As featured in Arable Farming Magazine
Blurring the lines between organic and conventional farming
by Arable Farming
In the first of a series across five issues of Arable Farming looking at the pillars and practicalities of regenerative agriculture, Alice Dyer finds out how adopting traditional farming principles and backing them with technology has seen Cotswold farm manager Ed Horton cut input costs substantially and improve the resilience of the business.
Since returning to his family farm, agronomist and farm manager, Ed Horton has adopted many of the same practices that his grandfather and great grandfather once used, but justifies the benefits with data, technology and precision farming techniques.
Although only 20% of S.S.
Horton and Sons’ 3,000-hectare enterprise is organic, the principles applied across the farm, remain the same and reaching for a chemical only happens when or where it is absolutely needed.
This means in high pressure years when Mr Horton’s winter cereals and oilseed rape disease management technique of grazing crops to take out diseased leaves is not enough, he can fall back on a late fungicide.
He describes this as ‘halfway house’ or hybrid farming.
He says: “The leaf growth there all winter acts like a nursery for diseases such as phoma, septoria or rust, and those old leaves don’t do anything for yield so if we remove them with sheep, we’re removing the first port of infection that’s there for any leaf that starts emerging in March and it’s growing from a clean point. Most farmers would do that by applying a fungicide because that’s how we’ve been trained.”
“My sheep are a bit vaguer and might not be so uniform in their approach, but livestock integration has removed half our need for chemical inputs from a fungicide point of view and it helps the plant tiller and increases root mass and we’ve managed to remove all need for PGRs in grazed crops.”
Variety choice has also taken a front seat after Mr Horton noticed that no matter what the management or soil health status, some varieties still struggled with certain diseases.
“Modern varieties perform very well but rely on a high level of inputs to achieve that. Now we’ve gone back in time to slightly older varieties with more inbuilt resistance and we’re growing slightly stranger things as well, like organic spelt which is fairly resistant to most things because it hasn’t been overbred.”
Drought stress On the farm’s drought-prone Cotswold brash, the early-to harvest, high-protein Hungarian milling wheat variety MV Fredericia is well-suited because it tends to get ahead before drought stress kicks in, meaning there is less of a yield penalty during dry summers.
“For feed wheat we grow Costello, which isn’t the highest yielding but it is short and stiff, never falls over and has very good disease resistance. It does very well being grazed and comes back incredibly well and far quicker than other varieties,” Mr Horton says.
KWS Extase also performs well because it is an early variety and very competitive against weeds, which are generally controlled with an inter-row hoe rather than herbicides.
“We can be incredibly selective about where we put the hoe, rather than drilling 500 acres of wheat and covering it with a pre-em, not knowing if you needed it or not. Once you’ve been through Extase once with the hoe it tends to get on with it and shade out weeds or keep them at the bottom of the canopy. It’s also great from a disease point of view – it’s a very clean variety and we grow it organically for that exact reason.”
Letting go of the ‘tidy factor’ has also seen farm biodiversity thrive and broad-leaved weeds such as groundsel, pansies and chickweed are left alone.
“It might look a little untidy, but it’s saving me money and provides a beneficial habitat. You’re expanding biodiversity back into crops instead of pushing nature to the edge,” Mr Horton says.
In the seven years these management changes have been implemented, substantial savings in input costs have been made – the initial aim of the farm’s hybrid approach.
Mr Horton adds: “We don’t historically get high yields here, so we had to keep a close eye on input costs. With costs going up, we looked at ways of trying to keep a lid on them and removing the ones that wouldn’t have a big impact on yield. A lot of that was based on soil health and quality, so removing the need to drag a cultivator up and down a field.”
The starting point was growing cover crops to aid direct drilling and commercially benefit the farm’s sheep flock with more available grazing.
But it has been a natural progression to removing seed dressings, fungicides and herbicides, and moving to inter-row hoeing.
Mr Horton thinks variable costs have been cut by 50-60% as a result, depending on the season.
“In high disease pressure years, grazing cereals with sheep works in the early spring but we still have to try and fight septoria come May.”
“Seed is cheaper without fungicidal seed dressings, removing pre-ems saves £70-£80/ ha and it can easily be £120/ha for a post-em. If you spend half of that with a hoe going down the field twice, you’re still better off and your soils are still healthier without a chemical being applied.”
Variability Although these methods can potentially rob some yield, with careful management the farm has managed to maintain its long-term average yields, but has removed some of the variability experienced between seasons.
Mr Horton says: “Our ground doesn’t yield well at the best of times, but now we don’t get the penalty of the fact we spent for an eight-tonne/ha crop but only got a 5t/ha crop, because we haven’t applied anything. On the flip side, in a good year we do miss the peak of how good it could possibly be, so have removed some of the top end potential, but we’ve also removed some of the risk from the bottom end. If you averaged it out, over 10 years we’d probably be [yielding] the same. It just makes it less risky.”
The biggest lesson learned was to be more flexible and pay more attention to detail, he says.
The farm currently grows a wide range of crops including spring and winter wheat, barley and oats, rye, triticale, beans, linseed, maize oilseed rape, phacelia, buckwheat and turnips, which allows decisions to be made based on conditions rather than pre-conceived ideas.
“My cropping plan changes on a biweekly basis and I have the flexibility to say soil conditions aren’t perfect, but we can look at something else. We can look at stubbles in autumn and see black-grass and decide to cover crop, graze it and put a spring crop in.”
Having such a large choice of crops gives me the option to play with things because I’m not fixed on a three-crop system. “I crop walk now far more than I used to because we haven’t applied a fungicide at T0, which would give me two weeks of breathing space. I have to be more aware of what’s going on so it doesn’t come back to bite me. With grazing the OSR, we learned you need to check twice, if not three times a day.”
This year, some OSR was slightly overgrazed in an attempt to remove the need for PGRs and fungicides, but trial and error is the way to success, Mr Horton says.
“We overgrazed one area but the rest is very happy and now we have an OSR crop that’s just had one dose of herbicide as its only input.”
“Grazing cereal crops was a very traditional way of managing them before the invention of PGRs.” The Cotswold sheep is called the golden hoof because it’s the only way we could grow cereals here before people invented artificial N. Everyone had sheep to manage their crops. “However, the sheep work for us on our soils but my farming system couldn’t be rolled out to everyone because everyone’s system is so different.”
Soil health underpins the success of the whole system, with Mr Horton’s ethos being that having a healthy soil will produce a healthier crop.
Soil health information is captured across the farms and compared through earthworm counts, organic matter (OM) readings and active carbon measurements using the Omnia precision farming platform.
This then had a positive impact on carbon function in the soil and its symbiotic relationship between fungi.
The active carbon test is good for looking at quick, small changes and OM tests are good at looking at the broader picture of soil health.
On some very thin Cotswold brash we jumped straight into direct drilling from conventional min-till and it turned out to be a complete disaster for the first two years because the soil wasn’t ready for it and we didn’t have the soil OM to hold the structure open, biology to break down and release nutrients, or earthworm numbers to help cycle the cover crops we were planting on the surface.