Frederic Thomas – 6th May 2015

So I was lucky to visit Frederic’s farm again only 6 months after being there with BASE UK. For those of you who has not heard of Frederic, he is a farmer in the Sologne, the founder of BASE France, he has a magazine TCS and spends a lot of time training and talking about conservation agriculture. A very knowledgeable and busy man.

To give a bit of history of the area, the Sologne was a forested, mosquito infested swamp. Where the only people who lived there were criminals and rebels. This is why the King decided to build the Chateau Chambord as his hunting lodge as he did not have to force anyone off the land to do it, as no one was there or cared. So this means that the farming is difficult and wet! Frederic, I think he said, is a 5th generation farmer but was not sure of his family history before that, I suggested they were rebels and he laughed. Frederic has been practicing no till for about 20 years on his farm and has transformed his soils. Below is a picture of the soil below a crop of wheat a couple of days after 100ml of rain, looks dry!

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Next we walked to a field of winter barley. This crop has had 150 kg/N/ha early, no PGR and no spring herbicide.

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There is also a strip in this field that has had nettle extract instead of a fungicide as a trial. Frederic reckons that the less fungicide you use the quicker the straw breaks down. This is because the fungicide kills the straw decomposing fungi and could also lead to more slugs as there is more food left for them. He also saw better cover crop establishment behind the nettle tea. After harvest he will grow OSR with buckwheat.

Below is Frederic, a proud farmer:

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Where Frederic is growing Triticale after harvest he will plant buckwheat with Crimson Clover. Harvest the Buckwheat in the autumn and the clover in the spring and then plant linseed. 4 crops in two years! He is also going to grow buckwheat and soya beans.

We then went to see his corn which was just through:

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This corn was planted after a cover of vetch and cereals. Below is his neighbours corn which is not through and a little sad after 100ml of rain:

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We also saw some corn planted into grazed clover:

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He has found that where the clover was grazed early it has come through the winter well but when grazed in March is has suffered. He has also seen less slugs where the clover was grazed.

Next we went to see Frederic’s OSR:

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This field was planted as a cover crop of cheap OSR seed and buckwheat. Only had a graminicide in the autumn. When he knew it was going to be a crop, it had kerb herbicide and 150kg/N/ha. Nothing else, a very cheap crop. Something to aspire to!

Another thing Frederic talked about was herbicides damaging crops. I heard this a lot in France and I am seeing the evidence on our farm. we really need to reduce their use and use rotations better for weed control as I think they are costing us a lot of money in yield.

Again another interesting visit to Frederic’s farm. I always enjoy my time with him. He is so knowledgeable and generous with his time. After my visit I had a short 400 mile drive home which went smoothly and I am now back in little Olde England

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Dr Joelle Fustec, Angers, France – 5th May 2015

So on Tuesday I had organised to spend the whole day with Dr Joelle Fustec at the Ecole Superieure d’Agriculture (ESA) in Angers. The ESA is an agricultural college of about 4000 students. Dr Fustec is the leader of a small team who are /have been researching Nitrogen transfer in Intercrops. I had been recommended Dr Fustec by a few people as she had recently produced results that showed legumes do not transfer significant amounts of Nitrogen to fellow companion crops. A fact that I found very intriguing so I wanted to get some more information.

When I first arrived we went to the greenhouse on the roof to look at current experiments. There were a large number of pots containing clover and wheat of different shades of green.

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The idea of the experiments was to test the effect of soil microbiology on plant health and nutrient transfer. There was two gradients they were testing. The effects of earth worms and the effects of soil microbiology. So to test this factor they had sterilised the soil in some of the pots.

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In the picture above one pot had been sterilised and the other was natural soil. Which was is which? Answers and explanations please. It has meant the experiment has not gone to plan!

Also they are also looking into Lupin phenotypes that will work best as intercrops, above and below ground:

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Then after lunch we spent a couple of hours in Dr Fustec’s office talking about her experiments. Below are a few highlights:

  • when growing rape and beans together there is no difference in dry weight compared to sole crops until after 85 days after sowing when the Intercrops are dramatically better
  • the amount of Nitrogen transferred from OSR to the beans is the same as from beans to OSR
  • there is 30% higher N accumulation in OSR in an intercrop
  • intercropping forces the legume to rely on atmospheric N
  • OSR and bean roots occupy different parts of the soil early in the season
  • N transfer does hardly happen in a annual crop but does in a perennial as it takes the legumes 6 months or more to establish
  • beans that are intercropped change their rooting habits and adapt to intercropping. This is shown below. This is a tracing of root growth of beans and OSR in an intercrop over time (beans on the bottom. As you can see the shallow roots of the beans have formed in a more dense area, different in a sole crop.

