David Blacker farms a significant area in North Yorkshire between York and Thirsk. During recent years, he has made significant changes to his farming practices, with a view to becoming more sustainable and, hopefully, more profitable.
Could you explain what changes you have made to your farming system recently and why?
About 5 years ago, we became aware that we were just over cultivating our soil. We were ploughing and making 3 or 4 passes to get a seed bed prepared using lots of fuel, lots of machinery and lots of labour and, in the process, we were really abusing our soil. The structure was deteriorating and the levels of organic matter were falling. We took a step back and decided that what we needed, was to create an environment that seeds could grow in. We had managed to cut out several passes, but didn’t really make a great impact on the problem. We looked at Direct drilling but were concerned that our soils were just not good enough and we would see yields fall. The compromise was to look at Strip-Tillage using a Mzuri strip till drill which we bought in 2013. We are now into our fifth season with it.
Have you learnt many lessons since starting to use strip-tillage as your preferred cultivation method?
Absolutely. We have continually refined how we operate, trying to get the best results. It’s been very much a case of learning on the go. We have started to drill about a week earlier to help get the crop established. We also tend to use more leafy varieties of wheat, which seem to get growing better.
What are the main benefits you have seen from using strip-tillage?
The organic matter in the soil is increasing nicely; worm numbers are well up and the soil structure is much improved. We save a lot of fuel and time establishing our crops and yields have been maintained.
Do you chop straw?
We used to swap straw for muck but the whole baling, straw leading and muck spreading process compacted the soil so badly, that now we chop all our straw and just drill into the stubbles.
Do you use cover crops?
Yes, we use a lot of cover crops. We now have 25% of our rotation in cover crops each year. Because we have OSR and beans in our rotation, we use small amounts of brassicas and legumes in our cover crop mix. The bulk of the crop is spring oats, for which we use home grown seed. We also add some clover, phacelia, buck wheat and sunflowers into the mix. This helps build organic matter in the soil, captures spare nitrogen and acts as a habitat and food source for birds and insects.
It seems that you have not only made huge strides in terms of sustainability but also in terms of resource use and cost reduction. Has the new system brought new challenges?
Yes. We have seen an increase in the slug population, which have flourished because they are not being reduced by ploughing. They can also proliferate in cover crops.
How have you controlled these populations?
Initially, we used Metaldehyde pellets straight after the combine to reduce adult slug numbers before they bred. We then followed up with more slug pellets at drilling and then a further application using a quad bike. Unfortunately, we saw a significant amount of Metaldehyde leaching into the local water causes, which was a big concern for us. From our point of view, it was not cheap and not working, so we had to try something else.
So, what did you move to?
We trialled a Mzuri stubble rake which we liked so much that we decided to invest in one. Using this rake at high speed we now make 2 passes after combining which disturb the slug eggs and move the adults about, exposing them to sunlight and drying them out. Also the discs on the front create a bit of tilth which chits weed seeds such as blackgrass and brome, getting them growing which we can kill at drilling.
Do you still use Metaldehyde?
No, we have moved away from Metaldehyde, because of the risk of pollution but also because we can buy ferric-phosphate in a product called Sluxx which is just as effective, less pollutant and cheaper. We also specifically target the areas where we use it, again reducing the cost to us.
So, one way of reducing Metaldehyde pollution is just not to use it?
Absolutely. We also now roll twice after drilling which compacts the soil and makes it difficult for slugs to move through the crop. This seems to have been really effective.