Farmers are abandoning traditional ploughing

  • 16 December 2016
  • From the section England
Fork going into soil
Image caption The farmer at Overbury Farms says his soil has definitely improved since they stopped ploughing

There is no more familiar sight in the countryside than a tractor pulling a plough.

Ploughing remains more or less the same now as it was hundreds of years ago.

But recently some farmers have abandoned ploughing completely.

They say the result is better for the bottom line and the environment.

I've spent the past year following one Cotswold farmer who's done that.

No bare soil

Jake Freestone farms more than 1,500 hectares in Overbury, Worcestershire, not far from Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire.

He is one of a small but growing number of farmers who have stopped ploughing their land.

In fact, the trick with this new system is to make sure no bare soil is exposed during farming year at all.

So after harvest, you also immediately plant "cover crops" straight into the stubble.

In one field Jake might start by planting a cover crop such as fodder radishes and then a bit later, he plants the pea crop directly on top.

Image caption On Overbury Farm in Gloucestershire, they’ve not ploughed their fields for a year under the “no till” system

The cover crops are designed to protect the soil and also put back nutrients and plant matter.

This should drastically improve the health of the soil and boost yields while reducing the costs of farming.

At least that's the theory.

If you spend as much time as I do gossiping with farmers then you hear all sorts of views about this "no till" system.

They say it was tried in the 70s and didn't work; it leaves fields looking very scruffy and pests including slugs will take over.

Archers fans will know the one farm in Ambridge to try this idea appears to be on the edge of abandoning it after less than a year.

Image caption Jake Freestone's malting barley, pea and oilseed rape crops all did about as well as the national average

So what is Jake's experience?

Well his malting barley, pea and oilseed rape crops all did about as well as the national average.

His wheat was a little variable but overall slightly better than the national figures.

Meanwhile the cost of production for wheat has gone from £120 a hectare to just £60 and fuel use is down just over 40%.

Contract work

There are big upfront costs though.

Jake has had to invest a large sum in a huge piece of machinery called a cross slot drill, which is used to plant seeds directly into the cover crop.

Although he has subsidised that by doing contract work for other farmers, as interest in his no till system grows.

Image caption Jake Freestone is waiting for kit that will allow him to see how much water his non-ploughed soil now holds

But after a year Jake is sure this is the way forward for him and other arable farmers.

In a post-Brexit world, it's unclear what farm subsidies might look like and might make this system, with its similar yields but much lower inputs, a more attractive idea.

There are also benefits for the rest of us.

Jake was waiting for a new piece of kit to arrive on the farm that will allow him to see how much water his non-ploughed soil now holds.

The theory is the soil will now soak up even more rain and that will have huge benefits in terms of reducing potential flooding for those living on the hills beneath the farm.

It could be Jake's just been very lucky; this year was a fluke and like all pioneers he'll face some big problems in the next few years.

So I'll be staying in touch to see how things pan out and see if no till is a trendy idea or if it really is the future of farming.

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