I have been debating with myself whether to write this part of my blog as I do not want to upset or offend anyone. I must say that what I am writing is my point of view not the opinion of Nuffield or the AHDB. While sitting here waiting for my plane home I wanted to put down my thoughts and emotions from my amazing month away in North America before it fades in a fuzz of harvesting over the next few months. Everyone I have met has been special in their own way and are doing incredible things on their farms or field of research. Unfortunately they seem to be in the minority. It is the International Year of Soils and from what I have seen we have a long way to go. From a creek in Nebraska which in 100 years has been eroded so badly that instead of being a ford for vehicles to cross it is a 10-15m deep crevasse, to fields in Iowa that now have gullies so big that the sprayer can no longer cross them whereas 3 years ago they were not there, to the Thames River in Ontario that turns brown after half an inch of rain. This is really a sad state of affairs and I guess is going on the world over, as farmers will should be ashamed. It is simply unacceptable. Then there is the question of water quality. For Des Moines to be sueing three farmer catchments for polluting the drinking water because they have to hand out bottled water to its citizens because the mains water is so polluted from nitrate pollution, what a shame voluntary measures were not taken. Then there is Lake Winnipeg and other lakes in Canada that are becoming polluted by phosphates running off from fields with the main cause seeming to be manure applications. People seem to be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to work out what to do with waste. I have a suggestion, put the animals outside in low risks areas so they poop where we want it, instead of hauling expensive grain to confinement barns and then hauling costly manure away again. It is unsustainable and in energy terms extremely inefficient. Let the animals out, at least for some time of the year. Then we get to the question of GMO’s. I came to North America with an open mind and have become convinced we do not need them at home. It has been great to see people like Lucas Criswell, Gabe Brown, Blake Vince and Dustin Murloch growing non GMO crops profitably and with lower inputs. Realising they don’t need all these expensive traits, that when you farm biologically Mother Nature takes care of the perceived problems. I don’t see why in the UK we would want to hand the power over to the seed companies. I am glad we can farm save seed, that we have smaller breeders that research a variety of crops and varieties. As a friend and farmer Clive Bailye said “going GMO is like turkeys voting for Christmas”. I don’t know whether they are harmful to anyone but that is not the point I am making, as farmers we need to keep control of our seeds. Farmers in the US found it extremely difficult to get hold of non GMO seeds, do we want the same thing? I don’t want to be completely down on farmers as we produce for a market and react to market signals and farm policy. A large amount of blame must be placed on the politicians and regulators. Crop insurance which is subsidised is highly biased to growing Corn and Soyabeans. If you try to grow a different crop or intercrop or use cover crops, you are in danger of losing your crop insurance. So why would you do it? There is no incentive for farmers to diversify crops. Also there is the ethanol policy where 40% of corn produced goes into ethanol plants. The majority of the rest gets shoved into an amimal, which is a very inefficient use of grain. So a very small percentage of corn grown is directly eaten by humans and the stuff that is is syrup and not exactly healthy, do we really need so much corn? The same can be said of soya. It can not actually be eaten raw by humans as it makes you ill. So most is again shoved into an animal. So the majority of the produce of the mid west never goes directly to a human mouth. Though apparently we need to double food production, no we need to change the system. Another issue for me is wildlife. A fellow scholar said to me the other night “where is all the wildlife?” He is correct. I have seen very few fields full of wildlife but they are instead monocultural deserts. There does not seem to be the culture of leaving field edges for wildlife or not planting crops right up to watercourses. There seems to be little space for or value put on wildlife. This has been disappointing. The frustrating thing is that the solutions are pretty simple. Stop tilling, keep the ground covered with a living root at all times, integrate animals into crop land and leave some space for habitat creation. We may even find it to be more profitable. Unfortunately I can not see it changing soon. There is some light over the horizon though with people like the ones I have met who are trying to change their farm and their local area. With people like Gabe Brown spending a lot of time trying to get the message out there worldwide. So what have I learnt from this trip. People like Gabe have taught me that we probably don’t need all these inputs, we need healthy soil. Jonathan Lundgren has taught me that the majority of insecticides are unnecessary and to stand up for what you believe in even if it means losing your job. Unfortunately I think I have had it confirmed that we can’t have truly healthy soil without livestock on the land. There are many more lessons that I have probably forgotten. I have met so many inspirational people that I can’t mention them all. I look forward to going home and implementing all the ideas on my farm. I look forward to continue working with the people I have met and also the many like minded farmers at home in Kent and in the UK. Also I am not even half way through my travels so I have many more exciting people and places to see. Who knows where it will lead me? Again this final blog is not a personal criticism of anyone, just my person thoughts which will probably change with time.
