Farm manager at Blagdon Farming Ltd, Andrew Crewdson turned to Clive Wood for green cover advice to improve soil vitality after opencast mining.
Farming near Newcastle Upon Tyne, Blagdon Estate is a diverse business including dairy cows, rare breed suckler cows, horse liveries and a successful farm shop as well as over 1000 hectares of various crops. Uniquely, the land also hosts the two largest opencast coal mines in the country, accounting for more than 1000 acres of the estate.
Opencast land has only come back to the farm over the last couple of years and Mr Crewdson was keen to give soils a boost to make them productive and profitable again. His long term Frontier advisor, John Speed, recommended Clive and having worked with him previously on game cover, stewardship and forage crops, Mr Crewdson welcomed his expert guidance again. The result was 40ha of a bespoke Berseem clover, Siletina oil radish and UK common oat mixture.
“Prior to last year we ran a normal arable rotation,” Mr Crewdson explains. “We’re on a very heavy land farm in the north, it’s quite wet and there is a lot of ex-opencast land dating back to the fifties, so it’s quite difficult land to work. We’re very good at growing grass and wheat but break crops and spring crops are hit and miss depending on how quickly the weather allows us back on the land. We anticipated that cover crops would be useful, but didn’t know where to start. On Clive’s advice, we sowed 100 acres of a mix that he put together specifically for our needs.”
As returned soils can easily slump and harden, the soil structure type mix aimed to bring soils back to health after the opencast mining and speed up the process of land reclamation. The deep, fibrous root systems of the mix were intended to open up the soil, making it more manageable and extending the window of opportunity to get on the land and cultivate it.
Historically, soils were not stripped away as carefully as they are now and it was easy to get things wrong, with shallow soils and rock coming back through. Advances in technology mean the restoration programme is now vastly improved, with topsoils and subsoils kept separately in small mounds and looked after so that microbes and earthworms are able to survive, before putting soils back in the right order with the correct stone profile. Returning to health still takes time, however.
“The mix was targeted on fairly heavy, difficult land and if you work it wrong it’s horrible, but it was definitely easier to prepare the seedbed for the wheats that followed the cover crops,” Mr Crewdson continues. “We’re used to traditional methods here, but we tried light cultivations, going just a couple of inches into the soil when drilling the crop and we couldn’t believe the results, it looks really good. Cover crops don’t directly give anything back financially, but if we can continue to do that, there’s a saving there. We’ve yet to see the official yields, but we’re really pleased so far.”
Wheat drilling is usually targeted for mid September and on advice from Clive and a neighbouring Kings cover crop grower, two fields were deliberately left until October to test the establishment window.
“We couldn’t believe how well the crops germinated and continued to look through the autumn. We left those two fields as long as we dared and the wheat looks outstanding despite the heavy, cold, wet land. Although we don’t have any hard figures yet, visually the wheat crops look fantastic across the board, including the fields we purposely did late.”
Supported by Clive, Mr Crewdson has also hosted an open day for local growers to learn more about green cover crops and witness their benefits first-hand.
“There are strong ideas among growers and people are very passionate about it, but actually doing it yourself can be quite daunting,” Mr Crewdson acknowledges. “Looking around the fields and digging holes to look at the roots and soil structure on the open day was an eye opener for everyone, me included. It showed that there was some fantastic stuff happening below the surface.”
More green cover has already been planned after this harvest and Mr Crewdson has high hopes for the future.
“After year one I think we’ll achieve higher average yields,” he asserts. “The wheats look promising and it will be interesting to see if we can achieve our yields for less money, with better soils and more organic matter. Weed control is a factor too; our target weeds are bromes as we don’t have black-grass here at Blagdon and desiccating cover crops off in spring should make a difference to the weed burden.”
“Clive listened to what we wanted, what our parameters were and came back with various ideas to suit our needs,” Mr Crewdson concludes. “He and John guided us on our chosen route and have been there to support us throughout.”