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24.08.16 Alternative arable cropping systems: A key to increase soil organic carbon storage? Results from a 16 year field experiment

Source: Food Climate Research Network

Alternative cropping systems such as organic or conservation agriculture are often expected to lead to enhanced soil carbon storage as compared with conventiaonl systems, and therefore to hold potential to contribute to climate change mitigation via carbon sequestration.

However existing reviews comparing them to conventional agriculture report contradictory results. To resolve this uncertainty, this study presents the results of a 16 year experiment in northern France which carefully compares the development of soil organic carbon levels for four cropping systems: conventional, low-input, organic and conservation agriculture.

The results find that only conservation agriculture and to a lesser extent organic cropping systems significantly increased soil carbon storage. For temperate climates, the authors conclude, this suggests that alternative cropping systems can make a contribution to climate change mitigation.

For each of the four different cropping systems considered (conventional, low-input, conservation and organic), this study aimed to calculate the inputs and outputs of carbon within the system as a whole (both above and below ground) and importantly to measure and explain the causes of soil carbon storage. The different cropping systems studied were characterised as follows.

Conventional (CON): regionally representative cropping system, with inputs used at levels designed to maximise yields.

Low input (LI): Limitation of external inputs, with reduced soil tillage, better targeted fertilisation and reduced pesticide use as compared to conventional agriculture.

Conservation (CA): Suppression of soil tillage, more diversified crop successions and permanent plant cover (direct seeding with permanent plant cover called cover crop)

Organic (ORG) minimising impacts on soil, water and air quality. Systemic prevention of weeds, pests and diseases combined with nutrient self sufficiency.

To see the crops used in the rotations, click here

In each of the experimental plots for the cropping systems, after harvesting, crop residues were left on the soil surface. To ensure that the results captured only carbon inputs from plant growth on the experimental plots and not from carbon imported from outside the system, no organic fertilizer (i.e. manure) was used. Data on soil properties, including organic carbon, was collected on each plot, down to a depth of 30cm (the base of the plow layer). These data points were then used to parameterise a soil carbon model, which then provided a means to quantitatively evaluate the flows of carbon within each cropping system.

Between the cropping systems, considerable differences in yields and carbon storage were observed. Conventional wheat yields were similar to the regional averages. In comparison, wheat yields for low-input, conservation, and organic system reached, 91%, 66%, and 55% of this respectively. For soil organic carbon, after the 16 years, levels did not change significantly in either the conventional (+3%) or low-input systems (+1%). However, significant increases in soil organic carbon were observed for the conservation agriculture (+24%) and organic (+12%) systems. This equates to a rate of 0.63 and 0.28 tons per hectare per year.

Based on the modelling, the authors concluded that between the cropping systems, there was no evidence to suggest a difference in the rate of soil organic carbon decomposition (i.e. soil mineralisation). This is despite the fact that for the conservation agriculture system, no ploughing took place. Therefore, the differences in soil carbon storage were predominantly (although not entirely), the result of different levels of carbon input from crops grown as part of each system.

The level of carbon input to the system from cash crops grown was considerably lower for conservation agriculture and organic systems, due to their comparatively lower yields. However, this was compensated for by carbon input from alfalfa and in the case of conservation agriculture, catch and cover crops. Total carbon input from all crops (above and below ground) was greatest for conservation agriculture (5.41 t ha-1 yr-1), followed by conventional (4.09 t ha-1 yr-1), low-input (3.81 t ha-1 yr-1), and organic (2.87 t ha-1 yr-1). With conservation agriculture and organic at either end of the carbon input ranking, what this shows is that total carbon inputs were only weakly correlated with soil carbon storage. Rather, what distinguishes them both, is the larger below ground carbon inputs generated over the study period, which for conservation and organic systems were 1.86 and 1.07 tons of carbon per hectare annually, whereas for both conventional and low-input systems, below ground inputs totalled 0.82 tons per hectare

Ultimately, the researchers conclude that alternative arable systems do have the potential to sequester organic carbon in temperate climate conditions, but that this potential is driven primarily by the carbon inputs to the system, rather than by the effect of reduced soil decomposition through lower tillage.

24.08.16 Precision in everything drives large scale arable success

The article below comes from Tillage magazine, and was written by Marion King. To access the original article, please click here.

Precise attention to detail in every aspect of growing every crop in every part of every field certainly isn't easy when you're managing 2400ha in 40 separate parcels of land up to 25 miles apart under 17 different contract farming agreements.

