Using a crimper to destroy cover crops produces a thick mulch which helps retain moisture in the soil and prevents weeds from germinating.

Looking After England’s Soils with Covers, Direct Drilling

Contract farmer James Alexander is using cover crops, molasses and alternative seeding methods to rebuild soils in the U.K., turning the fields he’s managing into ‘labs’ to compare the results of his efforts.

Editor’s note: This article is being shared via Direct Driller, a conservation tillage magazine based in the United Kingdom.

Litchfield Farm near Enstone, in Oxfordshire (owned by Nicola and Kevin Knott) is one of four farms I contract farm. Of a total of 1,500 acres, this one is 800 acres. Litchfield is an organic arable farm while the others are ‘conventional.’

In general the rotation is a 2-year pasture, spring beans, spring/winter wheat, spring barley and oats. In a conventional rotation we generally have a 2-year pasture, winter wheat, spring barley, and oilseed rape.

I’ve learned a lot from farming organically that I’ve applied to conventional acres and vice versa. I have the benefit of both worlds: I can do both and see what works! On the conventional farms, wherever we can we direct drill.

The organic Litchfield farm is the complete opposite. We plow, cultivate and drill. I’m focused on finding a way to reduce cultivation and direct drill, looking after soil health and managing weeds as best I can. I’ve been involved in an Innovative Farmers field lab looking at alternative method for terminating cover crops. Various cover crop trials I’ve been carrying out started in this field lab. I’ve been experimenting with mustard and oilseed radish, beans, oats, peas, vetch and rye.

We had been stockless for about 11 years but now have 125 breeding ewes which are permanent and being lambed so we can start having our own flock of sheep on the farm. We saw…

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