Nicolas Courtois, AgriGeneve, Switzerland – 6th of November – Part 2

Due to the Internet connection here in the centre of Toulouse dropping I could no longer add pictures to part one and so have had to split them. Not a split in any specific place! So this is the continuation of Nicolas Courtois

In next picture the idea is to keep the red and white clover for four years and keep as a living mulch. So plant crops into the mulch for the coming years.

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We then went to to look at his trials for companion cropping with wheat. Some of them had only just been planted so the wheat was not easy to see.

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In the above picture is red clover with wheat. The crop had no glyphosate and he will kill the OSR with another herbicide.

The next crop of wheat was planted in August

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He had planted it August with the same idea as Wolfgang’s barley that the wheat would be strong rooted and tiller well. He planted it with various other different species. Unfortunately the slugs were a problem and had thinned the wheat.

Bellow is wheat planted with lentils, Egyptian clover, vetch, beans all at the same time

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The next plot was wheat with forage peas

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The idea is that the forage peas fill the gap between the rows then our killed off by the winter and give around 20kg/ha of N.

Then was wheat with hairy vetch

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Only just planted. The hairy vetch will stay all year and provide cover and Nitrogen.

The final picture is wheat with peas and beans in separate rows to the wheat.

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The idea is in the spring the peas and beans will be killed and soya planted into the standing wheat as a double crop. This is the first year Nicolas has done trials on companion cropping with wheat. I think for us in the UK it is an important subject as wheat is our main crop.

It was a packed and fascinating day with Nicolas. My French skills withstood the test. Nicolas was so generous with his time. To give me a personal tour around some of the trials was great and I am really glad I saw them. I also followed him over the French border a back way to avoid Friday night traffic which made my journey to Alex and Yann’s much quicker. It was really out of his way and the 4th time he had crossed the French border that day.

Thank you Nicolas, keep up the good work.

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Nicolas Courtois, AgriGeneve, Switzerland – 6th of November – Part 1

Before I left Wolfgang in Bern he warned me that Nicolas speaks so fast that even French speakers struggle to understand him. This made me a little nervous as my French is pretty basic and I was going to spend the next 24 hrs speaking and listening only in French! After spending a day with Nicolas I realise it is because his mind is moving so quickly and he has so many ideas and enthusiasm that his mouth is trying to keep up.

So after a 2.5 hr drive to Geneva I got finally to the house of Jonathan Christin, even though Nicolas had given me the wrong address. Luckily my French skills got me there after speaking to a nice man in the village. Jonathan Christin is a Swiss farmer. I found out later in the evening after a few bottles of wine that he was in the infamous bus load of BASE France farmers who arrived at Andy Barr’s farm near me a couple of years ago with Frederic Thomas and when they got off he bus they all lined up and wee’ed in front of Andy’s commercial office lets much to the disgust of the office tenants but to the delight of the BASE members. Jonathan had remembered and found it very amusing. He said he recognised me but luckily I had not got close enough in England to pick him out! Nicolas and a group of farmer had spent the day looking at AgriGeneve trials and a few lucky ones came back for dinner.

AgriGeneve (www.agrigeneve.ch ) is an organisation for the farmers of the Canton of Geneve and does trial work that the farmers want them to do and Nicolas is a technician. The Canton of Geneve is very small and only has 300 farmers of which 200 are arable, I think that’s number are correct, it was in French!

The morning after arriving we had a quick look at a field of Jonathan. It was winter wheat which he had rolled a cover crop down using the roller below and used no glyphosate

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After that we said good by to Jonathan and myself and a couple of French farmer’s (Yann and Vincent) went to meet Nicolas at the first lot of trials which felt like it was in the middle of Geneva, we also got lost. The first set of trials were looking at companion planting of OSR. Below is a field of OSR with beans, Egyptian clover, red clover, vetch, buckwheat and Niger

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He used glyphosate once and will use Kerb. The winter will kill all except the red and white clover.

After that we again drove through Geneva to another farm of a guy whose name I never got unfortunately as he was fascinating. He farms 40 ha of which the majority is arable with 2ha of vineyards. He also was a contractor for harvestering wine.

