How one farmer is refining his regenerative farming plans – FarmersWeekly

how-one-farmer-is-refining-his-regenerative-farming-plans-–-farmersweekly

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Learning from mistakes and adapting plans are key parts of the transition towards a regenerative approach, with much of the knowledge exchange for this farming system still relatively new.
Fortunately for Leicestershire farmer Max Chenery, who admits to being still very much in the learning phase, one of the few positives from the pandemic lockdowns has been the proliferation of webinars over the past year.
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In particular, BASE-UK, an organisation for farmers interested in regenerative or conservation agriculture, has been running a series of webinars over the year which have formed the basis of Mr Chenery’s lockdown learning.
“During lockdown I was trying to spend at least an hour most nights researching and learning more about regenerative farming,” he says.
It’s resulted in a subtle change of emphasis for his fledgling transition to a more regenerative approach.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned from watching a lot of BASE-UK Zoom meetings is not to get too hung up about reducing sprays and inputs too quickly, and making sure you concentrate on soil health first.
Unless farmers have healthy soil, which is functioning correctly, it is more difficult to reduce artificial inputs.
“So I’ve calmed down a bit on reducing inputs to focus more on the soil and hopefully everything else will fall into place.”
Since Farmers Weekly’s last visit in October, he has made the following changes to hopefully further move towards a successful transition.
1. Incorporating more cover crops into the rotation
© Tim Scrivener
An immediate result of the increased focus on soil health is a renewed determination to incorporate cover crops into the rotation, including ahead of autumn sown crops, which make up the bulk of the cropping on the 800ha Whatton Estate Farm.
“Putting a cover crop in ahead of a winter-sown cereal is a challenge because it is quite expensive for a short space of time.”
At a cost of £13-£25/ha for cover crop seed, plus around £50-£60/ha drilling costs, he is unsure of the economic benefit for something that might only be in the ground for six weeks, but he is keen to be much more dedicated to having living roots in the ground for as much of the year as possible, to encourage soil biology.

Farm facts

675ha mixed farm
Cropping includes wheat, spelt, oilseed rape, and winter and spring beans
Practicing regenerative agriculture since 2018

“We won’t cover crop the entire area, just from a risk perspective – I don’t want to spend thousands and create a complete nightmare trying to drill into a bulky cover crop with a tine drill – but probably over 50% will be.”
He’s also keen to use the cover crop to help solve another issue that has come to the fore this season – volunteers from previous cereal crops.
“We need to get the volunteers to chit a bit earlier. The go-to thing would be to cultivate behind the combine.”
He potentially has access to a Carrier from a neighbour that would only cultivate the top 1cm, but what he would prefer to do is pull his Horsch CO8 tine drill over the farm behind the combine with the cheapest mix of seed that will grow fast, with the hope of chitting the volunteers at the same time, as putting living roots in.
The covers will then be drilled directly into or topped before drilling, depending on growth, and sprayed off around the same time, he says. 
2. Fitting a seeder to the drill
Max Chenery © Tim Scrivener
Cover and companion crops can be seeded using a new £7,500 Stocks Turbo Jet 10 seeder unit, which has been fitted to the drill – increasing the versatility of his establishment system.
The lack of spare spool valves on the tractor limited choice to a seeder with an electric motor and capable of spreading seed to the 8m drill width, he says. “The Stocks seeder seemed the only one that could do this, and even this one is on the limit, but we think we should be able to spread seed rates of 30-40kg/ha, which will be fine for cover crops at 10-15kg/ha.”
He says it gives him much greater versatility. “I can drill cover crops with it this summer – putting 30-40kg/ha of beans in with the main tine drill and spreading 10kg/ha phacelia, oil radish, and vetch out the back.
Mr Chenery hopes the one drill can now do everything he wants on the farm, apart from perhaps drilling into big cover crops.
3. Trialling bacterial product to reduce nitrogen requirements
While the focus may have shifted towards soil health first and foremost, Mr Chenery is testing biofertilisers to see whether they could help reduce synthetic nitrogen applications.
The Smart Rotation products from Plantworks contain plant growth promoting rhizobacteria (PGPR), which as the name implies stimulate plant growth by producing plant hormones, such as cytokinine and auxin. That should make the plant more efficient at using nutrients and increases yield, although the bacteria also have a direct role in helping solubilise phosphorus and, when temperatures are right, fixing atmospheric nitrogen.
In the trials, Mr Chenery is testing PGPR in wheat, oats and beans. Comparisons in the tramline trials include his usual dose of applied nitrogen with and without added rhizobacteria, and also against tramlines of 60% and 80% of his usual nitrogen rate plus the bacteria.
The bacteria were applied separately at least five days before the first fertiliser around the end of February, together with a biostimulant within the product that helps speed up multiplication of the bacteria in the soil.
“We’re looking to see which produces the highest gross margin – the bacteria costs around £30/ha including application.”
4. Greater use of soil sampling
© Tim Scrivener
He’s also started to make more use of soil sampling to both understand nitrogen requirements, and also to create a benchmark for where his soils are currently.
“We did a lot of N-min testing, off the back of which we have cut our nitrogen quite a lot. We found in fields following beans there was 85kg/ha more nitrogen available so we cut by 65kg/ha, and knocked about 20kg/ha from other fields.
He says it was a simple thing, costing about £400, to do the tests and “we’ve saved masses of fertiliser. Of course, we’ll find out with the yields whether it was the right thing to have done.”
More comprehensive soil tests are planned for the summer using Lancrop’s Solvita service, which includes organic matter and microbial respiration, as well as more fundamental chemical analysis. “It might tell us something we need to do to our soils.”
5. Learning from mistakes
Not everything Mr Chenery has tried has worked, he admits. “I had to silage a five-acre field where we had tried to establish a living mulch.
“I wanted to explore the idea of a living mulch of clover underneath the crop, as there could be benefits in using less nitrogen and reduced herbicides. But drilling in the first week of September didn’t work as the clover didn’t grow.
“Then we tried to have faith in the system so we didn’t put any herbicides on hoping that something might happen, but it was just a horrific grassweed mess, which I’ve baled into silage.”
It hasn’t put him off the idea completely though, so this year’s clover will be drilled straight behind the combine, with barley drilled at its usual time.
“I’m still a little worried about weeds, as if the clover isn’t well-established by then it might be killed by a glyphosate application, so I might try drilling barley and clover together in August.
“I feel that having the barley and clover together might create enough competition to drown out the weeds, and then top it at the end of September to allow the barley to regrow back.”

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