Sarah Singla, Canet de Salars, France – 11th of November 2015

Sarah Singla used to be the Nuffield France President until July and so I was lucky enough to meet her in France in February at the CSC. It was through Sarah that I managed to gate crash the meeting at Christian Abadie.

Not only is Sarah a farmer, she is an an educator of Sustainable Agriculture (the previous day she had been in Paris training agronomists and tomorrow is going to Montpellier to teach agriculture students) and also a consultant from time to time. Sarah is only 30 years old and is wise beyond her years. She was a Nuffield Scholar in 2012 and her subject was fertilisation in No till systems. She farms 100ha of arable that she took over from her Grandfather. It is at 800m altitude and the area is mostly livestock farmers. Sarah is one of the few arable farmers.

Below is the first field we went to see

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This is a field of no till wheat. The previous season was a cover crop which she then sold to a neighbouring farmer. Then she planted buckwheat which yielded 2t/ha and then into wheat. The only herbicide used was a litre of glyphosate to defoliate the buckwheat. In the spring the wheat will probably get one more herbicide.

The second field we saw was Lucerne planted with faba beans, vetch, peas and was seeded 3 weeks ago

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The idea of adding the other species to the Lucerne is because it gives you more biomass on the first cut. This crop will be sold to a neighbour and Sarah gets back manure. This field will probably be the same again next year. Ideally she would have liked to add a grass to the mix but the sheep farmer did not want her to. Also the adding of the other species stops the crop being a monoculture which is one thing Sarah tries to avoid. She says that this field will give her a better Nett margin than some cash crops even though it may not give a better gross margin. Once you have added machinery costs and time into the cash crop the nett margin is lower. This method also is simple for Sarah as the crop does not need any attention and is harvested by someone else.

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The next field is winter peas planted into a cover crop of oats

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Below Sarah is pointing out the mice damage. She has found it a problem on some fields but not every year and not every field.

Sarah’s farm is one of the longest farms in No till in France, it has been no till since 1980. Longer than Sarah has been alive!

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The soil is dark and has a beautiful texture even though it is sandy. Sarah goes triticale for seed and this harvest got 9t/ha of triticale from 130 units of nitrogen. Sarah is trying to simulate Christian Abadie’s farm ideas of more than one crop per year and her next idea is to plant vetch and peas with her winter wheat. Cut the crop in March for silage and then let the wheat grow on to harvest. A great idea.

Sarah is very keen on looking at farming systems and using tools like no till, cover crops and companion crops to improve the system. She does not believe that recipes that work for her will work for everyone and each farm is different, the climate and goals are different. You need to understand the principles and the biology of each plant and then apply what works best for your farm in your area. She is also not scared in failing.

After the fields we went to look at her machinery or lack off

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This is her biggest tractor. She owns a 12m sprayer, 3m Semeato and a fertiliser spreader and that is it! She believes in the sharing of machinery and that we don’t all need every machine. Her machinery depreciation would certainly be low!

Below is a sample of the 15 way CC mix she uses

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She believes the more species in the mix you have he better results you get.

This visit was the perfect end to an excellent trip. Sarah has a very balanced view of farming and sees farm systems and how each part complements each other. She was a great host and a real inspiration.

Thank you Sarah

Christian Abadie, Laguian Mazous, France – 11th of November 2015

Being an arable farmer I sometimes forget about the livestock boys but the visit today reminded me that the practice of companion cropping and intercropping has just as much relevance to the livestock industry. In fact it is probably easier to utilise and see the benefits than in arable crops because you don’t have to worry about harvest separation as it goes in whole crop, weed control is not such an issue as a few weeds in the bottom will be cut and ensiled. So today my blog is for the livestock boys.

The visit today was with Christian Abadie (centre with the knife, Sarah Singla to his right was my host for the evening)

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Christian is well know around here. In fact I gate crashed another farmers meeting. About 40 farmers from near Sarah’s had got on a bus and driven 4 hours just to see him for the afternoon and then they went home in the evening. The reason seems to be is because he is getting amazing results from no-till and companion cropping. Christian has 100ha and 60 milking cows. 20 years ago he needed all of the 100ha for silage to feed his cattle now he only needs 20ha and the other 80ha he uses to grow cash crops.

The field we were standing in had been planted with Rye, Peas and Beans after Maize.image

Unlike most livestock farmers Christian only harvest the cobs from the maize and leaves the stalk and leaves for the soil. This year he harvested 20t of maize with 250kg/ha of Nitrogen. When he harvests the maize he has the harvester header very high. This means there is not much residue on the ground and this means he can no till the following crop in easily. Then after he has planted the following crop he mows the stalks down and leaves it as a mulch. Previous to this crop was a whole crop of peas and triticale which was cut and ensiled in May. Christian always has at least two sometimes three crops per year and says this year from the field we were standing in he got 50t/ha of biomass.

