Three forward thinking arable and horticultural farmers, who each grow different crops in a shared rented land rotation are pioneering a collaborative approach to improving the long-term health of their soils.
Jepco, Lovedon Estates and Worth Farm introduced outwintering cover crops into their shared rotations to improve orgnaic matter and soil health and to assess the impact on yields and quality of their cash crops - sugar beet, potatoes and lettuce.
The collaboration is part of the AHDB GREAT Soils programme and early anecdotal feedabck indicates the farmer-led trial is already starting to reap rewards.
Nick Sheppard, Jepco said: "We have found an increase of almost eight per cent in lettuce yield after overwintering cover crops, compared to bare soils,. We also perceived a reduction in fuel use in soil cultivations and better water infiltration after heavy rain falls in the lettuce fields that had an overwintered cover crop, compared to fields which were ploughed or left as an overwintered stubble."
Jerry Alford, arable and soils advisor for the Soil Association said, "Traditionally growing in a shared rotation has meant that soil health is of secondary importance because there is no incentive to improve the soil for someone else's benefit.
"In this field lab, cover crop choice now has to work for all three businesses because the risks, as well as any benefits, affect them all."
The trials compared overwintering cover crops to bare soils. Each of the businesses organised and paid for the increased integration of their own cover crops in their individual rotation.
Different cover crops trialled included oats, Italian rye grass, vetch and mustard. The impact on the rotation was assessed on: soil health and organic matter; soil 'workability'; cash crop health and quality; and economic parameters.
Initially running from summer 2016 to summer 2017, the businesses have now agreed a joint long-term strategic collaborative approach.
Grace Choto, knowledge exchange manager at AHDB Horticulture said, "This field lab is demonstrating that different growers can work together effectively to build soil health. This model can be used by growers producing crops on rented land, for the benefit of all involved. Healthy, resilient soils will help sustiann crop production well into the future."
"The results in only the first year have been incredibly impressive. It shows both the impact using cover crops can have, as well as the value of grower collaboration."
GREAT soils is an AHDB-funded programme to help growers improve the health of their soils. A series of GREAT soils events will be held across the UK throughout the autumn.