Decision No. 1

Nitrogen Fertilizer

Stage One

The next part in the farming cycle is to make a decision about the application of Nitrogen fertilizer. This is the first decision that Peter is inviting us to take part in. The use of artificial fertilizers is a subject of debate – they increase yields and at the same time they cause problems in the wider environment. They are used widely across the world to increase crop productivity and yield and their usage is increasing.

You can read up on general background information from the fertilizer industry by clicking here.

You can read detailed information from (HGCA) Home Grown Cereals Authority which offers guidance to farmers by clicking here

You can read here about some of the problems with manufactured Nitrogen fertilisers clicking here

And here you read the concise history and a bit of science about Nitrogen fertiliser.

Our wheat seed is called JB Diego and came with a single purpose seed dressing that protects it against seed and soil borne disease. Neither the soil or wheat is organic, this is how Peter usually farms and is typical of 95% of arable farming in the UK. With this in mind Peter will talk through what he normally considers, then we can discuss the option and perhaps even come up with alternatives.

February 17 2016 12:00:00
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Peter writes:

In theory the more Nitrogen fertilizer applied to a growing crop the greater the area of the plant that can absorb energy from the sun to deliver increased yield and therefore the greater the profits – only it doesn’t quite happen like that. There are a number of issues to take into account:

  • How much Nitrogen fertilizer to use before it ceases to be effective or even worse allowing excess fertilizer to leach into groundwater and water courses where nitrates are a pollutant
  • Applying Nitrogen fertilizer increases the size of the ear (grain-bearing tip) and the size and weight of the grain but it also causes the cells in the plant stem to elongate weakening the straw which can lead to lodging (that’s when the crop is flattened by wind and rain). Lodging reduces the quality and quantity of the crop, and makes harvesting difficult. However we can (and it is usual to) address this lodging problem using plant growth hormones that shorten the straw.
  • The elongated and weakened cell walls are also more susceptible to attack from pathogens and the increased sugars in the plant are attractive to crop pests like aphids. We can address this problem using fungicides and insecticides to protect the plant but there are environmental and economic considerations here.

So as you can see it’s a balance between the potential for yield increase and therefore profits against the increased costs and risks from lodging, pest and disease and the cost to the environment.

What (happens or might happen) if we don’t use anything?

If we don’t use fertilizer then it’s safe to assume that yields will be lower, however that doesn’t necessarily mean that profits will be lower. Using Nitrogen fertilizer is a trade-off between increased costs and the potential increased quality/ yield/profit.

The quality of the harvested wheat is important. The grain trade requires wheat of specific quality which includes the weight of a known volume of the seed (now expressed as kg/hectolitre, this used to be known as the bushel weight). The weight of the wheat by volume is also important to us because if the harvested crop falls below the specified quality then there will be penalties imposed by the buyer and less profit for us. We will sell the wheat by weight and therefore wheat that is heavy by volume means that there are less wheat seeds per ton (because each single wheat seed is heavier), the yield in tonnes/ha increases and therefore the crop is more profitable. To try and make that simpler to understand – at the end of harvest we will have a heap of wheat in the barn. If the heap of wheat weighs heavy by volume we will sell more tonnes than if the wheat weighs light by volume.

So now to the numbers and economics.

Every crop would be assessed individually but as a rule of thumb:

I apply Nitrogen fertilizer in two applications to coincide with the times when the plant is developing most quickly and therefore needs additional nutrition. This is usually the first week in March and the last week in April (but with this mild winter the crop could be ahead of schedule this year).

22 acres (our field) = 8.9 hectares

The Nitrogen fertilizer I use comes in prills (a bit like small beads) that are 34.5% nitrogen by weight – that’s pretty much an industry standard concentration. The first application in March is 250kg/ha of 34.5% Nitrogen fertilizer followed by the second application in April of 375kg/ha of 34.5% Nitrogen fertilizer giving a total of 625kg/ha.

The price of 34.5% Nitrogen fertilizer for February delivery is currently around £220/ton so we are looking at investing £137.50/ha in Nitrogen fertilizer alone plus the cost of application, which for two applications is around £20/ha.

In order to make the use of Nitrogen fertilizer break even financially at today’s price (103.5/ton) we need to increase the amount of wheat produced by 1.5 tonnes per hectare. I would expect the Nitrogen fertilizer to increase the yield by around a third or 2.5 – 3 ton/ha

There are also the additional costs of fungicides, plant growth hormones and possibly pesticides to consider. However, it is extremely difficult to attribute plant protection costs (fungicides and pesticides) directly to the use of Nitrogen fertilizer but it is safe to assume that the use of nitrogen fertilizer will make the plant more vulnerable to disease and pest attack – but then it might be vulnerable without the use of Nitrogen fertilizer.

In summary

Peter was keen to open this decision and discussion up to us because of its importance.  At the same time, we realise that there are some limitations on what we can do due to the time of the growing cycle we are in.  Stage One is an opportunity for us all to take some time to ask questions and consider the decision around Nitrogen fertilizer, the implications of this and other potential courses of action from different perspectives.

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What happens next?

In Stage Two we will refine possible options and Stage Three we will decide what course of action we want to take. The timer will let you know how long is left of this stage. Please revisit and contribute as many times as you like.

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  •  This is a space to share your thoughts, ideas and questions whatever your levels of knowledge and experience drawing on your own feelings and contemplative insight as well as rational thought.

Summary of Stage One.

This stage of the decision is now closed, thank you to all those who contributed and followed the process, below is a summary of what was talked about.

The Field of Wheat collective will decide the story of this wheat field until harvest 2016. In the following summary we have tried to gather together some of the points of discussion that have arisen in Stage One discussions and questions and highlight options to focus the next stage. If you feel we have missed something in the summary that is important then let us know.

