Cover crops - joining the debate

The Common Agricultural Policy reforms are now decided and will be in place on the 1st January. One of the side effects is that DEFRA is rewriting some of the rules for Good Agricultural Practice. We must comply with these rules and generally they are sensible and contribute to preserving our soil quality and the wider natural environment. However one new proposal to place emphasis on having a crop cover on the land at all times to minimise the risk of erosion would have a devastating impact on our farming system. My contribution to the debate...

Whilst I understand that soil erosion from excess rainfall is becoming an ever increasing problem as rainfall becomes increasingly erratic I question whether DEFRA’s preferred option of minimum national standards is sensible. Soils, topography and farming systems vary all over the country and approaches to soil erosion should vary with them.

The emphasis on cover crops in the discussion would be very damaging to mixed horticultural/arable cropping if they were applied rigorously.

  • On most soils spring cropping with small seeds requires a frost mould in the surface where the seed must have good seed/soil contact to germinate. This is achieved by winter ploughing, leaving a suitable surface exposed to frost or general weathering in the absence of frost. The land that requires the most weathering is heavier land that is generally less susceptible to wind or water erosion. Crops affected by this include amongst others:- Peas, beans, onions, carrots, leeks, parsnips, sugar beet, red beet, curcubits, some brassicas, spring barley, spring wheat and many others. Crops that are planted such as potatoes, most brassicas, lettuces, celery, celeriac, fennel and again many others will also be affected albeit somewhat less.  Crops grown without the benefit of winter weathering on many soils will be uneven, lower yielding, of lower quality, more expensive in terms of effort, cost, CO2 emissions and water.
  • Stale seedbeds are a useful technique to reduce herbicide use in many areas of agriculture and horticulture especially organic. The technique can also  conserve moisture, thus reducing irrigation need. A stale seedbed requires several weeks of bare land to be effective. Insistence on cover crops would remove this valuable method from our menu.
  • Most horticultural crops are grown on relatively flat land with less risk of water erosion. However there is still a risk but it can be minimised by other viable measures such as boundary buffers zones or soil surface amendments, double D discs or similar.
  • All farmers know what land is at risk. It is reasonable for farmers to identify this land and if they cannot demonstrate they have taken reasonable precautions for them to suffer penalties if they allow land to be degraded by erosion, be it by water or by wind.