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The time to act on the environment is now

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Whatever changes in the next decade, it is clear the environment will remain high on the agenda and farming will need to adapt, as will all aspects of society.

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The UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017 Evidence Report published in July 2016, highlighted the fact average global temperatures have risen by 0.85degC since 1880, and this rise is mirrored in the UK, resulting in milder winters and hotter summers.

 

The report outlines the top six climate change risks for the UK. These include water shortages and risks to natural capital including soil. Under the column entitled ‘More Action Needed’, the summary report includes risks to:

 

  • Soils from increased seasonal aridity and wetness.
  • Natural carbon stores and carbon sequestration.
  • Agriculture and wildlife from water scarcity and flooding.

 

Independent ecologist and agronomist Marek Nowakowski advises a range of organisations including Defra and Natural England. He believes if farming has not made major changes to its practices by 2027, it will reach the point of no return.

Fundamental mistakes

He says: “We have made some fundamental mistakes, driven by profits and using too short rotations and with no care for, or clear understanding of, the environment. Of course, I understand the need for profits. There’s no point if we have all the butterflies in the world but no food.

 

However, we haven’t equipped farmers properly with the tools or knowledge they need, or rewarded them properly for delivery.

 

“Brexit has given us another opportunity to look at the way farmers are rewarded for delivering environmental benefits, and linking it more clearly to the quality of delivery. In the past, we have rewarded farmers for not farming land, like old-set aside, but without paying on habitat delivery.

 

Over the next 10 years, farmers will need to demonstrate more clearly what they are delivering in terms of ‘eco system services’, in order to receive support payments.” Mr Nowakowski says taking marginal land out of production and using it for habitat creation could have a two-fold benefit.

 

Farmers will be rewarded for measurable environmental benefits but may also boost productivity. Work done by the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology for Defra and Natural England, showed the biggest crop yields came from land with the highest levels of habitat creation, which Marek attributes to better pollination and natural pest control.

Making sustainability practical

Mr Nowakowski has worked closely with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH). CEH is one of the partners in the Achieving Sustainable Agricultural Systems (ASSIST) programme along with Rothamsted and the British Geological Survey.

 

The mission for the project is to research ‘sustainable intensification’ and look at how it might work in practice. Producing data at national and field level, the research is taking place on commercial farms and should help to provide a template for more sustainable and productive farming over the next 10 years.

 

Professor Richard Pywell, of CEH, emphasises the importance of the involvement of the farming industry in the ASSIST project. He says: “The solutions which come out of the project are going to be ‘co-designed’, it’s not that scientists are there telling farmers what to do.

 

We want to use the practical insights of farmers, the innovation of the farming industry, and bring that together with good science. “Over the next decade, I think farming will be faced with a number of serious challenges. In particular, the deteriorating condition of farmland soils, which makes them less able to cope with a changing climate.

 

There are issues around increasing resistance to chemicals and environmental regulation. On top of this you have climate change which is making things more unpredictable. “With the ASSIST programme, we are trying to make farming more sustainable, but also more resilient to cope with these challenges. For instance, can we provide more pollinators and more diversity of pollinators? Can we put more organic matter into soil?

 

“In the best of worlds in 10 years’ time, we will have more practical and robust ways of monitoring the health of the soil, and the health of the pollinator community, and the overall health of the countryside. So scientists can provide early warnings and address the issues before they become a serious problem. In the past we haven’t had the data to enable us to respond before problems become serious.

 

“At the moment we don’t have a robust way of monitoring soil health, and we are only just now setting up a national pollinator scheme. Once we have these data collaborations it will be crucial to putting the findings into action.”

Soil health

In June 2015 a report from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) said soil erosion was a major threat to Britain’s food supply. Deep ploughing, short rotations and large fields were identified as key causes of soil erosion and degradation.

 

Lord Krebs, chairman of CCC’s adaptation sub-committee, says: “Soil is a very important resource which we have been very carefree with. At the moment we are treating our agricultural soils as though they are a mined resource – which we can deplete – rather than a stewarded resource we have to maintain for the long-term future.”

 

Research into carbon losses from soil published in 2005 in Nature magazine, points out more than twice as much carbon is held in soils, as in vegetation or the atmosphere. Between 1978 and 2003 an average of 0.6% of carbon was lost from soil every year. As a result of the soil erosion and degradation highlighted elsewhere in this supplement, there will be a greater need for focusing on understanding and managing soil.

 

The preservation of soil is also important to companies such as Anglian Water which is working to increase its collaboration with farmers and agronomists. The company says a 1% increase in organic matter increases the water-holding capacity by 3.7%. Practical advice includes the use of ‘tussocky’ margins, ‘horizontal to slope’ tramlines, traps and the use of cover crops.

Water

On the big issue of water availability, Anglian Water is working together with farmers to capture data. Dr Lucinda Gilfoyle, Anglian Water’s catchment strategy manager, says: “Climate change, population growth and the need to protect the environment will put pressure on water availability over the coming decades.

 

All water users, including water companies, and farmers and growers need to work together to understand how things will change and how we can find better answers together. “Going forward we will be using information from soil moisture sensors and sharing data with farmers as part of our side collaboration.”

 

The main focus of Anglian Water’s work with farmers has been its Slug It Out campaign to promote metaldehydefree farming in its catchment area. Launched in 2015 in its natural catchment areas of Northamptonshire, Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire, the campaign managed to reduce the levels of metaldehyde in reservoir tributaries by 60%.

 

Dr Gilfoyle says: “Thanks to the proactive reception and cooperation from the farmers in our region, we’ve built a valuable picture of pesticide movement on individual farms and proved metaldehyde alternatives really do work in tackling slug damage.

 

The trial has also revealed that by working together we can reduce metaldehyde levels in raw water sources. “We believe a combination of collaboration with farmers in our region, a continuing support regime for the protection of water and water quality post-Brexit, and an increase in precision farming should move us in the right direction in the next 10 years.

 

Precision farming allows farmers to put chemicals where they need to go and reduce the amount which gets into the environment.” Anglian Water is working with Agrii to provide more information to farmers for decision-making. This includes data from the company’s recently installed weather stations in each of its catchment areas.

 

This gives farmers a fiveday spraying condition forecast, as well as historic data across all areas, and helps with making informed decisions about when is the best time to spray different chemicals.

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