Case study: Insecticide-free arable farming

Author: Martin Lines
Farm: Papley Grove Farm, Cambridgeshire: 160 ha farmed in-house plus 360 ha contract farmed

(c) Martin Lines

Aims:

In 2013, my agronomist recommended that I spray for black bean aphid, but conditions were too wet and windy for a period of ten days, after which aphid numbers had dropped and ladybirds were eating them, so I decided not to spray and saw no detrimental impact on my gross margin. This got me thinking about the pros and cons of insecticide use, as insecticides were becoming less beneficial due to resistance and were taking out the beneficials that were doing the natural pest control. Prior to this, I had already stopped using Dursban to control Orange Wheat Blossom Midge (OWBM) about 15 years ago because of the damage I could see this did to the insect life as a whole in the field. Also, my experience of contract farming an area of organic farmland for ten years led me to realise that insecticides were not necessary for yields in this system: the reduced yield of the organic land seemed to be more down to crop nutrition and weed pressure than pests or diseases. So I took the decision to do everything I could to control pests without insecticides and monitor the impacts on my yields and profit margins.

I took advice from my Frontier agronomist, who is very understanding of where I am coming from and where I want to get to. I also get ideas from events and social media.

Management:

Prior to 2013, insecticide spray decisions were based on a combination of thresholds and convenience. As the products cost £1.60 / ha and the operation cost £5 or £6 / ha, I would occasionally add an insecticide to a fungicide or herbicide application if its use was likely to be necessary, to save the money of running two operations. After 2013, the convenience use of insecticides stopped and I monitored against thresholds for the first few years and did not find a single justifiable case to spray. There were anxious moments in the early years when I would see signs of Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus (BYDV) on small areas, but in experience this did not result in a net economic loss. Pest numbers seem to have been suppressed from exceeding thresholds from year one. Subsequently, I keep an eye out on forecasts and look for visible signs of an issue but am more relaxed that I have built up the resilience of my soil, crops and beneficials to have confidence that I may never need an insecticide again. I am not saying that I will never use them, but as yet, I have not had a need to. I occasionally see OWBM, but timing of control for these is so critical, and the use of a summer insecticide is so damaging that I have resisted the urge I would have previously had to resort to the can. Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle (CSFB) problems seem to occur whether I use insecticides or not and the way I look at it now is that the more you use the chemical, the greater the risk of resistance build up.

I have broadened the range of crops I grow. Previously, I stuck to a rigid two wheats, oilseed rape, one or two wheats, beans, all winter-sown, and the ratio of crops in the ground would be roughly 70% wheat, 20% oilseed rape, 10% beans. Now I have added winter and spring barley and have no fixed rotation, tailoring the cropping in each field to weed pressure and soil health. So, for example, if I have a black-grass problem then I will not go with a 2nd wheat, even though this gives a better return than a break crop. In general, I grow less wheat, more barley, less oilseed rape and more beans than previously. I now average about 40% wheat, 30% barley, 20% beans and 10% oilseed rape. The reduction in area of oilseed rape is more due to the challenges of dry August / September than issues with CSFB. On paper this would seem like a less profitable rotation, but in reality, I have slashed my cost of production, which has more than made up for loss of yields and crop values and my net profits have increased. Books also say that incorporation of spring crops to reduce black-grass levels results in a net loss in profits, but in reality, incorporation of the full range of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques more than makes up for this through reducing costs of production.

Ladybird on winter beans (c) Martin Lines

I use pest resistant varieties where possible, but take decisions based on the best contracts that I can get, so this is not a major consideration. I have moved back towards traditional recommended cropping intervals, but this is a balance to have full IPM and maintaining a balanced rotation, so unlike virtually all farmers, I am moving back towards five to six years between oilseed rape crops.

I drill cereals after mid-October if weather allows, rather than September to reduce black-grass and autumn aphid pressure. I avoid over-feeding crops with nitrogen fertiliser in one application to prevent rapid growth, making the crop more prone to pest and disease pressure.

Making the habitats to enable the beneficial insects and spiders to thrive is key to the success of this system. I started off with flower-rich margins around the outside of the fields, and now have been adding flower-rich strips every 4th tramline (120m) to improve natural pest control and insect pollination. I am forever increasing my habitat areas voluntarily until my agri-environment agreements expire and allow me to top up the payments based on the areas I am taking out of production. I see the benefits of the in-field strips on the yield maps of my oilseed rape and beans, with yields being 5-20% greater next to the strip and tailing off further into the field: this also reflects my observation of the number of bumblebees I see across the fields. The yield response is probably a combination of the effects of increased insect pollination and increased natural pest control. I have not looked at whether the enhanced pest control next to the flower strips shows any benefits in my cereals yields yet.

Field margin in flower at Papley Grove Farm (c) Martin Lines

What area/% of cropped land is now out of production for AES / voluntary habitats compared with pre-2013?