The cost to our environment of Nitrogen fertilizer:

Discussions were had around the potential damage to the environment caused by Nitrogen fertilizer including: the destruction of soil organisms; long term damage to soil health; reduced resilience to drought; ground water contamination and runoff; plants becoming vulnerable to pest and diseases leading to increased chemical inputs to prevent diseases and pests (all of which involve dependence on oil); impact of nitrous oxide produced in production of nitrogen fertilizer as a greenhouse gas and contributor to climate change; toxicity and pollution.

Yield, profit and the need to make a living:

The need to produce a good yield in order to ‘make a living’ – a profit rather than loss were discussed. The question of profitability was also talked about in relation between the organic and non-organic sector and the cost of organic fertilisers being expensive and probably unsuitable for use with conventional wheat varieties. It was stated that modern ‘conventional’ grain farming is not economic, with smaller profit margins and even losses being made year on year despite higher yields, and this pushing towards further intensity of production. The point was raised that lower yielding, high value heritage and alternative grains particularly for local markets could be produced with low inputs.

The cost and value of food:

Discussions occurred around Nitrogen fertilizer producing higher yields and therefore creating ‘affordable food’. Questions were raised about the actual nutritional quality of the food produced when using Nitrogen fertilizer and the hidden or real costs of eating cheap food (taking into account public, soil and wider environmental health) as well as asking how much of our income we are prepared to spend on food.

Nitrogen fertilizer as part of the current system:

The point was made that additional nitrogen was required to maximize the green canopy of modern wheat varieties to increase grain yields and protein content in grain and therefore increase the chance of having a higher yielding crop. In a time of low wheat prices and a highly competitive market a high yield becomes vital in order for the farmer to make a living. It was also pointed out that modern wheat varieties in a conventional farming system are locked-in to a nitrogen input regime.

Personal Reflections:

A number of participants acknowledged the complexity of the decision and what the farmer has to deal with. Some participants stated that their personal preference was for buying, eating or growing some of their own food without chemical inputs and that the decision over nitrogen inputs was placing them in an uncomfortable place regarding their personal choices and values. Concerns were expressed in general about the harm done to the natural environment and depletion of natural resources.

Reflecting on the Process:

We would like to take the opportunity to address comments about the limitations of the decision itself and thank you for raising this point. As we said in the introduction to Decision No.1, we are aware that A Field of Wheat is only part of a process, a small segment of bigger cycles of activity and that there are inevitable limitations. We hope we have been clear, as Charlie points out in his post, that part of this project is to point out the conflicts, contradictions and complexity, limitations and functionality or dis-functionality of the current food commodity system. ‘Conventional farming’ accounts for around 95% of arable farming in the UK. It has always been our intention to work with a conventional farmer in order to illuminate the dominant food system in the UK. We are limited in how long we can sustain this project by our funding – we think there would be huge potential in doing a five-year project too!

For those who are part of the organic food system as consumers or growers we realize this must be a challenging decision to be part of and we appreciate your participation.

We also want to re-state that the wheat we are growing is JB Diego. This is classified as a feed grade wheat although artisan bakers could make bread with it and it could be used as a general purpose flour (see Farmer’s Almanac post). This means that normally this wheat is sold as animal feed on the global market and would most likely then become meat for humans to eat. Chicken is the biggest consumer of wheat in this country and 56% of wheat currently grown in the UK is feed wheat.

Finally, it is worth considering at this stage that the collective are all financially invested in the crop and therefore have a right to decide on how important or not profitability is for this project and any risks they are willing to take.

With this all in mind here you will find the outline for Stage Two’s discussion. This will be live until Wednesday 24th February at midday.

The Collective Responses

MARK

I found an interesting article on pro's and con's which is worth a read - truly neutral analysis on the use of chemicals is hard to find and the attached highlights it:-

Pros of Using Agricultural Fertilizers
1. Support plant growth. In general, chemical fertilizers contain the primary plant nutrients of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous, in specific ratios that are tailored for the specific growth requirements of specific crops, such as corn or tomatoes.

These nutrients from fertilizers allow crops to be grown even in depleted soils because the plant’s basic nutritional requirements are being met.

2. Provides a predictable and efficient source of nutrients. Manufactured fertilizers contain a predictable ratio of phosphorous, potassium, and nitrogen. These nutrients are dissolved and reach a plant’s cells quickly, right where they are needed. This nutrient consistency in fertilizers allows for efficient production on a commercial scale.

3. Grow crops fast and big. Because fertilizers provide the primary nutrients needed for efficient plant growth, plants are able to grow more quickly and larger than if they weren’t being fed the fertilizers.

4. Increase harvest yields. Because of the quick and efficient production, this increases harvest yields, making food affordable and reduces the costs of production.

5. Inexpensive and easy to transport. Synthetic fertilizers are inexpensive to produce and purchase, and are easier to transport than organic soil amendments such as animal manure.

Cons of Using Agricultural Fertilizers
1. Fertilizers can actually “burn” people, plants, and the soil. Synthetic fertilizers contain high amounts of acidic chemicals lot of acid, and can therefore burn the skin negatively impact soil quality, and burn plants¹.

2. Fertilizers produce toxicity and pollution. In an all-too-common scenario, excessive nitrogen-rich fertilizers can runoff from farmland into water bodies when it rains, causing toxic algal blooms in rivers, lakes, and the ocean due to excessive nitrogen levels.

Synthetic fertilizers often contain toxins that can be destructive to the soil, and the chemicals in these fertilizers can be poisonous to humans, wildlife, and marine life if they reach the oceans.

Fertilizers can also leach through soil into groundwater, making it very harmful to the surrounding environment.

