Case study: John Cherry on no-till farming
John Cherry and his brother Paul have farmed at Weston Park Farms in Hertfordshire since 1984
They are well known for practicing zero tillage across their 2500 acres of chalky boulder clay, and have organised and hosted the Groundswell Regenerative Agriculture Show annually since 2016.
Soil is just the most important thing we have on the farm.
When we started, we used to burn our stubble, then we went back to ploughing. And then twenty years ago, we went mi-till.
For us min-till was a big improvement on ploughing. Ploughing didn’t seem to work; the top two inches of soil is where all the life is and ploughing seemed to burying that. We always got a heavy nitrogen rush from oxidising organic matter when the top two inches of soil died. But, this oxidising rush didn’t seem to bring many long-term benefits to the soil.
Min-till seemed to be an improvement in that regard, it was cheaper and in those days, there were lots of chemicals to deal with the weeds – so it worked for us.
What’s changed since going no-till?
We have been completely no-till since 2011.
The challenge for us was to find the perfect rotation – so we’ve been fiddling around trying to get that right. Rotation is key.
We do a lot of spring crops. In the past, when we were cultivating, this was always quite tricky because the land would get wet. However, with the no-till system and cover crops, we can get on in the spring without much trouble. We get them (spring crops) established well, even if they don’t necessary yield as spectacularly as the winter ones. For us, spring cropping is good for holding back blackgrass and easing pressure on the system.
What are the benefits of no-till farming?
There are endless benefits in terms of no-till. One of these is infiltration. When it rains the water goes into the ground and stays there, which is valuable if you’re trying to prevent flooding. It’s also useful if you’ve had a dry spell – what little rain there is sinks in to the ground and the organic matter hangs onto it.
From the wildlife point of view there is no comparison. We used to leave little skylark nesting areas but we don’t bother doing that now, we’ve got far more skylarks than we had before. We have everything from huge great worms, the size of your little finger – to predators that eat them like hedgehogs and badgers.
How have your chemical and fertiliser uses changed since going no-till?
I always try to cut spraying anyway, so our spray bill has fallen over time, but we’ve probably got a few more weeds.
Our fertiliser use is definitely quite a bit smaller than it was. We haven’t employed any phosphate or potash fertiliser since we’ve been no-tilling and the figures (amount of phosphate or potash in the soil) are static or getting better - so quite a saving there. We continue to put a bit of sulphur on as well as nitrogen; our nitrogen bill has gone down a lot and I’m hoping, one day, to put none on at all.
How do you get rid of cover crops when it’s time to drill your cash crop?
We tend to drill through the cover crops and then spray them off with glyphosate afterwards which isn’t 100% successful and can be a bit of a problem in the spring. We’d like to stop using glyphosate altogether though at the moment we’d be a bit stuck without it. I’m hoping we can work out a way of not needing it and carrying on being no-till.
In 2017/18, we were part of the Innovative Farming field lab Getting rid of cover crops without glyphosate.
How has being no-till affected your Soil Organic Matter?
We have run tests that seem to suggest that our SOM levels have doubled since going no-till. You can tell by looking at it, smelling it, the colour of it – it’s just an absolute joy – the soil is so much kinder which is what you’d expect.