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Covering everything on the hot crop topic.

THE best uses of cover crops came under discussion at an event held in Northumberland this week.

Dr Liz Stockdale from Newcastle University's School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development was among those at the event held at BL Farms, near Ancroft.

The farm is overseen by Richard Reed and is one of a network of so called Monitor Farms linked to AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds. Together, they provide a forum for likeminded farmers to meet and exchange knowledge in an informal setting, benefitting from scrutiny of their practices.

Located just a couple of miles inland from 2015's highest yielding wheat field, BL Farms features a mix of owned and contract farmed land totalling 1170ha.

Working with his father, Mr Reed grows winter wheat, oilseed rape, winter barley and spring barley - and like many growers around the country is currently looking whether cover crops can help him improve his soil health.

This year, he has tried four different mixes and was keen to discuss his findings so far with the Berwick Monitor Farm group.

While cover crops might be a hot topic within arable farming at the moment, however, the growers were discouraged from following the crowd without clear reasons.

"Don't rush into cover crops because everyone else is thinking about them," Dr Stockdale warned. "It's important to think about what benefit you want from them. "Predominantly cover crops are being thought of as a soilimproving measure, but that can mean different things - soil structure, nutrients cycling and soil fertility, soil organic matter.

"You might not want them for a soil improving measure at all - it might be for weed control." Management, seed and machinery costs were also raised in the initial discussions, as well as the place of cover crops within the rotation.

"It is best to start with thinking about the following crop first," Dr Stockdale said. "You absolutely don't want to mess up the next crop. Think about how you will destroy the cover crop.

"Can you rely on frost kill? Will you spray off? Will you incorporate? Would you need to drive on your land at the wrong time? "The crops you select and the way you include them in the rotation varies depending on what you want to achieve, and on your local conditions."

She added that farmers should make sure they use a site-specific crop and management strategy that fits with what they need.

"Keeping crops growing over the winter is a good thing for soil health, biology and structure and to minimise run off and soil erosion," she said.

"But how you make that work effectively depends absolutely on your own system - your soil types, the nutrient balance, the cropping system into which you're incorporating the cover crops."

Looking at practicalities of growing cover crops in the North, farmers were reminded to consider drilling dates and the amount of time the crop would have to get established.

In Northumberland, there is a tight window for fitting a cover crop into the rotation, which has an impact on the choice of crops.

"Here in Berwick, the wheat harvest doesn't often finish until the start of September, so cover crops can't be established until after that," Dr Stockdale said.

"We've seen here that the grass-based cereals and ryetype cover crops establish much more quickly and deliver a much better cover than legumes.

"So in the north of England we might focus on these cover crops, whereas in the south of England legumes and other crops might be suitable."

At Ancroft, Mr Reed hopes to increase the organic matter and humus to produce better crops and have fields that travel better.

Easing workloads and improving timeliness are also among his aims.

"By having a constant crop growing in the fields and not leaving any bare soil, we want to continually feed the organic matter and worms, and in turn ease draining and reduce waterlogging in the fields," he said.

"Hopefully that will improve the conditions going into the next crop."

On September 7, Mr Reed sowed four different cover crop mixes - vetch, red clover and Egyptian clover; black oats and vetch; Black oats and berseem clover; and oil and tillage radish, European oats, phacelia and forage rye - on a total of 9ha after winter wheat.

This was followed by spring barley, all of it being put down without slug pellets.

Since December, the farm has had around 7" rain but has held the water well.

Before drilling, Mr Reed plans to spray off all cover crops with glyphosate before drilling, although some of the Monitor Farm group pointed out this could counteract some of the benefits of the cover crop.

"I've learned so far that cover crops can be expensive to grow, and timeliness is key," Mr Reed said. "Where we are up North the window is tighter. We need to focus on what we can grow well to make sure we do achieve something at the end of it."

Quickly-dug pits under the cover crops showed the group of farmers how the soil was faring.

"It has shown me that where we've got a growing root we have increased worm activity and better drainage and it seems that fields travel better," Mr Reed said.

"In the spring hopefully we can get on fine and get a good crop established and then be on the right path for next season."

Later in the year the group will look at harvest results, to see whether there was any difference in the crops planted following the various cover crops.

Some of farmers asked about their role in fixing nitrogen, but Dr Stockdale said: "Beware of people who say that cover crops can fix nitrogen.

"Especially this far North, there's not the sunshine to do this.

"To fix nitrogen in the soil, the bacteria needs sugar from photosynthesis and therefore mostly happens in May and June."

Farmers can test whether root nodules are fixing nitrogen by cutting a nodule with a sharp finger nail. If it runs red, nitrogen fixing is occurring.

The key question, in Dr Stockdale's opinion, however, was whether it is worth going through the hassle of growing cover crops at all.

One member of the Monitor Farm group, David Fuller-Shapcott, farms near Kelso and has a 5ha field with a cover crop mix of black oats and vetch, which will be followed by spring barley using min-till.

He said: "I have heavy clay soil, and I want to find out whether we can use cover crops to remove moisture from a field so that I can then min-till barley afterwards. I've tried min-till into overwintered stubbles and that didn't work.

"I'm pleased I came today. There are a lot of questions - some that got answered today and some new ones asked.

"But if you don't question things and aren't prepared to make changes, then you can't expect to improve."

Don't rush into cover crops because everyone else is thinking about them...It's important to think about what benefit you want from themDr Liz Stockdale

CAPTION(S):

<BLeft, Monitor Farm group member David Fuller-Shapcott

<BDr Liz Stockdale from Newcastle University's School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, right, was among those at the event held at BL Farms, near Ancroft - overseen by Richard Reed, above

<BAbove, the Berwick-upon-Tweed Monitor Farm group looking at soil under wheat stubble
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jan 23, 2016
Words:1220
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