The ongoing reduction of Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) support through to 2027 threatens to leave a gaping hole in the finances of many farm businesses.
But it will be possible to bridge much of this gap by accessing the range of environmental payments available now and over coming years.
That was the clear message to growers attending the Hutchinsons Environmental trials demonstration near Warboys, Cambridgeshire, where a range of options is being examined in a commercial farm situation.
The site is hosted on the 180-hectare family farm run by P.F.England and Son, which grows mainly cereals and sugar beet on Grade 1 fenland and heavy clay-based soils.
Growers attending the open day on September 16 got to see the many traditional and exotic species which make up different steward ship mixes, heard how to establish them successfully and discussed the benefits they could deliver to biodiversity and soil health.
Hutchinsons environmental specialist Hannah Joy said: “We know BPS payments will be 50% lower by 2024 and will be gone completely by 2027, so it is crucial growers find ways of bridging this gap.”
Although ELMs will not be launched until 2024, she said there were good funding opportunities within the existing Countryside Stewardship (CS) scheme, which could be rolled over into ELMs in the future.
Next spring would also see the launch of two Sustainable Farming Incentive soils standards which will be a key part of ELMs.
These promise to open up other potential sources of income to anyone currently claiming BPS, and could be paid on top of CS.
However, entering into any stewardship agreement has to be well planned and not seen as a ‘tick-box’ exercise to claim payments.
This would ensure options deliver the maximum benefit to individual farm businesses, she added.
Colleague Matt England, whose family farm hosts the trials site, said: “Ultimately, if you’re going to be putting a percentage of your farm down to any kind of stewardship mixes now and in the future, then you have to select the most appropriate options for your situation and manage them well to get the most out.”
The Warboys site includes spring-drilled plots of 16 different species sown as straights, showcasing the characteristics and growth habits of exotic species, such as sorghum, reed millet, camelina and quinoa, alongside more familiar names, such as kale, stubble turnip and sunflower.
A range of seed mixes has also been established, including the two-year legume option (with and without grass) and other flower/nectar-rich mixes, which are already attracting considerable interest among farmers in existing stewardship schemes, the ELMs pilot and regenerative agriculture.
When evaluating the choices available, Mr England advised farmers to be clear on what they wanted from any stewardship mix (for example, soil improvement, fertility building, winter bird food and grazing potential) and consider factors such as soil type, local weed pressure and whether options would be rotational or remain in the same location.
A basic seed mix for the Mid Tier AB8 option (flower-rich margins and plots), for example, was based on a limited number of species which typically lasted four to five years, so may suit more temporary positions, he said.
In contrast, where growers planned to keep stewardship in the same place for a number of years, it would be preferable to select mixes containing more true perennial species to maintain flowers throughout the life of that option.
Mr England said the potential for grazing stewardship or taking a cut of silage was important for arable farms with livestock and options such as the GS4 legume and herb-rich sward provided a good choice.
Five-week gap He said: “It can be grazed throughout the year, although you have to leave a five-week gap at some point between May 1 and July 31 for plants to flower.”
For those without livestock, the AB15 two-year legume was a good alternative for bringing in a range of herbs, legumes and grass for soil conditioning benefits.
From 2021, a grass-free mix was also available, he said.
“In the past, some growers have used the AB15 mix to help suppress black-grass, but that is not necessarily the best option, as black-grass can still grow and set seed within it.