But this is exactly what father and son, Bill and Eric Wright and their six-man Wrights Agriculture team are doing across nearly 2000 square miles of north Leicestershire and south Nottinghamshire by making the very most of modern farming and communication technologies.

From Gleve Farm, Saxelbye near Melton Mowbray, they've grown and developed the family business over the past five years, in particular with a tightly managed recipe of precision, performance, efficiency and accountability based firmly on long term land care.

Working closely with Agrii agronomist Harry Abell, the Wrights insist on Soil Quest scanning and management zoning of all the land they farm as part of each new contract agreement. Variable rate fertilisation, sowing and increasingly now, spraying is managed through the Agrii Precision Services portal integrated with Gatekeeper and John Deere's Greenstar system.

All agronomy recommendations are made, application information transmitted to the field team and operating records automatically updated to the management computer at Glebe Farm through individual iPads using the simple Dropbox system.

"The technology allows us to manage our scale of operations with the individual field care and attention we've always seen as vital," stressed Bill Wright. "Our landowners entrust us with their most valuable asset, As well as generating the best returns from it, with the greatest economies of scale, we treat it as we would our own and are fully accountable for everything we do."

"Understanding the actual variations in soils across our fields has enabled us to be very much more precise in our phosphate, potash and lime applications," Eric explained. "Accounting for them effectively in our fertilisation strategy makes a big difference when we're managing such a large area.

"More recently, we've been moving to variable seed rates for all our crops, varying winter wheat sowing from 100 to 400 kg/ha in some fields as much to combat grassweeds as to even-up establishment. We're also using satellite imagery through the Agrii Precision Services portal to vary our nitrogen applications.

"Harry and I are now starting to employ the satellite images to fine-tune our wheat and OSR fungicide and PGR rates too," he added. "This season, for instance, we've been increasing our To, T1 and stem extension applications in the thicker areas of the crops carrying greater risks of disease and lodging while reducing rates in the thinner areas, applying 90-120% of the prescribed average application rate of 100l/ha.

"Confidence in and close-working with Agrii and other key partners is central to the recipe we've developed. Careful monitoring and management of all our operations, the versatility of our high capacity fleet and well-integrated support from our suppliers ensures we maintain the attention to detail as well as scale so essential to success."

Source Tillage Magazine, Author: Marion King

18.08.16 Solar Farms offer bonus for tropical crops

Source: Climate news network, July 17th 2016 Paul Brown

Research in England shows that solar farms reduce local temperature and provide shade enabling crops in hot and desert climates to flourish.

By soaking up the sun to make electricity, solar farms also alter the local environment - changing the temperature and the diversity of plant species.

How this affects soil productivity and the food supply is becoming increasingly important as thousands of solar farms are being built across the planet, and even more are planned.

Research carried out in the temperate conditions of England shows that the temperature under solar panels is reduced by 5 degrees C. While this may not be good for growing plants in a cool climate, it could be a major boom in hot and desert climates where too much sunshine and heat kills plants.

The research reported in Environment Research Letters was carried out in a large solar park in Swindon, by scientists from Lancaster University and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

Using microclimates

The scientists believe that the lessons learned could help countries gain benefits by using the microclimates created by solar farms to grow crops in cooler, shadier conditions.

Dr Alona Armstrong, a terrestrial carbon cycling scientist at Lancaster University, says that understanding the climate effects of solar parks will give farmers and land managers the knowledge they need to choose which crops to grow and how best to manage the land. “There is potential to maximise biodiversity and improve yields,” she says.

This is particularly important as solar parks take up more space per unit of power generated compared with traditional sources.

"Water losses may also be reduced and water could be collected from the large surfaces of the solar panels and used for crop irrigation."

Dr Armstrong says: “Until this study, we didn’t understand how solar parks impacted on climate and ecosystems. This understanding becomes even more compelling when applied to areas that are very sunny and that may also suffer water shortages.

“The shade under the panels may allow crops to be grown that can’t survive in full sun. Water losses may also be reduced, and water could be collected from the large surfaces of the solar panels and used for crop irrigation.”

The scientists measured temperature, wind speeds, humidity, soil carbon, species diversity and other points of difference under the panels, between panels, and in control areas a distance from a solar farm.

They found that the temperature under the panels averaged 5.2°C lower in summer because of the shading. There was also less difference between night and day temperatures. The soil was also drier, leading to less vegetation and fewer species, dominated by grass.

