Meat & Livestock News

UK Farming’s Future: Adapting to Environmental Initiatives and Subsidy Changes

The landscape of farming in the United Kingdom is undergoing significant changes, primarily driven by a shift from traditional agricultural subsidies to payments for various on-farm environmental initiatives. Rob Waterston, an English arable farmer and international guest speaker at the Foundation for Arable Research’s annual Research in Action field day, shared insights into these evolving dynamics.

Waterston, who manages the historic Welford Park Estate in Berkshire, highlighted the impact of Brexit on UK farming. The end of European Union subsidies, which were primarily for food and stock feed production, has given way to a new system that financially supports environmental measures on farms. This change has led UK farmers, including those at Welford Park, to adapt their farming practices significantly.

One of the major challenges faced by UK farmers is the prevalence of invasive crop weed black grass and the loss of traditional crop chemistry. To combat this, Waterston has been focusing on reducing chemical inputs and machinery use, incorporating sustainable farming methods as part of his role as an arable monitor farmer with the UK Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDB).

At Welford Park, the crop rotation includes wheat, winter beans, oilseed rape, and spring barley, the latter introduced specifically to control black grass. Cover crops are now a standard practice for land designated for spring cropping.

The government provides substantial payments for these environmental practices, including cover crops, nectar and flower mixes, flower-rich margins and plots, and permanent grassland. Additional income is generated through capital items like planting hedges and trees, fencing, woodland improvement, and parkland restoration.

Despite these incentives, Waterston expressed concerns about the sustainability of these payments, especially with the upcoming election and potential changes in government policies. He also warned New Zealand growers about the risks posed by black grass, emphasising its adaptability and year-round germination.

Welford Park has embraced regenerative agricultural practices, including ditching the plough in 2012 for a direct drill and a strip-till drill, reducing tractor hours by 50%.

The farm is also exploring ways to manage with fewer or no fungicides and has signed up to Agreena, a certified soil carbon offsetting scheme. This scheme allows farmers to sequester carbon in their soils and sell the certified offsets. For the 2021 harvest, Welford Park received a significant payment for carbon sequestration.

During a Q&A session, the profitability of such farming operations without subsidies was questioned. Waterston acknowledged the need for better returns for grain and the challenge of maintaining profitability, especially considering the costs of machinery and inputs. He noted that historically, subsidies have often been the profit margin in bad years.

In summary, UK farming is at a crossroads, with environmental initiatives reshaping traditional practices. While these changes bring new opportunities, they also present challenges and uncertainties about the future of agricultural profitability in the absence of government support.