Ed had the honour of being my last visit on my North America tour and he did not disappoint. Ed is a farmer, a fertiliser salesman, a contractor, chairman of the local no till group and soon to be the father of his fourth child, all boys! I was lucky he had time to see me!
We first went to the land around Ed’s house which he bought a couple of years ago. This last year he had put in tile drainage. He also farms the field on the other side of the landing strip for someone else.
This has convinced the landowner to invest in some drainage this year, seeing is believing! Both sides of the field were pasture for years and have structural problems. Ed has interseeded into both a mixture of ARG, red clover and white clover. He has been doing this for a few years and likes to go as early as possible, the 3-7 leaf timing.
He has a great stand and wants to put some inter seeding in the row now as well and try to get to a stage where no herbicide is necessary. He has found a 7bu an acre yield benefit from inter seeding. As the field was pasture it has SOM of 5-6% and so he wants to protect this and not lose it. He also will only use 100# of N in the crop. The difference with Ed is that his interseeded crops will be grazed by cattle after harvest. So the catle will graze the greenery and also the residue. As he is no till the residue can be a problem and the cattle help convert the residue and are another income stream.
We then went to his friend Scott’s farm who he works with. Scott grows Azuki beans along with corn and wheat and also has a beef feedlot. We saw a field of interseeded corn after Azuki beans and they were leaving the beans there to add to the comapnion crop.
I do wonder at home why we bother to kill out the volunteer beans in wheat. Scott no tills all his crops and they looked excellent.
We then went to a local hog farm who Ed also works with. This field was corn after wheat and had not seen a herbicide for two years. They do not need to put a herbicide on their wheat. Ed puts it down to No-till, high seed rates and also the manure getting the wheat off to a good start.
This is is what Ed uses to spread his companion crops while side dressing. He is looking at a self propelled front mounted boom with the Dawn units as he is struggling to cover 3000 acres with this machine.
All the crops Ed showed me were pure No till. It was good to see that this is possible, I was starting to think it was not. Ed puts their success down to early fertility. He puts fertiliser on with the planter and so gets the crops off to a good start. He puts in on 2 by 2, which means two inches from the row and two inches under. This backs up what Dwayne Beck said that Corn feeder roots go sideways for fertility not downwards and so why put it below the plant. This was shown in Ed’s crops as they had very good strong side roots in the middle of the row. His crops were the most even and consistent looking that I have seen in Ontario, you can no till corn!
Ed was a very humble guy and was a firm believer in not just making money but also being Stewards of the land and also an active member of the community. I was also impressed how he shared equipment, time, knowledge with his friends and neighbours. It is amazing what can be done if you work together not compete against each other.
My last day of visits in North America started with a visit to Dustin. This was a last minute visit organised through Twitter and was worth the effort. Dustin is a Corn, speciality beans and wheat grower and came to my attention through the picture below.
Dustin plants soyabeans into wheat and then double crops them. He also used to bale the straw with an adapter baler and picked up the bales with an adapted bale picker/trailer which means he does not have to run over the soyabeans. Now though he does not bale the straw as it is worth more on the ground. He plants the wheat with a twin row planter so there is eight inches of wheat with a gap of 22 inches between twin rows. Surprisingly he has not seen a yield drop in his wheat. He fertilises the wheat heavily at planting which helps establishment and reduces winter kill. He gets a third of a crop of soyabeans. He uses bin run beans and plants a high population so keeps it cheap, so if they do not do well he has not lost much and gets a cover crop. He has adapted a JD drill to plant his soyabeans. His biggest challenge is drought and so plants the soyabeans deeper than normal to find moisture and get roots down.