Diversity of species

In contrast, the area between the panels supported a higher diversity of species in the warmer temperatures in summer, despite the fact that this land became cooler than the control areas in the winter.

The extra cooling of the land in between the solar arrays, compared with controls in open fields, was 1.7°C, which was a surprise to researchers. Their theory as to why this happens is that the area between the solar arrays was more shaded in the winter because of the low angle of the sun − something that did not happen in the control plots.

The report concludes that since land for producing food and crops is in short supply, the costs and benefits to agriculture of solar farms must be researched further. This needs to be done in many places, because radiation and temperature are substantially different than in England.

The wider environmental costs and benefits of large-scale solar farms need to be evaluated everywhere because in some cases there could be considerable “co-benefits”. For example, in hot climates there could be a potential for new crops grown under the protective shade of the panels. – Climate News Network

ABOUT AUTHOR

Paul Brown, a founding editor of Climate News Network, is a former environment correspondent of The Guardian newspaper, and still writes columns for the paper.


18.08.16 Third farm walk for soil farmer of the year dates announced

The farm walk with the final prize winner for this years Soil Farmer of the Year has now been arranged.  Farmers and growers are invited to come along and find out more about the farm that was awarded third prize.

Jeremy and Heather Dale farm in Shropshire, and run an 120ha organic dairy herd, with 290 spring calving cows which are 100% pasture fed and totally antibiotic free.


The farm walk will take place on Monday 17th October starting at 10.30am

Farm Address: The Park, Minsterly, Shropshire, SY5 0DH

Delegates will be able to get an insight into the management of grassland and soil on this farm where attention to detail and the use of data to make evidence based decisions play a key role.The event will include a farm walk.

The event is FREE to attend and lunch will be provided.  If you would like to come along, please contact Becky to book your place on This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or by phone / text on 07875356611.


17.08.16 Write up of Farm Walk at Tolhurst Organic Soil farmer

Click here to watch the videos from the event.

Click here to see the pictures from the day.

On Friday the 8th July, the farm walk with Iain Tolhurst from Tolhurst organic was held in glorious sunshine.  Iain had been awarded runner up in our Soil Farmer of the Year competition due to his commitment to soil management and his innovative approach to maintaining soil fertility and his use of rotations and green manures.

After the presentation of Iain’s award, and an amazing lunch, the tour began.


The walk started in the walled garden, which is focussed on small area cropping, including growing carrots and beans. The veg are supplied to local customers and the crops are grown on a 9 year rotation.  Alongside the walled garden are the greenhouses and tunnels.

The tunnels are cropped very intensively, often producing 3 crops per year, to provide a continuity of production for the business and to reduce the ‘hungry gap’ which is so often a problem time in vegetable growing.  The greenhouses and tunnels work on a 5 year rotation with woodchip compost being used to maintain soil fertility.  The greenhouse is used for raising plants, which are raised using their own potting compost, the business gave up using peat based compost 20 years ago and developed their own plant raising system.

Vegetables are sold direct to the consumer through a box scheme, and the farm produces 100 tonnes of food, over 100 types of vegetables and usually 300 different varieties and sowings per year.  All this equates to an intensive output business with the aspiration to make the farm self-sufficient.

The foundation behind this is the soil and how we look after it.  The situation here is that we have to grow a wide range of crops in one soil type. 

In the garden the rotation is long, there are no livestock inputs, fertility is built using green manures, and these green manures are fundamentally important, as nothing gets taken.  The rotation has been designed to allow periods of fertility building within it. 

At any one time, 65% of the land is cropped and 35% is growing green manures.

The green manures are also important to protect the soil, Iain explains, “one of the biggest losses of soil nutrient is winter rain, so by growing green manures and not leaving the land bare that nutrient is preserved for the next crop. The nutrient is overwintered in the plant where it is held, rather than washed out in the soil.  This means that we don’t have to bring lots of nutrients in from outside.”

The green manures also encourage the soil biology and micro-fauna to work, making nutrients available for the plants. 

Tolly explains:

“To manage soil you have to look at the whole farm. 


Soil is integral to everything that we do. 

We’ve made mistakes along the way, that’s how you learn, but

at the root of everything is the health and fertility of our soil and how we are going to look after it.”

We are not growing crops, we are growing biodiversity either in terms of encouraging wildlife, but also soil biodiversity and providing the building blocks for life in the soil to thrive.”

