No-till with living mulches

This field lab will be investigating the potential for establishing no-till organic/low input arable farming systems using a permanent living mulch understory.

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Field Lab Timeline

    8/31/2019 11:00:00 PM
  • Proposal submitted

    Proposal submitted
  • 2/20/2020 12:00:00 AM
  • Group meeting

    Group meeting
  • 3/19/2020 12:00:00 AM
  • Methods decided

    Methods decided
  • 4/23/2020 11:00:00 PM
  • Clover cover crops drilled

    Clover cover crops drilled
  • 6/24/2020 11:00:00 PM
  • Soil and cash/cover crop tissue analysis

    Soil and cash/cover crop tissue analysis
  • 8/29/2020 11:00:00 PM
  • Cereal harvest, yield and quality analysed

    Cereal harvest, yield and quality analysed
  • 9/23/2020 11:00:00 PM
  • Group meeting

    Group meeting
  • 10/27/2020 12:00:00 AM
  • Drilling of cash crop into living mulch

    Drilling of cash crop into living mulch
  • 11/10/2020 12:00:00 AM
  • Soil and cash/cover crop tissue analysis

    Soil and cash/cover crop tissue analysis
  • 3/30/2021 11:00:00 PM
  • Soil and cash/cover crop tissue analysis

    Soil and cash/cover crop tissue analysis
  • 5/13/2021 11:00:00 PM
  • Interrow mowing

    Interrow mowing
  • 6/16/2021 11:00:00 PM
  • Soil and cash/cover crop tissue analysis

    Soil and cash/cover crop tissue analysis
  • 8/11/2021 11:00:00 PM
  • Harvest yield and quality assessments

    Harvest yield and quality assessments
  • 9/14/2021 11:00:00 PM
  • Results Meeting

    Results Meeting
For further information hover over the above milestone marks
  • Discussion

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  • Achievements

    September 2020

    Initial results: Weed and living mulch cover

    The group met virtually in late September to discuss the initial results from the 7 trials:

    - 4 successful establishments, including 1 late established
    - 3 unsuccessful establishments

    Because of this, the group of triallists falls into two categories:
    1) Successful clover establishment in Spring/Summer. Next phase is drilling cash crop into standing clover
    2) Unsuccessful clover establishment in Spring - needs reseeding

    Potential reasons preventing establishment:
    - Very dry Spring (rainfall in May 2020 was 20% of the 1981-2010 average at the triallists' locations)
    - Hard frost in early May just when clover may have been establishing
    - Season (see below)

    Impact of clover on weed cover:
    - Where clover established well, there is evidence that weeds were suppressed, in particular, perennial weeds and grasses.
    - Late season establishment of clover may not offer enough competition against weeds
    - Whilst it may be less risky to try to establish clover in the Autumn, there will be more competition from weeds. Spring established clover going into a spring crop is favourable as weeds will experience more competition from the cereal crop, clover and a chance for mechanical weeding prior to establishing clover in spring.

    Next steps:
    - Where mulch has established, biomass and N content assessments of the clover, soil sampling at the time of cash crop establishment and monitoring of the cereal crop will continue to take place. The mulch will need to be controlled as much as possible for as long as possible during early growth of the spring crop during early crop growth and development.

    - Where mulch has not established, the farmers that are happy to do so will will make a second attempt to establish the clover in Spring 2021. Some may choose a different mulch mix, e.g. linseed and clover.

    Milestone: Group meeting

    June 2020

    Establishment of mulches

    The farmers discussed establishment of the white clover living mulch. They reported mixed success so far, which is particularly impacted by the dry weather:

    - The organic farm in Shropshire drilled clover (2kg/ha) at the same time as buckwheat (50kg/ha) with the intention of following this on with winter oats. He will use sheep to graze the mulch in the winter.

    - The zero-till farmer in Staffordshire said that both weeds and crops are suffering from the dry weather and that any clover they can find has not been intentionally sowed.

    - The conventional and organic farmer in Oxfordshire reported that some clover is showing through

    - The organic grower in Worcestershire has not yet drilled the clover

    - The grower in Cambridgeshire has seen little establishment so far

    Milestone: Soil and cash/cover crop tissue analysis

    April 2020

    Mulches undersown

    The group have undersown the living mulches into winter and spring wheat. Warm weather from mid-March meant that some farmers decided to undersow the mulches as early as possible, to avoid too much cover from the winter wheat. Others sowed in mid-late April, hoping for a period of rain.

