ORC Producer Conference Reflections

I thoroughly enjoyed catching up with colleagues and friends at Organic Research Centre’s Annual Producer Conference in January.  It was once again a mix of thought provoking strategic plenary sessions and some detailed technical workshops.

Two of these were aimed at the arable producer with the aim of “closing the productivity gap” to help organic farmers increase yields.  The first session organised by, Newcastle University was looking at fertility and the second, organised by Organic Arable at weed control.

Fertility

This session was organised by the team at Newcastle University who reported their work at the organic unit at Nafferton and there were presentations by Daniel Seaborne from Holme Lacy College and Johen Mayer from the Swiss research organisation, Agroscope.

At Nafferton they have trials managed organically  (using clover leys and a full rotation) but that are on conventional land which allows them to add mineral fertilisers to examine the how nitrogen deficit effects grain yields.

To introduce the session Julia Cooper put organic yields into a global context and reported that, globally organic cereal yields are approximately 25% below those of conventional farmers and the work  showed that for the most recent 4 year average yield data at Nafferton would concur with this.  However in 2011 they saw a yield reduction of just 11%.  The reason for this yield improvement in 2011 is not understood.

The work Jochen conducts is known as the DOK trial.  This is a long term trial comparing organic and conventional systems.  On some plots organic manures are applied to replicate livestock manure deposition which allows theoretical comparisons between mixed and stockless farming systems.  This again concurs with Naffeton and the wider global organic yields deficits of about 25% on  conventional yields.  At DOK in trials where additional N is applied to organic plots this yield is deficit is reduced to about 10%.  This indicates what we know that N is a significant factor in improving organic yields.  A further interesting comment was that when nitrogen supply was improved this provided additional yield rather than higher protein levels.

At Nafferton on the “organic” plots on conventional land on which ammonium nitrate was added to boost nitrogen availability the yield deficit to conventional dropped to about 10% and if the red clover fertility build was increased from 2 to 3 years yields again achieved a similar level to this “modelled” conventional nitrogen input level.

From this I took two messages.  The first is that it is possible to achieve a 25% yield deficit when growing organic cereals (I would suggest most UK producers work on a yield deficit of 40 – 50%) and that this can be reduced to just 10-15% if nitrogen supply can be improved.   This would suggest that as organic farmers we have huge potential ahead of us as a yield improvement of perhaps 50% above where we are today is achievable.

The second being that it is perhaps easier to chase yield and so improve output than seek higher values high protein wheat.  However the market

Weed Management

The weed control session enjoyed contributions from William Hudson, Ken Tuffin and Bo Melander.  These were 3 very different presentations.  Ken reported the work he is doing using a 6m flame-weeder to help manage post emergence weeds in his seed crops.  Ken’s presentation is available here. This is work in progress as he seeks to establish the viability of the approach given the cost of fuel and the slow working speeds.

William Hudson spoke about his experiences through the 2013 season working with the innovative CombCut weeder.

By his own admission the equipment struggled in a tough season as the work really started too late in the season when the weeds were too well established.  Hopefully spring 2014 will be more successful and we will be able to judge better the potential for this machine.

Bo Melander is a Associate Professor at Aarhus University in Denmark.  He has been working on the HiCrop project out there.  This project has been looking at the key factors that reduce incidence of perennial weeds.

Bo recommended:

  • mapping weeds on your farm to understand the worst problems
  • ensuring soils surfaces are level following cultivation and drilling to ensure following actions are successful
  • diversifying crop ration sequences to provide maximum weed control opportunities through the season
  • intensive cultivation including powered implements repeated regularly.  Soil structure will be effected and needs consideration.

If perennial weeds such as couch or creeping thistle average move than 1 incidence per M2 when mapping the field actions should be taken to reduce weed burdens even at the expense of crop yield to help ensure weed control.   The most effective technique is summer fallowing but this is the most extreme measure.  The next best approach is intensive summer cultivation following harvest followed by a short term green manure.

View Bo Melander’s presentation.

Both of these presentations had useful technical information for organic growers to consider and potentially apply to their farming systems.  Alongside this the conference is an excellent opportunity to network and discuss farming matters with fellow organic farmers and growers and meet processors and researchers.  It should be a “must attend” for all.