Since biostimulants were introduced at Brewood Park Farm in Staffordshire eight years ago, yield plateaus have been broken, chemical fungicides have been abolished and disease bills now average £40/hectare. Alice Dyer finds out more.
As yields plateaued and more nitrogen was being applied to get the same results, farm manager, Tim Parton knew something had to change.
“My interest in soil started a long time ago,” he says. “I also became more aware of carbon, and that the more nitrogen I was putting on, the more carbon I was burning.
“Every kilogram of nitrogen that isn’t used, you’re burning 100kg of carbon and that just can’t carry on. I needed another solution.”
Since Mr Parton concentrated on adopting a regenerative agriculture system on the 300ha estate, yields have been slowly rising, now averaging 9-11.5tonnes/ha.
He says: “I’ve got more into using biology to solve the problem. Soil is a living thing, and every time you use a chemical input there’s always a side effect.”
Taking advice from Edaphos Agronomy and Aiva Fertiliser, Mr Parton began brewing his own nitrogen fixing bacteria, which he says can fix between 40-100kg/ha of nitrogen. The bacteria solution is applied at drilling using a modified drill which enables the biologicals to be placed next to the seed.
“I brew it up myself, so it makes it cheap at around £5/ha along with phosphorus releasing bacteria,” says Mr Parton. “All you need is a holding tank and an air pump, and that food source. You add the microbes and brew it up for 24 hours – it’s as simple as that.”
As an alternative to fungicides, Mr Parton uses a bacillus consortium, which contains bacillus subtilis and its stronger cousin, bacillus amyloliquefaciens, to combat crop diseases.
“If the subtilis can’t handle rust coming in for example, the bacillus amyloliquefaciens will gobble it up. They just eat the pathogens and do the job for me. Those two are really good for fighting disease.
“Bacillus subtilis and trichoderma, which I put down when I’m drilling, do very nearly the same job as mycorrhizal fungi; they’re just earlier on in the succession of soil. They’re a really good starting point until your mycorrhizal fungi start to get established in the soil.”
The bacteria are applied when needed rather than at timings as chemical fungicides would be. Keeping plants at optimum nutrition using foliar nutrient applications also prevents problems with disease developing, he says.
“Most of the pest and disease problems coming in are where we’re applying synthetic nitrogen and we’re getting all that top foliar growth which is creating very weak cell walls. I’m trying to enhance cell strength by putting silica on and more available calcium on to keep that cell wall strong to stop disease coming in.”
Mr Parton has also stopped using seed dressings to enable better interaction between beneficial fungi and the seed after his own trials showed germination was seven-10 days quicker without.
Glyphosate use has been reduced after Mr Parton developed methods to destruct cover crops mechanically, but where it is needed, it is offset by Nurture N which contains fulvic acid.
“I use Nurture N as much as I can. This allows me to use less glyphosate and more effectively. Containing molasses, we find the biology eats the glyphosate in the soil so we’re not getting runoff of glyphosate into field drains.”
But with question marks surrounding the merit of some biological solutions, Mr Parton believes a better understanding is required for the benefits to be realised.
He says: “Biologicals do work really well but they are only part of the jigsaw - you also need healthy soil and need to be moving away from synthetic inputs. I think it can be used in more intensive systems, but you need to be taking the right advice from people.
“In order to get soil fungi working within the soil you have to keep disturbance down to a minimum - it is a very delicate species and really doesn’t appreciate disturbance.
“I’m having fantastic results so I can’t so see why it wouldn’t work anywhere else. We’ve had lots of successes and some not successes. But you’ve got to try lots of different stuff – it’s not always going to go right because it’s a new thing.
“Once you start to work with nature, life becomes a whole lot easier – because nature will always win.”