Securing a Sustainable Future

Creating a simple, low input system that produces nutrient dense food with a low environmental and economic cost is the ultimate goal for one Borders grower, as part of his aim to move towards a net zero future.

David Fuller-Shapcott is a multi-award winning fourth generation farmer, operating a mixed arable and livestock farm across 369ha in the heart of the Scottish Borders. The farm is predominantly arable, with 32ha of permanent pasture and a small area of rotational grass park lets for bed and breakfast cattle over the summer months and grazing sheep over the winter. While the livestock aren’t his own, the grazing provides valuable income to the business and are also part of David’s ambition to help the next generation get into farming. Having been involved with his 51st lambing last year, there’s not much he doesn’t know about shepherding…

On farm challenges

As well as an income, there are associated muck benefits to soil health from grazing livestock, however as a general rule, cropping and soil health has historically been quite challenging on farm, explains David. “Improving soil health has been a key focus for a while. We’re farming mostly heavy clay, high magnesium soils which are very sticky when wet, but like concrete when dry. “It means our crops have a very short growing season as they are slow to warm up in spring, and then quick to cool with the wet in winter.” At up to 600ft above sea level, the farm is also a very “late” one, notes David. “The consequence of that is we can have difficulty getting crops, and cover crops, established and sustaining them.” Like many, this autumn growing season has been particularly challenging for David. “We’ve had failure on 30ha of cover crop this winter which were broadcast onto wheat stubbles. “We planted two thirds of the wheat we’d planned to, and half of that has failed — we’ve lost a seed crop as well. The relentless rain and field conditions also mean no herbicide has been applied to any of the wheat and I don’t have a single field where you can see crop across the whole field.” As a result, David has all his hopes pegged on drilling the remaining area in the first couple of months of the year and from a longterm perspective – with climatic extremities seemingly becoming the norm — he believes utilising all the tools in the toolbox will be vital in helping both farming businesses and crops become more resilient in the face of adversity. “Farming is a continuous journey and with the speed it’s advancing at, you need to be on the front foot of change. “I see synthetic chemicals as a 70–100-year phenomenon, which are unlikely to be around in 20 years time. “We’re already seeing restrictions on synthetic fertilisers and there will undoubtedly be further reductions where we need to get smarter as farmers.

David Fuller-Shapcott – Farm Manager, Scottish Borders
Sustainability strategy

It’s this big picture thinking which is driving David’s sustainability and net zero strategy to farm in a way that is sympathetic to nature and will enhance biodiversity. “I’m particularly focused on my soils and farming in a way to enhance the wildlife and birds, rather than destroy them. That might mean lower yields and lower inputs, but margin is incumbent and at the moment yields and margin are not all that different.”

Acutely aware that change doesn’t happen overnight, David has been working away at this goal for quite some time, starting with a shift in how soils are managed 14 years ago. “We started the transition towards healthier soils back in 2010 on one field which was the heaviest and most difficult to farm.” Named ‘Easter Myre’ — Scottish for sh*t — David remarks this is now one of his easiest fields to work.

“A key part of achieving this has been the move from the plough to mintill,” he explains. “The change in cultivations has not only brought cost savings, but greatly benefited soil structure and aeration. “Being heavy clay soils with impeded natural drainage, we’ve had to be very focused on the soil and that’s included regular maintenance of the extensive under ground drainage in most of the fields.”

As part of this, David’s aim has been getting direct drilling to work for him. Though this is very difficult to achieve in Scotland, he’s made good progress and in 2023 was able to direct drill all of the crops. “I’ve now sold the plough and the power harrow has been collecting dust in the shed and is ready to sell too.” Improved soil health goes hand-in-hand with enhanced soil biology — another aspect of management David has been looking at over the past few years.

“I’ve been focusing on soil health for a while, but now we’re trying to nuance that – refine that focus – to improve the proportion of soil fungi, which is one of the main reasons I’m not very keen on putting fungicidal seed dressings on the crop. “Though I’ve been told they have no effect, I have difficulty believing that a fungicide in the soil doesn’t influence fungi populations.”

It’s this reason that one of David’s main goals for the farm is to reduce his dependence on chemicals. “To enable this, we need to make sure that the seed we plant is healthy – everything starts with the seed. One of the things that chemicals have bought in the past is rooting benefits, but I’m looking at what else is out there to provide the same advantages.”

Biostimulant benefits

This is where biostimulants have proved to be a good alternative option. In his own words, David says biostimulants have become a key part of the strategy for him and are one of the tools which he sees as the next logical step in the industry’s journey towards sustainability — a journey that he describes as one that won’t ever really come to an end.

Over recent year’s David has particularly found success from using Newton – an organic plant-based biostimulant seed treatment from Interagro which aids both crop establishment and helps to build healthier, stronger plants which are more resilient in the face of stress factors such as drought.

