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Make the Most of Your EFAs

Bumblebee on phacelia
Phacelia is highly attractive and productive for bumblebees, honeybees and other pollinating insects as well as ecological and agronomic benefits

With the deadline for Ecological Focus Area declarations looming in the spring, and new rules on their management coming into play on 1st January, growers are increasingly frustrated by the lack of clear guidance on precise details that can have a huge impact on BPS funding, if issues are identified.

Speaking at one of the Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE) winter briefings, ‘Make the most of your EFA 2018’ – sponsored by Syngenta and Kings - Anna Logan, NFU BPS Advisor, highlighted some of the key pitfalls that could trip-up growers over the coming season.  

CFE meeting Coppid Farming Enterprises - Dec 2017

“Whilst the basic requirement remains for EFA to cover 5% of the arable area, growers are urged to check their eligible land area hasn’t changed,” she advised.

“With increasingly fluid contract farming or other business arrangements, it’s an easy oversight that the EFA commitment may have changed; it’s one of the biggest single issues we see,” warned Ms Logan. 

Ms Logan highlighted that whilst the RPA does provide an on-line measuring tool that is a useful guide, it’s typically not reliable enough to be a definitive record. She also advocated growers to err on the conservative side in making area claims.

She pointed out that among the main changes for 2018, the EFA Catch Crop Option had seen the minimum period for entitlement extended to eight weeks, covering a period from 20th August to at least 14th October, in England. For Cover Crops the period it must be growing remains the same, from 1st October to 15th January 2019. Different periods apply in other regions of the UK.

It was also emphasised that the catch or cover crop has to be physically established by the qualifying start period, so must be sown in time.

Ms Logan warned that with an increasing number of inspections - possibly up to 75% - being carried out remotely, from satellite imagery, it needs to be able to detect vegetative cover from space. Although the system is getting more accurate, it’s not yet infallible, she reported.

On Nitrogen Fixing Crops, the permitted mixes do now allow different nitrogen fixing species, or mixtures of NFCs and other crops, providing the established crop is more than 50% NFC.

However, the attractiveness of NFCs as part of a farm’s EFA has been seriously compromised by a complete ban on the use of plant protection products (including herbicides, insecticides and fungicides). The ban applies to EFA land for fallow between 1st January and 30th June; catch and cover crops for the full duration of the qualifying period and NFCs for the entire crop cycle.

The effect for peas and beans is especially onerous. With winter beans it is effectively retrospective, since any crop already established with a seed treatment or pre-emergence herbicide, for example, would not be eligible for the inclusion in a farm’s EFA for 2018.

NFU Green advice for 2018

Growers have also pointed out that the rules could reduce the value of cover crops for black-grass control, if there is limited time for effective stale seedbeds before establishment, or issues with control at destruction at the end of the qualifying period.

It was also highlighted that the rules on cover crops including two species could also have an agronomic implication if a cereal component reduces the value of a rotational break.

The NFU has published its latest Greening advice for its members here

Seeding opportunities 

Syngenta Environmental Initiatives Manager, Belinda Bailey, said that whilst new rules on EFA management will have a significant impact for farm operations, they still offer an important ecological resource.

Belinda Bailey - Syngenta Environmental Initiatives Manager

“The CFE meetings have been a great opportunity for growers to get the latest guidance on greening and discuss managing some EFA options without plant protection products.

“It has been really valuable to be able to get out on farm to see how progressive growers are seeking to tackle the challenges with practical solutions, and discuss how they can implement some of the ideas,” she reported.

Mrs Bailey highlighted that Syngenta Environmental Seed offers provided a real chance to enhance the value of EFAs on farm.

Put together in association with Kings and the GWCT, the Bees’n’Seeds mix could be beneficially sown in the spring on the fallow land option, advocated Mrs Bailey. Initially providing essential pollen and nectar for bees and pollinating insects, it then creates a feed source and cover for game and farmland birds over the winter.

Bees n Seeds voucher

The Operation Pollinator Annual Wildflower Mix can fit within EFA under field margin or fallow land options, where required. “It creates an additional ecological asset to perennial margins,” she advised. “The mix has been specifically designed to give a long flowering period.

“It’s relatively easy to establish, requires no in-season management and is very flexible to rotate around the farm. It’s an extremely cost-effective option that has a high beneficial visual impact.”

The mixes work extremely well when grown in tandem, she added, and are both available on a limited special offer, available through Syngenta or the CFE.

Farm implications

Oxfordshire CFE meeting host, Simon Beddows, farm manager of the 1000-hectare Coppid Farming Enterprises, north of Reading, believes some of the EFA options do offer positive benefits for the farm’s long-term agronomic and business viability.  

Simon Beddows - Coppid Farming Enterprises

Mr Beddows has calculated that his costs of establishing mustard, for example, would just about be covered by a £70/ha EFA payment. If it also brings a gain from fertility and soil structure that would be a bonus, but equally if it results in increased agronomic challenges to the rotation, from slug activity or problems controlling black-grass, for example, that would have to be factored into the equation.

“We have already sown mustard as a ‘look-see’, outside of the farm’s EFA commitment. The establishment has, for the most part, been good and undoubtedly sucked up nutrients that may otherwise have been lost," he told visiting farmers and agronomists.

“However, a seed rate of 12 kg/ha may be too high and the crop too thick to enable black-grass to be targeted effectively when it’s killed off; we would have to look at the seed rate and any partner cereal crop we would use with it, if we decided to grow it on the EFA areas.”  

He also highlighted that the high volume of green cover crop biomass could be off-putting with some establishment systems for following crops. Having been a 100% min-till advocate for the past 15 years, the farm’s previous cultivator drill would certainly have struggled, but a new John Deere drill has proven extremely effective and far more suitable for the system.

CFE meeting Coppid Farming Enterprises - Dec 2017

This autumn he has also established phacelia and black oats as another cover crop trial option. It had proved more expensive, but the aim is to now assess any beneficial effects on soils and following crop yields. Areas of the field have also been left unsown too, to compare results and agronomic challenges it presents.

“We are keen to look at cover crop root potential to improve soil structure, but organic matter isn’t an objective, since we have ample livestock manure to spread through the rotation,” he said. “Any grower does need to assess what works practically for their own situation.”

In the past he has also grown wildflower mixes, also outside of the farm’s EFA. Sowing attractive mixes in highly visible areas, alongside roads and around the village, for example, has had an incredibly positive impact with the local community, he cited. There are plans to extend this initiative, which could gain points if entered into the EFA plan.

Siting EFA areas around the farm has hitherto largely been to tidy up awkward corners and take out less productive land, but now has to also be viewed as a way to enhance future agronomic decisions. Beans that had been grown under the EFA will no longer feature as they cannot be grown profitably without crop protection inputs, he believed.

Mr Beddows also pointed out that the role of the cover crops has to be viewed as part of the overall farming system. In seeking to further improve soil structure, for example, he’s shed 270 horsepower and 13 tonnes of weight by slim-lining the tractor fleet and cultivation kit this year. Variable rate application of inputs is also helping to focus on the most profitable areas of the farm, and highlight areas most suitable for EFA inclusion.     

“If we can combine more efficient systems with economic EFA options that will protect or enhance the farm’s resources, we can get the costs down to a level that will future proof a sustainable business.”