Farming Connect Study Visit - Beacons Water Group
Beacons Water Group
Melrose (Scotland) & Leicester
10-12 November 2021
Morley Agricultural Foundation
David Jones, farm manager
The Morley Agricultural Foundation is a charity that supports farming in the East of England by funding agricultural research, student studies, professional development of farmers and others and a variety of educational projects for school-age children.
The need for independent unbiased research does not diminish. New, well-proven techniques are needed to enable farmers to cope with new crops, new economic and climatic conditions and the implications of extensive new environmental regulation.
TMAF gives grants for agricultural research, student studies, professional development of farmers and others, and a variety of educational projects for school-age children.
Morley Farms was created 110 years ago by wealthy landowners to conduct research for farmers to improve their techniques. The Morley Agricultural Foundation, with its set of trustees made up of farmers, a land agent and agronomist has an annual income of circa £400k. This income is spent on research projects where they are applicable to farming in Norfolk/East Anglia, and on education projects including sponsoring PhD students. Communication around the foundation is seen as key.
The farm is 750 hectares and aims to farm profitably, paying a commercial rent to the foundation and gift-aiding any profit back to the foundation, too. The rainfall is circa 650ml annually.
The farm is arable only, no livestock; pig muck is exchanged for straw with local farms. There is a wide diversity in the rotation including wheat, winter and spring barley, winter oats, rye, and maize for a local AD plant. Oil seed rape and sugar beet are also included in the rotation. The diversity in the rotation enables the farm to spread the workload throughout the year, with three full-time employees (including the manager and an apprentice). Contractors are used for some harvesting. Diversity is also good for reducing weeds etc.
The farm is considering undertaking a full carbon audit across the farm, costing in the region of £10,000 – there are three common calculators, and there is a need to establish the best one to use.
Clean Water Project https://tmaf.co.uk/category/morley-clean-water-project/
- The aim is that the water that leaves the farm is as clean as possible.
- The farm is at the head of the catchment.
- Use the farm’s own equipment and skills to design and implement solutions.
- Use appropriate levels of pesticide and fertiliser.
- Consider how best to deal with water from farm tracks and farm yard – understanding about what the water is, and where it goes.
- Keep things basic and simple – lots of small interventions can make a big difference.
- Appropriate land management reduces the silt/soil erosion.
1. The first thing David showed us was a simple steel plate with a v notch. The plate is placed in the ditch; it holds back the water, allowing the sediment to settle.
2. Cattle grid type construction across the track to prevent water running down the track and onto the road – drops into the grid and collects in the ditch – held in the ditch that runs alongside the road, and soaks away.
3. Testing water – hard to get consistent results – quite a difficult process – happy that phosphate and nitrate levels were low off the farm.
4. The farm land is considered to be too good to grow trees generally (or wild flowers).
5. The farm is home to a variety of weather stations recording temperatures, moisture and rainfall.
6. Cover crop – phacelia with black oats (more fibrous root system than normal oats) – to build soil humus – the cover crop mix needs to be cheap, reliable and do the job – sowed by broadcast – cost £35/ha for seed and £15/ha to sow – the reduced nitrate lost to the ditch is assessed to be worth £60/ha – This cover crop would be burnt off with glyphosate and ploughed in – the greater the mix of species in the cover crop, the better.
7. Shed - £200k spend, 9m high to eaves with concrete sides and pad – for tipping and loading fodder beet and manure.
8. Simple concrete sleeper drain system across the track to prevent run-off – very effective.
9. Sewerage system for 24 houses not working properly – water company unregulated on this size - worked with Anglian Water to design and implement a system of three ponds to purify the water as it run through.
Wensum Farming Group Meeting
Wensum Cluster Farm Group – Fakenham, Norfolk
Lizzie Emmett (Wensum Farmers Group Advisor) is employed by the farmers, and is experienced at incentivising landowner participation and collaboration for positive land use change. Lizzie says, “My job is to tactfully inspire and motivate, to build long-lasting, trusting relationships that create real change on the ground. From gathering unique water testing data used to fight against NGO stigma, to restoring some of the most unique ponds in the country – all whilst preparing farms for ELM – I work with farmers 1:1 and as a group to improve farm business resilience and enhance the ecosystems they farm within.”
