Global news: Carse Hall Farm

Precision technology is proving key to helping mitigate high fertiliser costs on a Northern Ireland farm


Global energy prices have risen out of control since the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine, which, as a consequence, has also forced up the cost of fertiliser for the agricultural industry. These cost hikes have forced farmers to rethink their management strategies to try and salvage some business profit from their bottom line.

Fertiliser is one of the top three costs on an arable farm, besides fuel and seeds, and now, more than ever, must be used efficiently with no waste to save money.

With that in mind, the use of precision technology is now at the front line of the battle to improve efficiency as demonstrated on one arable and dairy farm in Northern Ireland.

A farming legacy

Carse Hall Farm is situated near the town of Limavady on the northwest coast of Northern Ireland, perilously close to the North Atlantic Ocean.

The 240-hectare farm is run by Alistair Craig, who farms in partnership with his father, uncle, and grandmother. The farm was purchased in 1995 and a dairy unit was subsequently set up there to run in harmony with the arable enterprise.

Alistair Craig runs the 240ha Carse Hall Farm

Being beside the coast presents its own set of environmental challenges, as the land ranges between two feet above sea level to two feet below it.

Farmers in the region must be careful when using fertilisers and chemical sprays, as the area falls under the protected areas of ASSI – Areas of Special Scientific Interest.

“We farm around 240 hectares of land, approximately 140 hectares of grass and forage, and 100 hectares of cereals,” says Alistair.

“On the forage side, we have mainly perennial grass with clover, 16 hectares of hybrid grass, and 12 hectares of lucerne.

“Currently, we have a few other crops mixed with the lucerne – namely sainfoin, plantain, and birds foot trefoil – to try and improve soil structure and biodiversity around the farm.

“On the cereal side, we have predominantly been planting winter barley but are also trying oil seed rape, rye, and wheat alongside the winter barley.

“This will help rotation, biodiversity, and hopefully ease harvest pressure, as they are not all harvested at the same time.”

Planning and planting for success

At Carse Hall Farm, the structure is to grow 25 hectares per year to sell as certified seed and the remainder as feed for the dairy herd in a further bid to cut costs and reduce the carbon footprint otherwise increased by importing feed.

All the crop straw is baled and used as bedding before being applied back to the arable fields the next year as farmyard manure. The family is looking at several methods to reduce their input costs, particularly via better soil management and the use of precision technology.  

Slurry is used on the land to save on fertiliser costs

Having a closer working relationship with the biology of the soil and focusing on areas of plants that need the most attention is Alistair’s goal to reduce his costs while maintaining healthy yields.

“Last year was the first time we tried min till, and it seems to have worked very well. I only ploughed 13 hectares and the remaining stubble land was disced once and then planted,” says Alistair.

“By changing this management side, I’ve cut the fuel use for establishment by 50% from around 25 litres per hectare to just 13 litres per hectare. I also saved a lot of time during seeding and, of course, the carbon emissions were cut as well.”

Mixing it up

Seeding is normally carried out pretty early at Carse Hall Farm, weather permitting. The oil seed rape was in the ground on 26 August and barley and rye were sown in mid-September. The wheat was sown on land following a potato harvest in November.

Alistair has sown seven hectares of Ambassador variety oil seed rape, 12 hectares of Tao rye, 70 hectares of barley using varieties Valerie and Tardis, plus a 10 variety mix. Around 11 hectares of Graham wheat wasalso sown.

Care needs to be taken when spreading due to land classification

“We currently use glyphosate and seem to have used more last year than normal because, as we are practising min till, we cannot rely on the plough to clean the fields for us.

“We’ve also used some fulvic acid along with the glyphosate to try and cut the rate and get a better kill. Normally, we try our best to do all we can before using glyphosate, by grazing down with sheep or cattle, but sometimes chemicals are the best alternative.”

Crop rotations on the farm normally see winter barley sown for six to nine years, followed by grass or lucerne for three years. Alistair hopes to change that process to make it easier to control grass weeds and decrease the monoculture of the farm by adding in wheat and oil seed rape. 

Precision technology

With input costs on the up, Alistair is becoming more dependent on the use of precision technology and more efficient management practices to curb his expenses.

As well as more efficient use of slurry produced on the farm by the dairy herd, Alistair now focuses on more targeted spraying and a switch to liquid fertiliser application.

“We currently have two tractors running RTK autosteer, which means they can steer themselves with around 2.5cm accuracy. This allows us to carry out spraying and fertiliser spreading as accurately as possible to avoid overlaps and wastage.

“Our sprayer also has auto section control, so it automatically turns on or off when it needs to. Our grass-growing ground would get approximately 35 units of fertiliser per cut and then topped up with slurry to provide the P and K. We normally take six cuts of grass per year. 

Farmyard manure is also well utilised on the arable land

“For the last few years, we have been applying slurry to our growing crops to provide the cereals with organic fertiliser, then topping up with artificial fertiliser. Normally we can provide all the P, K, and about 60 units of nitrogen with slurry, then we top up with approximately 100 units of artificial nitrogen.

“However, for the past two years, we’ve used Omex liquid fertiliser, which is 26N 5SO3,” he says.

The switch to liquid fertiliser means the Craigs did not need a dedicated fertiliser sower, using their sprayer for both fertiliser and pesticide applications.

“We use our Chafer sprayer to apply all our fertiliser and spraying. Liquid fertiliser is spread by target application, so I know exactly where it goes and where it doesn’t go.

Precision technology is used to save on diesel and operating costs

“This prevents over application and for us, there are two reasons why this is important. The first reason is to save on costs and secondly, we live beside an Area of Special Scientific Interest, which has a range of environmentally protective regulations on it.

“The sprayer is a Chafer 5000L 36-metre machine, made from stainless steel, which is important when working with liquid fertiliser. It has GPS control and auto sections, so it knows where to apply the fertiliser once I mark the boundary out and has 650 VF tyres on to cut down compaction.”

Valuing soil

A healthy and productive crop starts with a good soil structure and composition, and the Craigs are starting to investigate and nourish their own soils more closely.

“We’ve started to look at the soil’s biology a bit more,” Alistair says.

“If the biology is right, then we should be able to use less fertiliser and sprays to grow the same crop.

“We’ve started using organic and regenerative processes to help the soil biology and are actively looking at other methods to help the fungi and bacteria in the soil. Slurry bugs, nitrogen-fixing plants, and soil enhancers are all being researched. One of our most important management practices is to use companion crops with our main harvestable crops to help grow the cereal.

Min till was used on the farm last year with good results

“For example, oil seed rape has spring beans, vetch, buckwheat, and sunflowers growing to try and fix nitrogen and phosphate and keep slugs and insects away from the plants.

“The rye was meant to be planted with clover, but my grass seeder broke down when I was about to drill it, but this might be an interesting one going forward.

“Our average, rainfall here is 1000mm or 40 inches, which is high, but we
farm on free-draining soil with high organic matter, so the water disappears pretty quickly.

“One thing I do know is that our soils don’t like compaction, so all our tractors have large tyres to avoid hammering down the soil.

“As we grow lucerne, we don’t usually have much bother with aphids, but we did spray a couple of fields last year with aphicide as a precaution.

“Hopefully, we can use IPM methods in the future to lower our inputs and help our beneficial insects going forward.”

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