3. Results in depleted soils. Synthetic fertilizers typically only supply nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, but do not supply other nutrients to the soil. Consequently, the soil that is used for growing crops given synthetic fertilizers is depleted over time, and the food crops themselves become nutritionally deficient².

Over the last century, the soil in many regions has become so depleted that most of our food is now significantly deficient in many important nutrients, such as magnesium, because we are failing to replenish the soil with anything but nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium³.

4. Interfere with natural soil ecology. In addition to the fact that heavy tillage style agriculture disrupts the delicate balance of soil ecology, the chemical fertilizers that are consistently applied to crops can stunt the growth of many beneficial soil organisms and can kill others (such as worms and beneficial fungi species) that are crucial for maintaining a long-term healthy soil structure. Without a healthy soil ecology and structure, moisture is not retained in the soil and this leads to a reduced resilience to drought.

Crop health also suffers because unhealthy soil leads to plants that are more vulnerable to disease and pests. These vulnerable plants are more dependent upon chemical inputs to maintain plant health⁴.

5. Chemical fertilizers are like steroids for plants. Fertilizers provide nutrients that plants need to grow, but as a cost, plants can grow more quickly than what their roots can sustain. This can result in weak plants that are more vulnerable on their own to pests and diseases⁴.

While the biotech industry’s “solution” to crop pests and diseases is to create increasingly toxic pesticide chemicals and genetically altered versions of plants that are supposed to fend off these threats, the common sense solution is to get back to comprehensively nourishing the soil with organic matter that will promote truly healthy plant growth that will allow for greater natural resilience of plants.

Conclusion
The best approach to growing crops is to apply sustainable production methods, such as permaculture, that nourish the soil and its critical ecology that supports all of life. The long-term sustainability of our food production will be dependent upon how we treat the soil.
If we nourish and treat the soil well, it will reward us with delicious, nutrient-dense food that maintains greater resilience in the face of drought, pests, and disease

Are we prepared to pay more for food if yields are reduced and demand increases?

2016-02-09 14:36:30

Peter Lundgren, The Farmer

Hi Mark
As no one has responded to your question about our willingness to pay more for food if we stop using fertilizers and yields decrease whilst demand increases I will take the opportunity to play devil's advocate.
As share holders in the field of wheat who have invested our own money in the crop we are torn between on one hand normal human greed and wanting to make money from the crop; and on the other recognising that society as a whole has real issues with access to healthy affordable food.
There can't be many types of business that find themselves in this dilemma. And we see this with organisations like the NFU (who's primary role should be promoting the interests of their farmer members) boasting about the provision of cheap food as an objective of the food industry and NFU members. And the provision of cheap food is supported by governments because nothing drives inflation up faster than increasing food prices.
If you follow the argument, that the provision of cheap food is the ultimate goal of farming, to its logical conclusion then you begin to see the 'rational' behind intensive farming and the extensive use of artificial fertilizers.
Speaking personally I think as farmers we have to be aware of the need to provide food that is healthy and affordable; but we also need to ensure a decent return on time and investment for the farmer, along with delivering genuine social and environmental benefits.

2016-02-12 11:10:16

Nicky

I think we do. The irony is that people pay exorbitant amounts for processed foods, ready meals etc and eat out at fast food outlets. It seems cheap but we are not paying for a) the clean up of the environment, well in a way we do through our water bills etc - see Jules Pretty on the real cost of farming b) through the epidemic of diseases like diabetes, heart failure, obesity etc. And this is because of poor diet. Eating real food need not be more expensive but we have become disempowered largely from food and disconnected from the way it is grown. Jack Monroe, through the excellent blog, articles and book show how healthy food can be made even for people living below the poverty line. We now spend, as a proportion of our income, less than we ever have (I think!) and certainly less than many poorer countries. Yet most people spent their food money on crap food. There is this mantra that we want, nay demand cheap food. I don't buy it.

2016-02-16 13:50:29

Nicky

As a long term organic advocate I don't want to use any chemical nitrogen. Chemical nitrogen also has a detrimental effect on soil life and I would rather use methods that build soil health, cation exchange capacity and build glomalin, (humus), in the soil. If the soil has been farmed using chemical nitrogen and pesticides then it is likely to be low in its soil life and therefore, will take time to rebuild and recover. I would have favoured using organic composted materials to build soil resilience and water and nutrient holding rather than considering chemical nitrogen, which, as is admitted leads to aphid attack, often bringing viruses, diseases and also fungal infections. I wonder if the applications of compost teas have been considered? The cost of growing using chemical fertilisers and pesticides does not include the cost to environment in terms of, clean up of runoff into water courses, detrimental effects on invertebrates and flora especially, ecology generally, in short the biodiversity in and around the field its grown in.
The arguments here are all about the crop yield rather than the resilience and capacity of the soil and what state it is currently in which would be first thing I would want to know. What is its current CEC and water holding capacity? The variety of wheat is also an issue. Why do we have to use a dressed seed? Are there other varieties that could be considered for use such as a specialised organic bread making variety? What was being grown in the field previously? Is it a part of a rotation or just alternated with barley? What space is there, if any, for other plantings to encourage beneficial insects in around the margins or even underpIanting? I realise that this is an experiment but to my mind it would be good to plan many years ahead to build the soil and dispense with the chemicals.