I have around 9% on rented land and 12% at home. I also see increasing soil organic matter and, where soil structure allows, direct drilling of crops as measures that benefit the natural pest predators in providing a more functional soil ecosystem within which they can thrive. Many of the measures I have adopted in the transition to regenerative agriculture have multiple benefits, and it is difficult to tease out individual cause and effect impacts.

As well as stopping the use of insecticides, I have also cut down on the use of herbicides, fungicides and molluscicides. I put this down to improved soil health, crop health and better rotations – a consequence of the holistic regenerative agricultural system. I am conscious that pesticides as a whole do damage to the functional ecosystem that boost my yields, and I am looking to reduce use across the board. I monitor slug levels, but if I see lots of beetles in the field, I see if they can do the job first and only treat areas that seem to be struggling. I am not looking to eliminate slugs from the field, but keep them at manageable levels, whilst maintaining a thriving food chain for the beneficials.

This year, I have tried a few new ideas to further benefit from the IPM approach. I have sown a mix of wheat varieties in my wheat field to avoid the pest and disease risks that can arise from a single variety monoculture. I have also undersown my beans with clovers and tried intercropping my oilseed rape with phacelia and clovers to see if these measures will disguise the crop from pests and boost beneficial numbers further.

Achievements:

Overall, crop yields are a little lower, but I think this is more because of the switch to direct drilling than the loss of insecticides. The yield losses are more than made up for by the reduction in costs of production and the net margins are up, despite reducing the areas of wheat, our most profitable crop. Last year, cost of production of my wheat was c.£72 per tonne, about half of the average across my peers. Prior to 2013, profit margins had stagnated, but the trend is now definitely upwards. The total farm profit is so variable from year to year, it is not possible to put an average percentage figure on it yet. I do feel my business is more resilient to the market and weather pressures.

(c) Abi Bunker, RSPB

There are visibly more beneficial insects and spiders. I don’t know what they are, but the ground is alive with them. There is noticeably more wildlife overall, especially the birds. The incidence of pest levels exceeding economic thresholds has declined to zero. This was apparent from year one, but probably accrued over the first few years. Prior to 2013, I might spray a cereal crop with insecticides in the autumn against BYDV, at ear emergence and potentially again for OWBM. In oilseed rape, I would spray between two and four times in the autumn for CSFB.

I also believe there are benefits in this approach to my personal health, with fewer potentially harmful chemicals to deal with.

There is no blueprint to IPM and I feel it has to be a whole farm and landscape approach as it is not as easy as conventional farming with pesticides. Farmers need support through Knowledge Transfer platforms to help them to reduce pesticide use – this is not readily available beyond organic farming.

Case Study: Using ELS to maximise wildlife benefits in the Fens

Author: Steve Pinder
Farm: Greeves Farm, Cambridgeshire

I am a County Council tenant farmer. I grow winter wheat, beet, rape, and potatoes. I used to grow plots of miscanthus as game cover, which were shot by a small shooting syndicate. No birds were released and the shoot relied on attracting ‘wild’ pheasants. My wife runs a riding school on the farm, so there are several acres of horse paddocks. My land is a mixture of ‘Grade 1’ sandy loam and tougher areas. I make the best use of areas that are difficult to farm by providing for wildlife, like awkward corners and areas of heavier land.

Aims:

I live in a really important area for farmland birds – the Fens is one of only a handful of places where grey partridges, corn buntings, yellow wagtails, tree sparrows, lapwings and turtle doves can be found together. There are also a wealth of beneficial insect and arable plants that form the base of the food chain.

I provide a variety of options giving year-round wildlife habitat - over-winter seed food and in-field nesting habitat for farmland birds, foraging and sheltering habitat for insects and opportunities for arable plants to thrive.

Management:

I believe sensitive hedge and ditch management – including buffering – are part of good farm management, and something we should all do as a matter of course. The new challenges for me were learning about nectar flower mixes and wild bird seed mixes.

Nectar flower mix

I used a grass-free mix – they’re a bit more expensive but on these fertile soils, grass comes to dominate very quickly. The vigorous cultivars used in the mix in it ensure it stands a good chance of out-competing any problem plants in the seed bank.

Once the soil was prepared by ploughing and rotaring, I broadcast the seed on using a slug pellet spreader. This only worked because I had wider strips – it spreads it quite a long way so if they had been any narrower I would have been wasting seed.

I then rolled the plots. Small flower seeds like these do better if they are near the surface, as long as they have good contact with warm soil. I went for an autumn establishment, to give the seed a chance to germinate and get away before winter set in.

The mix had phacelia in it which did very well and helped to supress weed growth. Some of the plots I only needed to cut once to control weeds in Year 1. I can see there is less phacelia this year, and the clovers, vetches and trefoils are starting to come into their own. It looked fantastic last year, but I’m looking forward to even better display of colours this year.

