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Farming Systems

Contact: Nathan Morris

The average farm rotation uses a range of crops and cultivation approaches. It is therefore important that research considers the rotation as a whole and the interaction of the individual elements (as well as looking at these aspects in isolation); however, long term rotational system studies are becoming increasingly rare. Recognising both the practical and strategic importance of these areas, dedicated farming systems research is being actively pursued within NIAB TAG, and our unique expertise continues to push the boundaries in this type of research. Brief outlines of some of the key farming systems research projects delivered through NIAB TAG are set out beneath:

New Farming Systems

The New Farming Systems (NFS) study is a charitably funded initiative, delivered through NIAB TAG at Morley in Norfolk, supported by The Morley Agricultural Foundation and The JC Mann Trust. The NFS project is seeking routes to address energy usage and pollution risks in conventional rotation systems and to develop this research to find ways to maintain or increase financial margins whilst reducing the footprint of conventional farming. As an agricultural community we are looking at a future in which energy will become increasingly expensive and our production focus will move further toward sustainable systems. Current conventional farming practices tend to be energy reliant with a high hydrocarbon burden. Recent Defra funded research indicated that for every tonne of conventional wheat produced around 75% of the energy used is either field diesel or bagged fertiliser – both heavily hydrocarbon dependant. Two of the main NFS themes being addressed in the large scale, long term replicated field studies are cultivations and fertility.

  • Cultivations across the rotation; this research strand is exploring approaches to shallow tillage across the rotation and seeking to identify situations where it can be used with confidence and ideally within quantified criteria (e.g. soil measurements).
  • Fertility building in the rotation; this is being addressed through long term experiments considering both the use of cover crops and soil amendments.

Information sheets

The STAR project

The STAR project (Sustainability Trial in Arable Rotations) was initiated in autumn 2005 at Stanaway Farm, Otley, Suffolk and the research is funded though the Felix Thornley Cobbold Trust. The objective of the experiment is to study the sustainability of different establishment techniques within different rotations for arable production on a heavy soil type. The trial is fully replicated and makes use of farm scale equipment and techniques. The study is examining the interaction between four different methods of establishment (plough, deep non-inversion, shallow non-inversion and a managed approach) and four different rotations (winter cropping, spring cropping, continuous wheat and alternate wheat / fallow). Each rotation includes winter wheat every second year, the intermediate year is a break crop/fallow year; the choice of break crop makes each rotation unique (i.e. the winter cropping rotation has a winter sown break crop and the spring cropping has spring break crop). Information from the STAR project comes in the form of both direct information and also derived information. Considering direct information, long term assessments have been looking at changes in soil structure and weed burden and interesting trends are emerging in both. Recording of yield data is also vital in the project, but perhaps more important is the derived financial data looking at the rotational margins produced. In many seasons yield data alone can point to high yields from plough based approaches, but this hasn’t always been reflected in speed of working or margin when viewed both in season and in the in the longer term.

Fertility building in Cotswold soils

The use of inorganic nitrogen is key to maintaining fertility and yield in conventional arable systems. However, inorganic nitrogen is an energy rich product that is becoming increasingly expensive. With the assistance of The John Oldacre Foundation, research within NIAB TAG is exploring the potential of bi-cropped legume species to be integrated into modern conventional farming systems (e.g. clover grown along with wheat as an inter-crop). This is being carried out with a view to reducing bagged nitrogen requirements and building yield potential and longer-term fertility on thin Cotswold brash soils. One of the key issues is the reliable establishment of both species and the persistency of clover within the system over the length of the rotation. This study is looking at clover established in year one (from timings ranging from August through to mid September) and wheat establishment (timings from mid September through mid October) in both years one and two as well as examining the interaction with applied nitrogen dose. While data from this ongoing research programme has shown variation, there is an increasing suggestion that positive yield responses to clover inter-cropping are possible at lower nitrogen doses. This may become increasingly relevant as the price of inorganic nitrogen continues to rise.