2016-02-09 16:39:08

Peter Lundgren, The Farmer

HI Nicky
I am sympathetic to what you are saying but to try and answer some of your points.
The choice of wheat variety and growing methodology (conventional for want of a better word) is very much linked to one of the goals of the art project in wanting to help the collective explore the relationship between an individual field of wheat in Lincolnshire and the anonymous global food marketplace. For that we needed a 'generic' feed wheat variety that is widely traded as a commodity rather than a specialist organic bread making variety destined for a niche market. I'm sure that we will get to discus this more on our visit to the commodity markets in London next month.
The wheat is currently grown in a rotation with barley and oilseed rape. I would like to include other crops like legumes, potatoes and sugar beet in the rotation but am restrained by a combination of low prices for these crops and the potential for damage to the soil structure from the growing and harvesting of potatoes and sugar beet.
And I try to promote healthy populations of beneficial insects through providing overwintering habitat as well as food sources during the year. I feel very strongly that the whole farmed environment has to be safe for beneficial insects - its not sufficient to have a few token wild flower margins whilst the 'productive' area of the field is a no fly zone for insects. To this end I try to manage my beneficial insects along with the growing crop to help minimise pest damage and promote pollination.
However we've got quite a long way from the decision topic about N fertilizer use!
I have no experience of using compost teas although I've seen teas being brewed up and used by some of my organic and biodynamic farming friends. I'm not sure how I would get a hold of a compost tea, or how much it would cost, if we decide to use one. Have you had any experience of using compost teas?

2016-02-12 10:41:04

Nicky

Hi Peter, I have only played with compost teas, bio char and rock dusts on my allotment without any science or controls. Elaine Ingham, who is an authority, works with farmers using compost teas.
When researching food production years ago, I realised how the USA and Soviets would try and trick not only the other country but even their own farmers. For instance the politician Earl Butz told farmers that there was a global glut of wheat one year and they should sell quickly to the government before prices slumped. In fact the farmers lost out big time because the opposite was true. Surely we need to start to pay the true price for food and stop this "stock exchange" mentality playing with food and people's livelihood?

2016-02-16 13:41:35

Shelley Castle

Hi Peter. Can you let me know if in the past you have used other systems, other than artificial fertilisers to increase the nitrogen content in the soil and if so, how well these have worked?

2016-02-09 20:11:36

Peter Lundgren, The Farmer

Hi Shelley
No I haven’t used other methods of increasing the nitrogen levels in the soils so I’m afraid I haven’t any experience of the alternatives. And I haven’t used farm yard manure (FYM) because the soils here being peaty have a very high organic content so adding more organic matter would not necessarily offer the benefits that you might expect from FYM being added to soils like depleted clay soils.
My organic peaty soil also mineralises a quantity of nitrogen naturally and I take that into account when deciding on the application rates.
I have the soil tested every 3 years for nitrogen, phosphate and potassium (NPK) along with a basic range of micronutrients to ensure that the nutrients are not being depleted and to give an indication of which nutrients I need to supplement to maintain healthy plants.
The soil is manganese deficient – or rather manganese is locked up by the high organic content and is not available to the plant – so I do have to use a manganese foliar feed to keep the plants healthy and ensure the plants are fit and healthy to take up the available nitrogen fertiliser.
I do incorporate the straw from the wheat and OSR crops which helps to maintain phosphate (P) and potassium (K) levels. In fact I haven’t had to purchase P and K since farming here.

2016-02-11 14:35:13

Abby Schlageter

Wow - initial reaction is I'm amazed at just how complicated it all sounds (for Peter) and so many pros and cons to weigh up. I wonder with this JB Diego variety of wheat - are there any farmers you know that grow it organically or biodynamically or even just without using added nitrogen? (can you even grow a seed with a seed dressing organically?) and if so do any of those farmers have similar soil types? Or for that matter do you even know any farmers that grow any wheat variety organically?

2016-02-13 00:32:48

Peter Lundgren, The Farmer

Hi Abby
Yes There are a number of successful organic wheat growers but they specialise in targeting the premium organic bread making market.
I don't know of any on my soil type. The weed burden here is very high and the weeds will outcompete cash crops making it economically unviable to control the weeds in the organic regime. Certainly without the premium for organic status it would be extremely difficult to grow profitable wheat crops if we didn't use artificial nitrogen and agrochemicals to increase yield and protect from disease and pests.

2016-02-15 17:15:32

Susan Haedicke

Hi Peter. As a new member of the collective and not a farmer, I have a lot of catching up to do! I’m thinking about whether the possible risk to the environment in the long term is worth the short-term gain. If we collectively choose not to use nitrogen fertilizer and the accompanying chemical fungicides and pesticides explained in your detailed and wonderfully informative post, how will that change what you actually do in the field of wheat? How will a decision like that affect your farming practices and your everyday activities?

2016-02-13 11:00:31

Peter Lundgren, The Farmer

Susan
Whether or not we apply artificial fertiliser won't necessarily affect what we do between now and harvest. It's not a case of either/or. There is evidence that using nitrogen increases the likelihood of disease and pest attck but not applying the nitrogen should not be seen as a solution to disease and pest attck. The crop will still need protecting from disease and pests - and if the crop is weakened by a lack of available nitrogen then it can be just as vulnerable as a fertilised crop to disease and pests.
The affects of these decisions are linked to risk management and the need to get the risk management right. Do we risk not using nitrogen and getting a lower yield and a poor quality; or do we risk using the nitrogen but not see an economic return on the investment?

2016-02-15 15:45:53

Daniel Kindred

Hi Peter and All,

Apologies for my late start engaging with the group, my mail filter has been intercepting all correspondence since November.

I am a farmer's son and I work as crop researcher for ADAS. A large part of my career has been spent understanding the N fertiliser requirements and yield of wheat, and testing how we might reduce N requirements and increase yields through a range of approaches including through breeding, precision farming, fertiliser products & novel technologies.
In fact we are currently updating the Fertiliser Manual (RB209) on behalf of AHDB (formerly HGCA) which is the main source of fertiliser recommendations that the industry uses.

