A fusion might be the answer in the rust fight

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George Hosford is still taking time to test, adapt and learn as he moves the farm away from fertilisers to a more sustainable solution

Maisie the ewe is a curious and gentle superstar of school trips to Traveller’s Rest Farm.
All images: George Hosford

Professional sheep farmers find it rather fluffy nonsense when I refer to my sheep by name. But sheep only remain on this farm for the purpose of entertainment and education. Commercial sheep farming is a mug’s game that we gave up last year, after a dose of scab forced us to dip all of our sheep in a very unpleasant chemical (actually, a contractor did the dipping …), which is the only reliable way to get rid of this pernicious affliction. It was the excuse we needed to disperse the flock, after finding they weren’t really helping with management of oilseed rape by grazing it in the winter, nor were they encouraging wild flowers in our grass swards. The regenerative approach lends itself more to cattle grazing than sheep – cattle browse where sheep nibble, right down to the ground given a chance.
When dipping, you have to submerge the animal completely. If you don’t, you won’t kill the scab mites in the ears of the sheep, and control will not be complete. The rubbing, itching and wool shedding will return, and the job will have to be done again. Back in the 60s, 70s and early 80s, it was compulsory to dip all sheep for scab annually – a policeman would usually attend at dipping-time to ensure it was done properly. Dipping is needed for welfare reasons. The mites drive the sheep nuts when they dig in, and it is worst in cold weather. Compulsory dipping was aimed at eradicating the problem nationally, but once the disease was nearly gone from the country, the rules were relaxed. Unfortunately a few pockets of scab remained, and now we are back to a situation where it is endemic. The risk of contracting it in one’s flock is huge when you buy in replacements, particularly from far off sales, using an agent to buy for you (as we did).
Our replacement policy for many years had been to buy in retired hill ewes, usually from Wales, and expect to get another two or three crops of lambs from them. We got away with it for a long time, but got caught out in the winter of 2021 and that was enough to say ‘no more sheep’. Our tiny 11-ewe flock is scab free, and apart from the purchase of Reggie the ram last year, we will remain closed, to minimise risk of re-infection.

Wheat tests
The top image opposite is one of our wheat fields, showing the colour contrast between varieties. The smaller area of the pale one on the right – Champion – was the last of the seed we had sown in a different field. It’s our first year trying Champion. It has pretty good book values for disease resistance, standing power and yield – we will see what the combine thinks in a few weeks. The darker crop on the left of that picture is Theodore, in its second year for us. It had league-topping ratings for yellow and brown rust, and septoria. However, where we have been really stingy with the fungicide we have seen a brown rust explosion, needing fire engine treatment with fungicide. Apparently we are not alone. Similarly, variety Extase, which we and every other farmer in the country is growing, has very good book values for disease, but has broken down to yellow rust in the absence of fungicide.
Proper farmers will now be yelling ‘Why no fungicide?’, but having shifted our emphasis away from intensive fertiliser and chemical inputs, we are trying to stretch the genetic ability of the best varieties to resist disease.
Reducing fertiliser rates also reduces vulnerability to disease, so a good case must be made before we head for fungicide. Older (dirtier) varieties received a prophylactic application at T1 and T2 timings, but the supposedly cleaner ones did not, and this is where we have stress-tested the policy.

The darker wheat crop on the left is Theodore, and the pale one on the right is Champion.

It’s all in the mix
So having seen Theodore and Extase grown on their own with no fungicide both showing their true weaknesses, it has been fascinating to watch how a blend of the two has fared. Where the yellow rust appeared in Extase in mid-May, and brown rust in Theodore a couple of weeks later, the same varieties sown in a blend have remained clean until a small amount of rust appeared on the Theodore last week. Our agronomist says it is now too late in the season to worry about treatment. So what is going on? High on my list of reasons is that the plants of the same variety being separated by plants of the other variety means that cross-infection from plant to plant is reduced. We will definitely be trying more blends next year, and three and four-way mixes, too.
In the image on the left we have a field with phacelia on the left, buckwheat on the right (growing our own seeds for cover crops) and we have linseed, vetch, turnips and camelina all in the same field.

Phacelia left, Buckwheat right (growing seeds for 2024 cover crops) with linseed, vetch, turnips and camelina all in the same field

Trying new tricks
We are deliberately reducing fertiliser levels as part of our desire to create healthier soils; building organic matter and biological activity in the soil improves water and nutrient-holding capacity, leading to similar – if not better – crop performance, at lower input cost, than in depleted soils which have been degraded by decades of intense cultivation and fertiliser use.
Nitrogen fertilisers and cultivations oxidise carbon and organic matter in the soil, sending carbon dioxide (CO2) and even more damaging nitrous oxide (N2O) into the atmosphere, as well as releasing water-soluble nitrates downwards towards the water table.
The climatic and environmental consequences are huge, and it is essential that we learn how to grow food more efficiently, without these dire consequences. Consumers can do their bit by demanding food produced by more sustainable methods, and farmers can do their bit by trying some new tricks.

See George’s full June round up, including a terrific write up of the agriculture festival Groundswell, on his blog View From The Hill

Sponsored by Trethowans – Law as it should be

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