The future of farming?

Agribusiness Team visit innovative Cambridgeshire farm

On the 12th July 2019, Bidwells Agribusiness had the opportunity to visit Flegcroft Farm, run by Philip Bradshaw on the Cambridgeshire fens to the east of Peterborough, to discover more about zero-tillage farming.  

Mr Bradshaw presented on the background of his farming business and the reasons why he has decided to move to a zero-tillage farming system. A key benefit is the retention and accumulation of soil organic matter, a key component of healthy soils. Flegcroft Farm soil’s typically have between 20-35% organic matter which is a result of the peaty soil types; zero-till techniques preserve this valuable resource.

A substantial benefit which has also come to light is savings in fuel use. Average fuel consumption for cultivation tasks in the 2018 harvest year was five litres per hectare; this represents a a significant cost-saving compared to most heavy tillage farms (where soil is disturbed through ploughing and other cultivations) which typically use 35 litres per hectare. In the second year of the system, Mr Bradshaw calculated a 32% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions solely from the lower fuel use.

A key point Mr Bradshaw made was that the farm’s yields have not been compromised by the new system, with winter wheat yields averaging 9.6t/ha, well above the UK average. With growing political and public pressure on UK and global agriculture to reduce its impact on environment, whilst still producing food for an ever-growing population, results such as this suggest zero-till farming will play an important part to deliver more sustainable farming practices.

In addition to fuel savings, cultivation costs were reduced by £10,000 per annum, and there was a significant reduction in fertiliser use which clearly has both financial and environmental benefits. Because of the zero disturbance, the ability for the soil to retain moisture and nutrients means that Mr Bradshaw is able to reduce applications of phosphate and potash fertilisers. With fertiliser prices on a continuous rise in recent years, reducing the need for these inputs could improve the resilience and sustainability of the farming business in an industry where grain prices and input costs are becoming increasingly volatile.

What was evident from the farm visit was the potential for this method to be incorporated into some of the farms and estates managed by the Bidwells Agribusiness Team. Whilst it is not a practical opportunity for farms producing high value vegetable crops, the predominantly cereal based arable farms should consider using a zero-till system as a means to reduce input and cultivation costs.

Mr Bradshaw also highlighted the benefits of zero-till systems alleviating the opportunity costs of time and tied-up cash. This may be attractive to those clients aiming to either improve cash flow, invest capital elsewhere, or reduce time spent on farming activities in order to pursue alternative ventures.

Of course, the system is not without its faults. Whilst it would provide many farmers to sell and “cash-in” on their machinery by selling redundant cultivation equipment, it would still require investment into a specialist drill that can range from £34,000 to £150,000 in price, although there are government grants available to subsidise this cost to an extent.

The system is limiting on the variety of crops that can be grown. Potatoes and vegetables typically require substantial soil movement during establishment and harvest and are therefore not a viable option in a zero-till system, which would certainly dissuade some farms where potatoes and vegetables are key cash-crops. Zero tillage is also reliant on the herbicide glyphosate, with controversy over its reported links with cancer, there is therefore increasing uncertainty over its long-term availability. Zero-tillage is certainly not without its challenges and will not be appropriate in all circumstances.

It was a fantastic morning where we were able to experience innovative farming methods in practice. Whilst zero-tillage agriculture may not be appropriate for every farming business, it is certainly a method many should consider as a means of reducing the environmental impact of farming whilst improving financial stability and resilience in an increasingly volatile environment.

If you would like to discuss your business structure, strategy or any other farming related matter please do not hesitate to contact myself or another member of our Agribusiness team.

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