Unfortunately there is no escaping the fact that current wheat crops need Nitrogen to form sufficient green canopy to intercept light to form grain yield, and to form protein content in the grain. To achieve a decent yield (8-10 t/ha) the crop needs to take up around 220 kg N/ha. Most soils will only supply around 60-100 kg N/ha, so we need to make up the shortfall (say 140 kg N/ha) with N fertiliser. However, N fertiliser is only recovered by the crop with an efficiency of about 60%, so to get ~140kg N into the crop we'd need to apply 150/60% = 230 kg N/ha. This equates to 675 kg/ha of Ammonium Nitrate fertiliser.

Peter, you describe the soil as peaty - is it classed as a proper peat soil ie is the organic matter content greater than 20%? If so then we would expect very substantial mineralisation of N from the soil through the season which is available to the crop so the fertiliser requirement would be much lower.
Have you got a lab measure of Soil Organic Matter or Total N%?
Is there organic matter to depth in the subsoil, and what texture is the subsoil - clay?
Have you taken soil mineral N tests in the past?
Do you know the shoot number or green area index of the crop at the moment? Is there a recent photo we could look at? I suspect this year there could be 20-30 kg N/ha in the crop already.

Also, can you say what yields this field has been achieving and do you know what grain protein contents you normally get?

Many Thanks,

Daniel Kindred

2016-02-13 20:55:04

Peter Lundgren, The Farmer

Thanks for this Daniel
To try and answer some of your questions.
The soils vary between peat at one end to a peaty loam at the other; with raised silt areas which are the lines of the old waterways running through the marsh before the land was drained. I think that on average it is probably in excess of 20% organic matter. Certainly the peat will burn when dry in the summer. And that's one of the problems - the very organic areas tend to dry out in the summer reducing the yield.
Underlying the plough depth is a marine clay in the peat areas and silt with gravel deposits under the loam areas.
With regard to nutrients available in the soil Tom has kindly offered to do some investigations into the soil looking at carbon, nutrients, flora and fauna etc (subject to budget availability) but unfortunately the results won't be available before the decision on nitrogen is required
I'll try to post a photo giving an indication of crop coverage and the green area.
In my experience JB Diego always looks a bit thin at this time of year but I would say that the crop as a whole is looking OK so we should be on target for a 9-10 ton/ha crop overall with a lower yield from the peat areas and a higher yield from the silt areas.
As you suggest varying the application rate to take account of the different soil types would be beneficial but at this time the soil hasn't been mapped and I haven't got access to application machinery that can adjust on the go to the variations within the field. So I'm afraid we are looking at a best fit for the whole field.
My agronomist is recommending 625 kg/ha of 34.5% N. - that's 50 kg below standard recommendation to allow for the available nitrogen coming from the soil - but he's very happy to take your advice.
Do you think that 625 kg/ha is a bit excessive given the organic content of the soil?

2016-02-15 16:35:00

Daniel Kindred

Thanks Peter,

Is the field location published? I'd like to look at it on Google Earth and look at the soil survey maps. I may be able to get hold of some satellite imagery for the field through the season if people are interested.

I'd like to enter the field into the Yield Enhancement Network (www.yen.adas.co.uk). We can get soil analyses done, including soil organic matter, and using weather data we can calculate the theoretical biophysical potential yield for this field. Are you and others happy to take part in this?

My feeling is that if organic matters really are close to 20% then we probably could get away with considerably lower fertiliser N rates than the planned 215 kg/ha - though predicting optimal N rates on organic soils is notoriously difficult! We'd only really know what the right amount to apply was by conducting an experiment.
We have an HGCA, sorry AHDB, project we call LearN which is looking to help farmers work out how much N to use on their farm using on-farm testing - that is applying 50kg/ha more to one tramline and 50kg/ha less to another - and seeing the effect on the crop, on yield and on grain protein. Could we feasibly do this on the field? It wouldn't help get the right rate this year but we would at least then have a better handle at the end of the year on whether the spend on fertiliser was worthwhile. I assume you have a spinning disc spreader - can you easily adjust the calibration in the field? Are you on 24m tramlines?

2016-02-15 22:08:57

Peter Lundgren, The Farmer

Daniel
I would be very interested to be involved in the yield enhancement network. It would give me a lot of useful information but also I think it would be extremely interesting in the context of the field of wheat project.
I did try something similar to the LearN trial some years ago. Unfortunately it was a dry year so the results were probably skewed but I couldn't see any real benefit from the higher N rate. There's also the gearings (where the machinery runs out against the headland and we get variable dosages from misses and overlapping) and these are a good opportunity to look at lower/higher rates every year.
I decided to cut the N rates after doing the N trial but they have been creeping up again partly in response to the increased yield potential of the newer varieties and partly through insurance/risk aversion.
And it has to be said that when wheat prices are low the size of the bill for N fertiliser helps to concentrate the mind!

2016-02-16 09:58:02

Carol Farrow

I, like Abby didn't realise quite how complicated the chemical elements of soil and fertilisers are. Thanks especially to Peter and Daniel for their fulsome and informative posts. Before I started reading the posts and other articles about Nitrogen, I would have been firmly against the use of nitrates (I grew up in rural Lincolnshire in the 60's and 70's when the use of nitrogen was so prolific that you could smell it in the air for weeks at certain times of year.
Whilst I'm an advocate of organic methods and biodiversity I now realise that it's possible to use nitrates alongside other chemicals which are naturally occurring in the soil and that used judiciously and with care they can be used to re balance the soil to give crops all they need to grow well without necessarily poisoning the soil and its natural ecosystem, the crops or creatures and humans feeding on them.
Whilst trying to be well informed about farming, I'm not a farmer and indeed as a city dweller for the last 40 years, no longer part of a rural community who's livelihood depends on it. As such I find myself feeling oddly uncomfortable, politically and emotionally, with the idea of imposing my relatively hardline views onto a farmer who's livelihood does depend on crop returns.

