Case Study: Using unharvested cereal headlands combined with cultivated margins on heavy land

Author: Martin Lines
Farm: Papley Grove Farm, Cambridgeshire

Aims:

Using options that need spring establishment can be difficult on heavy land. We wanted to find a way of providing conservation management without needing a great deal of work in the spring and without causing undue problems to the crop following it.

I grow winter wheat, winter beans and oil seed rape. Because of my heavy soils we thought this combination would be ideal for using ground for two full cropping years, allowing me to follow it with another winter established crop and avoiding the need for trying to get a crop going in the spring. I worked with Niki Williamson of the RSPB, who gives free nature-friendly farming advice in the Fens area, to design the combination.

Management:

I plant a winter wheat crop as normal, leaving a headland as a conservation headland. This receives limited fertiliser, no insecticides after 15 March, and I apply limited fungicide (only when absolutely necessary to stop crop failure). This provides insect-rich habitat all summer, helping birds like grey partridges and corn buntings. The headland is left unharvested the following autumn, so provides winter seed food as well.

From 21 March, I cultivate the headland by ploughing or discing to form a cultivated margin. Problems with working the heavy soil at this time are not so important as I am trying to create a reasonably fine fallow, but not required to create a seedbed to establish a mix or a crop.

If there is blackgrass residue once I’ve cultivated I use a herbicide to control it. That needs doing as soon as cultivation is completed, to give as long a window as possible to allow the intended weeds to grow on the plot, forming cover and food sources for wildlife.

On my land there is no rare arable flora! But the plants that do grow will flower and set seed in time for turtle doves arriving back on the farm in late April, providing a much needed food source. It also provides a fallow, weedy area for other insects and birds to use during the summer months.

From 31 July I spray off the area to clean it up and cultivate it in time to follow it with autumn sowing.

In any one year there are two areas like this on the farm, one in each option. They are rotated around the farm to keep the weed burden in check.

Achievements:

This year we followed the cultivated margin with oil seed rape and I found that this was the best bit of rape in the field. It’s cleaner because of the seedbed preparation and it’s established better because there are less slugs where there are no stubbles.

On my soils blackgrass is an issue, and would normally make things like conservation headlands and summer fallows a no-no. However this management has not increased my weed burden any worse than the rest of the farmed field. There are two opportunities to cultivate the option and bury the blackgrass, one in March and one in July. There is also nearly 2 months across August and September that can be used to germinate weeds and spray them off to create stale seed beds before drilling, giving you plenty of opportunities to address blackgrass problems.

The seed from the unharvested headlands was being depleted by pigeons and crows really early, so I had to put out deterrents to make sure it lasted further into the winter for the smaller birds we were trying to target. In the end there were still big flocks of birds in it right up until March, finding something to eat. I also have other wild bird seed mixes on the farm, which are designed to retain seed through the winter months to make sure there’s a winter-long food source.

We noted that in shaded areas, wheat tended to stay in the ear and germinate there, making it inaccessible to birds. Although it’s clearly beneficial to site it near a hedge for birds to hop in and out, I think you need to avoid the north side of tall hedges or woodland s to avoid loss of seed in this way.

The plots are rotated around the farm, so this year it will be sited in a different place. The unharvested headland will be near woodland rather than hedge. Having observed it this winter, I now wonder if it will be as popular without the hedge for the birds to use as a base to feed from. Otherwise I am very happy with the option as it stands. It fits in well with our system and delivers what we wanted for wildlife.

I found the options very easy to manage. It needs an extra operation in March to create the cultivated margin but nothing onerous.

I do what it takes to make the margin work in terms of balancing wildlife benefits with weed control. Some years it takes more, sometimes less. Although I haven’t done the detailed costings, I’m confident it balances out overall and does not leave me out of pocket.

The hedge alongside the option was teeming with yellowhammers, corn buntings, reed buntings and sparrows for as long as there was seed left in the headland. There were still birds using it when I came to cultivate it in March. There are breeding turtle doves on the farm, which I hope would benefit from the early seed source the cultivated margin provides. I saw loads of starlings and blackbirds rummaging around in spring and summer, which must show how many insects there are in there.

You can also see areas where partridge have used the fallow as a sunbathing/dusting area.

It adds another feature to the farm that wouldn’t usually be there. It’s not common to find fallow areas on heavy land, so this adds to the diversity of our system.

It’s a simple straightforward combination option that has worked well for me in my farming system.

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