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Next year he wants to try maize, sunflower and vetch together. He thinks between the 3 of them the silage will contain a good mix of protein and energy for the cows. As most modern varieties of sunflower are shorter than maize he wants to use older taller varieties otherwise the maize will dominate the sunflower. He in the past has used Lucerne with oats, Lucerne with maize and vetch with maize. The vetch gives the silage more protein.

Christian’s son is going to take over the farm next year and wants to expand so they have built a huge new building

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I guess he wants to house a lot more of these

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From what I understand the cows are inside permanently.

Below is Christian’s planter

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He plants on narrow rows. 37.5cms instead of 75cms. He has seen a lot better yields and less weeds. This is the second time I have heard this. When I spoke to a weed scientist in Manitoba he said wide rowed corn was stupidity in terms of weed control as there is so much bare soil. Apparently I found out today that maize is planted in wide rows due to historical reasons. They used to need the space between the rows to be able to fit horses up them. I always thought it was due to the modern harvesting equipment.

His drill is a Semeato

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From a non livestock person I found this visit very interesting.

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Speaking to the visiting livestock farmers afterwards they too found it very thought provoking. Thank you Christian for your time and once I got used to the strong accent I understood most of it I think!

Jean-Paul Robert and Alexandre Castagne (AgroD’Oc), Peyregoux, France – 9th of November 2015

On Sunday I had an almost uneventful 7.5hr (660km) drive from Benoit’s farm to Toulouse. Almost because for a mile I had car after car flashing their lights at me and I knew not why. I checked my lights, they were off, I was on the right side of the road, I started to think it was because I was English but I was driving a hire car with Spanish number plates. Then I saw why, a wild boar had been hit and was laying in the road. It must of done serious damage to the car it hit and would have ruined my too if it wasn’t for the helpful French drivers!

My visit this afternoon was to Jean-Paul Robert’s farm (chap with the folder)

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Jean-Paul farms wheat, maize and Soya on the rolling hills of this area. For years he only grew wheat and maize but the new three crop rule has changed that. Like all farmers meeting it involved food and drink. We started in the kitchen around a table where we introduced ourselves and chatted about our farms. This visit was organised by Sylvain Hypolite of Agro D’Oc (www.agrodoc.fr). Unfortunately Sylvain a the last minute could not make it so he sent Alexandre Castagne along. Agro D’Oc is a cooperative that group buys grain, inputs and also provides advice to its 1000 members. They also organise farmer meetings for about 50 groups (CETA) of farmers in their area. They meet about twice a month to share ideas and be nosy just like all farmers. Today happened to be a meeting, I am not sure whether it was already organised or whether it was for my benefit! Hopefully I did not disappoint

We had a look around Jean-Paul’s farm. First we went to a field with a cover crop

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This is a phacelia, clover and bean cover crop after wheat. The beans and phacelia are in two rows close to each other which he then plants the maize in between. The clover he spread on the top with Lucerne but only the clover grew. In another field the same he had already had a CC of sorghum which was destroyed before the beans and phacelia were planted, not sure if it was the same here.

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You can see the clover growing in the cover above. This clover though was planted two years before.

We then went to see two lots of drill trials on the farm. The first involved wheat into maize stubble comparing his horsch, Aurensan, Sly Boss and a Semeato.

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The Semeato did not manage to get one seed into the ground. The Sly put it too deep and the Aurensan was about right but not all seed in the ground. The field above he had spread clover into the previous maize.

Second trial was wheat after Soya

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The Aurensan struggled a bit as the soya residue blocked a couple of coulters. Again he had spread clover and Lucerne before in the previous crop

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Jean-Paul can irrigate some fields which in some years is the difference between some crop and no crop.

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Then we went to look at the machinery. Jean-Paul is very handy with a welder and obviously a talented fabricator. Apparently he spends all the winter in the workshop. The tractor was the only thing that was still factory standard and had not been modified.

Below is his Horsch rotavator that he has modified into a seeder

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Below is his current project

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Then below is a few more of his creations. I can remember exactly what they all did. One planted the twin row cover crops, one was for fertiliser etc.

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It was an interesting afternoon seeing Jean-Paul’s farm and all his homemade equipment. The imagination and inventiveness of farmers never ceases to amaze me. Thank you to both Jean-Paul and Alexandre.

Benoit Lavier, Etormay, France – 7th of November 2015

My next visit was to see Benoit Lavier

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Benoit is an arable farmer about an hour from Alexandra and Yann. He is also the President of APAD ( Association for the Promotion of Conservation Agriculture) www.apad.asso.fr .APAD has about 350 members. It is similar to BASE but has slightly different aims. It is more strict on the fact they are promoting No till not min till. Also they are looking at more of a lobbying role influencing the French government. For example they will have at a stand at the COP meeting in Paris next year.

After lunch we had a look around his machinery and farm.

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I think he is the first farmer this week with something different to a JD 750a. He has a Semeato. The reason for this is when they first started to look into no-till the guy advising them was Alfred Gassler and he knew about Semeato. Bernard seems very happy with it.

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Recently they have added a row cleaner and they use this when planting cover crops and OSR. They have found it improves germination.