2016-02-14 22:15:55

Maz

Thanks to all, particularly Peter for his opening comprehensive description of the fertilisation process and other helpful and informed contributions. Is there a simple answer to the question of how long it would take to restore soil to its "organic" or natural condition after ceasing the application of nitrogen fertilisers and whether such a cessation would in effect make the farm non viable as regards income production.

2016-02-14 23:36:43

Peter Lundgren, The Farmer

Maz. The soil association require that land goes through a 3 year period of organic production before the land can be classified as organic and the produce labelled as organic. And to help farmers make the transition to organic status there are EU funds available to compensate for the loss of income during this 3 year transition period.
People do ask we why I'm not an organic farmer and the reason is that this land is too fertile and grows weeds too well. In the old days before herbicides were available this land was rough grazing because of the weed burden - especially couch grass. And if I tried to grow organically now the couch grass and other pernicious weeds would quickly overwhelm my attempts to produce economically viable crops. It would be a different story if I was farming some more suitable land that that is sufficiently fertile but doesn't have a heavy weed burden - next to Prince Charles at Highgrove perhaps?

2016-02-15 15:57:23

Peter Allen-Williams

Sitting out here in the height of the Australian summer, Ruth and I have found this a fascinating and informative discussion, even though we feel quite remote. Thank you everyone, and in particular, Peter for all the input.
Although we, ( actually Ruth) grow our own fruit and veg without chemical inputs, we recognise that we have that luxury as we cango to the shop and buy produce if our own crops fail or are inadequate .
We're not relying on the crop to feed and clothe our family as Peter is. It's clear that he works out as carefully as possible how much it is worth adding and doesn't use it to excess as Ruth remembers happening in the past. So our feeling is that for the Field of Wheat, we should be guided by Peter who is the expert on his own land is obviously both aware of and caring about the environmental impact of decisions he makes.

2016-02-15 09:53:42

Craig

Hi,

A little bit of research into JB Diego suggests that this variety is so popular in the UK because of its high yield and resistence to disease. However, for me the issue is about weighing up the pros and cons of applying NPK (or specifically here, N) in the commercial world in which the field, and the wider farm, needs to compete.
With commodity prices so low it is incumbent upon farmers to provide as high a profit from each fileld as they can whilst doing so in a sustainable way a) for the farm, and b) for the wider environment.
There is no right or wrong answer - if there was all would be doing the same. So it comes down to judgements made, in grey areas, using logic, emotion and personal values.
My vote would be to apply nitrogen in appropriate amounts for the soil type in our field, careful not to use too much (for both financial and environmental reasons).
Isn't this fascinating though - not just the option a, option b, shall I/shan't I that many of us were perhaps expecting?
Thanks for the comprehensive explanations Peter.

2016-02-15 10:22:10

Parsons Cerulli Family

It's an interesting question - we've discussed this with the kids, and the immediate reaction is no fertiliser!We were trying to find out about alternatives and found this: http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/huen/hue_organic.htm (about Organic Fertilisers in Sustainable Agriculture) and you realise that the volume of organic fertiliser material is substantial, but also its provenance also has issues (ie poultry manure, dried blood etc) and it's not all easily absorbed.

It would be interesting to compare a fertilsed area with a non-fertilsed one, especially given the fact that fertilised fields then also need to have hormones to reduce lodging and more fungicides and insecticides...Peter - do you have other wheat fields that are not part of this experiment?

2016-02-15 21:08:08

Maz

Having read the HGCA report and now Daniel's updated summary I, in common with many of the group I guess, realise how complicated this issue is and consequently my respect for the farming community having to grapple with these issues is increasing by leaps and bounds. My instinct. therefore in the short term is to go with Peter's decisions but all of this is clearly worthy of a much longer and wider debate. The Field of Wheat project is shedding light on very important issues (particularly for future generations,) which are fascinating in themselves and make one want to know more. What an excellent resource it would be for schools to follow this project - so much more compelling than reading dry facts and figures in a text book.

2016-02-16 00:13:08

Shelley Castle

Thank you Peter for all the fascinating information and for the whole collective for the questions, it feels like a hard thing to be a farmer with environmental awareness and care working in a profit-based system. How possible would it be to apply the Nitrogen in a sliding scale across the field and have a visual representation of the effects? The suggestion of using comparisons in this experiment seems like a good one. Otherwise after talking with my family we wondered if Peter you could go the minimum amount of Nitrogen and then take it down a notch to see how little you can get away with? We are obviously not scientists or farmers as that suggestion exposes but that's what we came up with!

2016-02-16 10:06:36

John Letts

Peter clearly knows a lot about modern agronomy and cereal production methods, but it seems a little disingenuous to suggest that collective members have a chance to influence the ‘decisions’ that he will need to make to ensure that this crop succeeds.

Unfortunately, he has very little room for maneuver because of the variety he has chosen to grow (JB Diego) and the way in which this variety has to be grown to succeed. For example, it would be economically insane to suggest that he not apply chemical fertiliser at the rate/timing he has learned is the most appropriate given his soil conditions, local climate, current state of the crop, etc. Using organic compost just wouldn’t work as modern wheat varieties have shallow root systems and need to absorb lots of soluble nitrogen, regularly and rapidly. In contrast, older ‘heritage’ varieties - when grown in healthy soil that hasn’t been sprayed with fungicides or had artificial fertilisers applied – have massive root systems and rely on root fungi (mycchorizae) to help obtain their nutrients, as do all plants in nature. Conventional farming destroys the microscopic web of life that ensures that plants get the nutrients they require, and conventional farming systems will work only if the farmer adds lots of soluble fertiliser to the plant or soil, suppresses the weeds with herbicides (because the wheat is so short), and doses the crop regularly with fungicides and pesticides to prevent diseases and pests from getting out of control. A modern field is an ecological time bomb.... it’s a lush, nitrogen rich, and genetically uniform smorgasbord of edible tissues that is kept alive only because of chemical sprays – all made from oil. It’s a totally imbalanced system that depends entirely on the addition of high energy inputs (fertiliser, sprays and mechanisation).

