AHDB's Strategic Cereal Farm in Scotland reports on results from harvest 2022

Monday, 6 March 2023

Farm manager David Aglen hopes to improve the arable productivity of his 1,300-hectare mixed farming business through the testing and demonstration of innovative practices.

Balbirnie Home Farms, host of AHDB's Strategic Cereal Farm in Scotland, near Cupar, is currently in the third year of a six-year programme of trials.

David's focus includes regenerative agricultural practices, plant and soil health, and carbon offsetting.

Harvest 2022

Mr Aglen said much had been learned from the project so far.

He explains: “The programme’s first year focused on information gathering and baselining to inform our future trials with the first full trial programme getting going last year. One of the first things we did was to set up a replicated plot trial which explored the effect of drilling date and cover crop management on crop establishment, biodiversity, crop health and yield.

“We planted oats, peas and beans as our cover crops with the trial comparing different cover crop destruction dates (five days pre-drilling and two days post-drilling) and an area with no cover crop. This was coupled with looking at different sowing dates for spring barley, which was direct drilled over the cover crop treatments on 25 March, 4 April and 18 April.

“The trial challenged us to drill earlier than I would normally do in a direct drill system after a cover crop. In this setting, drill date was the most influential factor on spring barley establishment, with the earlier date having the highest average yield across both trial fields.

“We found that the presence of the cover crop didn’t significantly impact soil health or insect abundance. However, trends towards improved soil structure and chemistry were seen where the cover crop was destroyed post-drilling. Lower slug numbers and higher counts of money spiders and ground beetles were also seen in this treatment.

“It can take several years to see significant improvements in soil health and biodiversity on farm, but our preliminary results suggest that the later destruction of cover crops could be an important tool to encourage natural enemies in an IPM strategy. 

“A slight yield penalty was seen where cover crop termination followed drilling the cash crop, but the potential long-term benefits to the soil and farm biodiversity as a result of planting cover crops are not yet quantifiable. We are continuing the trial this year to further explore the impact of cover crops and drill date on spring barley.

“Two further trials continuing this season look at optimising crop nutrition. We will continue to research crop nutritional needs throughout this season and tailor our inputs accordingly. The first of these trials looks at the effect of foliar and granular nitrogen application. Three replicated tramlines have been established to compare ammonium nitrate, liquid urea and foliar applied urea. 

“The second replicated tramline trial investigates whether crop health can be improved by tailoring nutrient application to in-season crop testing. Last year, through tissue and sap testing, the tailored agronomy approach tramlines received less nitrogen. The nitrogen offtake was similar across all treatments, suggesting nitrogen use efficiency was higher in the tailored method.

“Our nutrition trials compare the relationship between on-farm testing and lab analysis to provide benchmarks to work towards real-time crop management.

“With any crop research, multiple-year datasets are required to produce robust findings. Which is why last year’s trials are being repeated this year and we are looking forward to seeing some more conclusive results following harvest.”

Learn more about the Strategic Cereal Farm results for harvest 2022

2023 open day

Once again, this year’s trials are being run by AHDB, SRUC and Mr Aglen, with support from a steering group committee, made up of local farmers and industry experts, and will build on data gathered from last season.

Farmers can see the trials in action at an open day on 20 June 2023 at Balbirnie Home Farms, Pitillock Farm, Cupar KY15 7JQ.

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