The Hobson Family Farm Regenerative Journey
Company Profile & Journey
Growing up on the hills of Co. Wicklow, our grandfather Abraham Hobson built up a mixed farm enterprise consisting of dairy, sheep, cattle and some tillage. The farm was a busy operation with full agricultural mechanisation still in its infancy and seven labourers employed. As time passed, the farm became more specialised in tillage and beef production where monoculture was practised with continuous crops of wheat and barley grown. Sugarbeet was a major break crop at the time and the farm supplied sugar to Greencore up until 2005 when EU quota’s were introduced, ending a financially rewarding crop after 80 years. In the subsequent years that followed, lack of rotation and specialisation in crop production led to a marked reduction in crop yields.
In 2001, Warrenstown college was forced to end teaching students in agriculture due to funding cuts. Although it continued as a horticultural college up until 2009, our father John purchased the lands at Warrenstown in 2008. The lands had huge potential, producing crops of wheat that can only be dreamt in the south. However, the farm was not without its challenges. Poor drainage, heavy soils and poor land management meant it would be years before the farm could turn a profit. Prior to our arrival, the farm was producing vegetables, maize silage and silage. A significant drainage system was installed across the farm with a crop rotation put in place. We began growing oilseed rape for the first time in Meath in 2010.
Compacted soils & crop stress from conventional tillage
Regenerative practices used on the farm
Due to our temperate climate in Ireland, we have the challenge of trying to grow crops in very small opportunistic weather windows where conventional practices have provided the most reliable method to sow crops especially in wet conditions. However, it was leading to more problems and significant costs. As we learnt how to farm the land in Meath, parts of the farm could only grow certain crops. In wet years, soil compaction was a huge issue given the size of our machinery and heavy soils. We had to figure out a different way to farm more sustainability while also improving the health of our soils.
Upon completing a PhD in crop cultivation systems and soil compaction, I was adamant on adopting change on the farm to incorporate a system which improves soil health whilst simultaneously maximising crop productivity and financial sustainability. Although Irish tillage farms have a low carbon footprint, poor traffic and land management, extractive removal of straw and grain year on year was not a sustainable approach. Following extensive research along with trial and error, the following methods are used on the farm to reduce the carbon footprint of growing oilseeds and cereals. According to the Teagasc sustainability report, Irish tillage farms are by far the lowest carbon emitting sector with an average carbon footprint of 2.5t/ha. At Hobson farms, our goal is to achieve carbon neutrality and even sequester carbon over the coming decade through the following key management techniques employed on the farm.
Farm practice KPI’s vs standard practice (Teagasc guidelines)
- Minimal tillage and traffic management
Over 95% of farms in Ireland are plough based, given the high rainfall levels, small fields and consistency crops yields over reduced tillage systems. On our farm, we began our minimum tillage journey in 2016 for cereal crops. For break crops such as Oilseed rape, we have used non-inversion methods to establish the crop for over 15 years, taking advantage of typically better soil conditions and efficiencies, allowing for timeliness of sowing, less labour and diesel consumption. Typically, we were using a harrow ahead of the drill at 4-5 inches to incorporate chicken muck and improve soil seed contact for the “sumo” seeder drill. The sumo is a subsoiler, working at depths of up to 10 inches which defeats the purpose of “minimum tillage”.
As soils have improved drastically over the years on the farm, the business invested in lower disturbance drills such as direct drilling which is currently the main practice. The biggest benefit of this was a reduction in fuel use and higher output. In general, we still cultivate the soil to 2.5-3 inches in aid with the mixing of manures ahead of sowing. This is done to alleviate surface compaction from field operations and slug populations which feast on the oilseed rape seedlings as they emerge.
The most significant benefit by using our tillage method is the improved efficiencies with labour and diesel costs reduced dramatically. The current establishment costs for diesel have reduced from 35 l/ha to 15 l/ha ( diesel cost €1.05, total saving €21/ha or €8.5/acre). When drilling oilseed rape, up to 8 ha an hour can be drilled compared to 2.5-3 ha/hr with the previous sumo method.
