Updated: Jul 24, 2020
Following a wet autumn and, for some, an even wetter spring many farmers were unable to successfully establish or even drill their main cereal crops. In the AHDB early bird survey back in February, there were 336,000ha of fallow land predicted, an increase of 50% on the June 2019 Defra survey. Whilst this figure is likely to have changed since then, it highlights the predicament many farmers found themselves in at the time.
Farmers with fallow land back in the spring faced three choices:
Leave the land bare for the summer. Zero-cost option.
Use farm-saved seed as a low-cost cover crop. Small outlay for the royalty on seed, plus establishment costs.
Establish a short-term cover or catch crop using species such as oilseed radish, phacelia and mustard. A higher financial outlay required for seed compared to farm-saved seed, plus establishment costs.
We are often asked how much more do specialist cover crops offer compared with using farm-saved seed. Are they worth the investment? These are not easy questions to answer as it depends on the circumstances and what the farmer is trying to achieve, but the conditions this year, with so much fallow around, provided an ideal opportunity to explore these very questions.
In Warwickshire, one of AHDB’s Strategic Farm managers, Rob Fox, who manages Squab Hall Farm was keen to look at the benefits of a cover crop on one of his fallow fields. RAGT Seeds agreed to supply the seed for the trial and alongside ADAS and AHDB we decided to compare three different treatments: leaving one area as stubble, another area planted with farm-saved beans and barley (RGT Asteroid) and the final area sown with a mixture of oilseed radish (RGT Triangel) and phacelia (RGT Factotum).
ADAS will be looking at how various aspects of soil health change throughout the summer and how these differ between the three treatments.
More information can be found on this AHDB video:
Whilst this is only one trial on one farm, it should give us a great insight into how cover crops can benefit land by opening up the soil and allowing excess water to drain away. This in turn allows earthworms to return to the soil, helping to restore the soil structure.
As always, using cover crops to improve soil health is very much a long-term project and what works for one farm won’t necessarily be the best option for the neighbouring farm. On-farm trials like these, in partnership with organisations like ADAS and AHDB, are an invaluable way for us to ensure the advice we are giving to growers, merchants and agronomists is as accurate and helpful as possible.
For more information on soil health click here.