Co-creation Unearths the Course to Profitability

Transitioning clients towards more sustainable farming practices has become a passion for one Dorset contract farming business — with soil and plant health forming a key part of the resilience strategy.

Long before regenerative farming became fashionable, the A&R Fraser family in Dorset realised adopting more sustainable farming practices was crucial for the long-term viability of their farm. As such, over the course of the past nine years the business has been transformed, transitioning the contracting enterprise to one that specialises in direct drilling, cover cropping and reducing synthetic inputs to improve soil health and growing resilience.

Now somewhat local experts on the subject, George Fraser and brother Johny host no-till trials and discussion groups and have guided numerous clients through the regen ag transition from traditional farming methods, endeavours which led to them becoming finalists in the FW Farm Contractor of the Year Awards in 2021.

From their base at Braeside Farm in Charlton near Shaftsbury, the brothers operate throughout Dorset, Wiltshire, Hampshire and Somerset, offering the full suite of arable services, from no-till/direct drilling to cultivations, slug pelleting and crop spraying, fertiliser spreading and combining. They’ve even established their own organic digestate service which they can apply to clients’ fields and are TASCC-approved hauliers enabling them to transport it, as well as assured grain, feed products, fertiliser and liquid waste.

“At the home farm we have a couple of hundred acres of arable land and a small beef herd,” explains George. “Over the past four or five years we’ve built up the contract farming enterprise to around 1,000 hectares, winning tenders against local contractors. “A lot of the land around here is not farmer-owned so land is put up for tender every five years. With many years experience of min-till and direct drilling under our belts, we have a lot of knowledge to impart to help our clients move to a more resilient growing system.”

Agronomy advances

This change in direction has been aided by close collaboration with their multi-award winning Agrii agronomist Todd Jex — which has brought extra attention to detail on the home farm and contract farms and is helping to unearth the right course of action for long-term sustainability, believes George. “We’ve been working with Todd since 2013, though we knew each other long before. We were looking to change our farming approach, and Todd’s views were very much aligned with our own.

“Improving soil health is a major focus for us and back in 2017 we started paying a great deal of attention to our soils and monitoring how our actions are influencing soil structure and worm numbers with Todd’s help.” The duo also leant on the expert advice of Dr Jackie Stroud, assistant professor of soil science at Warwick University, who has a strong research background in earthworm biology and ecology, explains Todd.

“Jackie was very influential in our mindset, and we put a lot of emphasis on using worm populations to help us ascertain the health of our soil ecosystems – ‘if you can measure it, you can manage it’ was, and still is, very much the ethos. “We’re using the scoring system I’ve developed to benchmark each parameter and give the field an overall rating. By doing this I can produce recommendations for improvement and when we retest in four years, we can assess the progress.”

The scorecard automatically produces a traffic-light snapshot of soil health to guide management decisions, he explains. “We got hands on collecting lots of data, digging three pits per field every three to four years. We found that most fields needed improvement, and a lot of the repair work required has come down to reducing tillage and raising organic matter levels.”

Soil solutions

Adding to this, taking on new blocks of land has typically come with structural issues on heavier ground where deep cultivations from the past had mixed chalk into the soil profile, making crop establishment and deep rooting crops challenging, notes George.

“Calcium in the chalk causes nutrient lock-up which impacts plant health. So how we assess soil health and the progress we are making comes down to a much broader understanding of what’s happening at a chemical, physical and biological perspective, using tests which Todd has developed.” Accurately measuring is key, but when it comes to chalk soils, organic matter readings can be easily skewed, adds Todd.

“You could do three different tests, send them to seven different labs and get different results from each of them,” he explains. “I think Skaler is the most effective for an analysis of soil indices in chalk soils as it can extract inorganic carbon. “The slake test shows how well soil holds together in water.

We also test for pH, nutrients, biological carbon to nitrogen ratios and microbial biomass, as well as assessing worm populations and juveniles versus adults.” “With the soil health work we’re measuring 25 parameters covering physical, chemical and biological characteristics at each pit, three pits per field, once every four years. In optimal field conditions during the spring, George and Todd also make an assessment of crop rooting, measuring the rhizosheaths in the rhizosphere.

“These are coatings of soil particles that cling to plant roots and are a useful indicator of biological/microbial activity,” explains Todd. “This is all part of our soil pit assessment which we geotag using Agrii’s Rhiza software, enabling us to come back in four year’s time to precisely the same area of the field to monitor progress on our actions.”

Making improvements to the soil and organic matter has largely come down to green covers over winter and a straw-for muck-deal, says George. “Cover crop wise, we tend to use a mix of phacelia, buckwheat, linseed, sunflower, vetch, crimson clover or burseem clover — adjusting the mix by soil type.

“Sunflower is better on the heavier land as the bigger tap root it produces helps against compaction. We avoid brassicas as we have rape in the rotation and higher glyphosate rates are needed for more lignified materials which we want to avoid.”