All subsequent ‘decisions’ Peter will have to make this growing season regarding fungicide sprays, further nitrogen applications, pesticide sprays (?), spraying with glyphosate before harvest to ensure even ripening (?) all follow on from the first decision to plant a modern variety in a conventional farming system. The fact is that Peter, like all other conventional farmers, are locked into a system which forces him to make certain choices. The key decision - which determines all subsequent decisions throughout the year – is choice of cereal variety planted. Once he chose to plant JBDiego (which might well have been the best choice within the conventional system in which he is operating) the timings and quantities of subsequent applications of the various chemicals were pretty much determined. Organic fertilisers are 1) very expensive, and 2) cannot supply the amount and quality of nitrogen this variety requires rapidly enough. The organisms in compost tea would largely die if applied because the ground and surface growing environment is hostile to fungi (due to fungicides) and the use of fertilisers.

Most organic or ‘ecological’ farmers are semi-locked into the conventional system indirectly because they are also dependent on using modern. It is absolutely the case that choosing to produce ‘niche’ crops of grain (heritage, organic, low input) will halve the yield, but this does not mean the crop won’t be economic. Modern grain farming is not economic – we can’t compete against cheap grain being imported from Kazakhstan or Canada, and farmers are making a very small profit margin per acre. And this gets worse every year. The push is towards ever greater efficiency and intensity, no matter what the impact is on the environment and the quality of our food. Growing a higher value (but lower yielding) ‘niche’ crops makes economic and ecological sense. There is an insatiable demand for heritage and alternative grains, particularly for ‘local’ markets, and these crops can be produced with extremely low inputs.

We are not ‘feeding the world’ with our modern, conventional crops with massive inputs. Prices and profits are determined by the large corporations that control our crop seed, inputs and processing. Ultimately, this system is completely dependent on oil, and the path we’re on is clearly unsustainable. Farmers have little flexibility in what they grow or how they grow it, and it is the decisions made by consumers – supported by radical farmers – that will create the pressure that will turn things around.

2016-02-16 11:47:32

Nicky

Yes I agree with what you have written John. I was asking lots of questions in my original piece. I am only an allotment holder and long term organic advocate since my year as a student at Henry Doubleday Research Association. For me the whole idea is flawed because we are setting off on this idea without being able to choose the variety of wheat in the first place. As you say the chemical nitrogen will have damaged the life in the soil. You cannot just change in a single season. There is also this situation with the weeds. The best we can hope for here is a compromise which, I suspect, will still not be in the best interest of the soil ecology. Ideally this would be a five year experiment, preferably funded, to document the conversion into using the land to produce food best suited to the land itself.

2016-02-16 14:05:50

Frances & Kevin Ryan

Having come quite late to the fray, I can see that the use of Nitrogen fertiliser is contentious, but given the circumstances probably necessary. I'm alarmed by the depletion of natural resources and the harm done to the natural environment by, for example, the clearance of hedgerows, cutting down of trees, pollution of our waterways. I'd like to know whether it's possible to prevent the use of nitrogen from leaching into groundwater and water courses.

Frances

2016-02-16 19:02:54

Peter Lundgren, The Farmer

Frances
Leaching of nitrogen into waterways is inevitable. And whilst the application of artificial nitrogen is by far the worst culprit it's worth noting that soils do mineralise nitrogen naturally; that organic manures also leach; and that one of the worst spikes in nitrate pollution in waterways was caused by the ploughing up of pasture for the war effort.
And sadly it's not just our waterways that are being polluted - the use and manufacture of N fertiliser (or more accurately the nitrous oxide released) is a greenhouse gas and major contributor to climate change

2016-02-17 09:02:40

Susan Haedicke

Like so many others, I am astounded and fascinated by the complexity of what I, in my ignorance, thought would be a much more straight-forward decision process. Again, like many others, I lean toward going as organic as possible, but I now am just beginning to see what that really means. Thank you everyone for the clear and detailed explanations. I found the discussions about the soil particularly interesting. As for the decision, I have more of a leaning than a definite position. As others have said, can we try as little nitrogen as possible? If we use less fertilizer, would the same products for disease and pest control be used just in different amounts? Or would the actual products change? I apologise for what must seem incredibly uninformed questions. I have so much to learn!

