Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Three important decisions

Weeds and fertility are the two areas of most concern for organic farmers when challenged about weaknesses in their systems. For us they certainly were. Some of it was self Inflicted especially as far as weeds were concerned as I was growing too many autumn crops driven by the hope of greater yields and an insatiable local market for organic pig feed which required large amounts of wheat, barley and beans. All the statistics say that winter crops yield more than those planted in the spring but it took me a couple of rotations to realise that those stats did not tell the whole story. Very quickly we selected a gamut of autumn germinating weeds with the king of yield robbers, Black Grass dominating. Sure, a winter sown crop does yield more than a spring one but only if it is allowed to reach it's yield potential which it can't when it's light, fertility and water supply is being shared with a forest of grass weeds.

Fertility building, the backbone of any organic system was a hit and miss affair for us. We have always struggled to establish fertility leys in the autumn as the clover is either devoured by weevils in brutalised 'seedbeds' of fist sized clay boulders or tickled up by a surprise early frost while the emerging grass lies yellowing under clods that until they breed a grass variety built like Charles Atlas will never establish evenly in September at Shimpling Park Farm. No, to establish small seeds on clay they have to go into fine, warming soils with hopefully a firming roll afterwards to ensure good seed/soil contact, and those conditions on our farm are in the spring ideally under-sown into spring barley. Job done. Well nearly. 

Sticking out into the North Sea, East Anglia is blessed with more of a continental climate than the decidedly maritime West Country where they are guaranteed rain every hour, on the hour. We however, increasingly, experience long dry springs when the grass stops growing and our crops panic into ear in early June. It can also mean that under-sowing can be more like under-scratching with our harrow comb weeder carving miniature furrows into a baked out and cracked soil sowing seeds onto concrete. A morning dew can usually persuade the clover seed to send down an exploratory root only to be burnt off by the midday sun. Two years of almost complete fertility ley failures were not only taking their toll on our rotation's performance, it was also negatively affecting my bank balance.

Of course fertility, or lack of it, goes hand in hand with weeds. A crop with adequate nutrients can complete with it's weedy neighbours but a depleted crop can not. Equally a healthy plant can deal with disease whereas a slickly plant will succumb. 

Something had to change so we made 3 important decisions.

Decision 1. Our currently rotation of winter wheat, winter barley, winter beans, winter wheat under-sown with a pure stand of red clover had to change. The fertility period was too short and we had to mix up the winter and spring cropping and make our rotation more unpredictable to outwit our weeds. Two year fertility leys with as much diversity in them as possible to spread the risk of one or more species failing as well as a mixture of plants with different rooting depths to condition our soil seems like a good start. Winter wheat follows the ley but the winter barley is replaced by spring oats with their aggressive shading and allelopathic effect on weeds. Winter beans still feature as they allow us to extend the rotation to the final cereal crop which instead of winter wheat is spring barley, again because of it's superior weed shading properties and that is under-sown with the diverse ley and we are back to the start of the rotation again. In practice our actual rotation is a bit more complicated than that as it can include spelt and more recently quinoa but lets keep it simple for now. Anyway, all of the above looks great until you run the figures though a spreadsheet when you discover that the two year ley has a nasty effect on overall farm output so;

Decision 2. Buy some sheep. Actually I bough five hundred. Five hundred New Zealand Romneys. That’s 2,000 golden hooves.

New Zealand Romney ewe lambs arrived September 2014
All great, but how to address the hit and miss nature of our under-sowing and subsequent fertility issues as well as weeds that pure rotation cannot solve.

Embarrassingly, especially for my children, I have a YouTube channel. Amazingly I get lots of feedback from farmers about the stuff that I put up and one person in particular, Joel MÃ¥nsson, engaged me to the extent that I invited him over to England to have a look at what we were doing and try to figure out how to solve some of the problems we were experiencing with establishing leys. Joel having accepted my invitation, I announced to my family that I had a young Swedish farmer coming to stay who I had met on the internet. My wife asked me if there was something I needed to tell her and my children suggested… well I'm not going to tell you what they suggested because it's rude and untrue, but anyway, Joel came…. with his partner, Emma, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

On Joel's return home he sent me an email about this fantastic Swedish farmer's invention of a seed drill which was also an inter-row hoe. At that stage I had almost given up inter-row hoeing as the hoe that I had wasn't really designed to work on our heavy flinty soils and just left too many weeds behind as there was too much movement at ground level for the hoe blade to get near enough to the crop without ripping it out and it tended to jump over large tillered weeds due to the nature of it’s spring tine which was what the design was based on. Joel said that this Swedish machine was a totally different design and that I had to come and see it.

I went out to Sweden on two occasions, once in the autumn of 2014 to see Gothia Redskap's System Cameleon sowing and again in spring 2015 to see it hoeing. 

Decision 3. I bought a System Cameleon and have now used it for a cropping year. So how have we got on?