The Upper Wensum Cluster Farm Group comprises 25 farms working in collaboration across more than 10,000 hectares of land, aiming to bring about environmental improvements on a landscape scale.
The group is now self-funded after introducing a membership fee of £1 per hectare in the autumn, and some of the money has been used to buy water-testing equipment recommended by the University of East Anglia following its water studies at the Salle Estate. Testing is being carried out every two weeks at 10 sites, stretching from Sculthorpe to Bylaugh, assessing the levels of phosphate and nitrate pollutants throughout field drains, ditches, tributaries and the main river.
Lizzie Emmett said water was being tested before it left the farm in order to gather data unaffected by other potential polluters such as roads, industry and sewage treatment works. Lizzie is key to the success of the group, coordinating testing work, working with farmers on a one-to-one basis and organising group training days.
The overarching priorities for the Upper Wensum Cluster Farm Group (UWCFG) are biodiversity and water.
Priority habitats to be maintained from the Countryside Stewardship (CS) statement of priorities for mid Norfolk include: coastal and floodplain grazing marsh, riparian habitats associated with priority rivers and lakes, lowland meadows and arable field margins.
Priority habitats to be restored and joined up in habitat networks across the cluster include ancient and native woodland.
Soil and water
The landowners are working towards reducing diffuse water pollution, increase organic matter levels and the health of soils and improve the efficacy of input application. As part of this process, landowners are using nutrient budgeting software to calculate leaching losses and nutrient discrepancies.
The scheme will deliver priority habitat creation to extend or link priority habitats to increase connectivity and reduce fragmentation. This priority habitat creation will contribute significantly to improvements in water quality and flood and coastal risk management.
The Beacons Water Group joined a training day looking at cover crops and their impact on water quality.
Field – 35 tonnes of pig muck per ha at time of drilling the cover crop – barracuda and radish. Soil analysis before muck – 3 P 2- K and after muck 3 P and 2+ K
Need to measure to manage
2nd farm – simple model – farming 350 acres on his own - direct drilling for 20 years plus – yields ok – extensive management of hedgerows
For cover crops the timing of establishment is vital – need some moisture to get going
Lizzie takes water samples – water a little high in phosphate, but good nitrate levels on land drain samples
3rd farm – Ash Farm
Organic farm – trying to farm regeneratively – i.e. looking towards min/no till. Running a nine-year rotation, including two-year clover. The cover crop shown includes oats, turnips, phacelia, radish – will be grazed by cattle with daily moves of electric fencing and water and utilisation of a back fence. The ability to establish the next crop via no/min till will be interesting.
The Allerton Project –
Joe Stanley - Head of Training & Partnerships
Tour of the project and discussions around soil, water and habitats 320 hectare demonstration farm based in Leicestershire.
The Allerton Project researches the effects of different farming methods on wildlife and the environment.
Led by Joe Stanley – farmed on family farm for 12 years – dairy, suckler beef and arable. Allerton has its own ecologist and soil scientist.
Allerton project set up 30 years ago – research and education trust – mixed arable and livestock operation (no livestock currently owned). They wanted to demonstrate that a sustainably managed game shoot had a beneficial effect on wildlife. Farm is 500ft above sea level and has 600-700ml of rain per annum.
They undertook trials to reverse the decline in farmland birds through:
- Supplementary feeding
- Control of predators
- Sustainable farming
The results showed a 30% improvement as a result of supplementary feeding, and a 30% increase as a result of predator control. Farmland birds are double the average level. The number one predators are badgers, with farm footage of badgers taking nests of lapwing and curlew – also no hedgehogs seen on farm for years.
The farm has focused on habitat creation – incl. beetle banks and buffer strips and is now focusing on soil carbon.
Arable rotation system – moved away from ploughing to direct drilling – trial on variety of different techniques including buffer strips and cover crops.
Hedgerow project - £80k funding from Defra and Natural England to develop a hedgerow carbon code – part of pan
European carbon credit scheme – EU Horizon 2020
- Bring together the research on hedgerows - Undertake trials on the farm and undertake on the ground measurement
- Land map
- Calculate accurately what carbon is there and how to manage for carbon
- Results expected in a year will lead to legitimate tradeable credits
- Hedgerows across England estimated to hold £65m worth of carbon credits and it is estimated that this could be doubled.
