Green Cover Case Study
4Front Farming, Fife
“It’s important that we take the necessary steps to get the most from our land while safeguarding it for the future. Our soils are incredibly valuable so benefitting their structure and overall health in the long-term is a good investment for us.”
- Farm manager, Matt Waldie
While already an advocate for cover crops, manager of 4Front Farming Co Ltd, Matt Waldie, was keen to increase the four-farm cooperative’s cropping area. With help from Kings technical advisor for Scotland, Alan Johnson, the business has now incorporated a range of mixtures that are aiding with soil health, improving crop yields and benefitting farm wildlife.
4Front Farming is a unique business venture in Fife, Scotland. The company was created in 2017 after a neighbouring farmer of Matt Waldie approached him with a view to collaborate, suggesting they also join forces with two other landowners to create a single entity. Since then Matt has taken on the role of full-time manager across the unit, responsible for daily operations, budgets, workforce and rotations.
Alongside the arable operation growing cereals, oilseed rape, temporary grass leys and vegetables, 4Front Farming utilises the Ecological Focus Area (EFA) fallow option by establishing summer cover crops too. However, the business is also part of the Scottish Agri-Environment Scheme and Matt was keen to take advantage of the option for stubbles followed by green manure, as well as those that incorporate wild bird seed mixtures and grass margins.
“I really wanted to ensure we made use of the most suitable mixtures that met the requirements of these agri-environment schemes,” explains Matt. “But it was important that they provided multiple benefits too, such as valuable root structure to help soils, biomass and nitrogen-fixing qualities for the green manure options.”
4Front Farming is a customer of Frontier Agriculture with agronomist, Steven Penrice working closely with Matt and his own agronomist to provide crop nutrition while farm trader, Charlotte Green, helps to trade grain. On hearing Matt’s plans to incorporate more cover crops on farm in 2019, they put him in touch with Kings technical advisor, Alan Johnson.
“There were numerous things that Matt wanted to address through his choice of cover crop options,” says Alan. “We needed to incorporate mixtures that would help to reverse the recent decline in soil organic matter, remove the yield plateau and help the number of grey partridges to recover.”
A whole farm approach
After gaining a full understanding of the farm’s requirements in accordance with the agri-environmental schemes it was entered into, Alan supplied Matt with a cover crop mixture comprising oil radish, phacelia, crimson clover and vetch to cover over 100 hectares.
The mixture was drilled in May 2019 and was soon providing a haven for vital pollinating insects such as butterflies and bees, as well as valuable habitat for the farm’s grey partridge population. At the same time, the crop was returning a substantial volume of organic matter back to the soil too.
“We were intrigued to see exactly how the cover crops had performed from a technical aspect,” comments Matt. “We took some samples in early August so that we could analyse the true benefits.”
Fresh weight cuttings were taken prior to the crops being destroyed, with the crops averaging nearly 50 tonnes per hectare.
“Across three tests, we saw some impressive figures. Per hectare, we measured 7.2 tonnes of dry matter, 90kg of nitrogen, 36kg of phosphorous and 175kg of potassium”, says Alan.
After 15th August, in line with scheme requirements, the crop was destroyed. However, Matt was eager to assess the impact on following crop establishment and so tested two destruction techniques. The first was to chop or crimp roll the cover crops at the point that flowering was nearly finished and before it set seed. It was then left to green up again before being chemically destroyed and the winter cereal drilled direct into the trash. The second technique was to direct drill straight into the standing cover crop – a method which Matt and Alan found to work well.
“Direct drilling is a great option as it reduces costs and is beneficial for soil health,” says Alan. “There are some factors to consider such as existing conditions and timings, but there are proven benefits for following crops in terms of establishment and yield, as well as a reduction to the inputs required.” Compared to a conventional ploughing and sowing system, Matt found that direct drilling was almost a quarter of the cost.
Adopting new solutions on the farm is not new to 4Front Farming; in fact, Matt is a fan of incorporating innovative practices if it means it will help to make the business more efficient for the future. “It’s important that we take the necessary steps to get the most from our land while safeguarding it for the future. Our soils are incredibly valuable so anything that benefits their structure and overall health in the long-term is a good investment for us,” says Matt.
The ongoing work also feeds into 4Front Farming’s objective to help the general public gain a greater understanding of agriculture and the stewardship responsibilities that farmers have. Across numerous open events and school visits throughout the year, Matt and his team demonstrate everything from their commercial farming operations to the environmental work they are undertaking alongside.
Looking ahead, following the successful trial of direct drilling straight into the standing cover crops, 4Front Farming will be moving away from flail topping covers before sowing. Topping is slow and expensive both on fuel and time. Instead, by leaving the cover crops whole but destroyed on top of the soil, protection is offered to the emerging crop. In doing this, Matt has seen a dramatic decrease in slug damage thus meaning he doesn’t have to apply any molluscicides after sowing. In addition, he and his team have been amazed at the bird activity seen over winter, with a variety of species able to feed on the insects and seeds left over by the green covers.
On higher ground (600ft – 700ft above sea level), 4Front Farming is introducing spring cover crops as an early entry for winter oats followed by winter wheat, giving the team a more efficient harvest window and yield increase whilst also improving soils.
Matt has been trialling different winter cover crop mixes and establishment methods with the help of Kings, with the long-term goal of having cover crops on most winter stubbles where possible.
“I have been impressed by Alan’s knowledge and understanding,” explains Matt, “as well as the passion he and the Kings team have for finding the right solutions to our needs and end goal here at 4Front Farming. I look forward to working closely with Alan in the future.”