The sustainability of our farm is extremely important to us and underpins everything we do. For this piece in our Earth Day series, we’ll be looking at how and why we use cover crops as part of our annual rotation.
Co-Founders David Thompson, an expert in crop science and Tom Mellor, a farmer, are always improving their understanding of crops and evolving their thinking about how we farm the land and what is grown.
Since 1945, when the Mellor family bought Hunmanby Grange, the farm has been primarily arable with oilseed rape, wheat and barley as the core crops in the rotation. As the farm has diversified, first to brewing and then onto distilling too, oilseed rape has been grown less and less. In fact, instead of a traditional rotation system using just ‘cash crops’ annually, we’ve now introduced two crops a year onto each field. This means that there’s a cover crop through winter, with the main crop sown in Spring. The majority of these crops are now planted using a no-till farming system (‘direct drilling’) too. More on this in the next post!
Keeping the land in the best condition for future generations is extremely important to us. Limiting carbon footprints is more relevant now than ever; here at Hunmanby Grange, we’re trying to capture as much carbon from the atmosphere into the soil as possible.
How? Using cover crops to ensure we have something growing in the land at all times, planted using the direct drilling method mentioned above and therefore disturbing the soil as little as possible.
Why? These cover crops absorb carbon and nitrogen by locking it up in the plant and its roots. This is something we (as farmers) have always been aware of. Previously farmers, for example, were using green manure, which meant growing a crop such as mustard and then ploughing it ‘back in’ so that it would break down in the soil. This kind of thinking was a stepping stone to today’s practices, the crops that we use and the reasons we use each plant in the cover crop mix.
Legumes have a bacteria called rhizobium on their roots and this bacteria has a symbiotic relationship with the legume plant in that they feed off the plant as well as fix nitrogen from the atmosphere allowing the plant to grow. This in turn increases soil fertility, reducing the need for fertiliser. The legumes we’re using are phacelias and clovers.
Brassicas we use because of their taproots as they break open the soil, increasing the porosity of the soil so that water can drain away, enabling earthworms to get cracking. The brassicas we’re using are radishes.
Grasses, also known as cereals, take in carbon and lock them up in the root ball. The grasses we’re using are black oats and buckwheat. The black oats that we use will release toxins when destroyed which can also help with pest control.
We’re still in the early stages of using cover crops however initial tests are showing an increase in organic matter in the soil, more earthworms (often found with the help of little people on the farm!) and overall general soil health. In the next post, we’ll be going into direct drilling.