As featured in Arable Farming Magazine
Pastures new for cereals
by Arable Farming Magazine May issue
Growing cereals in strips between soil health-enhancing herbal leys is a technique that is evolving on a Norfolk farm, using existing, adapted and purpose-built equipment.
Moving to farming more sustainably is helping to boost margins at Wild Ken Hil, Snettisham, while also tackling the soil and climatic challenges faced when growing crops.
A coastal farm spanning 1,600 hectares, Wild Ken Hill is mainly on light, silty soils and has traditionally grown cereals and non-irrigated root crops in a conventional regime, although owners the Buscall family embraced stewardship schemes from the start and have been progressively reducing chemical use.
Farms and estate manager Nick Padwick says: “I thought there had to be a better way, by improving the soil’s ability to support crops.
So, three years ago we introduced clover leys to boost soil health.
This has now evolved into pasture cropping, whereby crops are grown in strips between bands of herbal leys.”
During the 2020 lockdown, Mr Padwick joined a webinar on pasture cropping by musician turned regenerative farmer Andy Cato of Wildfarmed, a business that brings together farmers, food businesses and consumers while restoring soil and biodiversity on agricultural land and conveying that message to end consumers through their flour product.
The pair have since worked closely together to further develop the Wildfarmed strip-till pasture cropping technique.
The farm was already in a controlled traffic farming system using RTK to guide machinery travel in set wheelways and strip tillage was being used to establish sugar beet.
Intensive “Sugar beet had moved from a regime of plough, press and cultivate, followed by frequent spraying.
This intensive working led to blow and soil loss.
By swapping to strip-tilling the seedbed, we reduced the chemical applications needed, eliminated blow and retained moisture, with no impact on yields,” says Mr Padwick.
Initially a clover ley was established in autumn and wheat direct drilled into it in bands the following spring using a Horsch Avatar.
The Avatar is set to work in two-metre wheelings with 16.7cm coulter spacings fitting into the 50cm rows, placing seed into a 20cm band between 27cm wide herbal ley strips.
“There was no clover visible during the crop’s growing season, but post-harvest we discovered an understory of clover.
It was allowed to grow and then grazed off with sheep – as the crop had not received any artificial nitrogen, there were no issues with bloat.”
The grazed-down ley was then strip-tilled and drilled with oats, resulting in strips of clover and strips of spring oats which were grown without inputs.
“The farm eliminated insecticides 10 years ago and we have not used PGRs for three years or fungicides for the last two,” says Mr Padwick.
In 2021, spring barley was added to the range of crops being trialled in the Wildfarmed system and progress continued with examining which pasture crops can be grown alongside cash crops.
“We have rotational options as part of our stewardship plan, and for AB11 we can establish legume mixes in spring, which gives them time to establish ahead of an autumn cash crop, or the herbal ley can be put in after harvest using the Avatar and allowed to grow on,” Mr Padwick says.
“This spring we’ve given the established leys a quick pass with a harrow to pull out weeds and then planted a polycrop of spring wheat and peas in a 6in band between the strips using the Horizon strip tiller.”
Marketed as a cultivator, the Horizon SPX row unit is supplied with a wavy opening disc with depth wheels either side, followed by pneumatically-engaged row cleaners ahead of a deep working tungsten carbide leg and point and a pair of packing wheels.
Bespoke At Wild Ken Hill, the bespoke nature of the implement, which also allows it to be used at a range of row spacings, is exploited.
The leg is replaced for drilling with a seeding tine, a pair of guards fitted to protect the ley strips from the leading disc and a distributor head and front tank fitted.
Satellite positioning is simply moved over 25cm from the guidance map used to establish the leys.
The Avatar remains a key part of the armoury, not least for its ability to plant cover crop seeds packed by size at a different depth via its split tank and a separate small seed hopper; the rubber depth wheels behind the coulters provide seed-to-soil contact for clovers sprinkled on top of soil.
“We may also be able to use the Avatar with every third coulter blocked off, although planting in a band as we do gives competitiveness,” Mr Padwick says.
The mix of peas and wheat is treated as one crop, harvested together and separated with a grain cleaner.
