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Measuring up for better management

AHDB’s Strategic Farm East in Suffolk is approaching its first harvest. Teresa Rush went along for an update on progress in year 1 of the project.

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It has been a year of ‘baselining’ at the AHDB Strategic Farm East, hosted by E J Barker & Sons, Lodge Farm, Westhorpe near Stowmarket in Suffolk.

 

A number of work themes were identified at last November’s launch event (see box), says AHDB knowledge transfer manager Dr Emily Smith.

 

“We decided this year to draw a line in the sand and say ‘this is the point the farm is at’.

 

“We can then use that information to measure the success - or otherwise - of some of the management strategies we adopt.”


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Baselining at Strategic Farm East 2017-18

Work theme

Managing lower inputs

Crop nutrition – making the most of applications to increase yield

Drainage

Nutrition in end product

Unlocking what is already available in the soil

Technology

 

Public perception

Activity

Disease scoring of different varieties

Tissue testing and water sampling

 

Soil assessments, water sampling

Tissue testing and grain sampling

Earthworm assessments, soil assessments and water sampling

Aerial technology – black-grass mapping

Communications

Host farmer Brian Barker reflects that the year to date has been an interesting one, which is probably something of an understatement.

 

“We’ve had the beast from the East, everywhere was frozen solid and our crops were struggling out of the ground. We then found wet spots where we had never had wet spots before, because of the amount of rain we had had.

 

“This spring we had some of the highest levels of pest problems we have ever seen, including bean weevil, orange wheat blossom midge, which we hadn’t seen for about eight years, flax and flea beetle on our linseed.

 

“We’ve had massive daytime swings in temperature; during the hot spells in April and March we had 28degC during the day followed at night by ground frost.

 

“We’ve never felt we’ve caught up and been in control. The growing season has been very short, which has meant a lot of decisions have been made very quickly.”

 

Picking up on some of the baselining work on the farm, Mr Barker suggests a key learning point for him so far has been the need for better monitoring, measuring and recording.

 

“We’ve all got to be very much better at recording information. I am really keen to do this baselining year to really understand what is going on.”

Findings to date that have particularly caught his attention include the amount of nitrate lost from the system as a result of overwinter ploughing.

“I don’t see the plough ever leaving the farm, it’s the reset button for soil management and weed management. But now I’ve seen these results I’m very wary that I am losing a lot of nutrients when I plough, so can we use cover crops to capture those nutrients?”

 

Water quality monitoring, although indicating low levels of residues overall, produced a surprising result in the form of the presence of oilseed rape herbicide propyzamide. This finding was puzzling given the farm does not grow OSR; however the source was, traced to a neighbouring farm where the active had recently been applied.

Soil condition assessment at Lodge Farm

>14% of field areas were in good condition – largely associated with lighter soils and a higher sand content

 

> 86% was in moderate condition – largely due to large aggregates found in the topsoil, leading to reduced porosity

 

Soil condition was monitored using VSA (Visual Soil Assessment) test

 

Source: ADAS

“We are not growing any oilseed rape and haven’t applied any Kerb for about four years but the main watercourse was 10 times over the threshold for that chemical.

 

“When we looked back on the drainage map, all the way up the ditches, we found one of our neighbours has got a field of OSR next to a ditch.

 

“For the record, my neighbour applied the Kerb by the book; the increase was a spike after a subsequent rain event. It shows how mobile some of these chemicals are,” says Mr Barker.

Lodge Farm earthworm monitoring

Lodge Farm earthworm monitoring
  • On average eight worms per spadeful in the most cultivated soils
  • Up to 14/15 worms per spadeful in the other fields
  • Surface worms found in only 1 in 10 soil pits
  • Topsoil worm numbers good
  • Mixed results for deep burrowing worms – in some fields 7 out of 10 pits had deep burrows but in most fields drainage worms were not found

Source: Dr Jackie Stroud, Rothamsted Research

Gaining a better understanding of the condition and health of Lodge Farm’s soils is seen as an important part of the project and early work has focused on assessing soil compaction. This has been done using a number of tools, including electro-conductivity mapping undertaken by Soyl to map soil texture variation across the project’s nine fields. In addition, ADAS carried out penetrometer readings in November 2017, subsequently revisiting points of maximum, median and minimum resistance to carry out visual assessments, explains ADAS research scientist Dan Munro.

 

In addition, Rothamsted Research soil scientist Jackie Stroud is monitoring earthworm populations on the farm and her findings to date indicate that while overall earthworm numbers are typically average, numbers of surface and deep-burrowing earthworms are lower in the project’s nine fields.

 

“This suggests to me there is not a lot of surface litter in the system and quite a lot of cultivations. Most of the fields don’t have particularly deep-burrowing earthworm populations,” says Dr Stroud.

Drainage monitoring at Lodge Farm 2017-18

  • Rainfall and drainflow provide the pathway for pesticide leaching
  • Nutrient loss has been greatest on ploughed land left bare over winter
  • Losses from cover crops and grass have been very low as both are highly effective at scavenging N over the autumn and winter
  • Losses from winter cereals on land that was ploughed or strip tilled were somewhere in the middle but a strip-tilled second winter wheat did lose more N than barley on ploughed land
  • Both lost N soon after the spring application but despite a larger dressing on the barley, it lost less than the wheat

Source: Essex & Suffolk Water

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