An ambitious new project led by award-winning Yorkshire farmer Angus Gowthorpe intends to help other farmers across the UK to unlock precious improvements to soil health at a crucial time for agriculture and the environment.
With assistance from the Farmer Scientist Network, a group supported by the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, Angus, who runs a 500-acre mixed farming enterprise near York, has successfully secured funds to design and develop a farmers’ guide to cover crops species selection, establishment, and termination.
Angus is a successful early adopter of the use of cover crops and was recently named as Farmers Weekly’s Environmental Champion of the Year.
Angus, pictured below (photo courtesy of Simon Hill Photos), has been awarded funding through the Farming Innovation Programme, delivered by InnovateUK, the UK’s innovation agency, in collaboration with the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) as part of the Research Starter Competition.
The competition aims to support farmgate ideas from farmers, growers, and foresters to solve major problems facing their business on themes of sustainability, productivity, and resilience.
The role of cover crops
Healthy soil is fundamental to productive farming and to the land’s ability to lock in greenhouse gases that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere, and so growers across the country are taking steps to better protect and improve their soils.
The use of cover crops as an effective method to achieve healthy soils has never been more important.
Cover crops are a non-cash crop that farmers are increasingly turning to, to decrease nutrient losses, improve soil health and vitality, disrupt pests and diseases, and to provide much-needed habitats for on-farm biodiversity between commercial crops.
Cover crops are now recognised as being the cornerstone for emerging ‘regenerative agriculture’ approaches within future farming policy.
Yet, the use of cover crops does come with risk and uncertainty.
Choosing the right crops
As with any newly adopted approach to farmland management, it is not always ‘one size fits all’, and a poor decision at any stage of the process, from seed selection to termination, can result in failed crops, wasted time, financial loss and missed opportunities.
The cover crops project led by Angus aims to develop the UK’s first accessible, independent, farmer-led and scientifically supported ‘Farmers’ guide to cover crop selection, establishment and termination’ to provide confidence for farmers wishing to plant the right cover crops for their farms.
This pioneering approach will draw together existing resources into a ‘one-stop-shop’ web platform and will seek to incorporate a range of on-farm variables such as soil composition and regional climates to help farmers establish an appropriate approach to planting, rotating and managing the benefits of cover crops on their farms.
Angus Gowthorpe said:
There are a great deal of questions surrounding cover crops, ranging from what should I grow, to how should I kill them and all manner in between.
By developing this guide, we hope to provide a resource that can be easily accessed and can be a source of a great deal of information and answer many of these questions.
Holly Jones, Project Manager of the Farmer-Scientist Network at the Yorkshire Agricultural Society said:
As a charity, the Yorkshire Agricultural Society supports farming families and businesses through the Farmer Scientist Network by advancing and encouraging relevant and impactful agricultural research for the protection and sustainability of food and the environment.
Amid defining challenges – climate change and the need to balance environmental sustainability with productive farming – the need to advance scientific solutions has perhaps never been greater.
We hope that the cover crops guide will be a farmer-friendly resource that informs productive regenerative farming systems for many years to come.
Dr Dave George, Precision Agronomist at Newcastle University added:
We’re beginning to utilise cover crops more on our own university farms, under challenging conditions on heavy clay in the north of England.
It’s a great privilege to be involved in this project to share what we’ve discovered so far.
The science behind the use of cover crops is rapidly evolving but has great potential to boost farm incomes, according to Clive Wood, Northern Technical Advisor at Kings Crops, who said:
The incorporation of various Stewardship and Sustainable Farming Incentives into a farm’s overall rotation, in combination with sustainable rotation, can be a powerful way to increase farm incomes and gross margins.
PhD Researcher David Purdy of David Purdy Soils added:
Cover crops can bring many benefits to the way soils function. They can significantly increase infiltration rates, improve soil structure, and improve worm numbers. However, having a medium to long term view and their management are key to capitalise on these benefits.