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Balruddery farm: Improving climate resilience

Submitted by Hamish Mackintosh 20th March 2014 13:18


Summary

Balruddery Farm has implemented several measures aimed at reducing the impact of future climate change. These measures fall under two main categories:  ensuring soil is protected from compaction and erosion and managing water use for irrigation.

Introduction

Balruddery Farm is owned by The James Hutton Institute (JHI) and produces oilseed rape, potatoes, beans, barley, and wheat on 170 hectares of arable land.  It hosts the Centre for Sustainable Cropping (CSC), a LEAF Innovation Centre and runs Cereals in Practice and Potatoes in Practice events. JHI also own the nearby Mylnefield farm; some of the measures reported here relate to work at Mylnefield.

How might climate change affect Balruddery farm?

Farmers have always had to work with the weather, but over the last few years there has been more unpredictability, for example colder wetter springs and warmer autumns, making the job much harder to plan for.

Adapting to climate change is already becoming part of routine business for Euan Caldwell, who manages Balruddery Farm. Through securing water supplies for irrigation, reducing soil erosion and compaction, and minimising the impact of storm-damage, Euan and his team are reducing the risk that climate change impacts could have on the business.

How is Balruddery adapting to climate change? (adaptation options)

Better use of water for irrigation

Both drought and low rainfall can be issues for potato crops, especially at establishment and tuber development.   The farm has installed a borehole and a ring main irrigation system to channel water to all fields; this enables efficient use of water during dry spells.  There are hydrant connection points in fields which provide irrigation via a rain gun, boom sprinkler or drip system. This can be applied as rainfall and soil moisture conditions dictate.

The irrigation pump sets are variable speed units and can increase or reduce in speed as demand changes, maintaining a constant pressure in the system no matter how many additional irrigation units are operating. This also allows timers to be used in fruit crops that require water repeatedly in very small amounts.  For example at Mylnefield, container grown fruit plants can be irrigated for three minutes 10 times per day if needed. This prevents drought stress, reduces risk of over watering and ensures efficient water usage. 

Reducing erosion risks

The farm has begun to drill commercial crops across slope to try to prevent erosion, particularly on winter sown crops. Tram-lines are not marked out, instead they are gauged through GPS guidance on the spray tractor.  Once the crop is established there is no bare ground to encourage water runoff and the creation of barriers across the slope (rows of grain) further reduces erosion.

Avoiding soil compaction

Soil compaction studies at Balruddery have shown it is vital to avoid working land in poor condition or with the wrong equipment. As far as possible, land is ploughed before the ground gets too wet in winter, then the remainder is left unploughed as over-winter stubble, providing a habitat for wildlife.  Ploughing re-starts in late winter/early spring when conditions allow. Low pressure tyres help to spread machinery weight and reduce soil compaction risks.

Using tied ridges in potato crops

Tied ridges are small dams within the wheelings between potato drills which are created at planting. The ridges help crop and soil management in both dry and wet conditions. Irrigation water can be held in the drills at drier times and helps enable more accurate and uniform irrigation over a sloping field.  This promotes better use of water and prevents or reduces runoff taking water, nutrient and soils off the land.

With heavier and more intense rainfall, ordinary drills in potato crops can cause a lot of runoff from a sloping field. In a year where little or no irrigation is required because of increased or prolonged rainfall, these tied ridges can help to control rain water runoff and prevent pooling or “soft spots” in fields that have dips or troughs.  At the end of the season preventing the formation of soft spots allows the harvester earlier access to the field and helps prevent further damage to soil structure. 

Reducing the impact of storms

New hedge rows and tree lines have been created to form natural wind breaks to protect polytunnels from the prevailing north-westerly winds. There is also an emergency action plan for polytunnels at Mylnefield Farm for high winds. This sets out priorities and allows vulnerable sites to be targeted first if there is the need to dismantle a tunnel block quickly to protect it.

A shift in timings

All winter-sown barley and wheat crops, (whether small plot scale cereal trials, breeding programs or commercially cropped areas) are now ploughed the same day they are sown, and if possible, they are rolled the same day. This ensures there is no delay in completing work in the event of subsequent prolonged or heavy rain.

The farm uses a very accurate GPS system on both small-scale plot drill and its commercial drills. This speeds up and improves the accuracy of work and makes more efficient use of inputs of seed, fuel and fertilisers.  

The team recognises that under cereal cropping, over 80% of over-winter losses of sediment, phosphorus and nitrogen in surface run-off is associated with tramline wheelings, so it is running a large scale tramline project to evaluate approaches to reducing these losses.  Early results suggest that the spiked harrow and the use of low pressure tyres are the most effective in reducing the runoff from tramlines.

Policy Influences

The shaping of grant schemes such as the SRDP (the Scottish Rural Development Programme) can play an important role in promoting climate resilience in farms by subsidising a range of activities and investments that increase resilience.  In the case of Balruddery Farm this has included support for irrigation systems, erosion control, investment in GPS systems and research to promote soil-protective farming techniques.

Acknowledgements

This article has been adapted from a Farming for a Better Climate farmer case study.  The authors would like to thank Euan Caldwell (Farm Manager, Balruddery) and Willie Towers (Soil Scientist) of the James Hutton Institute for all their help in providing the source material for this article