Dustin’s father started no till in the 80’s and they have been ever since. They though have switched to strip till corn. They used to use a shank strip till bar but were unhappy with the high soil disturbance and it bringing up rocks. So they now have adapted a John Deere Coulter bar.
This has lower disturbance and they can travel twice the speed. They put down fertiliser with this toolbar to a depth of 5 inches, what Dustin calls the hot zone. This practise has also increased yields of corn by by 20% and also increased Soyabean yields. He also plants his cover crops after wheat on these strips. He uses bio strip till, which means he plants a six way mix directly on the strip which he then plants his corn into. He is adapting the airseeder to be able to plant cereal rye in between the strips which he can leave growing once he has planted his corn. It was great to see someone improving strip till. I was not a fan of these big expensive high disturbance strip till tool bars but Dustin is working around this problem with innovation.
Dustin has an aim to farm as biologically as possible. He is not a fan of Round Up or GMO’s. He uses a product called Vitazyme after using Round Up. The reason is that after using Round Up apparently the population of Fusarium triples in the soil. So if you use it a few times during the season you have a very high population of fusarium. Fusarium is a real problem to wheat growers here. Dustin grows white wheat which is more susceptible than Red wheat but sees no fusarium problems whereas his neighbours growing red wheat do have fusarium. Round up also apparently causes Yellow Flash in Corn but again Dustin has not had any problems.
He also uses the solvita soil test. This has indicated that to grow 180bu corn he only needs 19# of Nitrogen. Normally 180# is recommended. Dustin is testing to see if this correct. He is also phasing out Bt corn and currently is 50% non GMO corn.
I really enjoyed my visit with Dustin. He is really changing his system to biological farming through innovation. Thanks Dustin.
Today I was going to have a day off but was asked by Ruth Knight to meet her at Mapleton’s Organic Farm. It was on my way to Prince Edward County so was an ideal stop for lunch.
Ruth had organised for me to meet Gayl Creutzberg, a 2013 Canadian Nuffield Scholar at Mapleton’s. So once I had found it we had a look around the farm. Mapleton’s is an organic dairy farm but is also a farm open to the public with animals for children to see.
The farm is open to schools and tries to encourage visitors. They also produce their own yoghurt and ice cream. There luckily was also a cafe for lunch. Martin the owner is Dutch and came over to Canada in the 90’s and started Mapleton’s. They now have 60 cows which are milked by a robotic milker
They were installing a second robot while we were there. The second robot will increase output and allow them to expand to 70 cows. All the cows will be able to be milked three times a day whereas now they are only averaging 2.4.
The cows looked very relaxed. Their feeding rails were flexible and made of soft plastic to prevent rubbing on the cows.
They also had a cow massager which this cow was thoroughly enjoying
The cows have access to the pastures but decide to spend the day inside and go outside in the evening. Martin tries to grow his own feed. He grows Corn which has been a bit of a disaster this year as it has been so wet but his crop of peas and oats looked excellent
Oats love cool and wet weather something they have had plenty of! We had a nice lunch in the cafe chatting with Gayl and Ruth and then we all had to be on our way. Thanks to Ruth for organising this visit.
After lunch I drove to Prince Edward County to see Becky Parker a 2015 Canadian Scholar. She lives in a beautiful part of Ontario
We went down to the beach for a paddle in Lake Ontario. Chris Padfield decided to go for a swim and do his James Bond Impression.
Unfortunately the Ursula Andress was no where to be seen coming out of the water. I had a great evening with Becky and Chris. It was good to catch up on fellow scholars stories and what they have been doing “out and about”.
Tyler is a young guy who is really trying to change the way he farms and improve the soils for the future.
The soils on Tyler’s farm have been ploughed for 150 years and the organic matter has dropped from 6% to 2%. Two years ago Tyler changed to strip till to start to change his light sandy soils. They grow corn, wheat and Romano beans on their farm. These edible beans are very specialised and take specialist equipment.
Above is the harvester which has a sieve and twin rotors and is very gentle on the beans. This is used after the beans are cut of and put in a swath. It used to be a three pass harvest but now with new equipment they hope to cut and row up in one go. They also do a lot of the harvesting at night.
