A move towards ‘system thinking’ rather than ‘industrial thinking’ may cost more in the short term, but robust systems will start to pay in the long run, Julian Gold, farm manager at the Hendred Estate, Oxfordshire, told the meeting.
He has been taking part in the Assist project for a number of years as part of the experimental farm network.
He recalled how the Assist biodiversity-boosting, in-field flowering strips were ‘a bit of a eureka moment’, and he has now rolled these out across the 800-hectare estate as AB8 and AB1 in Countryside Stewardship.
He said: “A personal positive for me was it’s an obvious way to bring in-field biodiversity which doesn’t detract from productivity as long you don’t run them to the headlands which would be impractical.
They are a good way to break up fields and wheat prairies.”
However, he does feel the economics need to be tackled better, with the model costing him around £900/ha in lost crop.
“In the short term they cost a fortune on this 12 tonnes/ha wheat land.
We are only getting around £500/ha from Countryside Stewardship [for the flowering plots].
[The losses] are worse this year with the high wheat prices.”
At the estate, collembola (springtails) and predatory ground beetles which eat slugs were more abundant in fields with in-field strips.
But measuring yield benefits was more complex, said Mr Gold.
Preliminary evidence However, across the whole Assist farm experimental network, which consists of 18 sites studied over four years, good preliminary evidence is emerging for how two sustainable management systems can boost yields.
With a focus on cereals and OSR, three models were explored – business as usual; the integration of cover crops and flowering margins; and the integration of cover crops, flowering margins, in-field strips and compost/farmyard manure Dr Ben Woodcock, ecological entomologist at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH), said: “We see it takes time for these biological processes to respond, but both sustainable systems have yield benefits.
“For [the fields] with cover crops and field margins, we see by year four, which is the time it takes for populations of beneficials to increase, a 16.3% increase in yield.
For the more complex system yield increases are slightly higher at 17.9%.”
And while there is far more to sustainable intensification than yield, it is a crucial factor, he added.
“Preliminary results suggest sustainable intensification shows promise to support yields under real world conditions.
Yield increases can be achieved using flexible and simple management options that can be imposed over a range of farming systems.
But these do have running time before results occur which is likely to be a socio-economic barrier to uptake in future.”
To mark the end of the ASSIST programme members of the project team presented their preliminary results to the research community, policymakers and representatives of the agricultural sector.
To watch the event visit assist.ceh.ac.uk