Min-till is a technique I’ve stubbornly refused to adopt for many years. But, given that it is now considered basic ‘good husbandry’, even by the Government, and so may be a required technique to enable arable farmers to qualify for ELMS Sustainable Farming Initiative (SFI) payments, am I going to have to give up my ploughing ways?
Most of my arable land is heavy and poorly drained so ploughing helps prevent the soil from becoming compacted. The land is also infested with blackgrass, so, as this pernicious weed has become ever more resistant to the few herbicides that we are still allowed to use to control it, I rely on the plough to bury any weed seed return so that it cannot germinate.
But this year, as spring beans will form part of my rotation, I have decided to tiptoe gingerly into min-till by engaging a contractor to sow them for me with a Claydon drill. Depending on soil conditions, they will either direct drill them without any prior cultivations or move the soil slightly in advance to ensure that there is enough tilth to bury the beans.
So, rather than me plough the land this winter, any blackgrass will be killed off by an application of glyphosate. This will greatly reduce the CO2 that will be emitted, as inverting the soil releases truly scary quantities of carbon.
So far so good, but, unlike most min-till practitioners, I did not plant a green cover crop last autumn. This is done to suppress weeds, reduce leaching of nutrients, prevent soil erosion and improve soil structure and levels of organic matter.
The reason I held back was that I am currently unnerved by predictions that cover crops are forecast to become ‘the weeds of the future’. With so many species of cover crops being sown, agronomists are becoming concerned that controlling them within a rotation will become difficult and expensive – particularly given how costly herbicides have now become.
Apparently ‘phacelia’ (whatever that is?) is already causing problems in following cereal crops, and trials are also under way about the best herbicides to use to control volunteers of fodder radish, rye, clover, vetch and chicory.
But, ‘weeds of the future’ or not, it seems that we will have to plant cover crops if they are going to be required by the SFI, which will insist that 80% of spring-cropped land be sown with green cover through the preceding winter.
If I’m going to recoup at least some of my BPS payments as they are withdrawn over the next four years, it seems that I will have no option but to embrace min-till. That said, even though scrap metal is making good money, I won’t be getting rid of my plough just yet.