Drawing on the challenges of the approach, George points out that slugs are a major problem in a no-till and regenerative system and therefore they have to consider carefully what they do with the straw and how they manage the carbon to nitrogen ratio to keep the slugs at bay and ensure nitrogen is accessible to the plant.

Looking at the bigger picture, the resilience benefits of no-till have been broader than just soil health improvements – it has also made a big difference to the bottom-line, notes George. “There’s been a massive reduction in fuel costs from the reduced horsepower needed by the tractors. Combining the drill and cultivations, we’ve gone down from using 120 litres of fuel/ha, to just 4-5 litre/ha, which delivers cost savings for us and our customers.”

Reducing inputs

The Frasers have also been looking at other ways to make savings via reducing synthetic fertiliser inputs, with the digestate proving to be a good alternative. “Its mostly food waste which acts as a type of biofertiliser that we obtain on an offtake contract with Biogen — the second largest food waste recycler of its kind in the UK,” explains George.

“We have the kit to apply it and it’s a great way to reduce synthetic fertiliser on our clients’ farms. We can hold large volumes, improving the efficiency of the whole operation.” The digestate is full of nitrogen, potash, phosphate and trace elements in a form that enables them to be readily taken up by the crop and has allowed significant savings –100% reduction in synthetic N in spring crops, and up to 80% in winter crops, he adds.

Inhibitors are also being used to help reduce emissions and protect soil levels, while regular GAI monitoring in the spring, Yara N testing and the Skippy Scout drone system are being used to help monitor plant health. Plant health has been of equal focus for the team, with rooting, nutrition and keeping crops stress-free being crucial parts of the strategy to not only protect profitability, but to also help reduce reliance on synthetic chemicals.

“We’re growing mostly quality wheats and continuous spring barley so keeping plants stress-free and in good health is crucial, particularly on our drought-prone soils, says George. “Our holy grail is to create the healthiest plants in the field which are less susceptible to disease, reducing our reliance on crop protection inputs. “We only use insecticides on earlier planted wheat for BYDV and we don’t use a T0 spray unless rust becomes a serious threat.”

Another part of the approach is to grow more resilient varieties, he adds. “Fitzroy is an example of a wheat which is proving very robust and has helped to much reduce T1 and T3 fungicide inputs.”

Pushing performance

Where chemistry is used, adjuvants are deployed simultaneously to help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the products, and biostimulants have also found a place in the programme – particularly when it comes to managing disease threats. “Specifically, we’re using biostimulants to manage the ramularia and lodging threat,” explains Todd.

“The evolution of fungicide resistance in ramularia to the main single-site fungicides has enhanced the need to find another approach to managing the disease.” Continuous barley and drought-prone soils are the perfect storm for creating a stressful plant that is at risk of ramularia, he adds.

“The stress of flowering marks a change in the barley’s metabolism and is a key trigger for the disease. “The plant begins to mobilise assimilates to the developing grain and essentially gives up on its own natural defences as it shifts its resources into ensuring the next generation.

“Other environmental stresses such as waterlogging, high light intensity and drought can all exacerbate the disease, bringing on more severe symptoms.” The farm’s use of biostimulants began five years ago when we conducted non-scientific farm trials, followed by two years of tramline trials, explains Todd. “With a wide range of soil types on the farm, we were in a good position to be able to evaluate product performance.

“Of the products tested, Zonda was the most effective. Agrii also screened hundreds of biostimulants and found a lot of inconsistency, with Zonda proving to be one of the better ones in terms of ROI,” he says. Zonda is an amino acid and peptide biostimulant from Interagro, designed to help crops reach their genetic yield potential and reduce the impact of abiotic stress by improving plant health.

“Feeding a crop Zonda guarantees the supply of amino acids for building protein, critical for plant health,” explains Interagro’s Stuart Sutherland.

Ramularia reductions

Todd’s approach has been to apply Zonda early, using 1 l/ha at T1.5 before there has been any sign of ramularia leaf spotting. “In the first year of tramline trials on continuous spring barley we had a yield response of 0.15t/ha over the weighbridge. In 2018, the uplift was 0.28t/ha in a spring barley crop following winter wheat. In 2019, we had an uplift of 0.1t/ha and 0.4t/ha, a margin over input cost of £7/ha and £58/ha respectively.” Biostimulants act in many different ways, including signalling to cells to help the plant ward off disease. To get this ‘elicitor effect’ then you have to go early, explains Todd. “We found spring barley responds particularly well, with applications optimal at T1 and T1.5. Any later is too late, as the crop starts to get stressed, increasing the ramularia risk. But the benefits have been really quite visual in droughty years.” Agrii trials have also shown Zonda applications to be beneficial alongside PGRs, reducing the stress to the crop, and also benefitting lodging control, he adds.

Future plans

Moving forward, reducing reliance on slug pellets is high up on the agenda and there is interest in trialling Interagro’s Newton seed treatment this spring, concludes George. “If we can get crops up and growing away faster, it would certainly help.”