Are living mulches the holy grail of arable farming? A farmer Q+A

Clive Bailye, partner at TWB Farms in Staffordshire, is a conventional farmer who moved to conservation agriculture 15 years ago. He is one of 6 farmers who’s started a field lab looking into whether growing clover under cash crops can reduce or eliminate chemical fertilisers and herbicides, by controlling weeds whilst also fixing nitrogen. We caught up with him to ask him about his motivations for the research and his experience so far.

Click here to find out more about the living mulch field lab

Why living mulch?

Living mulch is a new thing for me. It’s an idea that’s been floating around my head for the last five years. We’re not organic we’re conventional but we moved to conservation agriculture 15 years ago. Initially that move was about saving money but the more I’ve learned the more it’s started to push us away from inputs and now we’re learning more from the organic guys than the conventional. I’ve never really felt able to go fully organic. Without livestock in my system we’ve never been able to facilitate that circular farm approach needed to make it work for building my soil fertility, as I don’t want to go back to cultivation to control weeds.

So I’ve been wondering for some time how else can I get the soil nutrition, particularly nitrogen, without using inputs and how can I control weeds if I also don’t want to cultivate as that’s not good from a releasing carbon point of view as you’re disturbing the soil and using more fuel.
To me it’s like the holy grail of farming to find out how we can do organic no till without livestock. Doing things like companion cropping and having understories, they’re all techniques used in conservation agriculture.

We have established no-till and we’ve stopped using insecticides, so what I’m hoping is that by using this clover understory to build fertility we will build even more healthy soil biology and it will stop us having to use the fungicides and the nitrogen fertiliser.

What have you needed to do on your farm to make this research possible?

The last piece in the puzzle for us was a change in machinery. Before now the machinery we had didn’t really allow us to have an understory. Now we have 25cm/10inch row spacing on combinable machinery, which gives us enough space for interrow hoeing and allows us to have an interrow living mulch.

What is the method for the trial on your farm?

The original idea was to establish clover in the autumn and then drill in a spring crop, but the weather was so wet in the autumn that wasn’t possible. So instead we ended up establishing winter wheat in October and about a month ago we then put in the clover in between the rows of wheat. We have two hectares of this and we’ve got a control crop to compare it to. We are testing both a mixed species of clover and a single species of clover.

Clover will be slow growing so I don’t expect it to need grazing or mowing in year one, that will probably need to be done in the next season. I’m hoping to get some kind of prototype to allow us to mow between the rows, the tech is all there is just needs tweaking a bit. I think we’re looking at harvest 2021 before we get any results out of this as clover is slow growing. This first year I’m still using fertiliser, I think it’s next year where the plants will be left without fertiliser, once we have the clover established.

What are the benefits of no till?

Generally speaking, it takes three or four years for no till to show its benefits. At first, we started to reduce our weed burden. It takes a few years for soil biology to build. If you’re starting no till this year then don’t look for a big result in year one.

But long term it’s made a massive difference , we know all our yields have improved. We can’t just put it down to the system as we’ve made lots of other changes, but we know it’s made a difference. We are using less inputs and we’ve cut out insecticide use completely. Our cropping is more consistent and from an environmental point of view it has transformed the farm. We’ve got three species of owl back on the farm and all sorts of insects and birds because with our cover crops we are providing habitats for creatures all through the winter too.

A big benefit is reducing the amount of machinery costs as that also means less labour cost and less fuel cost – and we’re still producing the same or more in terms of yield.

My one regret is I didn’t get enough baseline data before we started out. We have made a lot of changes but we didn’t know we’d get all these results, so we didn’t record as much as we should from the start. I wish we had done more testing and that’s one reason I’m so interested in field labs.

It’s about having more diversity in our cropping too and always having something on the ground to protect your soil and provide habitats. The key principle for us is to have as much diversity as we can. It’s old fashioned farming in a lot of respects in that healthy soil and good biology leads to healthy crops.

What do you think about farmer-led research?

We’ve done tramline trials most years, often for own personal R&D and I started The Farming Forum because I wanted to find a way to share and learn from others. Knowledge exchange is really important but it’s also about quantifying what you’re doing. The larger on-farm trials are more realistic because you’re subjected to the impacts that a real farm has to deal with, so farmers can relate to it more.

The trouble with The Farming Forum is it’s just the farmers. We do stuff to experiment most years but we need to bring in the researchers and the facilitators together to bring some order to it and to quantify it.

Bringing the facilitators and researchers - and in some cases at little but of funding - together is what attracted me to Innovative Farmers. The nice thing about this field lab is that it’s bringing learnings from organic and conventional sides together to cover common goals, which I think is the way forward. Finding that middle ground and sharing knowledge will help us all to find the right solutions.

You can find out more about Clive at Twbfarms.co.uk

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