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This root plasticity is why beans are such a good companion. The early rooting growth (first 30 days) are the most important that the plants are not competing, after that is not so important.

We also discussed cereal/legume intercropping an gave me some interesting info:

  • a little bit of N at the start is important (50kg/N/ha) as it helps establishment and fixes carbon which helps nodulation. (positive feedback)
  • when wheat is in a sole crop it benefits from earthworms but not in an intercrop with peas
  • wheat/pea intercrop gives a 2% increase in wheat protein
  • there can be more pea/bean weevil in an intercrop due to lower legume plant population
  • in a wheat/pea intercrop earthworms prefer to be near the pea roots not the wheat.

Dr Fustec said there are many reasons why intercrops over-yield compared to sole crops (usually 20% higher), it is not just about N transfer, but we still have a lot to learn and understand.

In their team they are also developing a simple test for measuring soil biological activity and a phone app for testing sulphur content in OSR

In the afternoon we went to an Organic Experimental farm with Dr Guenaelle Corre Hellou to look at their intercropping trials:

Below is a cereal with vetch and peas. for forage.

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Rye and Vetch (and buttercups!)

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Wheat and beans;

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They are also doing trial with Triticale and Lupins and Triticale and beans. The idea is that the triticale suck up soil N which reduces weed growth but you get the same legume yield.

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Overall it was a fascinating day, full of information and lots to think about. I hope that we can get a similar team in the UK researching intercropping in our conditions. Many thanks must go to Joelle and her team for giving up all this time to show me around and also had time for a drive around Anger’s Old Town.

 

Jacques Charlot, Mers, Indre, France – 4th of May 2015

So after been fed and watered with Hubert Charpentier, we had an hour and a half drive to our next appointment with Jacques Charlot. Jacques is an arable farmer who has been experimenting in no till, strip till and cover crops for years. Gilles Sauzet, a local researcher, has his companion cropping and intercropping trials on Jacques’ farm so it was an excellent farm for me to visit.

First we went to an OSR field which had an area inside of it with the intercropping trials. They are trying many combinations of intercrops:

Spring Barley and Lentils

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Spring Barley and Peas

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Winter Peas and durum Wheat

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Winter Barley and Peas (no Nitrogen added)

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Winter Flax and Winter Beans (Beans died with frost)

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The surrounding field of OSR was planted with a companion crop of Winter Beans, Fenugrec, Gesse and Lentils. A total of 80kg/ha of seed per hectare plus 1.5kg of OSR.

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You can still see the bean residue. He has companion cropped with OSR for 4 years and has had consistent results: 30kg/ha of N back from the companion crop, 1 less herbicide, 2 less insecticides and 500kg per ha of extra yield. Lets just say it easily pays back the 60 Euro cost of seed. He also says you do not get geranium as a weed with the companion crop. This was shown as one headland has no companion crop and did has Geranium but everywhere else was clean.

Jacques grows his own Fenugrec and Gesse. He took us to a field of Fenugrec (I think!), which he grows on contract and also has a cultivation trial on it. Plough versus Min-till versus No Till.

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The min till soil (above) had a lot of life and worms and good structure but the ploughed soil (below) was structureless and lifeless

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The no-till plots were OK but were re-drilled due to slugs. Slugs and mice seems to be an increasing problem in this area

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He showed up some Gesse seeds and they were amazing. They are multi-coloured and look like grit

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The last place Jacques took us was a field of red clover. Jacques grows it for seed and is normally in the field for two years. Jacques said that it is not the best paying cropping but it improves the soil and also cleaned the fields. Soil under red clover below:

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The interesting thing chatting to Jacques was that he used to average 7t/ha of wheat and now using a wide rotation, cover crops and companion crops he gets 10t/ha. There was a field of wheat next to the clover that was excellent and so I can well believe it. A 40% increase quite incredible. After showing us around the farm and machinery sheds it was about 8pm and as I had a 2 1/2 hour drive to Anger and was going to get on the road. This is France and did not happen! We had a Panache, wine and a four course meal and left at 10pm full again. Another great visit to another great farmer. Luckily my journey to Anger was easy and I got to my hotel at half midnight and finally to bed at 2am, tired but happy.

Hubert Charpentier, Brive, France – Lucerne as a Living Mulch – 4th May 2015

So after a much needed nights sleep in the very “Budget” Ibis hotel in Issodun I met up with my translator Maxime Barbier who had spent the night in his van.

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I did offer to pay for a hotel room for Maxime but he declined. Maybe he knew something about Ibis Budget that I did not!