“We want to move away from monocultures, but we’re trialling peas and wheat alone as well as peas and wheat together to study how they fare in this system.
At the moment, the soils are bacteria rich due to the loss of beneficial fungi from the effects of chemicals and too much cultivation.
We’re aiming to reduce cultivations and establish crops into soils that are repairing themselves.”
Examining the soil below the herbal ley strips reveals the impact they are already having: a mass of fine roots which also penetrate out of each side, encouraging microbial diversity which helps to rejuvenate soil health and minimise the need for chemicals to grow crops.
Trials are also ongoing to compare the impact of strip tilling alone without herbal leys with the pasture cropping system.
“We soil sample between the rows of each and we’ve seen that the pasture cropped parts of the field have more aggregates and more air in the soil, giving improved water holding capacity,” says Mr Padwick.
After harvesting the cash crop, the ley can be planted into again, left over winter for a spring crop or grazed off, and an established ley is expected to last around five years.
Sugar beet has slotted into the system nicely, planted into cover crops that have been grazed off, using the Horizon SPX in its conventional cultivator guise followed by a Vaderstad Tempo precision drill.
Oilseed rape has also been strip tilled, using a low-input regime which still brought yields of 2.5 tonnes/ha, although dry weather at establishment scuppered the first attempt into a clover ley.
Managing the herbal ley strips during the growing season to prevent them outcompeting the cash crop can also be achieved by grazing with sheep, or more selectively, with a strip mower developed from Andy Cato’s experiences with growing cereals into buckwheat strips in France.
Working with contractors using RTK guidance brought the row spacings down to the current 50cm rear-mounted layout and increased the precision of the operation.
Mr Padwick is also exploring using a front mower toolbar with the strip tiller on the back.
Wild Ken Hill is moving towards being more sustainable, not just from an environmental perspective, but also financially.
“By going away from the plough we’ve saved £45,000 on fuel alone and a further £39,000 on wearing metal.
We need less horsepower – three tractors have been sold and the remaining two are around the 250hp mark, simply to give the size and lift capacity to handle 6m wide implements.”
The pasture-cropped areas receive no nitrogen or pesticides and he has been extending the approach to the rest of the farm.
Disease resistance Fungicide costs have been significantly reduced by growing disease-resistant varieties on the main arable acreage – in the case of wheat, 2021’s crops were Graham, KWS Extase, KWS Siskin and KWS Crispin – using a Pessl Instruments Metos weather station and accompanying software to predict risk.
Pessl’s FieldClimate platform provides fungal disease monitoring to inform fungicide applications and in 2021, the data fell below the criteria that Mr Padwick required for spraying, so no applications were made.
“We want to avoid spraying where possible as it can also kill favourable fungi, so we’re moving away from the standard approach of making applications according to crop growth stage and calendar.
I know it’s not for everyone, it depends on whether the focus is on yield or cutting fixed costs – ours have reduced from £500/ha to £300/ha and I’m confident we can go even lower.”
The Wildfarmed pasture farming approach sits well with the farm’s other developments.
Alongside 800ha of crops, 180ha is now under stewardship, with fields cropped in ‘rectangles’ avoiding short work and making use of field corners to encourage biodiversity.
In the same vein, 6m grass strips have been established around telegraph poles, which also give a wildlife corridor in the centre of the field.
North Norfolk’s coast road lies between the grain store and the arable land and to the west of this, former arable fields on sandy soils have been rewilded, with cattle, Exmoor ponies and pigs grazing the 420ha of land, which also includes unfenced woodland.
Closer to the sea, approximately 200ha of low-lying marshland has had a water penning structure (soil bank) built around the west side of its boundary, allowing the estate to control water levels for wildfowl and waders.
Yield “The aim is to get the soils back to where they will sustain farming in the future.
Yield is still important, but so is net margin – we need to get this up and running while we still have BPS as it will become even more important once the payments are gone.
“We’re working with other local farms that have embraced this approach, charging only for the tractor and labour as the drill and mower have attracted a Farming in Protected Landscapes grant.
“The aim is to build a collective of like-minded farmers working with Wildfarmed, which offers a fair premium for crops grown in this pioneering, sustainable method, and whose consumer-facing brand helps get the message across,” says Mr Padwick.