Dereham Monitor Farm debate: Should farmers bale straw, or return it to the soil?

AHDB Dereham Monitor Farm manager Simon Brock. Picture: Ian Burt

AHDB Dereham Monitor Farm manager Simon Brock. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Ian Burt

Straw prices remain sky-high after stocks ran low during the long, wet winter – but does this mean more Norfolk farmers will be baling and removing straw from their fields this year?

That was one of the questions discussed at the summer meeting and farm tour of Swanton Morley Farms, based at Hoe Hall, near Dereham – which is the Norfolk member of the knowledge-sharing Monitor Farm network run by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB).

Farm manager Simon Brock hosted a debate on the pros and cons of baling and chopping straw, and led a tour of two of his fields, one in winter barley going into oilseed rape and one in winter wheat, going into sugar beet.

He said the field in winter barley will be baled to give a good lead in to oilseed rape establishment, with the baled straw traded as part of a muck-for-straw deal.

'The reason I bale in front of oilseed rape is to clear the fields,' he said. 'We establish the rape with a flat lift and I don't want trash because slugs can become a major issue. Also too much trash covers up the seeds too deeply and impedes germination.'

Teresa Meadows, AHDB knowledge exchange manager, said: 'Muck for straw deals like Simon has with the on-site outdoor pig producer can be a good way of bringing mutual benefits to both arable and livestock farmers.'

The second field will have the winter wheat straw chopped to keep nutrients in the soil. Mr Brock confessed he is not a big fan of baling.

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'In a wet year, baling straw can really delay things because the soil gets wet and we cause more damage taking the straw off,' he said. 'It also removes valuable potash and organic matter, which I'd rather keep in the soil.'

For Mr Brock, straw prices would have to be well above £100 per tonne for him to even consider baling and selling.

'Although the cost is hard to quantify, I don't want to risk the delay and soil damage,' he said. 'I think the loss of potash and organic matter, together with yield losses from delayed drilling and soil damage, would cost us more than we'd get back in payment for the straw.'

The AHDB has published guidelines for calculating the nutrient content of straw, which includes a summary of the advantages and disadvantages of chopping and baling straw. For more details, see the AHDB website.