We headed off together to visit Hubert Charpentier. Hubert is a farmer just south of Issoudun. He has been on the farm for 20 years but has spent a large amount of that time away as a researcher for CIRAD in Africa researching No-till and living mulches in Cote D’Ivore and Madagascar. Hubert came to my attention when Maxime sent me this link:

http://www.google.fr/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=7&sqi=2&ved=0CDoQFjAG&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.lafranceagricole.fr%2FDownload%2Fvar%2Fgfa%2Fstorage%2Ffichiers-pdf%2FDossiers%2FInnov-Agri-Grand-Sud-Ouest%2F2013%2FPresentation-Hubert-Charpentier.pdf&ei=ZZ_aVN6_BMevU6aFgsgF&usg=AFQjCNHsSGCVEUppSbTzr0roPAC-1WYVkA&sig2=_9-SFwaF4Nr4_7bWiUsArQ&bvm=bv.85761416,d.d24&cad=rja

I thought that I had to meet this guy and see the amazing things he is doing. Once we had arrived at his beautiful farm we spent about 2 hours inside talking and discussing what he has been doing and he really got into some seriously good detail.

So Hubert has a rotation of Winter Peas, Winter OSR, Winter Wheat, Durum Wheat. He also had a few spring peas. He also has been No Till for 15 years. He first plants the Lucerne with the Winter OSR as a companion crop. He says you have to start there in the rotation as a cereal would be too competitive for the Lucerne.

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(Maxime and Hubert in front of an excellent crop of OSR and Lucerne)

Then after the OSR is harvested the light gets down to the Lucerne and it grows all summer. Though at the time I was there you really struggled to see the Lucerne in the bottom of the OSR.

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Lucerne somewhere in the above picture

Then Hubert will drill Winter Wheat direct into the Lucerne in October. He uses no grass weed herbicides in any of his wheat but does use BLW herbicides sometime for weeds and to supress the Lucerne.

Below is what the Lucerne looks like in the wheat this week:

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The main reason Lucerne is a good living mulch is that it is a very deep rooting plant and so does not compete with the wheat for water. Unlike white clover which is shallower rooting. I asked Hubert to show me the roots of the Lucerne. So he dug a hole and the wheat came out of the ground but the Lucerne would not budge, the roots went on and on:

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As I said Hubert does not use grass weed herbicides in wheat and he puts this down to no till, double breaks and the mulch. It is also to do with the fact that he is not worried if there are the odd weed dotted around the field as he knows he has 2 Broad leaf crops to control them. Below is a picture of wheat: no till and no grass weed herbicide on the left and cultivated and full grass weed program on the right:

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Hubert has found that the best amount of nitrogen fertiliser to use in this system is 100kg/ha and this gives a yield of 8t/ha. A normal yield for the area but nearly half the N fertiliser.

Hubert is also trialling starting the Lucerne mulch in the winter peas:

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It looks like it is working fine to me.

Hubert also uses white clover on his more acid soils as Lucerne does not like acidity. Below is a picture of clover in the bottom of wheat:

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Overall Hubert’s crops were very impressive. What really stood out to me is how little he likes to spend money! He grows these crops so cheaply that if he only gets 5t/ha of wheat he is still making money without subsidy. He uses half the N, half or no fungicide and very few herbicides. A very knowledgable man. He is also very hospitable too. We turned up there a 9am expecting to leave at 12pm but left at 3pm head spinning and stomachs very full (4 courses of good French food and wine!)

 

3rd of May – The journey to Issoudun

So this morning I packed my bags and headed towards the Channel Tunnel.

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This trip is going to be be my first solo trip on my Nuffield travels and my first blog post for a while since the CSC in Rennes, France which seems a long time ago now. We have been busy on the farm planting all the spring crops, putting on fertiliser, spraying etc. I don’t think it has hardly rained since the CSC in March either, only 20ml. Luckily it was raining as I left home this morning, hopefully it keeps raining until I get back on Wednesday night!

So my day has been spent in a car driving on the wrong side of the road for six hours until I reached my destination. Journey was good, I didn’t crash or go the wrong way around the round about! 400 miles later I am here at the soulless Ibis budget Hotel.

I thought I would write a quick blog post to remind everyone I am still here and to say over the next couple of days I have some really interesting visits coming up and I will be blogging about them. Tomorrow I am seeing Hubert Charpentier who grows crops on a living mulch of Lucerne. Tuesday I am spending the day with Dr Joelle Fustec in Angers and then on Wednesday I am with Frederic Thomas’s farm before heading home.

Until tomorrow!