Other plots I have elsewhere on the farm needed more cutting. I think a lot depends on the weed burden in the location you choose. I had to cut one of the plots three times to control the charlock, but it’s fine now it’s established properly. I don’t have a way of removing the cuttings so I make sure they’re chopped up fine when I cut the mix to prevent a mulch forming.

Wild Bird Seed mix

I have four blocks containing wheat, kale, quinoa, red and white millet, buckwheat, and sunflowers. My agreement started in January 2012 – anyone trying to get things started in 2012 will remember the almost complete absence of sunshine!

I tried to establish my wild bird seed mixes by drilling in the spring with very limited success. It didn’t help that they were sited on old miscanthus plots. I had treated it with herbicide but it had failed to kill it completely. By the time the seed mix germinated, there was already substantial miscanthus regrowth which effectively swamped the mix.

I was philosophical about it – from a wildlife point of view they weren’t a complete fail because there were still the chance for arable plants to grow there and encourage insects. They would set a bit of seed and provide winter food for things like skylarks and linnets. I also broadcast a couple of kg of mustard onto each plot area in July – it’s fast-growing and I hoped it might set seed in time to provide at least some winter food.

I re-drilled the wild bird seed mixes in spring 2013 and this time they’ve been a success. It shows what a massive difference the weather can make, even if you’re following the instructions and doing everything right.

I’ve also become aware of the plight of the turtle dove – we’ve lost 93% of them! There is now a mix available which contains early-flowering varieties of things like vetches and clovers, as well as some fumitory, which should provide a food source for them when they arrive here in late spring after migrating from Africa. There was a turtle dove here this summer, so I’m going to establish an acre or so this autumn, near to where I saw it.

Now I have my two-year mixes established and thriving, I can start to turn them into staggered plots. The kale seems to be doing well, so next spring I’ll re-establish half of each plot with the same mix again, so there is always some in its first year, full of cereals and millet, and some in its second year, with plenty of seeding kale.

Achievements:

The failed attempts at establishing bird cover were frustrating but luckily this is not the most expensive mix.

Even though I rent my land, I am able to make my environmental management stack up by using my worst land. It’s important we farmers all do our bit to look after the countryside.

I was amazed how well the nectar flower mixes did, and how alive with insects they were this summer.

I think the real benefits from the wild bird seed mixes will become apparent this winter, now they’ve worked. Anything’s got to be better than miscanthus! I’ve definitely got more sparrows around. I’m seeing small birds in the covers already, and it’s only October. I also see more sparrowhawks and kestrels now, which I’m thrilled about because it must mean the rest of the food chain is doing OK too!

I’m a real lover of owls - we have barn and tawny owls on the farm - and they all fledged families this summer which I’m really pleased about.

Advice for other farmers

Don’t be afraid to put some nitrogen fertiliser on your bird cover. It’s a crop, after all. I used about 50kg an acre on mine.

Horsetail can be a real problem in this area and it’s started creeping in from one of my margins. I’ve discovered that it responds better to herbicide if you roll it first, to flatten it and cause some damage to it so the chemical can penetrate.

In hindsight I would have cropped my old miscanthus plots first, giving me more opportunities to kill it off properly. I wouldn’t advise trying to follow it straight away with a bird cover or a nectar mix, because if it comes back your mix will not do well.

Contact Information

nicola.williamson@rspb.org.uk

Case Study: Establishing a nectar mix on chalk in the Yorkshire Wolds

Author: Chris Tomson
Farm: Towthorpe Manor Farm

Aims:

Towthorpe Manor Farm is a 242ha arable farm with chalk dales grazed with native breed cattle. There is a small shoot with cover crops of mustard and triticale privately funded.

Winter cropping includes oilseed rape, winter wheat, winter barley and oats for Jordans. Spring beans are also grown, and precision farming is undertaken on the farm.

This particular feature was chosen as part of a Conservation Grade agreenment which requires 10% of arable land to be in wildlife friendly options. The option is sited alongside an east-facing 6m grass strip which is adjacent to a chalk dale and hedgerow.

Management:

The seed mix used comprised clovers, vetches, bird's-foot trefoil and sanfoin.

Late May 2013 - Sown into stubble using a Simba Express cultivator with tines set at 10 inches into the ground to take out compaction with integral rollers behind the tines. The seed is broadcast electrically onto the cultivated surface and Cambridge rolled. A heavy flat roller is recommended to give soil seed contact on this chalk brashy land.

Establishment was slow due to dry conditions in this low rainfall area. Re-drilling was considered, but sufficient rainfall brought about a rapid improvement with 95% establishment ground cover.

Frequent topping was required in the first year to aid establishment and deal with arable weeds such as poppies, shepherds purse, creeping thistle and fat hen.

