Regen farming in the spotlight at Cereals

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The next round of the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) opens on 22 July, which could help farmers to profitably implement regenerative farming practices. And visitors at the Cereals Event found plenty of practical advice to help them.

Over 17,500 visitors attended the event in Hertfordshire on 11-12 June, which had a strong regenerative farming theme.

And many farmers were asking how SFI will work for a regenerative system and how they can make the most of it. The Direct Driller @ Cereals stage tackled this in a panel session – from its seminar programme curated by BASE-UK – with two farmers sharing their own experiences.

Cambridgeshire arable farmer Martin Lines, UK chair at the Nature Friendly Farming Network, said his farm assessed how SFI actions could be used to make the whole landscape more productive and profitable.

“I look at the action, like cover cropping for example, then I look at the cost to implement it, as well as what it will deliver to the farm beyond the payment,” he explained. “For example, how it will build soil health – one action might give me significant benefit somewhere else.”

Georgie Bray, farm manager at RSPB’s Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire, is working with other farmers, researchers, and conservation organisations to produce evidence that schemes like SFI can deliver key environmental and farming outcomes.

Both Mr Lines and Ms Bray have concentrated on improving soils in the past 10 years, but that doesn’t mean they’ve turned away from heavier cultivation methods – nor has it made the SFI no-till option at £73/ha attractive to them.

“We are adding organic matter to try and improve our soils as best we can,” explained Ms Bray. “That doesn’t necessarily fit in with direct drilling because we need to cultivate in the organic matter to fit with the farming rules for water. So it’s just thinking about all of those things.”

Farmers should carefully consider their whole farm needs – including the wider environment – and not be overambitious, particularly with rotational SFI actions, said Mr Lines. That’s because farmers can enter as much land as they want, but can only decrease the area by 50% for the duration of the action.

“If I commit a lot of land to a rotational action and then in a year’s time the wheat price goes through the roof, I’m not going to be able to put in a lot of wheat because I’ve committed to the scheme.”

Hope Farm’s approach to planning its SFI agreements is to look at what it wants to achieve – like raising soil organic matter levels, increasing pollinator numbers or decreasing insecticide use –

and then assessing what SFI actions will deliver those outcomes. “It allows us to be a lot more strategic in our approach,” said Ms Bray.

Mr Lines has seen a wealth of benefits from adopting regen ag. Direct drilling has cut fuel use by up to 65%, plus he has halved his fungicide use, produced wheat in some areas with no nitrogen, and significantly reduced herbicide use. Cover crops have sequestered or retained 80-120kg/ha of nitrogen, with manure applications boosting nitrogen by up to 260kg/ha.

He is now exploring how new SFI actions will reduce chemical reliance even further. “We’re looking at a winter cover crop, followed by a spring or summer fallow, before a wheat crop,” he said. “I won’t get too much income from it, but it may deal with the weed issues, and I’ll get a very cheap wheat from a low input system.

“Building soil health using SFI options helps us in our journey to develop a more regenerative system, which ultimately builds more value into our farmed and wider environment as well as our business.”

Ms Bray encouraged all farmers to adopt SFI options which baseline, monitor, and analyse data on things like soils and hedgerows. This provides valuable evidence that public money is delivering public goods, while further helping farmers to select and stack the best options for their farm.

When it comes to tenanted land, it’s important to discuss what you’re trying to achieve and which parties receive income the SFI payments, warned Mr Lines. “SFI isn’t free money; there’s a lot of cost there, so we want to be clear about the true value to our landlords.

“With contract farming agreements, SFI actions rotate around the farm, so everyone needs to be part of the decision-making process; communication is key.”

Elliot Taylor, farm business consultant at GWF, agreed: “Don’t let the SFI tail wag the dog – don’t just go after the money,” he said. “It’s important to look at the actions that can de-risk your farm and improve the most important asset – your soils.”