- The decision to take part in a unique initiative that develops the latest farming technology and innovations in real-life situations is delivering significant benefits to the bottom line for one Northamptonshire farmer
- Andrew Pitts of J W Pitts & Sons, Whiston, started hosting the National Helix Technology Farm in 2019, providing a testbed for technology and ideas designed to drive forward productivity and maximise environmental sustainability
Improving nutrient use efficiency is a key part of the work across the network of Helix farms and recent trials at the national site show just how significant the benefits can be.
Last year, Mr Pitts worked with Yara to conduct a grain protein prediction test using representative tissue samples collected from the flag leaf of Skyfall first wheat after oilseed rape. The test provides an indication of the grain protein that can be achieved based on nitrogen in the leaf and results were surprisingly accurate, coming back to within 0.1-0.2% of the actual level achieved last harvest. This year he has therefore used the test again to fine-tune late nitrogen applications and predicts it should deliver a significant financial benefit.
Grain protein predictions from flag leaf samples suggested the crop would fall short of the required milling specification, so an additional 40 kg N/ha was applied as a late foliar treatment, which should raise grain protein from an average of 11.8-11.9% to over 13%, enough to qualify for a £20/t milling premium over feed wheat.
“Across 1,000 tonnes of wheat, that £20/t equates to £20,000 in the bank. The tissue test cost us about £200 for four leaf samples, and even if we allow a generous £5,000 for the late nitrogen product and its application, there’s still potentially a very sizeable net benefit.
“It’s a classic example of something we’ve tried here that’s delivered a tangible benefit to the bottom line. Ultimately that’s what it’s all about.”
Soil health underpins much of the work within Helix and is an area where the benefits of new approaches can become very apparent, especially in seasons such as the past two, which have tested the resilience of soils to extremes of both wet and dry weather.
Since the farm stopped routine ploughing back in 2006, it has been on a continuous journey towards a less intensive cultivation system, culminating in a move to direct drilling in 2015 once soil organic matter and structure had improved enough to make it work, Mr Pitts explains.
The benefits to soil health have been significant, as evidenced by the Yara trial which found a Nitrogen Use Efficiency of around 75%, which is well above the 50-60% more typical of UK arable farms. “That’s primarily because our soils are in such good order,” says Mr Pitts.
However, he acknowledges direct drilling is not without its difficulties and requires a concerted focus on soil management to make it work and a willingness to adapt or change where necessary.
Indeed, this year sees a return of some shallow cultivation between first wheats and following autumn-sown crops, he says. “We’ve found that the huge amount of straw and chaff on the ground after first wheats takes time to decay and uses up a lot of soil nitrogen as it does so, which affects the establishment of following crops sown into those residues.
“We’ve therefore gone back to including a very shallow cultivation between wheat and the next autumn crop just to mix the chaff and soil slightly to improve decomposition and crop establishment.”
Cover crops and rotational changes are also being used to address imbalances in the carbon:nitrogen ratio and build soil biology to improve the breakdown of crop residues. This includes one field of Sakura marrowfat peas sown with the farm’s John Deere 750A in mid-April into ground that had an overwinter cover crop of stubble turnips and tillage radish that was strip grazed with sheep.
Both the cover crop and the peas return nitrogen to the soil to rebalance the C:N ratio, plus they help build soil biology, explains Hutchinsons technical manager Dick Neale.
“We also identified tight soil structure on the turning headlands, which peas really don’t like, so used a specific MaxiRooter mix on these areas, as it includes a lot of deep-working radish and mustard to open the structure up.
“Whenever you use a cover crop, you have to be clear what you want it to achieve and be prepared to adjust what you’re doing, even within individual fields,” he adds.
Mr Pitts says that for a relatively small investment, cover crops can return big benefits to soil health and following crops.
“For example, we usually apply 150-180 kg N/ha to our spring barley, but this year we only used 100 kg N/ha on fields after cover crops, which more than made up for the cost of seed and drilling the cover, plus we got some income from grazing sheep on it. Soil Mineral Nitrogen tests in March showed 80-90 kg/ha of N available to the crop, triple the value of areas left as overwintered stubble.”
The importance of having a healthy population of microorganisms and earthworms to effectively decompose and cycle residues should not be underestimated, Mr Neale adds, so practical ways of assessing this on-farm are much needed.
As part of Helix, he is therefore involved with a three-year Innovate UK-funded project that aims to develop a system using soil scanners mounted on a robot fitted with soil augers to autonomously sample fields and build a picture of soil biology based on genetic ”fingerprints” of different microbes.
“Farming is evolving enormously, and we all have to adapt,” Mr Pitts concludes. “For us, it’s about joining simple things together to make the whole system more profitable. Ultimately, any change or investment you make has to return a worthwhile benefit otherwise what’s the point in doing it?”
The Helix National site in Northamptonshire is one of five Helix demonstration farms across the UK developing and trialling the latest innovations and technologies at a farm scale. Go to www.helixfarm.co.uk to discover more.