The beans are grown in 30 inch rows and like the sandy soil but are very susceptible to disease especially stem disease and is one reason others don’t grow them. Tyler is the first person to strip till these beans. The rest of his neighbours plough for them and for everything else by the looks of it! After half an inch of rain the day before the Thames river had turned brown, truly a disgrace and unnecessary. He has also added a mychorizzal inoculant to the beans and you could see a difference in the roots systems with and without.
Tyler tries to precision apply his nitrogen. He uses Greenseeker sensors on his booms to variably apply his nitrogen on the go. He also uses these Y drop applicators which hang off his boom
The he idea us that the liquid N is placed directly at the base of the corn rows so no leaf scorch. I wonder whether a similar system could be done in combinables for the guys with wider rows and RTK. It would prevent scorch and be more efficient.
Even though Tyler has only been reducing his tillage for two years his soils are changing rapidly
Above you can see that fungi are establishing in his fields a sign of good soil health. Tyler is comparing strip till and no till in his corn. The top photo shows the difference between the two. There is a difference above ground and below ground
The strip till has bigger roots but has had more fertiliser but down underneath the seed. There is a difference of $90 per acre in cost so he can take a yield hit. I think if he added 2 by 2 fertiliser on his planter he could negate the differences in no till. These corn field were planted into a multispecies cover crop and also he interseeds his corn with 3 different clovers.
Tyler has made a great start to changing his farming system and is an example to his neighbours who’s soil management is terrible. Hopefully they will see what he is doing as beneficial and change also. To see a river turn brown and soils ponding after just half an inch of rain is terrible and I think farmers should be prosecuted. Industry aren’t allowed to pollute rivers why should farmers get away with it?
Thanks for your time Tyler and for lunch. Keep going, you are doing good work.
After lunch I decided to go to Niagra Falls as I was not far away and met fellow scholar Chris Padfield there
You would have thought Canada would have protected this natural wonder and it been surrounded by a green natural park.
No they have plonked a mini Vegas next to the falls and have bled the area dry in terms of tourism. It really was disappointing to see. I have now ticked it off the list now and unlikely to return!
We made a quick stop to Dave McEachren on the way up to Huron County.
Dave is a no till farmer and a pioneer seed salesman. His farm has been no till for 25 years. He also has been inter seeding corn
He interseeds while side dressing his corn with the above equipment and the Gandy box in the first photo. He interseeds Crimson clover ARG and vetch. He has seen a 2-5bu increase in yield with inter seeding in the corn. When planting his corn he plants into the green cover crop. He also has check strips without cover. He seems to have little trial plots everywhere. My favourite was a strip of frost seeded Crimson clover planted in early April.
He planted straight into the growing cover and did not burn down or apply any herbicide. He wants to see if it will work. So a herbicide free corn crop. There were a few weeds but not many. To me it looked great.
He also has a trial of corn where he drilled corn into clover and has had zero N applied. At the moment you can not see any difference.
I liked Dave’s attitude of just giving it a go. Thanks for showing us around Dave at short notice and thank you for lunch.
After lunch we headed up to Huron County to see Stefan. On the way up it poured with rain. This year Ontario has received large amounts of rainfall after planting and has also been frosted. The crops in the area are struggling with water logging and lack of fertility.
Stefan is a Young farmer with big ambitions.
Stefan is selling cover crop seeds to neighbours and is looking to increase dramatically the amount he sells. He is currently fitting out his barn with equipment to handle and mix cover crop seeds. Most of his mixes are based around oats. He plants his cover crops with his Vaderstad Carrier which has splash plates behind the discs and the Bio drill on top.
He goes around people with his carrier and plants strips of cover crops on their farm as a demo. A genius idea I thought as many people say it won’t work on their farm, so he is planting their land. He is also inter seeding his corn too.
Unfortunately it was very wet during this visit and we did not get a good look around. My first washout visit. Thank you Stefan for meeting us and I look forward to seeing how your business develops over the coming years.
Also a massive thank you to Woody for joining me for two days, chauffeuring me around, feeding me and giving me accommodation. I hope you enjoyed your mini Nuffield and I look forward to your report!
