Seeding Success for the Future

Safeguarding the environment and maximising efficiencies is key for the long-term sustainability of one Shropshire farming business – with getting crops off to the best start being a key part of the strategy.

Farming 440ha near Wolverley, second generation farmer Rory Lay has his eyes firmly fixed on cultivating a sustainable business that is fit for passing down in the future. Rory farms in partnership with his father John, operating as a mixed farm, comprising arable and livestock enterprises. Cropping across the various soil types is diverse, with components of the rotation chosen for both their returns potential and to provide the majority of feed for 240 beef cattle and 770 grazing sheep.

“On the lighter soils we’ve typically grown winter barley on a stubble turnip cover for sheep, but after more than 30 years of turnips every second crop we now have a severe clubroot problem. It has been a steep learning curve to manage it and we now have to be very careful and proactive in where brassicas get planted on the farm.” At £8/ha, nothing comes close to the turnips in terms of seed cost and nutritional value for the sheep as they last “ages” on it, notes Rory.

“I’ve tried grazing them through the winter on kale – which is clubroot tolerant – after barley, but by the time it is planted, it’s a bit too late for it to reach its full potential so it doesn’t sustain the sheep. At a seed cost of £70/ha it doesn’t really stack up financially, either,” he notes. With this in mind, over more recent years Rory has turned to a nine-way cover crop mix of forage rye, phacelia, two types of clover, sunflowers, plantain, chicory, vetch and linseed that do well planted July time and keep the sheep well fed through the winter.

Italian ryegrass is also sown on some fields as a short-term ley for the sheep to graze and is cut for silage in the spring, and followed by maize or fodder beet. On the heavier ground, a cover of forage rye, phacelia, clover and vetch is planted in August, fitting into the wheat, wheat, oilseed rape, wheat, wheat, spring bean rotation. All crops are grown for feed, with the exception of the oilseed rape, with the beans also contributing to cattle diets, meaning stock are 99% fed from the farm’s homegrown produce.

Safeguarding soils

While sheep feed is the biggest driver for planting the cover crops, as well as avoiding bare ground over winter, it’s the huge root mass and top growth benefits to soil health that Rory puts massive value on – something of which is becoming more and more important to help him achieve his goals of protecting his soils and the knock-on effect this has on crop health.

“The deep rooting nature of our cover crops not only helps improve soil structure, but also helps to build organic matter and nutrient capture from the soil and sun, which I’m trying to optimise with the diverse rooting depths and growth habits of our covers,” he explains. “For example, forage rye is really deep rooting, as is the phacelia which has a high root length density in topsoil. “Chicory also produces a large root system and has anthelmintic properties, providing a natural wormer for the sheep.”

Sustainability goals

Cover crops are just one part of the puzzle, however, and over the past eight years the Lays have put a great deal of focus into ensuring a sustainable business that is fit for passing down to Rory’s children. “To continue to farm we need to look after our soils, and we also need to be profitable,” he stresses. In theory, this transition actually started 25 years ago, when the farm moved away from the plough, switching to a min-til approach to save costs.

However, we found the cost with the Sumo Trio was actually not all that different, so in 2015 we bought a strip till and straw rake,” says Rory. “Allowing us to establish crops in a single pass created the biggest savings as we were able to get rid of a tractor and reduce labour.” Despite concerns that yield could be impacted by the change in establishment techniques, this hasn’t been the case.

Instead, Rory has seen benefits to soil health, including improved structure and workability, as well as savings of £70-80/ha. “These savings come down largely to the fact it’s now easier to pull the drill and we can go faster as the ground is more workable. Texture is also crumblier and walks nicer due to less soil disturbance.”

With economic savviness forming part of the sustainability picture, savings have also been made in the sheep enterprise by reducing the flock of 880 yearling ewe lambs down to 170, making it easier for the Lays to balance the summer workload. “We always sell the sheep the following summer as prime breeding ewes which always clashes with harvest,” explains Rory.

“But our soils still benefit as we rent land for 600 grazing lambs which deliver a plentiful supply of manure that adds greatly to the soil’s organic matter as it breaks down.” The value of muck is also utilised from the farmyard manure produced by the Aberdeen Angus herd, which is spread on the land to help boost organic matter levels even further. These were measured at a baseline of 4% six years ago and have continued to rise year-on-year, says Rory. “It’s a measure we keep a close eye on.”

Crop protection strategies

When it comes to crop protection, Rory is also looking to make savings to his fungicide inputs — not just from a cost perspective, but also to protect beneficial fungi and microbes in the soil. “It all comes down to getting our soils as fit as we can and ensuring a healthy plant from the start, so that we can move towards being less reliant on chemical applications.”