2016-02-16 19:22:35

Ruth Ben-Tovim

I feel out of my depth in this debate its been really interesting to observe my own paralysis around being able to contribute anything in the rational thinking realm as it feels bit overwhelming. I realise how much I tend to rely on others I trust to hold knowledge for me and tell me what to do in this type of realm. I want somebody else to decide for me because I don't know really how to decide for myself what I think. I guess thats a microcosm of how politics works and shows the danger of it too! Ignorance is bliss. About 8 years ago when I had my wake up moment about climate change and resource depletion one of the decisions we made was to only shop organic and try to stop going to supermarkets. Of course over the years there have been loads of exceptions but it totally cut down choice and has been a relief and I've been happy in my organic bubble not really thinking about it. In this debate I notice and my own uncomfortability. The fact that its a project started by artists is giving me space to take the decision really seriously and at the same time to not take it seriously so its giving me a held way to peak out of my organic bubble and have a look around. I have an instinctive feeling that fertilisers = bad don't use them I know that comes from attachment to a position and a set of values that I can be guided by on a day to day basis without having to think about it too much. I have probably a naive sense that if we say yes to fertilisers its a slipper slope and then everything is up for grabs and there is no line in the sand and we have chaos! But I appreciated what Nicky said about the fact that we didn't get to make a collective decision about the type of seed being planted and so we are already backed into a corner and now trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. I would have preferred an organic seed too but wanted to support my friends doing this cultural project. The question about fertiliser has made me consider whether supporting my friends is a good enough reason to overstep my own principles and have a share in a field of wheat who's seed I would instinctively not have chosen and who's bread I wouldn't buy myself? Has the fact that this is an art project meant that somehow I've just blithely stepped out of my own decision making moral compass..... I realise I'm raising my own personal process of reflection rather than actually contributing to the intellectual conversation about what fertiliser to use. Sorry about that ! I did also have a thought like Shelley suggested about not doing whole field with fertiliser but splitting it in half so we could see the difference? Finally it seems this question is a lot about risk .. as actually putting the fertiliser on it might not affect the profit at all if that is a key driver....so maybe thats a reason not to do it and take the risk

2016-02-16 21:55:39

Abby Schlageter

Wow - I'm feeling amazed and slightly overwhelmed with indecision at times by these discussions. Thank you everyone, especially Peter, for clear and thorough thinking. I have a further question for Peter...given our current situation, i.e the JB Diego wheat has been planted and is growing in your field in Lincolnshire with the soils it has...let's pretend there has been a global market fluctuation and oil prices have sky-rocketed over the last year. Chemical based nitrogen fertilisers have become unaffordable, they are not worth buying as you will never make that profit off your crop. Peter, what would you do?

Although I am a strong organic advocate I recognise that you can't just go organic suddenly - the natural world moves slowly in many ways, something we have learned (sometimes the hard way) in the last 10 years my family have been farming.

So the question just isn't that clear cut at this point, and it's certainly doesn't seem to be about whether I believe in organic or non-organic because we are not just in a supermarket making an end-of-the-line decision, we are dealing with the natural world. So if we want a 'good' crop of wheat at the end of this, then the decision has already been made in many ways as John reasoned...

So maybe we have to think differently.

For example we are talking about cash crop vs weeds - but what types of weeds are we talking about, could they be valuable in some way, maybe they become what we are selling - could it be more valuable to not purchase any nitrogen, make hay from the whole field and sell that (sorry if I'm being silly, just throwing things out there)?
Also there are many new technologies out there - I'm particularly interested in the precision farming and satellite mapping that Daniel spoke about, that could be a great way to massively decrease the amount of nitrogen applied, if we decide to apply nitrogen.
And then we haven't spoken a great deal about commercial organic fertilisers (or if we have I can't remember right now), they can often be applied in exactly the same manner as chemical fertilisers but come from organic sources. I know it's more expensive, but if we are applying much smaller amounts then maybe it will be viable even if we don't sell the wheat as organic... Or maybe as a few people have suggested we can see at least part of this field of wheat as a contribution to science, risk a loss and try all sorts of different organic methods in very clear and regulated ways so that we can all contribute to research for what I would see as a more positive and sustainable future for farming.
Anyone else have any other last-minute suggestions?
Hope that makes some sense!

2016-02-17 01:37:48

Peter Lundgren, The Farmer

What would I do if the oil price jumped (or more accurately gas price jumped) and artificial fertiliser became too expensive? That's exactly what happened a couple of years ago when the price almost doubled. In that situation I, along with every other conventional farmer, had no choice other than to use optimum rates of fertiliser but try to increase the yield and profitability to mitigate the additional cost of the oil/gas based inputs like fertiliser.
It's also interesting that, as is the way of these things, the price of fertiliser has not come down as fast as it went up!

2016-02-17 08:52:27

Ruth Ben-Tovim

Thanks for this post Abby really clear and I would support what you say.

I do want to raise another process point about this online dialogue - we are a collective, equal shareholders making decisions and we don't know each other very well. I wonder how we can take care of how we are responding to each other on a human level during this project and be tolerant and use non violent communication as much as we can in response to what other people say or might suggest. I feel this is is as important as the practical decisions we make and these are skills we need to learn for the future. I say this as I feel slightly shamed and judged by your words "and it's certainly doesn't seem to be about whether I believe in organic or non-organic because we are not just in a supermarket making an end-of-the-line decision, we are dealing with the natural world" of course I agree with that sentiment I was taking the opportunity within the 'safety' of this project and with this group to perhaps share a one dimensional position that sometimes exists inside myself .... all in good spirits....

2016-02-17 08:51:38

Anne-Marie Culhane

Dear Ruth, Just a bit of info. about communication methods. There is a Ethics & Conduct document in the Collective Area that everyone was asked to read through before signing up for the Collective. This is inspired by and developed with support from local Quakers in Lincolnshire. We have also posted Guidelines at the top of each Decision page and as part of each Collective Enquiry. Abby's comment including the sentence on organic and non-organic was written prior to your previous post but didnt get posted until afterwards due to a number of internet outages in Chile where she was at the time of writing.

2016-03-14 11:19:06

Charlie Clutterbuck

Sorry, I’m late I’m just catching up. And I can see the dilemma Peter is in. I can’t stand neo-liberal capitalism, love agro-ecology, but see the contradictions that face Peter and others face. But that seems to be the whole idea of this project – to explore the conflicts and contradictions in a real place and time.

I am presuming the land is not in a Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZ), as I think we would have heard about that. I think what Daniel is suggesting is a good start. At least we can LearN from the experience, collecting data as we go. Just for the record I’m an old soil zoologist and would love to include the little creatures in any monitoring we do. Unfortunately there are not many of us left, since the State shut down ¾ of our land based research. So we have a lot to do...

2016-02-17 10:59:28