Host farmer John Cherry's seminar on no-till farming at Cereals event

John Cherry, Farmer

My brother Paul and I are farming 2500 acres the other side of Baldock, 2000                             arable acres and the rest permanent pastures and woods. It's chalky boulder clay, quite variable soils. 
 
We stopped ploughing more than 15 years ago, guided by Steve Townsend, and
gradually tilled shallower and shallower with min-till. A visit to Tony Reynolds's
farm in Lincolnshire and some trips to (the late lamented) NTA events at Simon
Cowell's place in Essex, Simon Chiles's South of London and James Dockray in
Hampshire, convinced us that no-till was not only possible, but also preferrable. 
 
Initially we were quite excited by the possibility of shaving a few quid off
establishment costs and intrigued by the idea that soon we'd be able to save a bit on
fertiliser and spray costs too. Quite soon I became a bit obsessed with our soil and all
the creatures that make their homes in it. A handful of healthy soil contains more
living organisms than there are people on the planet and most of these creatures are
our friends... 
 
Plants have evolved over millenia coexisting with these fungi and bacteria and have
formed many highly productive symbiotic relationships with them. Tillage knocks
many of these for six, fungi in particular with their miles of superfine mycelia cannot
thrive or even survive in tilled soil. 
 
 Mycorhizzal fungi especially suffer. These little wonders are capable of extracting
otherwise unobtainable Phosphous from clays and exchanging them with plants who
pay for them with sugars produced by photosynthesis. They also form glomalin
which is a key constituent of humus, a fantastically useful constituent of soil which
gives it its dark colour and holds the secrets of soil fertility and water holding
capacity. And drainage. 
 
The original Organic pioneers, Sir Albert Howard and Lady Eve Balfour understood
this well.Their insight focussed on the benefit of well made compost to feed the soil
and grow healthy crops which wouldn't need fungicides to keep them alive and this
same healthy soil could feed the crop enough to produce respectable yields. This is heretical talk at Cereals, so I'll move swiftly on, it always struck me as a bit daft to endlessly cultivate to kill weeds when a quick squirt of roundup could do the same job and not let too much air into the ground, which oxidises the precious humus and destroys the soil's natural structure. 
 
No-till for me is an exciting halfway house that can use many of the benefits of these
organic insights without having to farm with one arm tied behind your back. 
Interestingly there are some farmers in the USA who are refining organic no-till, 
using their harsher climate, grazing animals and cover crops as weed control and
fertility replacement. We are some way off that in the UK. 
 
So what is our system?...well we haven't got one. We try to follow the 3 principles of
CA: 1) minimal disturbance of the soil 2) constant soil cover and 3) Diversity. Thus
rotations are vital, but a fixed rotation becomes problematic (and spoils the fun). 
 
Rolf Derpsch, one of the gurus of international no-till, produced a ten point plan for adopting no-till. I won't go over them here, but there is a link to his article on the
Groundswell website. Interestingly buying a no-till drill is point 7, after improving
your knowledge of the system, analyzing your soil, avoiding soils with poor drainage
etc etc. He then recommends starting on 10% of your farm whilst you get the hang of
it. 
 
We didn't really follow this. We got a bit over-excited and put the whole farm down
after a couple of years playing with the idea. Poor draining soils are a problem, but
can be managed with either mole-draining or active roots of commercial or cover
crops.  Spring cropping, which wasn't really much of an option on our ground when
we moved it, is now crucial to weed control and allowing us to play with cover crops. 
 
How have we got on? Well our fixed costs are now about £100/acre less than
comparable tilling farms and our variable costs are quite a lot less too , as we've
found weed control, particularly blackgrass isn't so daunting with a good rotation
including a two year ryegrass ley. 
 