The aim of our soil management is to maintain our soil organic matter levels which in horticulture is difficult as it has big demands on the soil and is an intensive system.  We are happy with the fact that we are managing to build soil organic matter levels each year, which is incredible challenging in our system.

However we are also mindful of the fact that although we are managing to build up this soil organic matter, that organic matter can be lost incredibly quickly. 

We are very conscious of the fragility of what we do."

The business hosts numerous research projects each year, looking at different aspects of the farm including biodiversity, soil structure and organic matter, as well as analysis. One of the benefits of being open to this research, is that it has provided a lot of data to draw from, including soil pH, P, K and micro elements as well as the carbon sequestration in the soil.

The soil type is a sandy clay loam with a high stone content (as high as 40-50% stone in some parts).  The advantage of this is that the soil is very free draining, and warms up quickly, and the soil is quite forgiving.  The fields were in a very poor state when they arrived, and fertility has been built through the use of green manures and composts.

The group then moved onto the field and started at the woodchip compost pile.  The compost is never applied to bare soil, only to green manures.  It is applied in this way to break down on the surface, how you use the compost is very important.

“It’s not just how you make the compost, it’s how you apply it.”

Iain continues, “When the compost is applied, you’re not just adding organic matter, your adding bacteria and fungi in the form of biology which allows you to add life to your soil, to work for you, in unlocking nutrients, controlling pests and diseases and maintaining soil health.

The Rotation

The group went to look at the different aspects and crops of the 7 year rotation that is used out in the field which follows the pattern below:

Year 1 and 2 – Red clover / Lucerne / herbs (4-8 varieties) – Cut and mulched, compost applied 50 cubic metres per hectare, 2-3 applications mid-summer and autumn.

The fertility building crops are the most important crops that are grown on the farm, they need to fix the nutrients for the next crops and leave enough fertility behind.  The idea is to maintain fertility throughout the rotation and safeguard the soil structure.  The over wintered green manures protect the soil structure over the winter as well as holding the nutrients.

Year 3 – Potatoes, with overwintered green manure (clover / vetch / ryegrass, if sown by mid-September, cereal rye for later sowing.) Sweetcorn undersown overwinter with green manures.

Year 4 – Brassicas, winter / spring cropping, possible under-sow clover / vetch early September.

Year 5 – Allium. Onion and leeks, Onion is intercropped with clover and yellow trefoil.  Leeks are undersown with cereal rye / oats / vetch. Post onion sown crimson red clover / vetch.

Diseases such as onion white rot are controlled through the rotation. The brassicas that are grown previously suppress the diseases in the soil due to their bio fumigation properties. Once these are turned in, it minimises the risks from white rot.

Year 6 – Carrot after leek, parsnip after onion.  Beetroot / chard late July, undersown overwinter with green manures.  Broad beans sown October.

Year 7 – Broad beans Feb / March, sweetcorn and squash. All crops undersown with red clover / Lucerne.

As such, 30% of the field is in long term green manures (years 1 and 2 of the rotation), while the other 70% is being cropped for vegetables.  As well as this, within the vegetable crops there is 30% of the field that is growing over wintered green manures and 30% is undersown with green manures. 


The result is fields that are growing 100% biodiversity, the aim of the farm.


As well as the veg, Tolly is trialling an agro-forestry system in one of his fields.  The trees provide numerous benefits including a reduction in wind speed as most of his veg crops don’t like the wind, they increase biodiversity, increase associations with mycorrhizae and there is the possibility of production from the trees themselves.  As well as this, they are trialling out different crops directly underneath the trees including daffodils, rhubarb and artichokes.  The potential negatives from the system is a loss of land for cropping, but he is hopeful that the benefits will outweigh the negatives.

The long term vision is that there is potential with the agroforestry system to also produce their own woodchip to make into compost.

In terms of cultivation on-farm, the plough is still used here.  Tolly considers that the best way to get the green manure crop in is to plough them, and a power harrow is used to create a good tilth.

In horticulture you inherently need to move a lot of soil

Tolly has been working on this system for decades, and has focused a lot on trying to get things right in the soil.  After doing all this stuff for over 10 years, he is now beginning to see the benefits, and reaping the rewards in terms of resilience.  He explains further,

“You can’t underestimate the importance of resilience, and building the resilience into the soil, however it takes time to develop, it’s not a quick fix, and some faith is needed that you will get somewhere better than where you are now.”

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