Cover crops can help improve yields and soil structure, farmers told at Salle Estate event
PUBLISHED: 16:35 17 November 2017 | UPDATED: 16:35 17 November 2017
The practical benefits to farmers of cover crops and careful cultivation were seen at an event focusing on the connection between agriculture and the environment.
Farmers and agronomists were told considered methods can help conserve soil, nutrients, pesticides and water as well as improving profits – benefiting both the natural environment and the bottom line.
Guests at the Broadland Catchment Partnership event, on the Salle Estate near Reepham, heard from host farmer Poul Hovesen along with experts from a range of fields.
The benefit of cover crops – which are grown not for harvesting but to enrich the land – and their impact on soil quality and crop yields was discussed with field demonstrations used to illustrate the techniques.
Mr Hovesen, farm manager at Salle and director of farming at Holkham Estate in north Norfolk, said putting a range of methods into practice, using data from University of East Anglia research, including the use of cover crops, had increased efficiency by 20% – meaning he had been able to take on more land.
He told visitors it was important to “commit” to a cover crop rather than rushing it into the ground once harvesting was finished.
“We finish combining in August and from then until October there is still a lot of sunshine,” he said.
“Cover crops are a way of putting that energy in the soil – getting nutrients, bacteria and organic matter there for the following year.”
He added: “Less but better timed and considered cultivation is important to improve soil structure. We have changed our cultivation system entirely and cut 20pc of our cultivation costs down.
“We have taken on some more land because I have been able to prove the cost [of the new land] is what we save in fuel, metal [machinery] and manpower.”
Mr Hovesen said increasing working capacity had meant being able to work at optimal times.
He has been working alongside the UEA’s River Wensum Demonstration Test Catchment project, which he said had taught him more in seven years than many others had in his entire career.
The programme involves the monitoring of the levels of nutrients and chemicals making their way into the water system.
Senior research associate Dr Richard Cooper has been working on the scheme and the potential of cover crops has been a key focus.
He said: “We have found cover crops can reduce leaching by between 70pc and 90pc, which is good for the River Wensum but also has wider benefits.
“Where Poul has had a cover crop we have seen up to 60pc increases in yield, which is a big financial benefit for the farmer.
“It has been particularly effective with sugar beet which is a big crop from the Norfolk and Lincolnshire perspective.”
While there have been trials with cover crops ahead of the planting of sugar beet and string beans, the advantage of the method was seen most markedly in beet.
Dr Cooper said cover crops, which are put back into the soil, provided nutrients and organic matter, helped improve resistance to pests and therefore saved on pesticide and fertilisers.
He said: “We have mostly used oil seed radish, which grows quite deep roots and is very good at breaking up soil structure, but we have also tried things such as ryegrass.”
The method also helps to reduce leaching and loss of soil by using up excess fertiliser and pesticides and anchoring soil.
While oil seed radish has worked for Mr Hovesen’s beet he was quick to say that each farm will be different and it is the combination of methods which is important.
The event, which was held at the Lynton White Institute in Salle, was organised by the Broadland Catchment Partnership.
Broadland Catchment Partnership officer Neil Punchard, who helped organise the day, said: “We want to support anything that is good for farming, good for farm businesses, but also good for the environment.
“We want to improve water quality but also help farmers improve their systems.”
The partnership is made up of a variety of agencies including the Broads Authority, National Farmers’ Union, Anglian Water, Essex and Suffolk Water, Norfolk Rivers Trust, UEA and Norfolk County Council.