Unfortunately our yields did dip a bit not helped by having more spring cropping, but
we still made more money than we did before, by virtue of spending a lot less. Yields
are creeping up now as we learn what works and what doesn't. For instance trying to
get a first wheat behind the two year ley was always disappointing, we are now
experimenting with winter beans which are clear of blackgrass, despite the only
herbicide used being a post drilling dose of roundup (the beans were drilled into the
green aftermath). 
 
Meanwhile we've found we have a changing attitude to weeds, pests and diseases. 
They are all telling you something. Normally that you've got something wrong. We
try and avoid all insecticides, which is one of the reasons we've given up with OSR
which seems to need constant spraying. Our soils now have a thriving population of
beetles who keep the slugs under control and are thoroughly enjoying not being
cultivated and sprayed off. 
 
Internationally, experts all recognise a progression of 3 basic stages of no-till: for the
first 5 years your land (and ideas) are in transition, the next ten show consolidation; 
the real benefits accrue thereafter as the soil biota and skill of the farmer increase. 
Which is why we've set our cap at Continuous no-till. Those that think they have to
plough every 4th year (to fluff the soil up, or whatever) are setting the clock back to
zero each time. 
 
One of the most useful resources I've found is The Farming Forum (TFF).  There is a
cohort of very honest farmers who are ever ready to answer any questions posted and
share new ideas or theories. From TFF we got the crucial tip that, as a general rule, 
you want to drill a fortnight earlier in the autumn and a fortnight later in the spring. 
 
This is primarily because tillage 'mineralises N' which is another way of saying it
oxidises the humus, or burns your family silver. The upshot is that autumn tilled
ground releases N, which speeds the growth of seed sown into it, thus if sowing seed
into untilled ground, you need to go a fortnight earlier to get the same growth before
winter. In the spring, tilled ground warms and dries up quicker, so untilled ground
benefits from a fortnight's wait before being drilled. 
 
Another fantastic resource is BASE UK, an offshoot of the very successful French
organisation which shares information and ideas amongst its members and holds a
series of farmwalks. I've always found these walks to be the best way to prove to
myself  that an idea can work. 
 
CA is expanding rapidly round the world, 11% of cropland is now farmed  this way
and more is converting every year. 
 
Which brings us back to Groundswell. We are so grateful to the UK no-till pioneers
who opened up their farms to us. We certainly haven't cracked it, but we are enjoying
it so much. So we thought we'd spread the joy. 
 
What will you see if you come?  Basically what we want to see at Cereals, but don't... A line-up of the main drills used in the UK, most of them with a five acre plot each to demonstrate  how they bury seed in a cover crop and bare soil. Various other implement makers and soil amenders promoting their products. You really don't need a lot of kit.  A fantastic line-up of speakers ranging from the great Jill Clapperton talking about various different aspects of no-till, in particular soil life, to practical farmers sharing their experiences. 
 
A rainfall simulator, which we are flying in from the USA. This shows what actually happens to water on soil under different treatments. Mob grazing (I know this is Cereals but...). Compost toilets. Most importantly perhaps, 500 farmers from around the country who are either practicing no-till or seriously thinking about it. Talk to them... 
 
Why are we doing it? Because we've got so much time on our hands. Seriously, you
don't want to go down this route if you don't like your family, you will have much
more time to spend with them. You will wonder why you ever used to spend so long
in the tractor seat. There is a bit more thinking involved, but it is so satisfying. 
 
It is in no-one's interest that you convert to no-till...no-one apart from you (and your
family). Not the tractor and machinery manufacturers, not the chemical or fertiliser
companies, not the farming press who rely on on adverts from the above. The only
people who will benefit are you...and the rest of the country as you lock up carbon in
your soils and soak up water and stop soil erosion and arguably produce more
nutrient dense food. All the momentum for no-till adoption is coming from farmers, 
as they see the benefit Which is why we called the show 'Groundswell.' 
 
So we are trying to: Make the world a better place, make farmers better off and less
dependent on 'the man', encourage people to think for themselves and take control of
their farms.