The Morley Agricultural Foundation chairman seeks a longer-term approach to crop trials
The new chairman of a Norfolk-based research foundation hopes to build more long-term thinking into the crop trials hosted at Morley Farms.
A successful crop requires a correct calculation from a complex array of variables – and field trials play a key role in assessing how varieties will perform in different soil, cultivation and chemical regimes.
But with the weather being the ultimate unknown in the equation, only long-term research can give farmers the knowledge to make good decisions in changing seasons.
So says John Wallace, the new chairman at The Morley Agricultural Foundation, an independent charity dedicated to supporting East Anglian farming by funding practical research and education projects.
TMAF, based near Wymondham, was formed in 2003 when it inherited its assets from the Morley Research Centre, originally known as The Norfolk Agricultural Station.
It hosts a range of variety, fertilisers and chemical trials from organisation including the John Innes Centre, Agrovista, the BBRO and NIAB, the foundation’s largest tenant and grant recipient.
But Mr Wallace said one of the charity’s greatest assets was its land holdings. Its commercial arm, Morley Farms, generates profits for the foundation by growing on 800 hectares, principally owned by TMAF, but including some land rented from The John Innes Foundation, and some contract farmed at Easton College.
And that grounding gave the charity a unique opportunity to look at the bigger picture, said Mr Wallace.
“There cannot be many charities which have a farm like this open for long-term work, and there is scope to do a lot more,” he said. “The seasons vary so much, so agricultural research needs to be long term to be effective.
“I have a feeling we are going to be talking about soils. We could monitor over 10 years through different rotations and different sensors.
“We are sugar beet growers and a lot of people say: Are you not damaging the soil with that heavy equipment? That could be part of any investigation. “It could be how the machinery we use affect the flora and fauna, and the porosity and density of the soil and the subsoil.
“It is very difficult with soils because everybody’s soil is slightly different and what might be true here might not be the case elsewhere. We need to find out things that are relevant to other people. So I would hope to consult with various soil experts around the country, and I want to make that part of pur expenditure over the next 10 years.”
A good example of the value of long-term thinking is at Saxmundham, where TMAF has taken over the lease of a trials site which has been comparing the effect of artificial and natural fertilisers for the last 100 years.
The initial goal was to demonstrate that nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium could achieve the same results as farmyard manure – but as the trial has evolved through a time of increasing ecological focus, it is now exploring how manure can help reduce reliance on modern chemicals. This year the winter barley yielded 12 tonnes per hectare with the help of manure.
Mr Wallace said the foundation’s long-term view was also illustrated by its sponsorship of the Young Innovators Forum within the Agri-Tech East partnership, which is bringing young scientists and young farmers together.
“I hope we can involve more young people,” he said. “I hope we can get the Morley name recognised and appreciated more, because it is a wonderful charity and a wonderful resource in the heart of Norfolk. I hope we can set farming going to achieve these goals about long-term use on the farm.”
Mr Wallace said TMAF’s land and stock holdings gave it a total value of £19m, allowing it to distribute £400,000 in grant funding per year –– and he wants to make 25pc of that available for education projects.
Morley Farms manager David Jones added: “In a nutshell, the Morley foundation is here to help support both agricultural research and education. A lot of people do research, but unless we communicate that research to the wider industry or the public, there’s no point doing that research. Passing that information on to others is very important.”
‘Pesticides need a friend’
Mr Wallace said he hoped The Morley Agricultural Foundation could inspire a change in public perception about science in agriculture.
He said: “It sometimes seems the whole world thinks organic farming is good and conventional farming is bad, but the arguments that science bring forward must be given a good airing.
“My feeling is that the answer is not to avoid agro-chemicals and fertilisers and modern farming practices, but to look to science to make our inputs more eco-friendly. But going back to nature is not the answer.
“Pesticides need a friend. They have improved the yield and quality of food. What we are looking at here is making best use of chemicals and finding out if we can do without it.
“These days everyone has an agronomist and there is a great knowledge of different varieties and they can say: You need one litre per hectare on variety A, but variety B does not need it. The less you can use the better.
“The case for science needs to be made. If we can get a good yield on the land we farm it means we don’t have to farm other areas. They could be on very low input farming or not farmed at all.”
Sugar beet trial
While it is important to set goals for a crop trial, Morley Farms manager David Jones said the flexibility to adapt to changing conditions could also pay dividends.
The farm is working with agronomy firm Agrovista to test the effectiveness of cover crops to improve soil structure and nutrient retention between a cereal harvest and the following sugar beet crop, drilled in April using a single-pass strip-till method.
Mr Jones said: “Mark Hemmant (technical manager for Agrovista) and I discussed what to do as the trial has evolved to grow the best crop in the circumstances.
“Mark said with all the knowledge available we needed to spray off the cover crop in December. I said we needed to leave it until February to maximise the benefit of the crop over the winter. So we compromised and sprayed half in December and half in February. It turns out that spraying it off in December was the best thing to do this year. So we have learned a little bit from that, but it might not be true in other years.
“A lot of research experiments set out what they will do at the beginning and stick to it. Whereas we adapt to the season and the circumstances to make it work.”
Another lesson learned was that the mild winter and wet spring encouraged a lot of slugs, which damaged the sugar beet.
“It was ideal conditions for slugs and perhaps in another year when it was drier in March and April and with a colder winter with some frost we might not have had the same slug pressure,” said Mr Jones. “But Mark and I learned a lot from the field and we are going to recreate it on another field next year.”