Being in the “wet West” yellow rust and septoria are the main disease headaches, he explains. “We’re trying to cut back on fungicide in the main crops by reducing rates and the number of applications, but because I need to make a profit to be sustainable, it does very much depend on the season how we do that.

If it’s a bad disease year we can’t take the risk of losing valuable yield, so we will spray accordingly.” Improvements have been made, however, with the farm already cutting down from an average of four to two sprays a year by reacting to the weather at the time and treating accordingly. What’s more, Rory says he is actively looking at what other tools are in the toolbox to help prime plants from the get-go and reduce the need for fungicides. Varietal choice is one of those tools.

“We grow all feed wheats and varietal choice comes down to disease ratings – we always opt for varieties with a score of 7 and above for septoria as this cost is the most to control,” he explains. “This year we’re growing Dawsum, Extase, Champion, and I’m also trying a blend of Graham, Gleam, Skyscraper and Extase to see if this can help us optimise disease resistance.

“What’s more, we’re on our fourth year of home-saved seed to see if we can make a more resilient plant stand through the mixed genetics.” A small acreage of triticale is also grown as it is resistant to septoria. The theory behind this is that it reduces inoculum and has the added benefit of less passes, which reduces workload, explains Rory.

Another aid Rory has found to be beneficial is a biostimulant seed treatment, which he believes helps to get crops growing well in their early stages, as a healthy plant is more resilient. He first started dabbling with foliar biostimulants eight years ago, but said he had mixed results and therefore has focused on achieving a healthy plant from the outset, with a good root system that can access nutrients and moisture as the season develops.

“I’ve spent a lot of time reading about soils and how getting the seed growing well with good access to nutrients is the key to reducing reliance on chemicals. It’s these benefits which resonated when reading about Interagro’s biostimulant seed treatment Newton – and also seeing the data to back it up. “Getting crops off to the strongest start is essential and that’s what Newton gives us. Well sown is half grown, and with Newton crops are stronger and the improved rooting is key, helping improve nutrient acquisition from the soil to feed the growing plant.”

Newton power

For the past three years, Rory has been treating all of his home-saved seed with Newton for the benefits mentioned, but also as part of a conscious decision to move away from chemical seed dressings. “In 2022 we had some microdochium on the seed, so we had to treat with single purpose dressing Beret Gold (fludioxonil),” he explains.

“But the autumn 2023 seed has been okay, so we’ve only treated with Newton – saving us £120/t. Second wheats we’ve typically dressed with Latitude (silthiofam), but I’m keen to avoid it if possible, at £200/t.” To look at this potential in more detail Rory set up a trial in three fields last autumn – half with Newton-only treated seed and the other half treated with Latitude + Newton.

“It would have made interesting viewing, but after the worst autumn on record for the farm, the fields have been sat under water for weeks and I don’t think we’ll be able to take a single field through as seed is just rotting,” he says, disappointedly. Looking at the bigger seed health picture, Rory says he’s also supplementing with a sixway bacterial product called Consortium from Aiva Fertilisers.

“Three years ago, I added a liquid applicator to the drill to apply the Consortium and also a silicon nutrient product to go down with the seed. To me it makes sense to maximise the rooting with Newton which aids the bacteria and the plant and provides an immediate feed source to the seedling.” This is also part of the strategy helping Rory reduce his fertiliser inputs.

“Not everything receives farmyard manure, so we’ve started using nitram and polysulphate, we’re not getting the sulphur deficiencies we used to and we’re down to 180 kg/ha N on wheats for a 10t wheat crop, down from 220 kg/ha three years ago.” Turning to spring 2024, and Rory expects a fair amount of drilling with home-saved spring barley seed, which he will drill with Newton.

But first, the coming months will be spent planting fruit and native trees as part of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme the farm is part of – with this year set to see an additional 3,000 metres of hedging and trees planted. Tree planting is an annual occurrence on the farms land as Rory is keen to support bird populations and wildlife, the Black Headed Bunting being one of the farms visitors – only the eighth sighting ever in the UK, and the third ever caught and ringed.

“Our goal is simple – to create a business and a farm which will be here for future generations. But to get there, it requires careful planning, cautious decision-making and utilising every tool available to minimise risk and maximise returns – both financial and in terms of crop and soil health. “Starting with good, healthy seed is crucial and being able to lean on the benefits of Newton helps us ensure that, regardless of whatever else happens that season, we’ve primed crops from the get-go to perform to their full potential.”