Growing organic lupins has the potential to help farmers boost soil fertility, create a high protein feed for cattle and also an added source of income, as Farmers Guardian finds out.
The project is being run by Mole Valley Farmers, together with Innovative Farmers – a not-for-profit network that runs farm-based ‘field labs’ on topics chosen by farmers.
Innovative Farmers is run by the Soil Association and funded by several parties, including The Prince’s Charities.
Trial work began last year, with lupins grown on 12 sites. This year, the crop has been drilled on five arable and livestock farms in the south west, with harvest set for the end of September.
Organic specialist, Nigel Mapstone of Mole Valley Farmers says the project has been designed to address challenges surrounding sustainable sourcing of organic protein and to attempt to overcome the perception that lupins are difficult to grow.
The ultimate aim is for the feed business to reduce its reliance on imported organic proteins and use British-grown feed. The hope is that by proving the viability of lupins on British soils, farmers will be keen to grow the crop for Mole Valley.
This will not only provide farmers with an additional source of income as a cash crop, but will also aid soil fertility and create a high protein feed for dairy cattle and growing animals.
Mr Mapstone says: “At the moment, the main organic protein is soya meal. Some is grown in Europe, but most is imported from China and India. The carbon footprint associated with that is not brilliant, plus it does not fit with the organic principle of locally-grown feeds.”
Rape and sunflower are other options. However, along with soya meal, all of these oil seeds have to be processed before they can be fed. Homegrown peas, beans and lupins are an attractive alternative as they can be grown, ground and fed on farm.
“Of these, lupins are higher in protein, which is what we are after,” adds Mr Mapstone. “Lupin grain is about 33 per cent crude protein in the dry matter, versus about 23 per cent for peas and beans.”
Compared to beans, lupins also have lower disease risk, which means they can be grown in the same field, year after year. As a legume, lupins are also able to fix nitrogen – making them a valuable fertility builder in any rotation.
The plant’s long tap-root has also proved advantageous in the current dry conditions, enabling the plant to keep growing.
Devon beef and arable farmer Sam Walker – who is one of the farmers growing lupins for the project – believes the crop could prove to be a valuable part of the organic arable rotation at Stantyway Farm, Otterton on the Clinton Devon Estates. Growing the crop in the rotation could also avoid growing three cereal crops in a row, which is discouraged by organic bodies.
Mr Walker says: “It’s an extra cash crop and it fixes nitrogen. It could work very well in the rotation, if it is reliable.”
This is the first year Mr Walker has trialled the lupins on a one-hectare (2.4-acre) site, so time will tell as to how the crop performs.
The 107ha (265-acre) farm currently grows red clover and Italian ryegrass leys as a fertility builder before moving to spring barley or oats, beans, oats or barley, another cereal and then back to red clover. The lupins could be grown instead of beans.
Mr Walker believes feeding more lupins on a national level could help with protein sustainability, while also aiding soil fertility.
He adds: “For me, lupins fulfil several objectives; it is a good legume to put in the rotation and if I can get the yield right, the margin on it could be better than organic first wheat. I am keen to improve soils and I think they could help with that. They have got a great big root and if they leave a nice, fine, crumbly, seed-bed, it may mean I can plough less.”
Currently, calves from the farm’s 70 cow suckler herd are sold as stores. However, if the lupins prove to be a reliable protein source, this could create greater flexibility to roll the grain on farm and use it to finish cattle.
The cold wet start to the 2017 growing season meant there was poor establishment last year and only three out of 12 sites were able to be harvested.
However, Mr Mapstone says the challenging spring provided some valuable lessons on what not to do when growing the crop:
1. Drill into the right seed bed at the right time
Drilling in the correct environment is essential. Drill into a clean, moist seed bed and aim for mid-April when soil temperatures are at least 6 degrees.
2. Treat it like an arable crop
Care and expertise are needed to establish the crop. Some of the challenges last year were seen on livestock farms where too long was left between seed bed preparation and drilling, meaning weeds were a problem.
3. Avoid alkaline soils
Lupins do not like alkaline soils. Aim for pH 7 or less. The plant also does not like boggy soils.
4. Use blue lupins
Blue lupins are best suited to the UK environment. The white varieties are grown in Australia and the mediterranean countries and give the best quality results, however the trial found the beans do not ripen in UK conditions.
• 33 per cent crude protein
• Protein degradability similar to soya
• ME of 12.5-13MJ/kgDM
• 85 per cent dry matter
• Drilled mid-April, harvested late September/October