Chris Knight is a teacher who moonlights as a farmer or the other way around I am not sure!
I managed to get invited with Woody to visit Chris through Ruth Knight ( no relation) who is an Organic Consultant with whom I was put in contact with by Lucas Criswell in Pennsylvania three weeks ago. Chris is a proponent of mob grazing with his Angus cattle.
The idea is that you allow the grass to come to seed head before you allow the cows to graze. The idea is that the longer the grass is the longer the roots are. Also you only let the cows graze the top of the plant with all the sugar and they trample the rest.
The cows are fenced into a narrow strip and are moved everyday.
This strip was grazed the day before, this end is where the water trough is so was trampled more.
As you can see the re growth is very quick. Chris tries to graze each section every 42 days and each strip will be grazed 3-4 times a year. This system means he has tripled the forage compared to rotational grazing. He has increased his soil OM to 4%, which on this light sand is excellent
Chris bale grazes over winter. The calves are finished on a nearby farm before being direct marketed to local businesses. The cattle seemed very relaxed and happy. They will mostly feed at night and ruminate during the day. Chris seems to have his system down to a fine art and manages to have 70 cows and calves on 50 acres all year with another small part down to hay. He spends less than an hour a day looking after the cows.
Chris was finding that he was losing customers as he could not supply organic pork too. So now he has started with hogs
These pigs have access to the outside. He also had chickens upstairs. I found the morning with Chris fascinating, which my father would find funny that I enjoyed looking at cows! Chris’s system has increased his soil health dramatically and he had to spend very little time with the cows daily to achieve that. So he has soil health and good lifestyle.
Well done Chris
Blake Vince is a Canadian 2013 Nuffield Scholar and seems to be a bit of a minor celebrity around here. Everybody seems to know him. Unfortunately Blake decided to leave the province when I arrived, not sure whether it was on purpose, I was told I had made a lucky escape! (I am sure this is not true Woody) We still had a good nose around his farm even though he wasn’t there to see the man’s work. Blake’s farm has been no till since 1984. Until recently he was also a Pioneer seed dealer but has since left that job and is now planting non-GMO seed and advocating a more natural approach to farming, the Nuffield effect?
The field we looked at seemed to be his trial field
Blake had planted his non-GMO into a green standing cover crop of Rye and Vetch. The idea is to get weed suppression and increase residue cover as above.
He was also trialling with soyabeans
Above is drilled soyabeans as compared to planted soyabeans
He was also comparing soyabeans planted into cereal rye with and with out herbicide
Unfortunately as Blake was not there we could not discuss in too much detail, so if I have got anything wrong blame Woody!
After Blakes we went to have a look around Woody’s crops. Woody is a very modest man and doesn’t think he is doing anything too special but I thought he was doing some fascinating trials. Woody as I said grows Sugar Beet. So I thought I would put a picture in to break up the pictures of corn and soyabeans!
Woody has a small field in which half had a cover crop before corn and has companion crops and the other half is without cover crops. Interestingly the half with covers suffered more from frost and is shorter than the other half. Woody is trying a new mix of companion crop in this field. He is worried about ARG so is trying orchard grass.
He has used ARG in most places but wants to see how orchard grass goes. He also wants this mix with alfalfa and White clover to be a permanent mulch as see how it does on a small scale to start with.
He is also doing a treatment trial on corn. He is testing for N usage and yield in corn with manure only, nothing, cover crop and manure and cover crop. Each of these treatments also have a zero N plot and other nitrogen rates. He is trying to see how much N he gets from the manure and also the companion crop to then be able to tailor his future N usage.
Below is the machine Woody uses to plant his companion crop
Woody is strip till with his corn but he also band sprays the cover crop with the machine below
The idea is that along the strip he is going to plant into the cover crop is dead and in between is still alive. So he has a clean surface to plant into. Interestingly he has a plot where he has band sprayed but not stripped and has no tilled corn into that band. This corn looks the same as the stripped corn so maybe the benefit is from the band spraying not the stripping. He will see when the combine goes through.
