A proactive approach to weed control has led to innovative rotations and a focus on soil health on one South Yorkshire-based farm. Chloe Palmer finds out more.
Robert Atkinson’s family have farmed at Adwick Grange Farm, near Doncaster, for more than 100 years and it is perhaps this long-term perspective which has provided him with the vision to keep one step ahead of potential problems.
He admits to being ‘proactive rather than reactive’ in response to a range of challenges on-farm and having rent to pay is an added pressure.
Mr Atkinson says: “Not having a crop in the ground is not an option for me as a tenant, so I will do whatever I need to do to get the crop established. Sometimes the land needs more work and in other years we can direct drill with minimal disturbance. Every year is different.”
Moving to a reduced cultivation system has been gradual, but it was Mr Atkinson’s experience with a parcel of permanent pasture which first prompted him to rethink plough use on the farm.
“I had a grass field and in the first year after we ploughed it up it gave a brilliant yield but then we ploughed it to destruction and the worms were gone. I concluded I needed to change our system, so I bought a Claydon drill.”
Another driver has been the threat of black-grass. Mr Atkinson says: “I visited farms down South and was shocked by the extent of the black-grass problem there. I could envisage similar levels of black-grass infestation coming onto this farm eventually and so I decided to do something about it.”
Moving to a rotation with more spring cropping was the first step towards cultural control of the black-grass.
“We now find we get better black-grass control by incorporating spring wheat and barley into our rotation than we do by opting for winter wheat and using a full crop protection programme.
“When we last evaluated levels of Atlantis resistance here, we saw it was only controlling 70 per cent of the black-grass on the farm,” Mr Atkinson says.
The black-grass is not only confined to the heavier soils found to the east of the farm, according to Mr Atkinson. “Black-grass grows anywhere; it is very adaptable. We find the lighter land gives us more opportunities to control it, as it is easier to cultivate a stale seedbed and the chemicals appear to be more effective.”
He believes moving to a system of reduced cultivation has also played its part in tackling the black-grass problem.
“Slot seeding the spring barley and wheat seeds reduces the amount of vibration in the soil which might otherwise trigger the germination of the black-grass seeds,” Mr Atkinson explains.
Adwick Grange Farm extends to 180 hectares (450 acres) and is an all arable tenanted holding forming part of the Brodsworth estate. It is situated two miles north of Doncaster town centre
Robert Atkinson and his wife Jill, along with his parents, Henry and Jean Atkinson, farm as Henry Atkinson and Son. Robert’s grandfather first began farming at Adwick Grange in 1914
The soil type on-farm varies from a freely draining, lime-rich, loamy soil on the western edge of the farm to a slowly permeable, seasonally wet, acid, loamy and clayey soil across the east
The rotation on-farm is generally oilseed rape, winter wheat, spring barley, sugar beet or beans depending on the soil type, winter wheat, spring barley and then returning to oilseed rape. In fields where black-grass is a significant problem the frequency of spring cropping will be increased
Oilseed HEAR rape is sold to Frontier, sugar beet to British Sugar, the milling wheat is sold on the open market and spring barley is sold for malting when it meets the specification
The farm has been in an agri-environment scheme for more than 20 years. Mr Atkinson’s Countryside Stewardship Mid-Tier agreement started in January 2016 and it includes 4ha (10 acres) of conservation mixes including wild bird seed mix, nectar mix and the spring-sown bumblebird mix, as well as 12ha (30 acres) of cover cropping which pays £112/ha (£44.80/acre)
Mr Atkinson was selected as one of only two pilot monitor farms for AHDB Cereals and is now hosting a range of field trials for Agrovista including use of cover crops and companion crops
Mr Atkinson employs one full-time member of staff and a student studying at Askham Bryan College
“We are now growing forage rye and we drill it in early October and harvest it in July. It does not require much fertiliser or sprays and it also gives us an early entry with the rape afterwards. We sell it to an anaerobic digestion plant locally,” says Mr Atkinson.
See also: AHDB funded review uncovers cover crops
Another central element of the approach adopted at Adwick Grange has been use of cover crops. Mr Atkinson has worked closely with Agrovista on a series of trials over the last three years and the results of these have guided his decisions.
“I visited farms in France and could see how they were using cover crops successfully. I was thinking about ways I could incorporate them into my rotation. Agrovista approached me around this time, so we trialled the use of Chlorofilter 25 which is a mixture of black oats and vetch.”
Use of this cover crop tied in well with the switch to increased spring cropping at Adwick Grange, particularly the inclusion of more spring barley.
“We grow some spring wheat here but the margin relies on obtaining a milling wheat premium which we are not always able to achieve and it also has a much tighter drilling window. With spring barley, we can drill any time between March and the end of April and it performs more consistently on this farm,” Mr Atkinson explains.
Cover crops are established in late summer across all spring-cropped land, with Mr Atkinson seeing great value in their use.
“We wait until the cover crop is knee high and at some point between mid-December and mid-February the cover crops will have dried the soil out enough so we will spray them off before direct drilling the crop into the residue.
“The cover crops hold at least 40kg of nitrogen in the green leaf matter which is then available to the following spring crop, so we can reduce nitrogen applications accordingly,” Mr Atkinson says.
A recent addition to the trials at Adwick Grange has been the use of berseem clover as a companion crop for oilseed rape. The field trials have tested different seed rates for the berseem clover and different cultivation techniques. The results have proved very promising, Mr Atkinson says.
“This year I have noticed the berseem clover has not survived as well, but I think this is because it has been knocked hard by the flea beetle and the slugs. Consequently, the oilseed rape has not been affected as badly. I think it also deters the pigeons because it means there is less space among the crop for them to land.
“I do not think companion cropping is an alternative to sprays but can give the crop the edge and it does provide a marginal benefit,” Mr Atkinson says.
He describes how the clover acts as a ‘jack hammer, punching its way through the clayey ground and allowing the oilseed rape root to follow it down’.
Spending less time on cultivations means Mr Atkinson has been able to increase the pig numbers on-farm and justify the employment of an additional member of staff.
“We have always had pigs on this farm and I have produced fattening pigs for 12 years on behalf of Holmefield Farm Services. We are now up to between 1,200 and 1,500 pigs at any time and most are kept on straw. The muck goes back to the land and we rotate applications, so most fields receive muck one year in every four.”
Mr Atkinson is willing to use a range of composts on the land, and is currently using recycled plasterboard mixed with the pig manure as a soil conditioner.
Placing soil health at the centre of all his farming decisions has enabled Mr Atkinson to reduce costs and improve margins.
“Focusing on soil structure has led me to embrace this style of farming. I spend much less time on the tractor but more time thinking and watching.
“Now the main farming tool I use is my spade. It tells me what is going on in my soil and I would rather invest in this than a shiny new tractor or a big cultivator.”