Time for a change

The Hosier family have been farming at Wexcombe (near Burbage) for nearly 95 years, in that time the farming practices have been continually evolving.  This process continues with a new evolution: whilst researching a replacement seed drill, I discovered that there was an increasing number of British farmers experimenting with “No-Till or Zero-Till” farming and “Cover Cropping”.  This involves no ploughing or cultivating to prepare the soil for planting.
The main driving force behind the changes I am making revolve around improving the soils across our farm.  Over the last 50 years of increasingly intensive agriculture, the soil has been seen as a less important asset, as any deficiency could easily be replaced with the addition of artificial inputs.  I feel that if we can improve or ‘Regenerate’ our soils we will see a reduction in artificial inputs (one of our largest costs), and an increase in productivity.
 Sadly this is not just as simple as going out and buying a new drill that will plant direct into the previous crops’ stubble, there has to be a whole system change.  This system change involves four pillars:
1.    Do not move the soil
We will therefore not till the ground (plough or cultivate) and not disturb the soil, so that the worms and microbiology soil can thrive.  The worms help improve the structure and drainage of the soil.  Previously lost soil organic matter (carbon) can now build up over time and not be lost to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.
2.    Change our cropping rotation
Increasing the amount of spring sown crops and lengthening the gap between crops will help to reduce the risk of diseases and weeds.  It will improve the diversity of roots in the soil, which helps increase soil biology, as well as attracting a more varied wildlife to the farm.
3.    Keeping a live root growing in the soil at all times
This will feed the worms and microbiology in the soil.  We will achieve this by growing “Cover (or catch) crops”, whenever we don’t have a cash crop growing.  These cover crops will be mixes of different species of plant to increase soil biodiversity.  They will also carry out some of the ‘cultivations’ for us with the roots breaking up compacted soils.  The cover crops help to reduce soil erosion by slowing down the rain drops as they fall to the ground.  They also have the effect of adding organic matter to the soil.
4.    Integrate livestock back into the arable system
Grazing our cover crops with cattle and sheep will bring livestock back onto fields which have not been grazed for over 30 years.  They will help to break down plant material and excrete readily available nutrients for the next cash crop.
We have bought a new seed drill.  It is a New Zealand designed system called “Cross Slot” and it is being built here in England.  The drill has a disc which cuts through any crop residue on the surface and places the seed in an air pocket below the surface at a predetermined depth.  It is all done in one tractor “pass” - saving a lot of fuel and time.  Under our old system to prepare and plant a field would have taken four tractor “passes”.
Earlier this month I went to a meeting of like-minded farmers, hosted by Primewest, the importers of Cross Slot drills and manufacturer of our drill.  We had some very good discussions about No-till, crop rotations and cover crops.  We then visited an empty grain store where our drill is being built.  We should take delivery early February, ready for spring planting in March.