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Composting on-site to boost soil organic matter

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Farmer, Jonathan Boaz is trialling an on-farm composting regime in an attempt to improve soil organic matter. He believes the ‘middle-ground’ between organic and conventional farming provides flexibility which is beneficial for his business.

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On-farm composting proving beneficial for crops and the environment #arable #soilfertility

Mr Boaz farms 243 hectares (600 acres) at Mill Farm in Droitwich of which around 80 hectares (200 acres) is permanent pasture and the remaining 162 hectares (400 acres) is a mixture of arable land and temporary grass leys.

 

Unusually, Mr Boaz plants four white straw crops in succession, typically wheat and barley, before introducing a grass ley into the rotation which usually remains for around four years. However, he ensures the farm system is very flexible and can change depending on the nature of the year.

 

Mr Boaz says: “We keep a lot of flexibility. We don’t want set rules because we are on difficult grade three and four land and every year is different. Often we will plant a green manure crops instead of a fourth cereal.”

 

The soil organic matter levels at Mill Farm range from 5.5 to 9.5 percent. Mr Boaz believes this can be attributed to the inclusion of a four year grass ley in his arable rotation and the annual addition of compost.

 

See also: Aiming to increase soil organic matter content by 20% in 20 years

 

Composting Regime

Composting Regime

 

Mr Boaz’s first experience with compost was a few years ago which involved stirring up FYM to heat it in order to destroy weed seed. In doing so, he noticed how well the material broke down.

 

However, it is only in the last 12 months he and Caroline Corsie, Worcestershire Wildlife Trust advisor, began researching the benefits of incorporating other materials to enhance its value.

 

Now, Mr Boaz creates compost on-farm by using predominantly home-made woodchip, farm-yard manure, green forage and straw. However, he is keen to exploit alternative materials if they are available.

 

The ingredients are mixed and left to reach an optimum temperature of 60 degC. At this temperature, unwanted pathogens are killed but most beneficial ones are preserved.

 

Post-harvest, the compost is spread with a muck-spreader and incorporated to prevent the organic matter drying out and potentially releasing carbon.

 

Tillage poses a challenge

 

Although Mr Boaz takes action to optimise soil health, incorporating compost proves a conflict of interest. While minimum tillage is perceived as better with regards to improving soil structure and building organic matter, incorporating compost is important to maximise its benefits.

 

Ms Corsie says: “When manure is composted, it contributes more to the organic matter content of the soil and benefits such as better moisture retention, reduced leaching of nutrients and pesticides and enhanced soil biology.

 

“Compost is best incorporated into the soil where it becomes readily accessed by soil biology rather than left on the surface to dry out. However, nor should it be buried to deep.”

 

Because of this predicament, Mr Boaz likes to experiment with his tillage operations. “We always keep an open mind with regards to tillage methods and vary them to suit soil conditions, we like our heavy Simba discs for incorporating organic material. They cover the ground quickly and do a good job on our soil.”

 

See also: Time for change: Developing and adapting tillage equipment creates more control

Innovative farming

Innovative farming

 

The number of farmers creating their own compost to spread on their farm is limited, mainly because ingredients are expensive.

 

Mr Boaz says: “To make composting viable, it is about keeping cost down. The cost scare most people away, so we are looking at ways to try and economise.

 

“The other day, I picked up 15 tonnes of apples for free from a local orchard that were unsaleable.

 

“Being geared up for picking up material is helpful and can allow you to exploit situations. We often provide machinery and trailers to muck out peoples sheds and get the muck for free.”

 

Regrettably, woodchip is expensive to produce and costs Mr Boaz £50 to £60 per tonne. However, he believes it is worth it since it unlocks a lot of beneficial nutrients.

 

“We are trying to produce a fungus dominated humus material. This unlocks nutrients from organic matter and with woodchip you get a lot of fungal activity which is very beneficial, especially for cereal production,” he says.

 

Ultimately, the cost of producing compost on-farm varies depending on access to ingredients. In Mr Boaz’s case, the cost of compost is comparable to the cost of inorganic fertiliser, depending on the rate it is being applied.

 

Cost of compost production and spreading at Mill Farm

 

Proportion of ingredient

Ingredient

Cost

25%

Woodchip

£12.50

25%

Straw

£8.75

25%

FYM

£0.81

15%

Green forage

£4.05

10%

soil/ash/wood

£0.00

Mixing

 

£5.00

Spreading

 

£1.50

Total cost per tonne spread

 

£32.61

 

Source: Mill Farm

 

 

Mr Boaz says: “We do not have as much compost as I would like but I am hoping this year to have enough to treat 100 acres, applying five tonnes per acre.”

 

In order to gain the same nutritive value from compost as you would expect from typical fertiliser programmes, you would have to apply around 25 tonnes per hectare (around 10 tonnes per acre), but this would also deliver additional soil benefits.

 

Mr Boaz spends around £275/ha on artificial nitrogen, phosphate and potash. In order to be like for like in terms of cost of artificial fertiliser, 8.5 tonnes per hectare of compost would need to be applied, depending on its nutritive value.

 

At Mill farm, compost reduces reliance on artificial fertiliser. On treated field, typically five tonnes per hectare of compost will be applied along with a half rate of artificial fertiliser.

 

However, Mr Boaz emphasises the need to increase nutrient application when crops have yielded well and a lot of straw has been removed.

 

“When you take a lot off a field, you leave a very hungry piece of ground behind. You have to really feed that land post-harvest to and look at whatever you have at your disposal,” he says.

 

Limiting input use

Ms Corsie says: “Jonathan practices true integrated farming whereby every input is justified. With commodity crop prices as they are and accompanied by pesticide resistance and low organic matter, a lot of farmers don’t know which inputs are safe to use and how to safely reduce their spend.”

 

Mr Boaz only uses insecticides as a last resort and has not used neonicotinoid treated seed for the last four years.

 

“Jonathan thinks seriously about using seeds that have been dressed with neonicotinoids and whether or not to use a follow up spray for BYDV.

 

“We use HGCA thresholds to get an idea as to how many aphids are coming into the county, inspect the crops and risk assess according to position in rotation, green bridge and drilling date and then make a decision regarding pesticide application,” says Mrs Corsie.

 

Mr Boaz’s grassland is low input as he believes incorporating legumes into the grass mixture provides sufficient nitrogen.

 

He says: “I farm my grassland virtually organically, I don’t apply fertiliser or sprays to it. My grass leys including various legumes which fix nitrogen for the grasses.”

 

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