Farmer Focus – Andy Cato

During an unrelentingly wet February, the only ray of sunshine was the arrival of our Red Sussex calves. It’s always amazing to watch mother and baby choreograph an apparently impossible dance in which a sodden, half blind wobbly legged newborn finds the source of its milk. About a month before calving, we moved them up above the flood, onto one of our four sandier fields where the ground has remained relatively firm underfoot. On the lower clays that make up most of the farm, it’s a different story. 

There are some signs of progress. After harvest last year we got across a lot of ground with the subsoiler. Where there was standing water last winter, there hasn’t been this time around. The role of diverse living roots in increasing water holding capacity shouldn’t be underestimated either. Sunlight is the only source of regenerative energy coming into any farming system and the more we can capture, the more carbon flows through root exudates and the greater the porosity created by the creatures of the subterranean soil universe. Porosity and connectivity are key measures of soil health used by Rothamsted microbiologist Andy Neal, and explain the 354,000L per Ha of increased water storage in the top 30-cm of soil he estimated to result from a 1% increase in soil carbon. This has been misinterpreted in some forums, where it was said that there’s no way soil organic matter can absorb that much water. But water is not stored in soil because organic matter absorbs it, but because of capillary action in pores smaller than 100 microns, formed as a result of organic matter decomposition by microbes. The more pores of this size there are, the more water is stored. Any data of this kind will of course be site specific, but this estimate is derived from direct observation and measurement of the increase in pore space due to increased organic carbon stocks. It gives an idea of the vast potential to build farming systems more resilient to increasingly wild weather. 

Between the subsoiler and living roots, we’ve managed to get a couple of hundred sheep across the arable area this winter,without too much damage. But they haven’t been grazing any winter cereals. The plan was to subsoil, followed by a stale seed bed operation to get on top of the rye grass and couch which has been an issue since we arrived three years ago, and which got a lot worse thanks to thin crops in last year’s drought. 

But the rain started and never stopped, and it became clear we’d have to resort to cover crops and switch to spring planting. Like everybody else, this meant accepting sky high seed prices and hoping for a kind end to the winter. The wettest February since the 1800s wasn’t part of the plan.  Patience becomes difficult as March becomes April but hope springs eternal that rich canopies of bi- and poly-crops will soon be emerging from nicely warmed ground. Hopefully rapidly enough to evade the inhabitants of our huge local rookery.  

Alongside wheat and beans, we’re also planting barley and pea. On a smaller plot, we’ll be sowing spring barley, rye and peas, the rye and barley combination inspired by the African tradition of Maslins. These blends of different cereals were common and remain so in certain areas. Literature is limited but what there is often describes notable disease and drought resilience. To remove barriers to bi-cropping, Wildfarmed already offers whole crop processing to our growers. As such, it’s worth exploring further possibilities of crop combinations that can be separated successfully post-harvest. Rather than applying all our chemistries and ingenuity to maintaining monocultures, the vigour of diverse cover crop mixes suggests that it is worth pursuing the idea of harvestable in-field diversity, applying our science and ingenuity instead to seed separation. 

Last week I was asked to speak at a gathering of crop and soil scientists and farmers hosted by the Aurora Trust at Cambridge’s Sainsbury Laboratory. With a room full of research bodies, I was keen to put forward questions for which so many of the farmers I speak to want answers. 

Black grass; there are growers using £150/Ha of mixed herbicides to try and remain in control. On the other hand, we have seen fields following summer long cover crops go from being the most black grass infested to the cleanest. What are the mechanisms at work here? If it’s a change in soil biology, soil porosity or shading, or a combination of those things, let’s understand it better so we can optimise the efficacy of the cover crop blends. 

Glyphosate; last year, Wildfarmed teamed up with Rothamsted to look at which is least bad for the soil – terminating cover crops with a buffered dose of glyphosate or with shallow cultivations. On highly biological soil, our trials showed that after 7 weeks, there were no traces of glyphosate. But also, that the cultivated ground had regained its functional connectivity. We now need to find the funding to investigate the long-term effects of both practices on the soil microbiome; the chelating effects of glyphosate and any disease implications of micronutrient deficiencies that follow. And whether the effects of glyphosate and tillage are more persistent on degraded soils. Depending on the results, it may be that biologically-rich systems can be successfully managed with careful cultivations – something which many good organic growers would be keen to confirm – but it may also be that using buffered glyphosate to terminate cover crops is a useful tool in getting arable systems up the biological ladder. 

Plant Diversity; The American scientist Mary Lucero describes the day that DNA analysis of a Desert Salt Bush plant came back as a match for the DNA of a whale. The explanation was that both plant and whale were host to the same salt loving fungi. This world of fungal and bacterial endophytes living inside every plant cell and moving freely between them is beginning to shed light on how diverse plant communities “signal for help” andreceive it. This science has urgent and practical applications. Dr Christine Jones has an amazing photo in which half of a field has died in an Australian drought. The other half, sown with companion plants, is thriving.  What are the best functional groups to confer this kind of resilience on cereal crops? At what seeding rates? Let’s apply science to understanding how these mechanisms work to refine their application at scale. 

Disease; there are myriad examples of farmers using nutrition management for successful disease control. In the US, John Kempf’s AEA team are doing this across 4 million acres. On a more modest scale, but across the UK nevertheless, Wildfarmed growers are using plant SAP analysis and nutrition management to replace pesticide applications. Farmers around the world cite innumerable examples of crop diseases deemed incurable by chemistry that have been rectified through nutritional integrity and biology. Yet still this is not the subject of mainstream scientific enquiry, and here in the UK we don’t even have a lab capable of old leaf / new leaf SAP analysis. 

There were lots of positive conversations afterwards from different research bodies keen to work with the Wildfarmed community and take this research forward. Updates to follow. 

Meanwhile, back to the here and now. Extremes of weather are cruelly exposing the fragility of recovery in soils, even those managed under no-till systems for a long time. When we compare the resilience of field margins to the fields themselves, everything points to biology as the critical difference. In the words of Wendell Berry 

“We have harassed the temporary power afforded to us by fossil fuels to bypass nature’s self sustaining complexity. But in doing so, we have created something very fragile, complicated and expensive”

If biology is the key, the role of a summer long cover crop as a massive biological kick start seems to become more and more important. Despite the recent announcement of restrictions on some elements of SFI, this doesn’t affect the plan amongst some Wildfarmed growers to build a rotation around an NUM3 summer long cover, followed by, for example, a winter wheat and bean, a winter cover, then into a spring barley and pea. 

Chairman of BASE UK, Camgrain Farmer Director, inspirational Cambridgeshire Wildfarmed grower…introducing all of David White’s work would take me over the word count. But last autumn he and I took the NUM3 idea, together with the theory behind the strip cropping / inter-row mower approach, and combined it into what he has christened the Abbey Road system. But that’s a story for another day.