No-till, companion crops and reduced inputs on a 300ha tillage farm in the UK

Andy Howard farms 300ha with his parents in Kent in the south east of England. He has been a “no-till” farmer since 2011.

His farm, he told the BioFarm 2019 conference this week, has a similar landscape to Ireland. He has small irregular shaped fields, rolling hills and plenty of trees.

His soil types are varied and he receives 700-800ml of rain each year.

In a way it’s hard to count up how many crops Andy grew in the 2019 season. Some fields were inter-cropped.

Cropping 2019:
  • Winter wheat;
  • Herbage seed;
  • Winter beans;
  • Spring barley;
  • Spring beans / oats;
  • Spring linseed;
  • Lentils;
  • Marrowfat peas / spring oilseed rape;
  • Stewardship legume fallow;
  • 11ha solar farm.

Andy’s journey

His journey to no-till farming and intercropping took a number of years.

In 2001, he started minimum tillage with a Horsch drill. In 2007, he moved to strip tillage with a Claydon drill, before moving to no-till in 2011 with a John Deere 750A.

He now operates a CrossSlot drill, which he uses to drill two different seeds when intercropping, as opposed to drilling seed and fertiliser together.

It was also in 2011 when he began to grow cover crops and integrate livestock on his farm. In 2012, he took this a step further and began companion cropping. He grew oilseed rape with vetch and berseem clover.

Intercropping

Intercropping was introduced in 2013 when he planted peas and oilseed rape together. He has a self-built separating system on his farm, where he separates the two products.

Intercropping is: “The growing of two or more crop species where part or all of their crop cycle overlaps temporally and/or spatially, where one or more of the component species is taken to harvest.”

He gave a good example of where intercropping has proved to be beneficial. Flea beetle has deterred many farmers from growing oilseed rape.

One of the cultural techniques against flea beetle is companion cropping.

He continued on to say that crops like buckwheat attract beneficials into the field which can result in reduced flea beetle attack.

One farmer who put this into practice, Andy noted, had savings on his herbicide (£35/ha), fertiliser (£25/ha) and insecticide (£25/ha) and after the cost of the companion crop seed was taken into account at £30/ha, the practice resulted in a net benefit of £35/ha.

Reducing inputs

He told the audience that his long-term goal is to “design a farm system that can thrive with minimal human and outside inputs”.

Andy has a five-year plan to reduce inputs on his farm by 50%. He intends to reduce fungicides, nitrogen applications and eliminate insecticides while implementing holistic management.

Andy listed his farm’s solutions as:
  • High Brix plants (high sugar content, indicating a healthy plant which deters pests);
  • Foliar nutrition;
  • Healthy balance soils;
  • Monitor poorer soils predominantly;
  • Encourage predators through no-till;
  • Maintain residue;
  • Sticky traps;
  • Grazing;
  • Varietal resistance;
  • Companion crops.

Each week, the Kent farmer takes Brix readings with a refractometer at 2:00pm to ensure consistency in his results. The reading can be affected by daylight.

He looks at the trend of these readings, rather than individual results to monitor the health of his plants and also his soil, which is supplying the nutrients.

Cover crops, intercropping and companion cropping – which Andy carried out a Nuffield scholarship on – play a huge role in improving soil health on Andy’s farm.

One thing that was constantly mentioned at the BioFarm conference this year was diversity. Diversity in plants can bring diversity to the soil.

Intercropping and companion cropping allow plants to work together and can be mutually beneficial to the plants, as well as helping to build up soil fungi and increase biological activity.

Cover crops

Cover crops consist of more than one variety and Andy is also careful with which cover crops he plants before cereal and non-cereal crops.

Cover crops before non-cereal crops:
  • Oats; vetch; phacelia; linseed; buckwheat; berseem clover; crimson clover; sunflowers; forage peas; quinoa; millet.

Cover crops before cereal crops:

  • Radish; vetch; phacelia; linseed; buckwheat; berseem clover; crimson clover; sunflowers; forage peas; quinoa.

Diversity certainly looks to be working for this farmer. Last count 23 crops in 2019.

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