After a week in Manitoba I flew from Winnipeg to Toronto on Saturday. I had a quick look around the city on Sunday and then drove down to SW Ontario to Chatham, Kent, near London. Yep, you can fly for eight hours and land near somewhere the same name as your home. Very imaginative the early settlers! My host for a few days was Woody Van Arkel a farmer who farms Wheat, Soya beans and Corn and also has Hogs. He was someone who I knew through Twitter. He lives in Dresden with his wife and twins Laura and Ian. He kicked Laura outside into the trailer so I had a bed, I guess I should have felt guilty?
Monday morning Woody had organised a visit to Ridgetown Campus, which is part of the University of Guelph. We first met Dr Dave Hooker. He had corn interseeded with ARG
Also red clover
Also a mix of the two. They are studying their effects and the biomass of the companion crop at maturity, soil aggregate stability and N cycling. They are also looking at yield in the following Soyabans. When they compared broadcast versus drilled of the companion crop they found 50% less germination in the broadcast.
They also gave a long term trial there with different rotations, tillage, N rates, with it without red clover . They have found that the soil takes 12 years to stabilise and acclimatise to whichever treatment. They have found that corn on corn even though they put a lot of N on is still N hungry and short of N. When they added wheat to the corn/ Soyabean rotation they got 6bu more soya and 15bu more corn. They have found that corn after wheat they can reduce N rate by 50kg/ha compared to corn/ soya and when wheat us undersown with red clover you can reduce even more. The wheat increases the soil health. They have found no till treatment has more organic matter than tillage. Also increasing the N application increases the OM as you get more biomass.
We then spoke to Anne Verhallen.
Anne is a cover crop expert. She was getting her demo plots ready for an open day. She has a pollination mix and a standard cover crop mix. She likes Phacelia in a mix as it is leaky in terms of N. She has also done a study comparing wheat volunteers as a cover crop compared to a planted mix and found the volunteers to be a poor cover crop.
Than you for Dave and Anne for their time.
So today was a field trip around Southern Manitoba looking at various intercrops in the fields.
This field is organic and last year had an intercrop of barley, mustard, peas plus clover. Apparently it was a very good crop and the picture above is the re growth which he was ploughing in today for some reason. We noticed that the clovers did not look very happy.
So we dug around and could not find one single legume that had nodulated! I have never seen this before, there must be a serious problem out there. Apparently it has been flooded a few times recently so this could be a reason.The crop apparently was very good and had few weeds.
The second field was a pea and canola intercrop.
Well actually it was now more a pea crop. Apart from some of the low places the rest was killed by a late frost that killed a million acres of Canola in Manitoba.
He though has a very good crop of peas which is an upside of intercropping that you spread your risk. The down side in Manitoba is that it confuses the insurance companies so they won’t insure it.
We found excellent nodulation out here and good rooting. This is a conventional crop. below is a picture of the two crop intertwined and growing well together
The Canola is holding up the peas. The roots below were intertwined too with large amount of nodules next to the rape roots
The third field we went to was an organic field of peas. It was not the field we were supposed to be in! The peas looked terrible and had poor rooting. The soil was very compacted.
Then we went to a field of Cameoina and Peas.
This field was organic a looked like a bit of a disaster. It was full of Lambsquarter and French Stinkweed. Not only will these crops compete with the main crop they will possibly taint the Camelina oil as they are a similar size seed.
The next field we went to was organic too and the same farmer as above and just so you don’t think I am downing organics it looked very well.
It was a field of mustard, peas and alfalfa. He will harvest the mustard and peas and then will have a stand of alfalfa. I think adding the Alfalfa is a great idea and helps keep weeds down and again spreads your risk even more. The mustard was short of nitrogen though and this is because the field needs a fertility break. It was also very compacted.
We then went to another field of the same farmer. It was organic mustard after 5 years of alfalfa.
This crop was excellent and was virtually weed free apart from some alfalfa coming back. You could tell the difference in the mustard compared to the other field. It was not short of anything. Organic mustard is very sort after so he is a happy farmer.
His field next door was sweet clover and he was taking this to seed.
I have never seen so many bees and insect in one field. It was alive. His friend the bee keeper was very happy!
I had a good couple of days with Scott and saw lots out in the field which was great. Thank you Scott for giving me your time.