GETTING to grips with regenerative agricultural practices is going to be a focus at Balbirnie Home Farms, the AHDB’s first strategic cereals farm in Scotland.

This project aims to focus on regenerative agricultural practices and plant and soil health over the six year programme to encourage arable productivity. Balbirnie – managed by David Aglen – also joins AHDB’s wider Farm Excellence Platform, which inspires the farming industry to improve performance and succeed through knowledge exchange.

Its knowledge exchange manager, Chris Leslie, explained: “Regenerative agriculture aims to make farming profitable without subsidy support, delivered by a host of techniques and management tools such as benchmarking, soil and leaf analysis and crop monitoring devices.

“We recognise the importance of soil to the future existence of our industry. This is why we are continually researching new science/ideas/methods and successfully implementing them into systems and approaches to farming.

“Within the industry we have been focusing on driving yields and profits through increased usage of tillage, horsepower, pesticides and synthetic fertilisers. The industry that supplies us with all our needs such as machinery, seeds, fertiliser and sprays has been treating the symptoms of a broken system, and not the root causes of those symptoms.”

RA’s system of farming principles and practices increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves water quality and enhances ecosystem services. It aims to capture carbon in soil and above ground biomass, reversing current global trends of atmospheric accumulation.

Mr Leslie added: “We don’t want to just simply sustain our current farming system. Agriculture is disruptive by its very nature, and we aim to work alongside nature, not against it, for the benefit of the consumer, the producer, our soils and their surrounding environment.

“RA adopters put soil and environment at the forefront of their farming system, using tools such as IPM and no-till.”

IPM strategies include:

Crop rotation,

Cultivation techniques

Use of resistant/tolerant cultivars and standard/certified planting material

Use of balanced fertilisation, liming and irrigation/drainage practices

Hygiene measures (eg cleansing of machinery)

Protection and enhancement of important beneficial organisms,

Monitoring of harmful organisms

Application of plant protection based on monitoring data

Use of biological, physical and other non-chemical methods must be preferred to chemical methods if they provide satisfactory pest control.

Application of pesticide should be as targeted as possible.

The professional user should keep the use of pesticides and other forms of intervention to necessary levels and that do not increase the risk for development of resistance in populations of harmful organisms

Anti-resistance strategies should be applied to maintain the effectiveness of the products

Review the success of plant protection measures.

“By adopting IPM, we can start to build resilience back into our soils. If we are to successfully reduce inputs of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides and reduce our variable costs, without a significant drop in net margins, we must enhance the natural function and symbiosis of soil and plants,” pointed out Mr Leslie.

“Soil disruption, tillage, machinery compaction, poor drainage and poor PH all lead to anaerobic soils, this creates bacterial dominated soils which many of our broad leaf weeds tend to thrive in.

“Bacterial soils, coupled with excess fertility, particularly nitrogen, can lead to huge weed competition and luxurious growth in our crops which leaves them open to attack from pests and diseases, less soil disturbance, and well structures soils allow for good water retention and good drainage which promotes aerobic conditions.”

He also pointed out that fungi, in particular mycorrhiza fungi, are particularly sensitive to tillage and poor soil conditions. These are key components for the successful exchange of nutrients and carbohydrates between the soil and soil biology and plants.

“With government targets of net zero on carbon emissions by 2050 and the current focus on agriculture’s contribution to this, it leaves agriculture at a cross roads in terms of which direction we take our food production systems in the UK.

“It is unclear at present what Government wants in terms of food sustainability. If they want to reduce food air miles and imports by building greater self-sufficiency to support and grow our agriculture and food processing industries, then the problem still remains – we do not have any clear coherent policy coming from Government on these matters other than carbon emissions.

“In this case, we need to be prepared to adapt quickly to policy change and become financially resilient, and not rely on production subsidies. Regenerative approaches to farming will likely align with aspirations of low pesticide and low carbon produces food.

“There are examples globally now of farmers receiving payments £/ha per tonnes of carbon sequestered within their soils,” he said, adding that net zero policies were hitting all industries.

But, he added, agriculture was on the cusp of a new and potentially large market to offset carbon for other industries in the UK and Europe and RA systems are extremely well aligned to help service this market.

A RA crop rotation can likely be much more diverse than a conventional one, but this can bring benefits such as:

Spread of different crops for different markets, reduces the effects of un-timely market price changes

Spread sales throughout the financial year to facilitate good cash flow

Having a good spread of winter and spring crops spreads investments in variable costs throughout the whole year. Spring crops can reduce borrowing and overdrafts, as the length of time money is invested is short, 6-7 months, whereas winter crops generally have a higher variable cost £/ha and investment term can be 12-14 months.

Overall lower spend £/ha on variable and fixed costs which can allow for a reduction in borrowing/overdraft facilities.

Have better ability to retain/recycle nutrients through from one crop to the next to reduce spend on synthetic fertilisers.

Increased resilience to the effects that adverse weather can have on soil, land operations and finances.