Taking on so-called regenerative farming techniques undoubtedly has social and environmental benefits, but it is good for the bank balance too trials have found. Ash Burbidge and Alice Dyer report.
With input prices remaining high, and the unknowns of whether the grain price will continue on the same trajectory, cutting production costs will be at the forefront of many growers’ minds. Long-term trials at the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Allerton Project is revealing the impact of tillage system on crop establishment, fuel use, work rates and farm profit.
The trial, which is being conducted with Syngenta, is in is fifth year and is comparing results from the Allerton Project’s main, heavy land site at Loddington with a sister site in Kent, on light, sandy loam soil.
In a pure arable situation, the team assessed the impact of reducing the intensity of tillage based on a five crop, five field rotation by comparing direct drilling with continuous ploughing.
Joe Stanley, head of training and partnerships at the Allerton Project says: “Crop establishment was eight per cent down as expected when using a direct drilling system. Yet, we are saving nearly 50 per cent in fuel use, 50 per cent in work rate where farmers can do the work in half the time. This is increasingly important in a world with closing weather windows,” said Mr Stanley.
Net profit per hectare increased and the farm found itself 20 per cent more profitable, despite producing nearly 10 per cent less grain.
Significant benefits were also measured from a sustainability angle. Mr Stanley reported a reduction in soil greenhouse gas emissions of 13 per cent from the light land site and 20 per cent from the heavy land site through the use of direct drilling.
“Ten per cent of all UK carbon emissions result from agriculture and currently we are only sequestering two per cent of this,” he says. “We do have a long way to go on this journey before farmers can start absorbing significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.”
The Allerton Project is part of the YEN Zero Project, which is aiming to ‘decarbonise agricultural production to the greatest extent possible.’ Highlighting individual crop footprints, Mr Stanley says winter oilseed rape produces the largest carbon footprint and peas the smallest.
But there are huge variations in carbon footprint seen between growers of the same crop. Trends point towards higher yields and lower carbon footprints, which shows it does not have to be smaller scale farmers that can be sustainable, he adds.
High yielding businesses may have seen very good margins last season, but farming has become capital intensive, and although farms adopting regenerative systems tend to produce a lower output, savings can still be significant. This is according to Gary Markham of Land Family Business (LFB) who has been benchmarking two groups of farmers since 2017 – conventional farmers and regenerative farmers.
He says: “The economic production value of arable land is in the region of £4,000 per acre and the additional £4,000 to £6,000 has no bearing on the production capacity. Added to this is the increase in the capital cost of machinery over the past few years to over £300 per acre.”
Many farms have looked to expand as a means of dealing with these pressures, but this has normally meant tendering for contract farming agreements and on average a loss of between £40 to £60 per acre is made on the additional land, Mr Markham adds.
“The main driver of lack of profitability in arable farms are the machinery costs and in particular depreciation which represents the capital per acre.”
The benchmarking data shows that in regenerative systems average output per acre was 25 per cent lower, but variable costs were 24 per cent lower, gross margins 28 per cent less and labour and machinery costs 30 per cent lower. Significant savings in working capital of around £148/acre were also seen in the regenerative farming group.
Mr Markham says: “From 2017-2020 machinery capital per tonne averaged £74/t for the regenerative group of farmers, and £91/t for the conventional benchmark.
“Recently some conventional businesses have been making very good margins. However, farming is long-term and knee-jerk reactions to change systems is not advisable.”