- Joe stated that carbon credits need to be valued at circa £150 per tonne (currently £20/t)
Bio-bed filtration system – collects any sprayer residues – system of chambers, pipes and pumps – filters it through carbon filters and straw – cleaning the water to the point that it is clean when it soaks away – straw requires changing every three years – 40% of pollution is point source.
Phosphate trials with Heliosec – water evaporates and residues can be disposed of easily
Low-disturbance sub-soiler – need to use it one year out of every three before direct drilling (important piece of machinery – vital if you want to transfer from ploughing to min-/no-till methods)
Beetle banks – 2m wide and 40cm high- seed or thatch – helps for overwintering of insects, mammals and ground nesting birds – 1300 insects per sqm. No insecticides used on the farm for the last five years.
10% increase every year in soil organic carbon on direct drilled. Worms increased from 200/sqm to 700/sqm. However, if that is subsequently ploughed up – after three years, the increased soil carbon has been lost and the number of worms has halved.
Buffer strips – 12 metre buffer strips on field margin being trialled – stops 95% of the run-off. No bare soil is the key to reducing soil erosion.
Woodland Trials – planted in 2016 – agroforestry and stacking of enterprises – lamb and wool being produced, biodiversity is being counted and above and below ground carbon assessed. It will take 15 years before they start to sequester carbon.
100-1600 trees per hectare planted in partnership with the Woodland Trust.
The aim of the project is to determine which tree density level is most economically effective – an agroforestry project with sheep grazing between the trees. General soil health is being assessed for water infiltration, worms and soil organic matter. The impact of the shelter on livestock is also being assessed – the welfare benefits and effects on ground temperatures and the impact on the grazing season.
Tree guards – problems with voles and ants, as well as some damage from sheep. Anticipated that circa 30% of the trees have been lost. Would like to trial sheep’s wool guards in the future.
Trial commenced on willow (rich in boron and zinc) – aimed at reducing the methane emissions in sheep and anthelmintic properties.
Field trials (Syngenta)
Ploughing versus direct drilling
Results with direct drilling
- Work rate doubled
- Fuel used halved
- Soil carbon emissions down 15%
- Establishment and yield down 10%
- Net profit up 5%
Measure greenhouse gas emissions on ploughing – huge plume of CO2 released. With direct drilling, the soil is more biologically active and releases more CO2 over the year. However, with more biologically active soil, less fertiliser is necessary. Fertiliser releases nitrous oxide – 350 times more polluting than CO2. Nitrous oxide is also released with compacted cold and wet soils.
Conclusion of trials - Direct drilling is the most sustainable method of establishing crops.
Trial – Silt Trap
Main elements to reduce soil erosion/run-off. No loose residue – no stubble/bare soil through the use of cover crops is key. Where there is sediment, phosphate binds to soil particles and is lost. Main problem areas include tram lines and tracks. Contouring is important to reduce general run-off and have used tines to disrupt the tram lines. Also use low ground pressure tyres, reduced tillage and mulch.
6-8% of the farm is being used for habitats for key indicator species.
Biodiversity Offsetting Project with Cheshire Housing through a reverse auction – overseen by Cheshire Wildlife Trust – four newt ponds built within a 500-metre range.
AND Finally – Study Tour - Lessons Learned
- Farmer cooperation is essential for landscape scale land management and long-term success.
- More farmer ownership of projects leads to better support and success.
- Use farmers’ shared knowledge to look at landscape features, plants and animals and use the most appropriate for the area and soil type.
- A knowledgeable, skilled and enthusiastic project officer able to facilitate group work and work on a one-to-one basis is key.
- Funding mechanisms are required to support farmer-led initiatives.
- Evidence and data gathering are essential.
- Buffer strips of grass and/or flower margins around crops slow the water flow and keeps soil and nutrients in the field.
- Climate change is causing flooding and droughts – managing land for maximum infiltration of water and moisture retention is becoming increasingly important.