Does it pay to retain field margins? Chloe Palmer talks to the experts to find out why margins make sense for business and biodiversity.
Harvest 2016 will break few records and yields and quality have been described by most farmers as disappointing. So as thoughts turn to cultivations and drilling, some farmers will be wondering what to do with margins which no longer form part of an Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) agreement.
There are many reasons to retain margins, according to Jonathan Cross, a sprayer operator from Suffolk and winner of the National Spray Operator of the Year Award 2016.
Mr Cross’ workload covers a total of 1,200 hectares (2,965 acres) at Wantisden Hall Farms, east Suffolk. The farm rotation includes carrots, onions, swedes, parsnips, vining peas, sugar beet, maize and cereals, so complying with the stewardship labelling for every pesticide on each different crop is a complex consideration prior to spraying.
Mr Cross says: “Margins are an important tool for us as it enables us to keep it simple when we are spraying. The benefit of retaining the margins outweighs any gains we would make if we removed them.
“We are always trying to make the most of the limited spraying windows, so having margins means there is one less thing to worry about at busy times.”
Much of the farm is situated on sand land which is prone to erosion so keeping as much soil in the field, especially when growing root crops is a priority for Mr Cross.
“We grow large areas of root vegetables so we have to irrigate significant acreages. With irrigation comes the risk of soil erosion and on the sand we have to use everything we can to minimise soil loss and maintain stability around field boundaries.
“We retain margins and in-field strips whereever we can to help to prevent wind blow. Some of the margins are permanent and some will be moved every couple of years to fit in with the rotation but all provide valuable habitat zones in among the cropped area,” Mr Cross explains.
Although Suffolk is one of the driest counties in the country, in some years the weather can turn around the time when the maize harvest starts. Mr Cross says this is another instance where margins provide an important function because they provide a valuable buffer during less than ideal weather conditions.
“We have lived with margins now for many years and for us, they are another important tool to help us farm responsibly. Working right up to the edge of the field rarely pays so it is better to leave margins in place,” Mr Cross adds.
Fraser Hugill farms at Throstle Nest Farm, Sproxton, North Yorkshire, and he supports these arguments in favour of retaining margins.
He has spent some time calculating the break-even point on his farm for each crop across a scale of different prices and yields. He says the figures have proved quite revealing and focus the mind.
He says: “The figures for every farm are different and there is always the challenge of how to accurately account for fixed costs. For my farm, based on 2015 costs and wheat prices, feed wheat has to yield in the region of 6.5t/ha to break even.
“This figure sounds easily achievable but of course it is important to look across a number of years and different crops within the rotation."
Mr Hugill points out that yields from the field edges are likely to be lower because this is usually the least productive part of the field. He urges a realistic approach to calculating true returns.
“When times are tough, there is a real temptation to plough out margins because we are all trying to maximise what we can produce. I think it is vital to calculate both the financial benefits and the cost of removing a margin as well as considering the other practical benefits they provide.”
Mr Hugill hopes farmers will think creatively about margins and will consider the options for retaining them.
“The margins on my farm have been included in our Countryside Stewardship agreement. We have some 6m grass strips but we also have some pollen and nectar mix and others are down to winter bird food.
“For those not willing to enter Countryside Stewardship, there is the option of the voluntary Campaign for the Farmed Environment [CFE] measures. These offer more flexibility to be creative to achieve the maximum practical and wildlife benefit.”
Jim Egan is head of training and development with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and chairman of the CFE delivery group and he agrees retaining margins makes good business sense.
He says: “On most farms, there is 3-5 per cent of the land which is comparatively unproductive and much of this is located at field edges. By retaining margins in these areas, farmers can improve their financial bottom line as well as delivering a range of environmental benefits.
“How many sprays can be used within 6m of a watercourse? The answer is very few. If this area of the crop cannot be sprayed, it is likely to be very low yielding and the economic argument for growing it will be weak.”
As well as maintaining buffer strips against watercourses, Mr Egan believes there is a strong case for keeping them alongside hedges.
“Farmers are no longer permitted to cut their hedges before September 1 under cross-compliance regulations and there are very good ecological reasons for this rule. If farmers retain their margins along hedges as part of their EFA, they can turn on these strips and this will help them carry out tasks such as hedge trimming without affecting the growing crop,” Mr Egan adds.
“By investing in an appropriate grass and wildflower mix and taking the time to establish it properly, farmers can create a good habitat for pollinators and farmland birds for the next 20 years.”
Being seen to do the right thing is another reason to retain margins, according to Mr Egan.
“How will it appear to the general public and the conservation bodies if farmers suddenly start ploughing up margins as soon as they are no longer paid for them? The industry has to recognise there is a baseline of responsible environmental delivery which farmers will be expected to meet if public money is to continue to be paid to them.”
Sean Sparling is an independent agronomist working in Lincolnshire and is currently the vice-chairman of the Association of Independent Crop Consultants (AICC). He has advocated establishing and maintaining margins for many years.
“Margins are a significant boon for agronomists because of the habitat they provide for beneficial insects. Those of us who are conscious of integrated pest management (IPM) are aware of the advantages gained through the build up of pest predators in field margins,” Mr Sparling says.
“Insects such as ground beetles, hoverflies, ladybirds and lacewings thrive in margins and they will flood into the field and help to control crop pests,” he adds.
By locating margins adjacent to a watercourse, ditch, hedge or woodland, he says farmers can create an ideal habitat to encourage these desirable species because no fertilisers and pesticides are applied to these areas.
“The margins tend to be the worst areas of the field so harbour all the weeds such as cleavers, brome and creeping thistles which used to colonise the edges of the crop. Because margins have been in place on many arable farms, farmers have no longer had to spray out these field edges to remove these weeds,” Mr Sparling says.
Looking to the future, Mr Sparling doubts an exit from the EU will mean the current regulatory regime surrounding pesticides will diminish.
“I believe rules such as the Local Environmental Risk Assessment Programme will only become more stringent in the future, even when we are no longer in the EU. Those farmers who retain their margins are helping themselves to mitigate against any further tightening of the rules,” he says.