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This content is hosted by Agri-TechE as part of its service to its members. The views and opinions expressed are those of the individual/organisation that supplied the content and not those of Agri-TechE or its employees.

Using farm trials to build more sustainable farming systems

Farm trials provide an excellent test-bed for the latest tools and technology in real-world situations, but often results can be considered in isolation, potentially overlooking the complex interactions across farming systems.

Hutchinsons’ Helix Farm Initiative is different though. Across a network of demonstration farms, it is evaluating the latest technology and agronomic techniques, alongside the wider impact on factors such as soil health, rotation planning and carbon footprinting, to help farmers improve economic and environmental sustainability.

Wood Hall Farm near Rattlesden in Suffolk became the Eastern demonstration site last year and Tom Jewers believes the Helix project will provide valuable information to help shape future practices across the 385 ha farmed area.

“We’re always trying to do the right thing and find better, more efficient ways of working, but with the Basic Payment going in a few years’ time, we feel it’s important to try new things now, while we’ve still got a bit of a fall-back with the BPS.”

Hutchinsons is conducting a range of work at Wood Hall Farm this season, covering many different areas, but sharing common aims of improving efficiency, building resilience and developing more sustainable farming systems.

The Omnia precision farming system provides a central “hub” to record, analyse and evaluate much of the information, from crop observations, satellite imagery and input plans, to Terramap soil analysis and yield data.

 

Fertiliser efficiency

The trials exploring ways of improving nitrogen and phosphate fertiliser use efficiency are a good example of the joined-up approach to farm research.

“Fertiliser accounts for around 30% of farm input costs, so if we can use it more efficiently whilst maintaining productivity then we can save cost and improve our carbon footprint,” says Hutchinsons trials and technical manager Bob Bulmer.

The Nitrogen Use Efficiency (NUE) trial is examining different rates, from 0 to 240 kg/ha, granular and liquid fertilisers, and the impact of nitrogen inhibitors on NUE. Alongside thorough crop and yield assessments throughout the season, work is also examining whether inhibitors affect soil microbiology, such as by inhibiting the activity of bacteria involved in the nitrogen cycle.

A baseline assessment of chemical, physical and biological soil properties was taken at the start of the season and further tests are being done to identify any impact on soil health.

Another trial is looking at different nitrogen timings, as Tom Jewers has concerns that in very dry springs, crops are not taking up granular fertiliser efficiently. The traditional granular approach is being trialled against foliar-applied N later in the season and through dry spring weather.

Improving phosphate use efficiency is another key area, especially as national Hutchinsons testing of 167 grain samples last season revealed 46% were low in phosphate. “Phosphate is easily locked up by calcium, magnesium and aluminium in the soil, which means crops cannot access it,” notes Hutchinsons Rob Jewers. Additionally, triple super phosphate (TSP) has just 10% use efficiency, compared with nitrogen’s 60%.

Interactions between soil biology and phosphate availability are being examined in a field of Planet spring barley, drilled on 2 April using the farm’s Weaving GD. Four treatments are being tested, including different starter fertilisers (Crystal Green, Biolite, and Primary-P), and a root-colonising bacteria (Bacillus amyloliquefaciens) that claims to help plants extract phosphate.

A separate tramline trial is also testing whether a novel endophyte seed treatment could help crops fix nitrogen, sequester phosphate, potassium and zinc, and improve drought tolerance.

 

Building disease resilience

Another focus area is a field-scale trial investigating whether sowing a blend of different wheat varieties including RGT Saki, KWS Extase, KWS Siskin and Graham can improve crop resilience to pests and diseases.

“Increasing genetic diversity helps us reduce the risk of a disease like rust sweeping across a whole field. The blend should be more resilient, and there may be scope to reduce our input spend,” says Tom Jewers.

The wheat blend has been sown next to a two tramline trial of Hyking hybrid wheat, sown at half the seed rate (200 seeds/m2) of the blend to see how it compares, and particularly if there is any benefit from the hybrid vigour in more challenging growing conditions.

Find out more about the Helix Farm initiative, including information about the National, Eastern and Northern sites at helixfarm.co.uk

[Box] Wood Hall Farm, Suffolk

  • Family partnership, G.D. Jewers & Son
  • 385 ha (owned and contract farmed)
  • Cropping includes winter wheat, winter and spring barley, oilseed rape, linseed, winter beans
  • Multi-species cover crops grown ahead of spring cropping
  • The farm is in the Countryside Stewardship Mid-Tier scheme.