Prototype farm machine trial explores new ways to prevent soil erosion
- Credit: Archant
An extraordinarily wet spring has underlined the need for farmers to reduce soil erosion and run-off from their fields – and it could bring financial benefits as well as environmental. CHRIS HILL reports.
Prototype farm machinery has been put through its paces in north Norfolk, designed to reduce soil erosion by disrupting the tramlines made by the wheels of heavy cultivation machinery.
And weeks of above-average rainfall have proved exactly why such innovations are necessary.
Even on well-managed land – with good quality soils, cultivated across gentle slopes, using over-winter stubble to safeguard against erosion – the recent rains have gouged gullies into the soil, allowing run-off to pour into low-lying field corners.
So the Water Sensitive Farming (WSF) partnership wants to give East Anglian growers access to equipment like the new Creyke Wheel Track Combi, which was trialled at Tim Papworth's farm in Felmingham, near North Walsham.
The machine uses angled tines to break up the compacted tramlines, while a wheel-track roller creates heaps and hollows in the soil to capture rainwater and give it time to percolate into the ground – rather than creating a smooth channel which can direct water downhill in a damaging torrent.
The WSF partnership – which includes the Broads Authority and the Norfolk Rivers Trust – hopes to buy the Yorkshire-made machine using funding from Tesco which has already bought a similar machine called the Wonder Wheel, made by Suffolk firm Bye Engineering, which was trialled alongside it to compare the differences.
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The overall aim is to protect the environment and watercourses from chemical and sediment run-off – but also to help farmers keep valuable water and nutrients on the fields, where they are needed for their crops.
And that goal has become increasingly important following the introduction of new farming rules for water from April 2, requiring farmers to take reasonable precautions to prevent significant soil erosion and runoff from land management and cultivation practices.
Neil Punchard, Broadland Catchment Partnership Officer for the Broads Authority, said: 'We are keen to work with farmers to help provide the tools to stop soil erosion. We have worked with a few farmers in Norfolk and the feedback has been that the kit has helped to reduce erosion, with no deleterious effects on yield.
'The thing that has been absent before is the financial justification for farmers, rather than just being the right thing to do to reduce the environmental impact and the risk of cross-compliance issues and fines.
'But there does seem to be an economic incentive of water and efficiency savings in terms of stopping soil and nutrient loss. It reduces flood water patches which reduce your efficiency, and it reduces the number of irrigation passes. There could be quite a significant financial saving, but it is difficult to quantify that at a field scale.'
Although the recent weather created difficult conditions for the demonstration, it did provide a perfect illustration of the problems the machinery could help overcome.
Mr Papworth said his sandy loam soil had been deluged with more than 46mm of rain during the four-day Easter Weekend – creating deep gullies on some potato fields and eroding the top layers of soil away into low-lying field corners.
'We set this trial up months ago, and it should have been a lovely demonstration field out here, but now it is a war zone.
'The rows are across the hill rather than down it so we don't create channels for water, and we used an over-winter stubble to stop soil erosion. It was cultivated, de-stoned and planted and then we had all this rain before we could use the (Creyke) machine. I had the full intention to do it right, but now I have this problem. It can affect anyone, and it is not doing the soil structure any good.
'This is the first time this machine has been out in the field. The incentive to me is that I don't want to cause a problem to the environment and I don't want erosion of my good quality soil, and I'm trying to keep the water where it needs to be for the potato crop.'
ABOUT WATER SENSITIVE FARMING
The Water Sensitive Farming (WSF) project aims to encourage practical on-farm measures that improve the quality and resilience of the surrounding water environment.
WSF is a collaborative initiative between Norfolk Rivers Trust and the Broadland Rivers and Cam and Ely Ouse Catchment Partnerships.
Operating at a catchment scale, mainly in the Broadland Rivers and Cam and Ely Ouse catchments, WSF advisers work closely with farmers to develop strategies which deliver benefits for both the environment and farm businesses.
The project is funded until June 2018 by Coca-Cola and WWF Freshwater Partnership; along with targeted support from Tesco.
Futher funding is currently being sought to build on the achievements so far, including engagement with more than 75 participating farmers, and more than 500 acres of tramline disruption.
By summer 2018, the WSF estimates the delivery of silt traps and land use improvements across the two catchments will have replenished more than 750,000 cubic metres of water to the environment – equivalent to 300 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
FREE MACHINE TRIALS
Through the Water Sensitive Farming 2018 scheme, free trials are available for erosion-reducing equipment, including Bye Engineering's Wonder Wheel (potatoes), the Norfolk-made Lland Ho Earthwake (cereals) and Aquagronomy's new Creyke Wheel Track Combi (potatoes, sugar beet, and maize).
• For more information, contact Neil Punchard on 07900 266 496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.