The Goodwin Family (Ken, Richard, and Steve) at their Lowercrossways Farm in Dorstone, Herefordshire grow potatoes for Tyrrells crisps. Now part of the KP Snacks business they have joined the Sustainable Futures sustainability programme which KP and Intersnack have supported since its launch in 2014.

Future Food Solutions are working around the UK with forward-thinking farmers such as the Goodwin Family, helping to develop more sustainable farming practices.

Soil is one of the key focus areas of the project and having healthy soil with a good structure is fundamental to achieving reliable yields. The project has identified that one of the key tools for improving soil health is the active use of cover crops within the rotation. The spring planting of potatoes provides an excellent opportunity to establish an autumn-sown cover crop which is then over-wintered until spring.

These cover crop mixes act as “Pop-Up Rainforests” with different species creating a complementary leaf and root architecture to optimise growth above and below ground. In doing so they capture huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, some of which is then stored as the cover crops are incorporated into the soil in preparation for planting potatoes.

Potato crop establishment usually requires ploughing and other heavy cultivation processes. These activities do have an impact on soil structure and will result in the loss of carbon via aerobic digestion of the organic fraction of the soil. These actions that take place as a consequence of establishing a potato crop can be mitigated by proactively improving soil heath and biosystems during the rotation around potatoes. Cover crops can play an important role in this.

It is also possible to grow hot mustards as part of the cover crop mix as they will act as an active bio-fumigant. The macerated crop cells break down and release mustard gas (iso-thiocyanate ) into the soil which kills potato cyst nematodes and any eggs within them. These bio-fumigants will also have a similar effect on any other free-living eelworms in the soil system.

The Goodwin Family had not grown cover crops extensively prior to taking part in the Sustainable Futures Hereford supply chain programme. In the summer of 2019, following an early harvest of winter barley, they drilled an 11 Ha field with cover crop mixes on which potatoes, being grown for Tyrells were to be planted in the spring of 2020.

The field, Snodhill Meadow, was split into two which would enable a trial to be carried out of different cover crop mixes.

1. SoilStructure seed mix

A soil-improving and nutrient capture mix that in ideal weather conditions will develop large volumes of organic matter.

Kromesa oil radish 27%
Winter UK Oats 47%
Rye 13%
Phacelia 3.0%
Stinger tillage radish 10%

25kg/ha seed rate – 5 Ha of seed required

2. Soil Vitality seed mix

Deeper penetrating with a good fine rooting capacity, an ideal mix for improving soil biodiversity and improving soil humus.

Defender Oil Radish 20%
Winter Oats 38%
Strigosa Oats 12%
Phacelia 6%
Vetch 24%

25 kg/Ha – seed rate – 5 Ha of seed required

The cover crops established quickly following rain after drilling and grew rapidly resulting in an impressive leaf canopy in 6 to 7 weeks.

Canopy testing was carried out by Kings Crops to secure biomass & nutrient capture data and soil sampling of the field was undertaken by Precision Decisions post-harvest in both 2019 and 2020. The Goodwin’s also via their involvement in the programme have access to the MiFarm platform from which they can acquire up to date satellite imagery and data platform access.

The cover crop was a great success and produced nearly 40 tons of fresh matter per Ha. The crop was so good Richard was able to graze his ewes on it, with the sheep digesting plant matter and returning it to the soil as manure.

The analysis of the cover crop sample showed that they had captured significant levels of nutrients which would have potentially been leached away during periods of heavy rain that did occur over the winter period in the Hereford area.

 

The dashboards below display analysis of the two cover crops used in the trial at Lowercrossways farm.

1. SoilStructure seed mix

2. Soil Vitality seed mix

 

On a very rainy Tuesday in late January 2020 following a weekend which had seen nearly 3 inches of rain, Steve, Richard, and other Tyrrells growers ventured into the field to find out what effect the cover crop had on soil structure and quality.

As expected, the surface of the soil had run together following days of relentless rain. However, when Neil Fuller a soil scientist who led the meeting, dug into the soil, despite the heavy rain, 20 mm below the surface, the soil was in good condition and could have been drilled. The cover crop roots had driven channels through the soil to allow water infiltration, the abundance of worms had also created tunnels in the soil. The increase in organic matter had acted as a sponge to soak up the rain and there was minimal puddling or soil erosion evident across the field.

The potato crop was planted in April with no problems and required less energy than previous years to cultivate it due to the soil being in good condition.

The cover crop established by the Goodwin family at Lowercrossways Farm has delivered in a number of areas:

  • Improved soil structure and health, positively supporting the faunal biosystem within.
  • Aided water infiltration, preventing puddling and soil erosion, and helped with the establishment of the potato crop. These improvements will hopefully lead to a more resilient potato crop and higher yields.
  • The Goodwin sheep flock which had grazed the cover crop had a nutritional feed for a number of weeks.
  • The cover crop acted as a ‘Pop Up Rainforest’ and sequestrated significant amounts of carbon in a short time frame (7 weeks), which could be used to balance the carbon footprint of the potato crop.
  • As part of a whole farm approach, the use of cover crops can help to capture and lock up carbon in the soil.
  • This could help farmers move toward zero-carbon farming and potentially sell additional carbon sequestrated across the farm, creating a new income stream.

In the coming year, the Sustainable Futures Team will continue to work with the Goodwin Family and the Tyrrell potato grower groups. Exploring in greater detail the use of cover crops and other more sustainable farming practices to help them adapt to the changing climate and increasingly dynamic agricultural marketplace.