Reducing artificial nitrogen use on this farm has been a continuous project over the last decade. Regular soil sampling and taking a field by field approach has been the mainstay of the plan. Trialling things on a small basis both built confidence when things went right and meant it wasn’t a catastrophe if an experiment failed.
The spike in fertiliser prices this year accelerated the process and increased the focus on trying to capture more free nitrogen from the atmosphere. There’s a good share of bales left over from last year, so we have that as a safety net in case grass growth collapses.
The main cut of silage will take place over the next fortnight, but combining the 2021 leftovers with what was cut two weeks ago, there is already 30% of our fodder target in the yard.
We’re after passing the halfway point in the open season for spreading fertiliser, and I’ve never spread so little. The average amounts to just under six units of artificial nitrogen per hectare. This figure will rise over the week when fertiliser is spread on the early silage that got slurry last week.
There’s a lot to be learned from just observing the plant and animal behaviour
But it’s still on track to be considerably below previous years’ fertiliser use. Being a suckler farm, grass demand doesn’t peak until later in the year, so the focus is on keeping quality grass ahead of cows, which means stronger paddocks are baled without heavy fertiliser use. As grass demand rises, the growing younger stock slowly pushes off the need of a baler.
There’s a lot to be learned from just observing the plant and animal behaviour too. Combining that with keeping an eye on costs has led to that reduction in fertiliser use.
There are moments where you’d be nervous because you’re breaking the habits of a lifetime too. For example, for seven weeks of peak growth in April and right through May last year, no fertiliser was spread. Weather and grass growth was good, so I wanted to see what was possible. The risk was, the silage bale count would be affected. We ended up with more bales left after a winter than any other year.
In farming, you can have a plan for the year but it has to adapt to any amount of uncontrollables. It’s possibly what legendary basketball coach Phil Jackson calls “controlled improvisation”.
I’ve been keeping an eye on proceedings at the citizens’ assembly on biodiversity loss. It’s a topic that crosses the urban and rural divide. While there are lots of easy wins to be achieved, I think across society there is a knowledge deficit when it comes to the topic.
Perhaps using knowledge transfer could play a role. Including a compulsory biodiversity meeting in discussion group programmes, similar to a mandatory health and safety meeting, would be a starting point.
But to really kick things on and prevent it being a tick-the-box exercise, a standalone biodiversity knowledge transfer programme could help.
Confine it to those interested in the topic, but make the groups mixed enterprise. That would enable wider discussion rather than the same people meeting to talk on the same topics all the time. There’s a lot to learn from across the farming sectors. It’s surely worth trying on a pilot programme.