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The Isle Estate: Farming and environment go hand in hand

June 4, 2019 by  
Filed under Profiles

The Isle Estate has a clear vision to improve soil condition and crop performance in Shropshire. Simon Wragg reports.

A three-way agreement is helping to improve business performance and the environment at The Isle Estate, near Shrewsbury, Shropshire.

The partnership involves an in-hand 130ha arable operation, a contract farmer experienced in processing green waste, and an agronomist with an enquiring mind – all of whom are working together to improve soil condition and crop performance.

Home to life tenant Edward Tate, the 348ha estate encircled by the River Severn has been in the Sandford family’s hands since Elizabeth I. Being an advocate of soil health and biodiversity, Mr Tate firmly believes in handing over land in better shape than when it was taken on.

Criticism levelled at agriculture for contributing to environmental woes such as carbon losses, CO2 production and depletion of natural resources have not escaped the radar. “Yields are plateauing in the western world – we have to challenge what we’re doing,” says Mr Tate.

This mindset is not fuelled solely by the need to be financially sound – although that plays its part. “Without the money being right nothing happens. Without the environment being right nothing will be possible in the future,” he suggests.

Farm practice

Change to farming practice has germinated with the tie up between the estate, its contract farming partner, Mark Gethin, whose farm-based businesses produce soil conditioner, poultry litter and bio-gas digestate, and agronomic advice from independent consultant Jon Birchall.

The trio aim to tackle the issue of improving soil as the basis to a better environment for plant, wildlife and public populations – all featuring within the Estate’s agenda.

Mr Tate explains: “Scientists tell us soil regenerates one inch in every 500 to 1000 years but we’re using its resources considerably faster. A reason we’ve welcomed Mark on board is his wealth of experience at producing and using soil conditioner within his own farm business.”

While industry figures exist for the nutrient value of composted green waste – it’s low in nitrogen but has useful levels of phosphate and potash – the impact of how it’s applied and longer term benefit to soil condition are vaguer.

“We’re beginning to look at that with field-scale trials here on the farm. This year we have a 13.63ha field of winter wheat following potatoes which has been divided between three treatments.”

One third of the area is receiving soil conditioner (roughly 10t/ac) plus artificial N to crop requirement; another third double rate conditioner but applied on an every other year basis; and the remainder normal artificial fertiliser as per standard agronomic guidelines.

Agronomic benefits

Mr Gethin says The Isle lends itself well to the real-time investigation. “The arable land is relatively uniform having not had any significant organic matter applied since dairy cattle went in 1984.”

Current estimates put soil organic matter level at 4.5-5% at Isle; possibly half that of 150 years ago. Use of conditioner, digestate and poultry manure now feature in the contract farming agreement’s crop nutrition plan.

But that is just part of the change underway, adds Mr Birchall. Cover crops including fodder radish and vetch are being used widely to capture carbon, act as a green manure and soil conditioner. “One thing we’ve already noticed is how well fields have walked over the winter. They’re better under foot and we’ve seen less standing water.”

It’s estimated a one per cent increase in soil organic matter can store five inches of rainfall. Most acres at risk from flooding from the serpentine River Severn – an event outside the trio’s control – have already been put into arable reversion.

But using cover crops has not come free of concern. “Within the industry there is evidence to suggest they contribute to an increased risk of barley yellow dwarf virus while others such as oil radish can reduce PCN levels for potatoes. It’s nowhere near as straight forward as we first thought.

“The ideal (at The Isle) is to have straw cleared behind the combine quickly and a cover crop established. In effect we don’t want bare acres within the rotation,” he adds.

Financial reality

Some mixtures featuring oats and oilseed are eaten off by sheep brought in on tack or topped if necessary ahead of drilling. This aids the preference for establishing spring cereal crops using no-till or min-till operations.

But there remains one unavoidable question. If soil structure and condition is paramount why are potatoes requiring deep bed cultivations still part of the rotation?

Mr Tate is emphatic in his reply: “There has to be a degree of financial reality to this. Potatoes contribute considerably to the arable income and there’s a good market for certain cash crops.”

This level of rationality shares a platform with open-mindedness and a willingness to embrace new technologies such as satellite imagery of growing crops.

Mr Tate adds: “This is the start of a much longer project. The fact that we all have enquiring minds and are not afraid to ask questions or suggest change is an asset. With current environmental concerns, modern agriculture needs to be part of the solution producing quality food and practicing sustainable husbandry for future generations.”

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