"We knew we needed to do something for our farm business but the implementation of the cover crops is also helping us to prepare for the future.” - Farmer, James Gordon
Bindal Farm is a large arable holding situated in Easter Ross in the Scottish Highlands. After experiencing severe soil erosion following a particularly troublesome winter, farmer James Gordon and his sons, Alan and Callum, sought the assistance of Kings Scotland technical advisor, Alan Johnson to incorporate cover crops.
The Gordon family’s farm is the most northerly seed potato producer in Scotland, growing in excess of 200 acres. Malting barley also forms a significant part of the farm business, alongside winter oilseed rape and winter wheat.
As a mixed arable unit, safeguarding soil on the farm is crucial and while this was always a priority for James, Alan and Callum, it was an ongoing challenge. With straw baled and sold as part of the farm business, nutrient is often removed from the soil as a result. With no livestock on the holding, there is no farm yard manure to help mitigate this off-take or improve soil organic matter levels.
On top of this, the impact of an extremely dry winter and some very strong winds in 2014 caused the farm to suffer from severe wind erosion. Soil was blown from the land and with it, vital nutrients were lost.
James says, “Protecting our soils from the impact of straw removal and trying to mitigate any nutrient loss has always been very important to us. However, following such a challenging winter, we knew we needed to do more.”
Using cover crops to manage soil health
The Gordon family turned to Kings following advice from their Frontier agronomist and after seeing the benefits of cover crops at a local Kings Farm Demonstration Site. “Cover crops were quite a new concept in this area,” explains James. “Kings were the first to introduce them as a solution to soil management here. Cover crop trials had been held on a neighbouring farm and during a Kings open day we were able to see evidence of the positive impact they could have in situations similar to our own.”
The family went on to seek guidance from local Kings advisor, Alan Johnson. After assessing the soil erosion problems, Alan suggested that oil radish be planted in problematic areas. “We went with oil radish because it suits the conditions in the North of Scotland and it is quick growing; a huge benefit as we wanted to improve soil conditions as soon as we could,” says Alan.
“The radish also covered the soil’s biomass needs and put a good amount of rooting down. This made fantastic improvements to the overall soil structure.”
The initial oil radish mix was planted in September 2015 and again in 2016. However, in 2017, Alan and the Gordon family trialled a different mix that incorporated phacelia and rye to help capture more nitrogen and encourage greater improvements to soil conditions and structure. In 2018, the mix was developed further again, with the radish removed and additional options tailored to suit the conditions and location of the farm.
As well as mitigating soil and nutrient loss, the cover crops have enabled James, Callum and Alan to plough their fields much earlier than normal too. Speaking of this benefit, Alan Johnson explains, “Each year we try to get the cover crops in as early as we can. When we’ve drilled them in August for example, this has given ample time for the crops to dry the soil and as a result, the Gordon family have been able to plough their fields much earlier than if they had left the stubble over winter.”
As well as safeguarding the farm’s greatest asset, James also believes that the cover crops are standing him in good stead for the future. “There is a lot of talk about changing agri-environmental policy over the next few years, with a bigger focus on protecting and managing our soils. We knew we needed to do something for our farm business but the implementation of the cover crops is also helping us to prepare for the future.”
Alan Johnson continues, “The government is now focused on natural capital; the collective term for our environmental resources which feature on many farms and crofts. By working to safeguard these assets now, farmers can be better prepared for the future as payment schemes move towards rewarding those that enhance our natural environment.
“The work James, Alan and Callum are doing at Bindal Farm is a perfect example of this. As well as benefitting the whole farm business, their cover crops are helping them to meet our industry’s environmental objectives too.”