First day sowing with System Cameleon September 2015

Firstly, it's a great seed drill. You only need 20 horse power per meter to pull it and so you can pull an 8 meter machine with 150hp. We have actually extended ours to a 9 meter machine to fit in with our controlled traffic system on a 180hp tractor but that’s another story. Every coulter is independent to its neighbour and so the drilling depth is extremely accurate meaning that crop emergence is even making blind weeding possible. It's also a low disturbance drill so you are not recreationally cultivating, but if you do want to cultivate out weeds when you sow, you can use the Flexibil coulter and leave the hoes on while you are sowing. You can also sow more that one seed at a time (bi-cropping or intercropping) from two tanks or apply fertiliser, or even both. 
Flexibil seed coulter with A hoes attached
Secondly, and most importantly, in my opinion it is the best inter-row hoe on the market. In fact it’s the best inter-row hoe in the world. There is nothing out there that can touch it, or if there is I haven't seen it. Although having an level seedbed is a good start for any hoe, the Cameleon is able to cope with unevenness because every hoe is independent. Setting the hoeing depth is very precise and so you can set it to scalp weeds just under the soil surface meaning that resetting of weeds is less likely. Because the hoes are so rigid and the Cameleon has sown the crop that it is hoeing, you can hoe right up to the edge of the crop rows meaning that more land is hoed. The camera that guides the hoe is extremely accurate and because the machine is trailed, it eliminates the twitchyness of a hoe that is mounted on the three point linkage of a tractor. On windy days it is often difficult to hoe as the crop's leaves blow across the rows which can confuse a camera, but the Cameleon has a simple but effective set of dividers that part the rows in the camera's line of sight giving it the definition to continue steering the hoe. Gothia Redskap also offer a rear steering axle on the Cameleon meaning that the machine follows your tractor on the headlands reducing compaction and crop damage if operating in less than ideal conditions or hoeing at later crop growth stages. You can also specify spreader plates on the bottom of the seed coulter which means that rather than sow your crop in a narrow row you can sow it in a band giving the crop a little more room. However, that does mean that you hoe less soil. Currently we are sowing on 25cm rows in approximately a 5cm band and are hoeing 70% of the soil but we are considering going to 33cm row sowing in a 10cm band and will be hoeing 80% of the soil. Gothia Redskap have set up a Cameleon plot drill working at these row widths and have been running trials and they are finding that there is no loss in crop yield but better hoeing coverage and a lot of Swedish farmers are switching their Cameleons to this system. Sowing under-sown leys on a band is also more desirable than narrow rows giving better plant coverage.
Fully tillered Black Grass plants ripped out by first pass with Cameleon hoeing
Thirdly, it is the absolute master for under-sowing, establishing leys, green manures, bi-crops or anything you fancy. The first time I went to Sweden, Joel took me to see Josef Appel who had done an experiment in a field where he had sown half the field with a harrow comb with a seeder, the way we did it at home, and the other half with a Cameleon. That was my road to Damascus moment. The difference was incredible. The scratched-in and hope for the best half that the harrow comb had seeded was patchy and comparable with my efforts at Shimpling, while the Cameleon half had 100% establishment. The Swedes are finding that the establishment of small seeds is so good that they are cutting back on their seed rates by dramatic amounts so the Cameleon is not only lessening the risk of fertility building crop failure and subsequent lower yields in the rotation, but is also delivering quantifiable savings in seed costs as well. In our first year, all of our under-sown fertility building leys are 100% established and racing ahead now that the combine has taken of the crop. We also sowed an experimental green manure strip of buckwheat in a standing crop of spring oats just as its ears were coming out to try and keep a green manure in the field just as the crop is dying off and to help smother weeds as the crop lets in more light near to harvest. Currently the buckwheat is up and away waiting for the spring oats to be harvested. We might even get a seed crop off the buckwheat!

Diverse under-sown clover ley fully emerged on organic spring barley
When you start to think about the versatility of the Cameleon the possibilities are endless and that’s not just for organic farmers. With herbicide resistance now a real issue I can see it being of increasing interest to non-organic farmers alike.

But all of this comes at a cost and System Cameleon is not a cheap tool. However, to replace my previous 8m drill and inter-row hoe I would have seen little change from £130,000, whereas an 8 meter Cameleon will still save you around 25% on that total depending on the spec that you opt for. When you start taking into account better weed control, less wheelings, less damage to crops on the headlands, more timely sowing, better fertility building ley establishment and potential savings in seed cost it all starts to sound like a good long term investment.

I have always said that organic farmers should go away on holiday for the month of May as it is when weeds are just popping their heads out of the top of the winter sown crops and a field that had previously looked like a fantastic crop of wheat starts to look more like a meadow. In May this year for the first time since my organic conversion the farm looked a picture. We are beginning to reap the benefits of those three important decisions.

Winter barley emerging and nearly ready for hoeing


  1. Hello John, I am really impressed with your attention to detail and the results you are getting. I've seen so much blackgrass around the fens, the herbicides obviously aren't working. 'Conventional' farmers could learn so much if they would just open their minds. I guess you just need to invent some aggressive-sounding macho names for the cultivating equipment...

    1. Thank you so much for you comment! I have had a few conventional farmers come an look at what we are doing which is really rewarding. We all have so much to learn to farm profitably without damaging the environment and protecting our soils. I just need two lifetime to get it right! Again, thank you. JP

  2. Hello John,
    I really enjoy your YouTube videos, I am a conventional farmer in northern Alberta, Canada.
    I'm thinking of going organic and would like some more info on the system Cameleon drill and what you would recommend for seeding wheat and oats, and barley. How would I be able to get contact with a dealer for those drills.