    The dry weather has caused some concern; the lack of rain has meant that the mulches haven't yet emerged at any of the farms. "Moisture for a few days after sowing and an occasional drop through the summer seems to be the crucial thing", one farmer commented.

    Milestone: Clover cover crops drilled

    March 2020

    Areas of debate

    Areas of debate amongst farmers in the trial:

    - Clover varieties. The group chose Aberace (small leaf clover) and Aberpearl (small to medium clover). Taller varieties would interfere with harvesting
    - Drill - strip vs disc
    - 100% clover ground cover vs clover strips
    - Managing clover to control growth and release fertility - livestock vs interrow mower/crimper; chemical and fertiliser for conventional growers.
    - Crop choices, timing of treatments, drilling dates
    - Impact on rotations

    Milestone: Proposal submitted

    February 2020

    First group meeting

    The group had their first in-person meeting to discuss their experiences of using living mulches, practicalities of the trial and motivations for being involved. Full minutes including a summary of the literature on mulch management can be found in the 'Living Mulch Trial Minutes' document on this page.

    Key outcomes of the meeting:

    - Seven farms (including one educational/experimental site) will undertake the trial.
    - The living mulch will consist of a mix of wild white and small-medium leaved clovers in a 70:30 ratio, undersown into a cereal cash crop in spring 2020.
    - Mulch will be knocked back through grazing or topping with a cash crop direct or strip drilled in the Autumn.
    - This approach will be compared to a farm control consisting of current standard farm practice to enable a proper comparison of the two systems.
    - Two of the trials will take place on conventional no-till farms and 5 trials will take place on organic farms.

    Weed control (particularly for organic farmers) and cash crop yield are the main parameters farmers are interested in measuring.

    The researcher explained that the ecosystem service of weed suppression provided by the mulch will need to be balanced with its competitiveness, to ensure that cash crop competitiveness is maximised and mulch competitiveness is minimised. The key point is plant above-ground biomass rather than date of plant emergence: the plant that achieves the greater biomass early on remains the better competitor throughout the growth.

    A barrier discussed was the lack of machinery suitable for mowing the mulch. Clover and other forage legume crops fix N but only release N when their biomass is returned to soil, therefore cutting is necessary but made difficult due to lack of appropriate machinery.

    The group will communicate via WhatsApp, exact data to be collected will be decided between the group and researcher.

    Milestone: Group meeting

    August 2019

    Field lab proposal - background

    The act of tilling the soil has many functions in agriculture, including breaking up soil compaction, eliminating weeds, and incorporating cover crops for increased soil fertility. These functions are even more important for organic farmers who don’t have access to herbicides or mineral nitrogen fertilisers.

    Unfortunately tillage also releases carbon into the atmosphere, increases the risk of erosion, removes structure and destroys important fungal networks. Tillage is also fuel- and labour-intensive. Some farmers, both conventional and organic, practice reduced tillage or try to eliminate it altogether, through No-till.

    No-till agriculture, a technique which aims to grow crops with minimal soil disturbance, increases the amount of water that infiltrates into the soil, the soil's retention of organic matter, its cycling of nutrients and enhance its microbial community, particularly fungi.

    However, it is a system based on glyphosate and is still dependent on fertiliser and pesticide inputs. This has always presented a challenge to organic farmers wishing to employ this system, and may present a challenge to conventional, no-till farmers in the future if pesticide regulations change and glyphosate becomes unavailable.

    To achieve organic no-till farming, there needs to be an alternative to a system reliant on glyphosate to terminate cover crops and kill weeds, that can also supply adequate nutrition to feed the growing cash crop.

    The practice of living mulch systems, a kind of mixed cropping where one crop (main cash crop) produces the yield and the other covers the soil (clover cover crop), is an environmentally sound way to farm the land. Compared with standard cropping systems that feature ploughing and monocultures, living mulch systems have several agronomic advantages, such as efficient erosion control, weed suppression, improved soil structure, and self-regulation of pests and diseases.

    Milestone: Proposal submitted

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