The journey towards lower use of ploughing and repeated tillage has not been an easy one, considering our annual rainfall in Dunsany is often over 800 mm per annum. The biggest obstacle to overcome when reducing tillage use is field traffic. Farm machinery are heavy and when used on wet soil, they cause soil compaction, creating a blocky dense structured soil with little space for air and water to flow. To overcome these challenges, the business invested in technology, equipment and tracks on combine harvesters. Today, the farm operates a GPS system called “RTK” where traffic and tramlines are kept in the same place each year, avoiding damaging un-trafficked land. During harvest, a chaser bin is used to keep heavy trailers off fields. Working widths have increased, reducing the number of passes up and down the field.
Direct drilling & shallow cultivation for winter cereal cropping
Over the last two years, we have been trialling growing two crops together to improve soil health and fertiliser efficiency. Last year we grew 5kg/ha of Buckwheat, a cover crop, alongside the growing cash crop. There are many reasons why we are doing this.
- The Buckwheat disguises the Oilseed rape plants. Although not a noticeable issue yet, the arrival of cabbage stem flea beetle would have catastrophic implications for growing oilseed rape in Ireland. Already a big issue for the past decade in the UK as neonicotinoid seed dressings have been banned.
- The buckwheat produces a white flower after two months from sowing. This has helped attract beneficial insects to combat pests.
- Buckwheat encourages mycorrhizal fungi to grow in the soil. When Oilseed rape is grown alone, that connection is lost as brassicas do not have the root system to support mycorrhizal growth. The fungi help the crop through symbiosis, transferring phosphorus, nitrogen and other nutrients that are not reachable by the plants.
- By growing multiple plants, you have different root structures growing in-situ this, improving soil structure which ultimately helps drainage and retention of water & nutrients.
Buckwheat emerging and growing alongside OSR
3. Soil fertility
Improving the farms soil fertility has always been the number one priority. The farm continuously tests the land for pH, macro & micro nutrient levels as well as the general health and state of the soils structure. In 2022, less than 5% of the farmland managed by us was sub-optimal for pH. When soil pH is sub-optimal, the availability of nutrients are reduced which leads to higher costs and lower yields. On farm, yield mapping is used as a tool to identify areas that are underperforming. These areas are grid sampled to record and measure issues and help improve decisions for the following crop.
Crop yield mapping and operations centre used to collect data
4. Fertilizer use & reduction
Artificial fertiliser is the most costly and carbon intensive input used on tillage farms worldwide. Oilseed rape requires significant nitrogen (N) inputs to meet the yield potential for modern cultivars grown. In long term tillage soils, the total residual nitrogen left over in the seedbed is very low. As per Teagasc advice, Oilseed rape requires up to 225 kg/ha of nitrogen to maximise the crop yield. This is dependent on the green area index of the crop in the spring (G.A.I). It will also require 55kg/ha of P and 105kg/ha of K on index 1 soils.
Organic manures and composting have played a very significant role in our success with growing oilseed rape. For the past 15 years, we have been actively purchasing and importing chicken litter from counties such as Monaghan and Cavan. The litter is the by-product from broiler houses and is very rich in nitrogen and phosphorus. The material is spread at a rate of 10 t/ha and is incorporated immediately into the soil to reduce ammonia emissions and smell. At this point, how much the oilseed rape extracts these nutrients is weather dependent. Warm temperatures, moisture and sunlight drive canopy growth and formation.
In 2022, where early sowing was possible (early – mid August), total artificial nitrogen used on the crop was 55 kg/ha N, a reduction of nearly 170 kg/ha N from the recommended rates. On later sown crops, total nitrogen was also significantly lower at total 150kg/ha N. Careful crop & soil management, technology and use of organics has helped the business reduce the overall financial risk of growing the crop whilst achieving average yields of 3.7-5.5 t/ha over the last 5 years. In 2024, the Hobson’s intend to construct a new waste management facility on the farm, composting green & agricultural wastes as soil conditioners. This will help improve soils further.
5. Livestock integration
In 2022, the business purchased 400 lambs to graze cover crops and advanced winter cereals. The plan for 2024 is to try and integrate the lambs onto the oilseed rape, removing diseased leaves and promote deeper rooting by the plant. The objective of the lambs is to reduce our need to apply fungicides and growth regulators (oil based chemicals) to the crops. Although this may require more nitrogen in the spring, it will be trialled and the benefits assessed. Over the winter months, Fungal diseases develop on OSR such as phoma and light leaf spot. These diseases can affect yield significantly if not treated. The idea of grazing these leaves removes potential infection thus, removing the need to spray. It also provides the added benefit of producing meat and crops within the same year, adding value to the business.