Achievements:

When sited alongside a 6m grass margin, the option enhances opportunities for over-wintering insects and also buffers the floristically-rich chalk dale. An attractive option for visitors and very attractive to butterflies particularly, with small tortoiseshell, peacock and the odd painted lady seen on the farm along with numerous Silver Y moths, bumblebees and hoverflies.

The ELS/HLS payment doesn’t cover the cost of establishment particularly if there is an establishment failure and it needs to be re-drilled. However, taken as a component of a comprehensive HLS agreement which includes payments for managing the chalk dales the HLS agreement makes an important reliable and consistent payment to the farm business.

The main benefit is the buffering of the chalk dale from potential drift or run off from the neighbouring arable operations. It also enhances the other HLS options on the farm which include floristically enhanced buffer strips

Tips for other farmers

- Only sow when conditions are right regarding soil temperature and moisture levels. Broadcast rather than sow and roll tight to gain soil/seed contact.

- Frequent topping in the first year with a flail topper but be wary of smothering with crop residue.

- Don’t let creeping thistle seed.

- Be patient and wait until year two before deciding whether establishment has been successful or not as an earlier crop of nectar mix established on the farm looked very poor in year one but now looks amazing in year two.

Case Study: A farmland bird package on limestone soils

Author: Jeff Platts
Farm: Hazelmere Farm, Creswell, Derbyshire

Aims:

To provide summer insect food and seed food over winter for seed-eating birds, particularly targeting grey partridges and tree sparrows, and to provide suitable nesting habitat for lapwings on the arable land.

Management:

Hazelmere farm (270 acres) has been in the family for over 75 years, and is leased from Chatsworth Estates. I took the decision to leave dairying five years ago, and now the business concentrates on arable, with a livery and rural skills school on site.

Wild bird seed mix plots

To provide winter food for the seed eating birds on his land, I have included several plots of wild bird seed mix which have done very well on the free-draining, limestone based soil. The mix includes phacelia, kale, quinoa, millet and triticale with a handful of sunflowers also thrown in. The wild bird seed mix is re-established every other year and the land is prepared and drilled as if it is a normal crop. I occasionally get an infestation of flea beetle on the kale so a pesticide is used. A small amount of fertiliser is added to maintain nitrogen levels. The plots where the wild bird seed mix have been established were chosen to complement the adjacent land use such as hedges and margins with recognised bird populations.

The wild bird seed mixes have worked so well, I’m looking at re-sowing only one of them this year with the possibility of adding perhaps an additional row of quinoa or millet alongside another of the plots. The kale is showing through in this second year along with a reasonable amount of fat-hen which will also provide a good seed source.

Fallow plots

I have also included rotational fallow plots - it has proved very successful in encouraging lapwings to breed on the farm and I estimate there are slightly more than 20 breeding pairs. I’ve also seen flocks of up to 80 lapwings using the plots in the late summer.

Across the farm there are 51ha left as over-wintered stubbles after a spring cereal and, on average, 10ha are then sprayed off at the end of March and left as fallow after running over them with a light disc to break up the surface.

In the autumn, as long as there is no major weed cover showing, a single run with the cultivator or a light set of discs creates a suitable till and the cereal is then drilled.

There have been some issues with sterile brome on the fallow plot. After discussion with Natural England, the plot was left fallow all year including over winter and then cleaned up with a stale seed bed with a supplementary treatment with Roundup before being sown with another spring cereal this year.

Flower-rich margins

I’m currently looking at adding some additional floristically enhanced margins for grey partridge around some fields to increase foraging and breeding habitat. This will also benefit a wide range of insects, and other birds on the farm which feed their chicks on insects.

Achievements

Collectively, the wild bird seed mixtures, floristically-enhanced margins and fallow plots will provide an ideal package for farmland birds, giving the key requirements of winter seed food, summer insect food and in-field nesting habitat for ground-nesting birds, respectively.

The birds on the farm were surveyed in 2009 as part of the RSPB’s Volunteer & Farmer Alliance scheme. The survey picked up nine red list species of high conservation concern, including grey partridges and lapwings, and thirteen bird species of medium conservation concern, including bullfinches and reed buntings.

Of these, the density of lapwings recorded on the farm during the summer and autumn are testament to the benefits of fallow plots to this species with the number of lapwings breeding on the farm having increased since the adoption of this measure. It also provides a winter food source for those lapwings which over-winter in the area.

A large flock of around thirty tree sparrows were seen feeding on one block of wild bird seed mix and two of the blocks were sheltering coveys of grey partridge last autumn.

The wild bird seed mix plots are also magnets for hundreds of invertebrates including bees and butterflies.

The floristically enhanced margins will plug the final gap in farmland bird requirements by ensuring that there are insect-rich foraging areas.