As well as the wheat, spring cropping also features heavily in David’s rotation of oilseed rape, wheat, spring oats, wheat, spring barley – most going for distilling – and it’s in the spring barley where David first put Newton to the test. David tested Newton for the first time three years ago, putting it up against Kick Off – a phosphate-based seed treatment designed to help boost rooting – incorporated with a fungicide.

“I trialled it in a field of spring barley, sowing 56m wide strips and comparing paired 28m tramlines of Newton with paired tramlines of Kick Off. “I then asked the agronomist to see if he could find any difference,” recalls David. “I told him where the breaks were in the tramlines, but not what the products were, and he could not find a single difference between the fungicide and Kick Off tramlines and where Newton was used alone.

“What we took from that is that Newton was bringing a fair bit to the party in terms of how it benefited crop performance, and also reducing my seed costs as a consequence. We took this through to combine yield at harvest over a weighbridge and found no statistical difference in yield either, so now I just use Newton alone. I don’t bother with Kick Off or SPDs in the spring now – Newton does it all.” In 2023 all of David’s spring seed was sown with Newton only.

“My spring barley was direct drilled for the first time including the Newton, and it got away fine – we didn’t suffer with any moisture stress which a lot of spring barley in the area did. Generally speaking, it looked very well. “With my YEN hat on, it’s very clear that we need to be enhancing rooting to maximise output – rooting is imperative to both water and nutrient capture – and as a treatment, Newton ticks that box well.

“Using it means my nitrogen use efficiency has improved because rooting and water capture has got better, therefore I’ve not been suffering in these dry springs we’ve been having recently.” David notes that he sees the spring as being a particularly beneficial timing for the application of Newton. “These dry springs seem to be getting more common, so I think Newton will have a really big role to play prior to this window to help bolster plant resilience.

This spring Newton only will be applied to spring barley which will be a big acreage. Fundamentally, getting roots down to capture applied nutrients and what’s already in the soil will be crucial.”

Stress-busting solutions

But it’s not just on the seed where David has been utilising the plant health benefits of biostimulants. He also sees them as being crucial alongside nutrition to help keep plants in optimal health and stress-free during the season — a strategy which he is employing to help reduce reliance on foliar fungicides, having already dropped insecticides from the crop protection toolbox some time ago.

It’s a careful approach that is needed, adds David, because although he’s looking to lower inputs, he’s aiming to do that without lowering output too much. To help with this David applies silicon as a preventative spray early season to help strengthen the plant cell walls from pathogen attack. “Septoria is the principal problem in wheat. In the barley, rhynchosporium is the more prevalent disease, though I’ve found its relatively easy to keep on top of it with a two-spray programme.

I am, however, a strong believer in using nutrition and biostimulants to keep plants healthy, and certainly to manage the ramularia threat. Driving roots down early and optimising the plant’s nutrient capture is crucial to help with that. “We monitor what the plant needs in season by doing regular tissue tests to see what our plants are getting out of the soils and where there maybe deficiencies that need rectifying.

“Also, if we know a crop can be typically deficient in copper, zinc or manganese for example, we will be checking for it and give crops a boost if needed. There will be products that we nuance in-season and then there will be other products that we apply routinely. “Some years we see ramularia, and some years we don’t. It depends on the triggers and making sure crops are stress-free reduces the risk.”

In 2023 that included pairing herbicide with the likes of Oceana – an amino acid + seaweed biostimulant blend from Interagro – to keep the barley stress-free as conditions became drier, he adds. With improved soil health, increased rooting from biostimulants, and pairing nitrogen applications with Nurture N from Aiva Fertilisers, David has also been able to reduce his reliance on synthetic fertilisers and over the past couple of years, has managed to cut his nitrogen inputs for wheat from 220 kg/ ha N to 160 kg/ha N, from a 60:80:60 kg/N split to 60:60:40.

However, this spring he may need to up the earlier nitrogen and reduce the later nitrogen following the challenging winter. “It’s all about being pragmatic with the approach.”

Capturing a premium

David says that his sustainability journey is continuously evolving and ultimately, he is striving to get his farm and soils in a position that make the farm more resilient to the intense weather patterns the farm is facing. And this drive is already paying off, allowing him to capture a sustainability premium as part of his contract with Simpsons Malt and the Chivas Brothers for growing his winter wheat for distilling in a more environmentally sustainable way.

“Long-term I want to be in a position where we are – or are close to being – net zero and we’re recognised for that,” he concludes. “Biologicals will be a key component in achieving this – they’re absolutely part of the IPM approach to how we grow crops. We’re losing chemicals, either regulatory or efficacy wise, at an alarming rate and we’ve got to get on the front foot and understand what we can do to improve the way we’re growing crops. “Farming more in harmony with nature with natural products will become increasingly important, and I see micronutrients and biostimulants being a key part of that.”