The farming system on a sand land farm in Nottinghamshire has gone full circle, but now the future of environmental gains is in the balance. Chloe Palmer reports.
A willingness to adapt in the face of a changing market place has enabled Robert Bower to survive tough times at Manor Farm on the Welbeck estate, Nottinghamshire. A second generation tenant, Mr Bower has been part of a move from livestock to arable and then back again.
He says: “When my grandfather took on the tenancy here, followed by his son, it was a 100-acre dairy farm with a herd of 80 Ayrshire cows. He had only just invested in a state-of-the-art herringbone parlour when the estate offered him an additional 400 acres.”
The cows were sold in the 1960s and replaced by a suckler beef enterprise. The farm continued as a mixed beef and arable holding until a combination of BSE, the mid-1990s droughts and the need to rationalise persuaded Mr Bower to sell the herd.
At this point, the focus switched to the arable enterprise and a rotation of winter and spring barley, carrots, potatoes and fodder beet was adopted alongside a Countryside Stewardship Scheme, transferring into a Higher Level Scheme (HLS) in 2008.
“We are on the sand land here and every seed which lands on the soil germinates. This can be a good thing but it means we have a constant battle against weeds, particularly ragwort,” Mr Bower says.
The light sandy soil is prone to wind and water erosion, so although root crops are now the mainstay of the rotation, care must be taken to ensure soil stays in the field.
“We used to grow sugar beet and in a very dry, windy summer, quantities of soil blew away. So we experimented with a technique where we drilled directly into the stubble and this stopped the wind picking up the soil.”
An extreme erosion event one summer during a flash downpour led to a chasm opening in a field of fodder turnips when large quantities of soil were gouged out and deposited at the bottom of the field.
“We were in the process of developing our HLS agreement so we included this field in arable reversion to grassland to tackle the problem. We cut the field for haylage and feed it to our livestock and sell any surplus to a local racing stable and livery yards,” Mr Bower explains.
Lower cereal prices mean he has turned to high value root crops to maintain margins. Carrots and potatoes are grown on contract for a local buyer.
“We are responsible for irrigating the carrots and potatoes and our buyer advises us as to the rate and amount of water to apply in response to the stage and age of the crop and the weather conditions,” Mr Bower says.
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Water for irrigation is abstracted from the River Poulter which runs through the farm. Mr Bower has an abstraction licence for 92,000cu.m.
“One of the biggest problems with carrots can be scab. To prevent the formation of scab in the seedling phase, it is essential to keep the surface of the soil moist by putting on exactly the right amount of water.”
Some carrots are grown under fleece, enabling harvesting to commence in early summer to ensure a year-round supply. Those grown without are harvested from late summer onwards.
“We have been growing carrots here for 15 years and we have learnt meeting the specification is fundamental. The weather and humidity can have a significant effect on the quality of the crop and so there are risks associated with it,” Mr Bower says.
Carrots can only be grown on the same field periodically, dictating the rotation. Similarly, potatoes require a four-year break between crops.
Mr Bower says: “We now use maize, fodder beet and spring barley as our break crop between carrots and potatoes. I think we may need to look at returning some of the grassland to the rotation when our stewardship scheme finishes to allow us more flexibility.
“We also have six hectares of arable fallow, but this has not worked well as it has proved to be a breeding ground for weeds.”
The rotation is further complicated by the need to follow maize with a crop other than carrots because of the difficulty of achieving the right seedbed.
Despite this, Mr Bower admits the maize crop has been his ‘saviour’ because of the price and as a break crop.
“I know if grown in the wrong place maize can cause environmental damage but we have not seen any significant problems here and we always cross cultivate after harvest to minimise erosion risk.
“We are lucky because our soils are naturally rich in phosphate so we only need a small application of diammonium phosphate (DAP) alongside nitrogen, sulphur nitrogen and potash.
Mr Bower is keen to improve his soils, applying manure from neighbouring racing stables and his cattle and adding a paper crumble product to build organic matter.
He is bucking the trend towards reduced tillage.
“I am a great believer in the plough. We are on fine, sandy soil with boulders below and it pans very easily. I have experimented with different cultivation methods but I find using a flat lift subsoiler at a depth of 30cm followed by the plough creates the right seedbed.”
After a cold spring and early summer, maize was eventually sown at Manor Farm in late May. This year, Mr Bower has experimented with a different planting density.
“We have switched to planting 12 rows in six metres from planting just eight rows. The theory is there will be more competition for light so the plants will grow taller and we will achieve better yields than last year when the yields were disappointing at 34 tonnes/ha,” he says.
The low input spring barley crop may also be harvested wholecrop this year and sent to the digester because yields and quality are expected to be poor. Grown as a rotational option under stewardship, the crop receives no fertiliser or sprays to encourage beneficial insects and arable plants.
The inclusion of the farm’s ancient water meadows in the HLS agreement was the incentive for Mr Bower to buy some sheep.
“I am convinced this farm needs more sheep as it will benefit from the organic matter and the inclusion of grassland in the rotation.”
Mr Bower won the Nottinghamshire Environment Award in 2006 and continues to host educational visits for school children and local groups. But he is concerned about the future of environmental schemes following Brexit.
“I worry if there is no scheme for me to go into in 2018 I will have no choice but to plough out the margins and the arable reversion. It seems a great shame to lose what I have achieved over the last 20 years and I consider it to be sacrilege and nonsensical.”