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Above is Nicolas on the spade and the farmer on the left. We were in a field of wheat after spring peas in which he then planted a cover crop of Niger.

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The next field was a field of winter wheat with red clover.

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The red clover had been planted with the previous OSR  and had had 2l/ha of glyphosate pre drilling of the wheat. Last year he did the same and got 1t/ha less of wheat with clover compared to without but he got 2% higher protein with red clover. It seems the timing of the killing of the red clover is important.He did it in the spring and maybe a bit late causing the yield loss. This year all his wheat is with red clover.

The next field was red clover by itself for seed which was being grazed by cows

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Then the next field was a cover crop after 8t of winter barley.

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There was lots of volunteers. The idea was to try to harvest the sunflowers in the cover crop and so double crop. Unfortunately there was no rain after planting the cover crop and so the plants germinated late and no chance for them to mature in time.

Then we looked at companion plants with OSR

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He planted red clover and buckwheat. Companion planted in same furrow as OSR. Red clover can be a strong companion and may need to be chemically ‘calmed down’ .

Then it was barley planted after wheat

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The idea in the spring here is to plant soya beans into the standing barley for a double crop using a drill made another another farmer who was there.

The next field they were comparing no till to plough

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It was planted with buckwheat, no herbicide, and was to be harvested I think and then followed by maize. They were going to compare costs as well as soil parameters. After looking at his fields we had the compulsory late morning glass of wine. Remember all those different crops were on about 38ha. This guy was a real entrepreneur and was not scared to try anything. As mandatory as the wine is at farm walks in France it is also mandatory to go and look at their drills!

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The front tank on this drill is for small seeds or slug pellets. The second for solid fertiliser and then last for seed. Then Yann, Vincent and I were having a nose around the back of his farm and saw this

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A Cross Slot (with Yann on the right looking on disapprovingly), I thought that surely this wasn’t his spare drill, £150,000 on 38ha. No it was his previous drill. He had had so many problems with it, such as hydraulic, electric and fan issues that he bought the JD750a. The company Novag had agreed to take it back but still hadn’t and still had not returned his money!

After a packed morning we went for lunch at a restaurant with a view of Mont Blanc, yes this Nuffield stuff is hard work! We had a fondu, a meat one, my second fondu in under 24hrs. The previous evening was a cheese fondu and both were delicious. We then said goodbye to the others and Nicolas gave me a personal tour of the trials the other farmers had seen the day before. (Again in French but Nicolas did slow down a little)

The first trials were cover crop trials

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Half of this plot had been rolled and half not. The idea of the rolling is that is kills some species in the mix and then allows the winter hardy species to get going so basically allowing two covers from one seeding.

The second plot they rolled the cover to kill it then planted a second cover

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The two cover crops is used on compacted ground to improve structure.

Then we went to his OSR companion trials

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All the companions and OSR had been broadcast before wheat harvest. It had received no herbicide and there was not a problem with volunteers as the mix had got ahead of them. A truly cheap crop!

This next plot is the plot of 3 harvests from one crop

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It consists of OSR plus buckwheat and red clover. They are all planted together straight after harvest and then the buckwheat is harvested in the same Autumn. The OSR the following summer and then the red clover the same Autumn, three harvests in one year! It also has no herbicide.

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Wolfgang Sturny, 5th of November- Day 2

The first visit of my second day with Wolfgang started with a visit to IP Suisse http://www.ipsuisse.ch .The IP stands for Integrated Production.

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It is a similar organisation to LEAF in the UK but is much more focused on selling farmers produce for a premium. We met with Peter Althaus:

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There is a government scheme in Switzerland called Extenso. This pays farmers 400 F if they farm in a specific environmentally friendly way.  Being in Extenso is the basic requirement for IP Suisse and means you can sell your produce for around a 10% premium. For example: if you grow wheat without fungicides, growth regulators or insecticides you get this payment. ( Also the variety of wheat must be a local Swiss variety). There is no restrictions on fertiliser use by IP Suisee but farmers have to justify their use to the government, a statuary obligation.  There is normally a yield penalty in IP Suisse but the farmer has more profit. The average extra profit for each for an IP Suisse farmer is about 4000 SFr. per year.

