Essex farmer and advocate of no-till farming Simon Cowell hopes that the new decade will bring Government support for growers to pursue sustainable farming practices more widely.
A different way of funding farming’s environmental efforts is top of Essex grower Simon Cowell’s wish list for 2020.
Mr Cowell says: “I hope the Government will get the message that farming for the environment is not just about growing flowers around the outside of fields and planting trees. I would like them to create an environment where everyone can farm in a more environmentally-friendly way.
“A lot of farmers have to pay big rents so switching to direct drilling is not going to be attractive – they need the yields and the big turnover.
“Most farmers need financial support to do something different, but in the long term everyone will be better off.”
In the 2020s Mr Cowell plans to continue reducing input use on his 161-hectare Southminster farm and hopes to stop using nitrogen fertiliser altogether, having seen some promising results in a trial field.
He also plans to continue experimenting with intercropping, having dipped his toe into growing multiple grass species alongside lucerne for a local horse feed manufacturer.
Mr Cowell started his no-till journey 15 years ago, having noticed a worrying loss of fertility and structure in his heavy soils and subsequent difficulties establishing crops.
“The soils went from rock hard to too wet to work on within a day. It was getting worse and worse and it was impossible to grow spring crops.
“The top soil had gone – I had to try and look into a different way of doing things so I started to study soil biology. It did not take long before I realised that it would be much better if I left it alone instead of cultivating and ploughing.”
After two years using a shallow tine cultivator he bought a direct drill and stopped cultivating altogether.
Around the same time, he had started using the internet to research the no-till approach, making connections with others who shared similar ideas.
“I got some confidence from them. We were able to discuss all the things that worked and did not work," adds Mr Cowell.
Since making the change Mr Cowell says he has not looked back. Initially slugs were a problem but this did not last long and he has not had to use any slug pellets in recent years.
His use of fungicides has also reduced due to crops having better natural resilience, he says.
Financial savings include no longer needing to employ someone to help with cultivations, not to mention the decreased spend on machinery and fuel, he explains. Work is spread more favourably throughout the seasons.
“Before I was trying to grow just wheat and rape, establish them in the autumn and it was really busy. Now I am quite relaxed.”
The soil improvements have made it possible to grow spring crops which now account for around 40 per cent of his cropping. Within 12 years the top soil had been replenished and the increased levels of organic matter of his clay soil have boosted soil structure.
“The soil is going to build for ever as long as we do not disturb it,” he says.
Mr Cowell stopped applying phosphate and potash some 20 years ago and scrutinises all his inputs with a view to reducing them.
He believes that stopping phosphates has had a hugely positive effect on the mycorrhizae levels on the farm. Cutting out cultivations has boosted the populations further and recent tests on his wheat crops revealed 80 per cent colonisation, he says.
In 2019 he decided to try to grow a field of wheat with no nitrogen and fungicides. The loss of yield was entirely offset by the reduced costs with the crop achieving a net profit of £515/ha (compared to £516/ha on his other wheat fields).
“My yield was 7.6 tonnes/ha compared to 9.5t/ha for the rest of the farm so obviously I did not get the same yield but I believe that can be improved.”
He has seen improvements in hay yields from the farm’s 30ha of grassland which was once used for grazing and treated with nitrogen, but not since livestock left the farm some 30 years ago. It took about seven years for hay yields to return to previous yield levels, despite no nitrogen, he explains.
He currently uses herbicides but hopes to reduce those as well which he believes will be possible with the move away from nitrogen.
“Like everyone else in East Anglia I have a black-grass problem and black-grass loves nitrogen.”
Mr Cowell makes a small amount of compost from horse manure provided by the livery yard on the farm, wood chips and leaves.
“I only ever have enough to apply around 10t/ha and only every five years. I do not see it as a fertiliser but a biological inoculation because 10t is very low in terms of nutrients.”
It provides the soil with bacteria, fungal spores and protozoa to boost soil health and the difference it makes is sometimes visible quite quickly, he says.
“It is like it changes the structure of the soil – it can have an amazing effect, especially in the beginning.”
He adds some ‘really good quality top soil’ as an inoculation. The initial process takes about six weeks during which the compost must be monitored and turned several times to prevent overheating before being left to mature.
“The longer the better,” he adds.
Mostly he will prepare compost for each field every five years but this varies.
Other plans include intercropping, he says: “I like the idea of it – growing crops together and harvesting them together and cleaning and separating them afterwards.”
He already has seed cleaning machinery that is capable of it.
“I have found that the more species in the field the less weeds grow. So if you already have two or three different species it seems to reduce weeds naturally. The theory is that you can get better yields too.”
Mr Cowell has been experimenting with growing lucerne with different grasses and herbs for local horse feed manufacturer Dengie.
“In my trials yields were higher, but also in a straight lucerne field you always get black-grass. Where we drilled different grasses with the lucerne the crops easily out-competed the black-grass – the seed does not bother to germinate.
“I can use that principle with my arable crops. I have not gone down that route yet but it is something for the future.”
Mr Cowell is also keen to learn more about foliar nutrition to help disease resistance and cut down on fungicides.
“Our chemicals are gradually being lost so more research is going into biological ideas,” he says.
His new way of farming is quite different and requires more management and crop walking but he says: “It has made farming interesting again. I treat every field individually rather than having a plan for the whole farm but that is what makes it so interesting. I have more time to walk crops and observe and just generally think about what is happening rather than always in a rush trying to catch up.
“Financially it is better and I have a better quality of life too.”