this year show there are so many complex interactions that even the best-informed predictions of quality and yield are often way off the mark.

 

In view of the deluge-to-drought conditions, we set our expectations especially low and yield projections strictly conservative. For all that cautious planning, we are fortunate that harvest here turned out to be surprisingly good - further evidence of the confounding array of unaccountable factors.

 

For example, our least promising-looking spring oat crop defied expectations by yielding just over 5t/ha, while the exemplary-looking winter oat yielded just under that.

 

To further demonstrate the inconsistencies of a schizoid season, we drilled spring wheat 31 days later than usual, but finished combining it 10 days earlier. Our spring wheat yields bombed and yet quality seems good. Meanwhile, spring barley yielded a convincing 5.5t/ha and seems to have hit the malting requirements.

 

Building resilience seems the only sensible response to the new normal of the unexpected and extremes – of both the environmental and political kind. Probably Hemsworth’s relatively high organic matter levels helped retain moisture in the ground, and the season has also amply demonstrated the benefits of the capillary effect of being on chalk.


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Resilience

 

Resilience obviously has to be a multi-faceted mission. When I took over the farm in 2011, one of the reasons I chose to continue with an organic system was the opportunity to improve resilience in the business. The system allows a combination of measures including soil improvement; it provides wider net margins and requires considerably less working capital. Instead of haemorrhaging cashflow for inputs, I have been able to invest in diversifying the business.

 

Winter cover crops are a key component for building resilience. Mustard has been a long-standing economic favourite but it does not support mycorrhizal formation. So immediately after harvest we direct drilled a mixture of clovers, phacelia, radish and mustard at 12.50kg/ha – diversity being another important driver of resilience.

 

 

I picked the wrong year to re-introduce under-sowing our expensive, multi-species three-year leys into a standing crop. Mercifully, I have jeopardised the establishment of only two fields. In contrast, the remaining 48ha has had the full treatment; disced after harvest to achieve a chit, then ploughed, cultivated, drilled and rolled. It has just gone into as-close-to-perfect seedbed as one could ever wish for, closely followed by exquisitely-timed showers – all a very rare sequence of desirable conditions.

 

Ron Rosman, a prominent organic farmer from Iowa, recently came to visit Hemsworth. There is always masses to learn from comparing notes with farmers from other countries. In the US they also suffer from cheap imports that undermine the home market and from a lack of home-grown protein feed for livestock, especially poultry and pigs (hogs in the US). The Rosmans have diversified their business in a myriad of successful ways. One cropping method I am particularly intrigued by is growing barley, oats, wheat and peas all together as a combi-crop. And it is taken to harvest not whole cropped. My reservation about such a diverse mix has always been: how does it ripen evenly? Well apparently, it just does. A cropping mix somehow regulates its ripening window to correlate.

 

It is well documented that inter-cropping can increase the overall yield of each component part. ‘Diversify’ is an EU-funded project carrying out extensive farm trials to investigate the practice further. It has the express intention of increasing sustainability as well as production. I will be watching their results with interest. And maybe it warrants a trip to Iowa, too...

 

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