IP Suisse has 20,000 members which accounts for a third of Swiss farmers. It is a non profit farmer owned organisation. The organisation has an executive committee of 25 farmers who decide the standards for the coming period and meet every month. They also have 25 partners along the supply chain. The main one being Migros, which is a supermarket chain but also the Swiss Ornithological Institute (who do bird counts on 60 farms per year) and Hiestand (which sells baked goods in petrol stations). Overall they have 25 partners. Most partners sell IP Suisse products under the IP Suisse label but Migros sell under the TerraSuisse Label. It can be recognised by the Ladybird label which is also seen on farm entrances and buildings.

Some stats to give you an idea of the annual production of IP Suisse products:

  • meat production 650,000 animals
  • cereals 100,000 tonnes
  • potatoes 10,000 tonnes
  • oilseed rape 3,000 tonnes

They also have a points system for biodiversity which is similar to the ELS scheme. Each farmer needs a certain number of points which he gains by Skylark plots etc. This is a USP for IP Suisse. They also have an advisory service for biodiversity and have found that this helps farmers improve diversity over farmers without advise.

There are a few projects for the future. They are doing an energy points scheme. Farmers have to show they have reduced energy use by 10%. This will be mandatory for IP Suisse farmers by 2017-18. They are looking into carbon accreditation. Production of milk without concentrates called Meadow Milk. Also production in sugar, eggs and vegetables.

This scheme seems to work very well in Switzerland and has been very successful but you wonder how it could transfer to other countries. It only works because the government pays for the Extenso scheme. If the Swiss public start to question whether their tax money is justified for this purpose then there could be issues in the future. Also Swiss people are very concerned about the cleanliness of their food and environment and are willing to pay extra for their food to safeguard it.

After IP Suisse we went to see Andreas Wyssbrod. He is a farmer and contractor. He has 600 contracting clients!

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When we got to Andreas he was planting 0.5ha of Triticale into grass for a customer

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It was very wet and 6 weeks later than normal. Also the farmer has spread manure recently which didn’t help! Last year he got 6t/ha of triticale doing this.

Next we went to some cover crop plots planted by Andreas. He had planted them for a farmer. The farmer got paid 100 SFr. per species planted but the seed is very expensive so it was no money maker. Just shows that sometimes subsidies don’t end up in the farmers pockets in the end!

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He had planted 15 different species but no mixes. He was going to fly a drone over the maize crop next spring to see if there is any differences.

Next he took us to one of his cover crop fields where the field next door he had used a Kelly Harrow to knockdown the sunflower stalks. He found that they were knocking off his seed pipes when drilling wheat in the winter. He thought he would try the harrows in the cover crops to see if it made drilling easier in the spring when planting maize as the stalks and cover crops can hinder the row cleaners on his planter.

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I thought I would show you the picture below because it typifies a lot of arable farming in Switzerland

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The field really are surrounded by houses not houses surrounded by fields like in the English Countryside. We think we are heavily populated in Kent, it is nothing compared to here!

After lunch cooked by Andreas’ wife we went to another customer where he had 3.4ha of wheat to drill, a big field. We turned up and all the seed was in 25kg bags. So while Andreas’ was loading the drill which was a good 20 minutes we went to look at a field of barley he had drilled before. I now understand why they charge so much for drilling ( about £160/ ha I think) . They have so much road work and small fields to do that to get the same output per day as us in the UK they have to work a lot more hours per day.

I had a brilliant couple of days with Wolfgang ( on the right)

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He was so generous with his time and is full of knowledge and enthusiasm. He is coming to the UK in February to speak at the BASE UK AGM if people want to hear him speak. He can talk in English, German or French but hopefully in February it will be in English.

Wolfgang thank you so much and I would recommend anyone coming to Switzerland to give him a ring. It won’t be a waste of your time.