Host Farm “Well on way to Carbon Neutrality” – Carbon Toolkit
Changes made have helped combat black-grass, reduced cost base and improved the carbon footprint of the business, while maintaining yields ...
Hutchinsons’ Helix Project aims to explore how cutting-edge technologies can be successfully linked with knowledge to deliver more effective advice by agronomists to farm businesses.
Moat Farm at Whiston, Northamptonshire, is a host farm for the project. The farm is run by Andrew Pitts and his brother William. It consists of around 809 hectares which is a combination of owned, rented and contract-farmed land. Andrew and his brother are second-generation farmers. They succeeded their father who made the move into farming and have grown the business since taking over.
Changes made by the brothers have helped them to combat black-grass, reduced their cost base and improved the carbon footprint of the business with half an eye on the future market for carbon, while maintaining yields. At present Andrew sees the main benefit of building carbon in the soil as developing a more profitable and resilient business.
Change to Rotation
In terms of the changes made on the farm, Andrew says: “Five years ago we were growing wheat, wheat, rape.
Now almost everything we grow is for seed production. We are growing winter and spring wheat, spring barley, spring peas and beans and hybrid rye for seed production. We have gone from two crops to five or six.
“We have also reintroduced livestock into the rotation. We bought a flock of 100 sheep ourselves and also use a neighbour’s sheep to graze stubble turnips in the rotation between winter and spring crop, meaning we have a total of around 1,000 sheep on the farm.”
Andrew adds black-grass has been a big driver in the changes that they have made. Up until 2006 everything was ploughed but at that point, they bought a top-down Challenger.
They gradually decreased the depth they cultivated and in 2015 began direct drilling spring barley as well as oilseed rape. In 2018 they bought a John Deere 750 direct drill and in autumns 2018, 2019 and 2020 all crops were direct drilled.
Moving to direct drilling meant they were able to sell the Challenger and reduce the manpower on the farm – saving money and carbon.
Peas and beans were introduced into the rotation when oilseed rape became no longer viable due to flea beetle. One of the benefits of this has been an improvement in the soil.
Andrew says: “We have always been very keen on soil management and the single most important tool on the farm is the spade which sits in the back of my Discovery. What we find from using the spade helps to determine our strategy on that field.
“As a result of the changes we have made the soil is much more resilient, it is freer draining and performs better both in wet and dry spells. We only have organic matter scores for the last few
years. They are in the region of 5.5-6% and are well on their way to being excellent. All straw is chopped and incorporated and we use any farmyard manure we can get our hands on.”
The sheep also form a key part of the soil management strategy. Recent tests on fields where stubble turnips were planted and grazed after second wheat showed three times the amount of nitrogen available compared to where there were no cover crops or grazing sheep.
Andrew says this can lead to big savings on fertiliser but also creates nitrogen with greater availability. He adds that it has made a significant difference to the crops grown on that land.
“Both from a cashflow point of view and in terms of environmental impact this makes total sense,” he says.
Andrew is an advocate for soil mapping and has been using Hutchinsons’ TerraMapping service.
He says: “It’s been a fantastic tool for us. We have much more accurate nutrient spreading maps for P and K and lime, and variable rate seed. Where other services are taking up to 10 samples per hectare, TerraMapping uses 800.
“I would encourage everyone to vary seed rates unless you have a farm that has just one soil type. If you are like us and have different soil types in different fields and across the same field, variable seed rates make a massive difference to the evenness of the establishment. It’s one of the most important things we do and critical to profitable crop production.
“Where you have black-grass on heavier soil, variable seed rates enable you to increase your seed rates in those areas with heavier soil to compete with the weeds. It delivers a saving in seed and gives us more even crops.”
Andrew says the more information you have available, provided it is accurate, then the better decisions you can make about inputs.
“This information enables you to be smarter on all your decisions,” he says. “Whether it is a big decision, such as whether it makes sense to continue farming a poor piece of land and putting it into stewardship, right down to varying the rate of fungicide application.”
Grange Farm is using Hutchinsons’ Omnia system to bring together this information and make decisions.
Andrew says: “Using Omnia as a decision-making support system is really simple. For example, I have just helped a nearby farm going into Higher Tier Stewardship. They were using a competitive system and it took half-an-hour per field to get the information out for multiple years, with Omnia it took about 30 seconds.
We can put together options across our fields in half-an-hour, as opposed to all morning with competitors.
“Furthermore, it is an open system which Hutchinsons want to be able to talk to everybody’s technology.”
When it comes to making smart decisions, Andrew points to the example of a field of peas which is a high-risk, high-return crop. He says: “Towards the bottom of the field, which had good, free-draining soil, there was a slope down to a brook with heavy clay.
Looking at the analysis over 15 years we could see the performance in that part of the field had been unreliable.
“We took the decision to leave that part of the field to see what happened. Lt meant we could drill the rest of the field at the correct time and we then drilled that area with a summer fallow crop. We’ll direct drill first wheat into that at the same time as we drill into the pea stubble, giving us a low-risk crop across the whole field.
“Rather than growing a loss-making crop on a difficult bit of ground, we have improved the soil and improved its resilience. l now have a really good crop of peas and I haven’t compromised them for one bad area. Then, next year, I will have the whole field and a really good crop of first wheat. That is holistic farming.”
Andrew is also using the data provided by TerraMapping and the Omnia system to make smart decisions about how he uses stewardship within his rotation to reduce risk.
He says: “We are well on our way to being carbon neutral. Our fuel consumption has reduced from 80 to 90 litres/ha to 35-38 litres/ha. We are using less nitrogen and achieving the same yields. We are actively monitoring our emissions using Omnia and I believe we will get there. It also helps us to track the changes we will have to make to qualify for future Government funding.”