We then went to the fields. The first field was of wheat

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Bernard has had the same problem as Yann with mice. So as well he has had to cultivate some fields. This field was cultivated this year but it was interesting to see that the structure was still very good and their was lots of worms. Benoit was worried that cultivating would upset all the hard work done under no-till. He possibly had the longest worms I have seen

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We then looked at a field of OSR after wheat. He reckons he lost 1.5t/ha of wheat due to mice last year, so it was cultivated. Part of the field was in a companion crop of beans, was, vetch and lentil.

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This field in the past has had compaction problems but now under no till was looking good. In this area he had germanium problems so this is why he had this mix. The other part of the field was a mix of OSR plus Lucerne

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This is the first time he has tried this. He hopes to leave the Lucerne as a permanent mulch like Hubert Charpentier.

After looking around various other fields we went and chatting for a long time in his office about all things agriculture.

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Benoit is a very intelligent guy and also very generous with his time. In the evening we had dinner with his family ( 5 children) At lunch I noticed that his eldest son Pierre had a T shirt about Scotland on. I asked whether this was for my benefit. Then in the evening his 10 yr old daughter came down with a T shirt with “I love London” on the front. I thought this was very sweet. His children also had an English lesson over dinner and I a French one! Benoit has a wonderful farm and a wonderful family. Thanks Benoit for your time.

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Alexandra and Yann Cadet, Occey, France – 7th of November 2015

A few weeks ago I was trying to organise my trip to France and was struggling to find something for Friday and Saturday. So I thought I would look at my French followers on Twitter and send them a message to ask for ideas. The next day I had the day in Switzerland organised with Nicolas and about 5 options for visits on the Saturday in France, all with a Google map with locations and descriptions. I thought to myself this lady is amazing and very organised! Without her help I might have been hanging around Tolouse all weekend with nothing to do.

Alexandra’s husband Yann was on the visit to Geneva too so I had already met him and after my visit with Nicolas I had a 3 hr drive to their farm. Alexandra works for DeKalb dealing with Oilseed Rape seed and seems to travel all over Europe and Yann farms with his brother arable and cattle in the Haute Marne region of France.

In the morning we had a look around the farm.

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We first had a look around the cattle. This is the first calf of the season. Yann produces Limousine cattle for a specific market. He sells them direct to a butcher who sells them to restaurants in Paris and online.

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The cows were a good size and to the untrained eye looked very impressive. There are 100 farmers in France selling to this butcher and they have to follow specific  protocols. The first being that they have classical music playing in the shed. The idea is that the animals are relaxed and so the meat is better. Yann has not seen any difference. They also have brushes in the pen for scratching

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They are not allowed to feed soya or any GM feed. Also not allowed to feed straw due to the worry about pesticide residues so they only use hay. All this means that the stock are very slow growing. To compensate for this Yann receives a higher price. The beef is sold for about 50% more than normal.

We then looked around the machinery.

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Yann sprays fungicides and insecticides at low does rates. About 50% of the normal rates and only 40-50l of water per hectare. The only herbicide he does this with too is glyphosate. For this to be successful he has to spray very early in the morning and never during the day.

Then we looked at the drill.

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Another JD750a. It is 6m. He drives slowly at about 6-8 kph so to reduce the termination of Cranesbill which is a major problem on his farm. The front tank is for fert and the back one for seed.

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He also had chains around his seed firming wheels. He uses these to hold the wheels out the ground in wet conditions as he finds this allows the slot to close better.

Then we went to have a look at the fields. It seems that mice are a major problem in this area and especially in No-till. They can cause major damage. They eat the crops and leave holes all over the field.

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For this reason they have had to cultivate the worst affected fields. This was a very difficult decision as he has been no till for quite a while. The problem is that cultivation brings stones back to the surface again and makes the Geranium and blackgrass problems worse. There does not seem to be an easy answer yet for the mice. They also have wild boar which can cause a large amount of damage.

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Above is a field of OSR that had to be cultivated for mice control too. It also has had a three way split of geranium herbicide so far. The geranium problem is why Yann has not companion cropped OSR yet even though he would like to. He thinks early planting of OSR with buckwheat can help against the geranium.This year they also had a plague of grasshoppers which devastate some OSR which then was replanted in September.

This year after barley they tried to double crop peas

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Above is the mice holes. Last year the double cropping worked and they got 2t/ha of peas but this year they got no rain after harvest so the peas did not germinate quick enough.

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Above they have mowed the cover crop so there is less hiding places for the mice and so the foxes and birds can find them.

The field below is after maize.

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They find that maize is a good cleaning crop for weeds and have no applied a herbicide since drilling. Again though due to the very dry summer the maize was taken for silage as it did not seem worth taking it to harvest as it was so dry.

I had a really interesting morning with the Cadets. Yann is obviously very passionate about Conservation Agriculture but seems to have had some terrible luck recently. I think he will find ways around his problems and I thank him for his honesty. He is not the only one it seems with the same problems. A real issue in France and Germany. We all as farmers know that best laid plans do not always work out. Thank you to you both, without you have my trip wouldn’t have happened!!