Renewable energy, soil health and precision farming are among the hot topics of current UK agriculture, but do they hold the same relevance for arable production in the Czech Republic? Abby Kellett heads there to find out.
A recent study trip to the Czech Republic brought together journalists from across Europe to discover how some of the country’s most forward thinking arable farmers have progressed their businesses.
One of our first visits took us to a mixed farm co-operative developed on the basis of old socialist collective farming structures.
The farm consists of 1,435 hectares (3,546 acres) of arable land which grows wheat, barley, oilseed rape and maize, as well as potatoes which are processed and packaged on farm.
The business has a history of productive arable farming, with wheat typically yielding 6.5 tonnes/ha (2.63t/acre), making it among the top third in the country.
A herd of 600 dairy cows provide manure, limiting the amount of artificial fertiliser required.
Chairman of the co-operative, Josef Houcek values the role of livestock within the business. “Having livestock on the farm is a great way of spreading risk," he says. “Our land is prone to wind and soil erosion, so having the ability to spread manure from the dairy herd helps increase organic matter levels and helps hold soil in place.”
Over a four-year period, he applies 40t/ha (17t/acre) of straw-based manure rotationally. But the amount of manure produced by the dairy herd far exceeds the farm’s storage capacity.
“We have a very high number of cows in comparison to the acreage we farm, which brings about problems in utilising manure,” says Mr Houcek. “We have three covered storage facilities. We thought about building another three, but this would have meant encroaching on productive arable land.”
Instead, in 2011 Mr Houcek installed a biogas station capable of processing up to 70t of untreated manure per day with a 740 kilowatt/hour output. This supplies electricity across the farm, primarily to the potato processing unit. The rest of the electricity is supplied to the grid.
In return, waste peelings from the potato processing unit are distilled into ethanol which fuels the plant.
Mr Houcek says: “Although the electricity only contributes around 10 per cent of the total farm yield, it is currently the only stable commodity.”
Unlike in the UK, uptake of precision farming has been slow in the Czech Republic, however, farmer Ondrej Bancina is among ten farmers in the country who have adopted the technology.
Eight years on from the initial investment, Mr Bancina believes that while precision farming techniques have successfully reduced input usage, yields have not significantly changed.
Targeted spraying, soil conductivity testing, variable rate seeding and variable rate fertiliser are among the practices currently used on his 1040ha (2570 acres) of arable land, south of Prague.
See also: Sensing a way to making better use of N
Satellite imagery is used to assess nitrogen absorption in growing plants which helps dictate the next nitrogen application. Since some of the nitrogen supplied is from poultry and pig manure, Mr Bancina also insists on regularly testing the manure and soil to ensure nitrogen supply matches crop requirement.
As a result, he has seen a significant reduction in input cost, particularly bagged nitrogen.
“I have definitely noticed that we use less artificial nitrogen and less herbicides,” he says.
Despite this, Mr Bancina has not noticed a significant yield improvement in response to precision farming.
“Yields have remained on par with our neighbour who uses a traditional system. It is hard to say whether they would have been worse if we had not gone down the precision farming route,” he says.
“I suspect that there may be other factors holding back yield. For example, most years, the lighter areas of the farm suffer badly from drought, therefore yield is limited no matter what the system.”
Vegetable farmer Petr Hanka knows all too well the impact that extreme weather can have on crop production.
Mr Hanka farms 500ha (1,235 acres) of arable land south of Prague, growing potatoes, onions, carrots, roots, parsley and celery, all of which are processed and packaged on-farm.
With only limited refrigerated storage, Mr Hanka aims to sell as much produce as possible straight from the field, with a lot hitting supermarket shelves within 24 hours of harvest.
Sitting level with the Vltava river, the farm has been flooded three times since 1996, causing long lasting damage to affected land.
Mr Hanka says: “We had mass flooding across nearly all of the farm in 1996 and had to apply for finance to complete work we were undergoing on one of the potato production lines. For the next couple of years, crop yields dropped by around 35 per cent compared to long-term averages.”
Having only just recovered from initial floods, another 150ha of established vegetables were flooded in 2002, destroying the entire cropping area.
“That flood had a major impact on the productivity of our land; the soil suffered badly from compaction and loss of nutrients. We knew we had to work hard to get our soil structure back,” he says.
Since then, the farm has been committed to cover cropping all land destined for spring cropping, using mixtures that develop a large root mass in order to improve drainage. Additionally, the farm now receives a constant supply of manure from a neighbouring beef farm, which is spread rotationally.
These strategies have helped successfully boost soil organic matter by around 2 per cent since 2004 and aided nutrient retention.
“In 2004 we were close to bankruptcy. At the time we were investing heavily in our potato processing facilities. Getting insurance to cover flooding was extremely expensive, so we didn’t include it is our policy,” says Mr Hanka.
“Steadily, the situation has improved and we have seen potato yields reach up to 40 tonnes per hectare.”
Mr Hanka believes the measures taken have helped increase resilience to these type of events, which will inevitably reoccur.
He says: “We experienced another flash flood in 2013, but the water drained away quicker and crops weren’t suffering under water for too long. While some crops were destroyed, most were fine and we achieved some good yields at harvest. I don’t think this would have been the case if we hadn’t take steps to improve our soil structure.”