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Securing sustainability

Originally published in Direct Driller Issue 23

A move to biological seed treatments has helped a Borders grower move away from chemical alternatives in a bid to help secure long-term business sustainability and improve soil health.

Though sustainability has become a buzzword in farming over recent years, for many growers making strategical decisions across their operations to promote long-term viability is an integral part of their ethos. This may mean looking at establishment techniques, chemical inputs and what alternative tools are in the armoury.

Biologicals and biostimulants are among those alternative tools that have gained a huge amount of traction over recent years, with large amounts of research and development going into products to prove they’re more than just ‘muck and magic’.

So are biostimulants the next logical step on the industry journey to sustainability? David Fuller-Shapcott thinks so. Farming 369ha in the Scottish Borders near Roxburghshire, David has spent the past few years looking at how to refine and improve his business. This has included being part of the YEN network, which saw him win the bronze award for best percentage of potential yield in oilseed rape in 2019 and another oilseed rape bronze award for yield in 2022.

“We’re farming mostly heavy clay, high magnesium soils which are very sticky when wet but like concrete when dry,” says David. “I’ve been focusing on soil health for a while, but now we’re trying to nuance that – refine that focus – to improve the proportion of soil fungi, which is one of the main reasons I’m not very keen on putting fungicidal seed dressings on the crop. Though I’ve been told they have no effect, I have difficulty believing that a fungicide in the soil doesn’t influence fungi populations.”

It’s this reason that one of David’s main goals for the farm is to reduce his dependence on chemicals. “To enable this, we need to make sure that the seed we plant is healthy – everything starts with the seed. One of the things that chemicals have bought in the past is rooting benefits, but I’m looking at what else is out there to provide the same advantages.”

Alternative options

This is where biostimulants have proved to be a good alternative option, with David particularly finding success from using Newton – an organic plant-based biostimulant treatment from Interagro which is claimed to aid both crop establishment and to build healthier, stronger plants which are more resilient in the face of stress factors such as drought. “One of the main ingredients within Newton is signalling peptides,” explains Interagro’s technical manager, Stuart Sutherland. “These peptides are essentially signalling messengers for plants to modify their hormonal balance to reduce stress and enhance quality and quantity production parts in plants.”

But what does this mean practically for farmers? Stuart says the high loading of peptides within Newton means incorporation can help with regulation of both plant growth and development which in turn can lead to faster seed germination and emergence.

This has been proven in a number of independent trials over recent years, he adds. “These trials have shown that by including Newton, growers can not only speed up crop emergence by several days but can also help build tolerance against stress by triggering key defence mechanisms and even reduce the reliance on synthetic fertilisers by increasing rooting ability.”

Tried and tested

David tested Newton for the first time two years ago, putting it up against Kick Off – a phosphate-based seed treatment designed to help boost rooting – incorporated with a fungicide. “I trialled it in a field of spring barley, sowing 56m wide strips and comparing paired tramlines of Newton with paired tramlines of Kick Off.

“I then asked the agronomist to see if he could find any difference,” recalls David. “I told him where the breaks were in the tramlines, but not what the products were, and he could not find a single difference between the fungicide and Kick Off tramlines and where Newton was used alone.

“What we took from that is that Newton was bringing a fair bit to the party in terms of how it benefited crop performance, and also reducing my seed costs as a consequence. We took this through to combine yield at harvest over a weighbridge and found no statistical difference in yield either, so now I just use Newton alone. I don’t bother with Kick Off or SPDs in the spring – Newton does it all.”

This season, all of David’s spring barley was sown with Newton only and he’s looking to do some Newton-only autumn sowing later this year. “My spring barley has all been direct drilled for the first time this year with the Newton and it got away fine – I’ve not suffered with any moisture stress which a lot of spring barley in the area has. Generally speaking, it looks well.

“With my YEN hat on, it’s very clear that we need to be enhancing rooting to maximise output – rooting is imperative to both water and nutrient capture – and as a treatment, Newton ticks that box well. Using it means my nitrogen use efficiency has improved because rooting and water capture has got better, therefore I’ve not been suffering in these dry springs we’ve been having recently.”

David notes that he sees the spring being a particularly beneficial timing for the application of Newton. “These dry springs seem to be getting more common, so I think Newton will have a really big role to play prior to this window to help bolster plant resilience.”

Future plans

Looking to the future, sustainability is the goal. “Short-term, this means focusing on getting direct drilling to work for us which is difficult in Scotland, on water-retentive soils and weather patterns like we’ve been having,” explains David. “Long-term, I want to be in a position where we are – or fairly close to being – net zero and we’re recognised for that. I think that’s a key part of this, being recognised that what we can do as farmers makes us part of the solution and not the problem.

“Biologicals will be a key component in achieving this – they’re absolutely part of the IPM approach to how we grow crops. We’re losing chemicals, either regulatory or efficacy wise, at an alarming rate and we’ve got to get on the front foot and understand what we can do to improve the way we’re growing crops.

“Newton is a piece of the jigsaw, with a number of tabs on that piece, which fit into a lot of other aspects of crop production – which is where we need to be if we’re aiming to achieve true resilience.”

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