On a rainy and windy June evening, 20 farmers braved the elements to attend the Sustainable Futures Farm Walk at Box Tree Farm, near Howden, to learn first-hand about the benefits of No Till and how earthworms have improved the quality of the soil on the farm. Box Tree Farm is farmed by Richard Boldan who is a Sustainable Futures Farmer Partner. 

For many years, the family farm was cultivated using a traditional plough. However, Richard became increasingly interested in the benefits of “No Till” where the crop is planted using a direct drill, with no other cultivation. Following a number of meetings, farm visits and lots of research, 2 years ago Richard decided to take the plunge, parked up his plough and bought a direct drill and moved to a no till system to protect what he considers the most valuable working asset on his farm, the soil. Now, instead of using horse power, fuel and people, Richard has engaged a new workforce of millions of earthworms, billions of fungi and trillions of bacteria to work diligently on his behalf.

This industrious workforce does it for free. They just need a regular supply of plant waste and manure (and they have no intention of leaving if there is a hard Brexit!). However, they do need to be cared for; they respond very badly to being chopped up, fed to seagulls or buried under a foot of soil. If undisturbed, they will breed energetically, and work tirelessly to improve your soil structure. Their role is to incorporate organic matter, digest the organic material and consequently breaking it down into nutrients that are readily available to the crop.

Richard’s strategy is to proactively work with soil and nature, rather than over cultivating it into submission. By doing this he is significantly reducing his input costs and the amount of machinery and horse power needed on the farm. However, this change of direction is a long-term journey and it takes time for the soil and the biota to develop and add benefit to the crop. Anecdotally farmers have seen yield losses in the first 2 to 3 years but by year 4 and 5 when the soil condition improves after aggregates form and soil structure stabilise, yields have bounced back

Richard says, “his new philosophy requires doing things differently and it involves a lot more planning, it certainly isn’t for everyone”. One of the key elements is to have a crop in the ground at all time, ensuring that the land is not barren, and there is always something for the soil biota to interact with”.

To that end,  Richard is a big advocate of the use of cover crops. He feels they are hugely important in building organic matter in the soil, but they also, capture nutrients, preventing leaching and diffuse pollution. Cover crops also prevent water-logging due to the increased transpiration by the cover crop, helping to make a better seed bed for future crop establishment. Richard uses a mix of plant species as cover crops, which include oats, oil radish, buck wheat, phacelia and linseed to optimise the benefits. He sprays off the cover crop and direct drills straight into it, to great effect, and at reduced cost.

Part of Richards change to No Till was to combat and mitigate the spread of blackgrass. With No-Till there is much less soil disturbance and blackgrass seeds are not stimulated to germinate. Richard is also able to grow more spring crops which again helps him to control blackgrass.

 

The soil surface immediately after wheat has been drilled into a standing cover crop in September. The cover was sown after a crop of vining peas that were harvested in the first few days of July.

The wheat emerging through the decaying cover crop 10 -14 days after drilling.

The narrow, low disturbance coulters of my tine based direct drill.

The crops overall looked in excellent condition, particularly the winter wheat. Richard has achieved some excellent wheat yields but admits that the very dry spring has been a challenge this year with poor seed germination on the heavy soils. The spring barley and oats lacked the population density he would have hoped for, and there has been little tillering to build stem numbers. However, Richard believes that the No Till system has reduced moisture loss at drilling and probably prevented a crop disaster, given the weather conditions. He thinks that the better soil structure and improved organic matter will make the crop more resilient

The new system is not without challenges. Direct drilled crops can be slower to establish and need to be drilled 7-10 days earlier than conventional drilling. Also, placement of fertiliser by the seed is important to get the crop off to a good start.

The undecayed straw that was ploughed into the soil after the 2014 harvest can be seen in this photo. At the time the image was taken,  it had been in the soil for at least 18 months. By contrast, the straw from the 2015 harvest, which was left on the surface, had almost completely disappeared after about 6 months.

The vertical worm channels in the subsoil can be seen in this photo. These channels extend from the surface to deep within the soil, providing drainage and allowing plant roots to penetrate the subsoil more easily. Cultivation of the land destroys these important channels.

The farmers that attended were given a great deal of food for thought. Everyone then retreated back to the warm dry pub for food and further discussion.

A great thank you to Richard for his time showing us around his farm and his openness on how the introduction of No Till has worked for him.

Food for Thought:
“Man, despite his artistic pretensions, his sophistications and his many accomplishments owes his existence to 6” of top soil and the fact that it rains.” (Anonymous)