Farming: Integrated crop management can ease food shortages

With the huge increase in costs pushing the fertiliser bag and spray can further out of farmers’ reach, it looks like growers will need to turn increasingly to knowledge and new skills to help them maintain crop yields.
Fertiliser use is more costlyFertiliser use is more costly
Fertiliser use is more costly

Well, that was certainly one of the messages to come out of last week’s Arable Scotland, where it was made plain that the current hike in the costs of inputs was unlikely to see any reversal in the near future – and that cash flow issues needed to be addressed.

Ukraine was the pin in the hand grenade of food security – and it has now been pulled”, the SRUC’s Professor Fiona Burnet told the event and warned that the repercussions of the war were likely reverberate for at least five or ten years.

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And while grain prices had gone up, they had also fallen back recently – and with more what likely to go into the ground this year there was no guarantee that they would remain at the current level. But while grain prices were likely to remain volatile, input costs, once they had gone up were considerably less likely to drip back down again.

While the early or forward purchase of fertiliser and higher commodity prices had given some arable farmers a “get out of jail free” card for the 2022 harvest, crunch time for many is likely to approach with financing the 2023 harvest – as fertiliser prices are likely to remain high but there is no guarantee that grain prices would remain at their elevated levels.

There has already been some indication of an increased uptake in many of the principles of integrated crop management – and this might be an indication of a growing underlying desire to adopt a wider range of practices to address crop management issues.

And while part of this new approach which relies less on the fertiliser bag and on the spray can revolves around adopting new technologies and techniques, knowledge of more traditional practices which make full use of animal manures, crop rotations and legumes to build and maintain soil fertility are also likely to play an important role in maintaining productivity under the new regime of higher input costs.

Burnett welcomed the fact that growers are using rotations sensibly, along with placing more importance on the use of resistant varieties while also picking up on other useful elements of an integrated approach.

Dr Ali Karley, an agro-ecologist at the James Hutton Institute agreed, pointing out that approaches like intercropping could reduce the need for the levels of fertiliser which would generally be required for a monoculture crop - and she added that they could also give crop protection benefits, meaning such an approach could give financial benefits as well as enhancing biodiversity.

“A lot of the people who come to events like this are here to learn about practices which might not necessarily be new, having often been used traditionally - but the knowledge of how to apply them isn’t necessarily there.”

So one of the key themes at the event was the important role which creating the systems for sharing the existing knowledge of such practices and making the experiences of the people who were pioneering new approaches – including enhancing biodiversity and storing carbon – available to more growers:

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“And it crucial that we help find ways to share this information in an efficient way and allow people to adopt it and adapt it to their own systems – and how we should best go about this is an area which requires some good thought,” said Dr Karley.

And research into the best way of effectively disseminating this sort of information had shown that a diversity of approaches was important in spreading such knowledge - as different age cohorts and genders showed considerable differences in how they would seek out new knowledge:

“So just doing it one way won’t reach everybody- and from social media to agronomist’s advice, there is a need a diversity of approaches.”

Professor Burnett added that a study which had looked at how growers got their information in crop production products had shown that the manufacturers were often viewed as being biased while the technical press was often favoured.

On-line farming forums were often read but they weren’t widely trusted and while first-hand scientific information was trusted growers tended not to read such papers – and relied instead on their agronomists to translate this information for them.

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