Integrating crop production at the catchment scale

Some research we carried out within the Water Friendly Farming project in 2017 has just been published in the Journal of Environmental Management. We use a herbicide that is used to control black-grass in arable crops as an initial focus for exploring broad catchment management issues with farmers in the study area.

Propyzamide is applied to the oilseed rape stage of the rotation and while being a crucial means of controlling black-grass also creates a problem for drinking water supply as it often exceeds the 0.1µg/L limit set by the EU Drinking Water Directive. This puts its use at risk of restriction. The herbicide moves to water mainly adsorbed to soil particles, so as well as being linked to the stage of the crop rotation, its mobility is reduced by soil management practices that reduce erosion and subsequent sedimentation of water courses.

We found that the concentrations in water were influenced largely by the area of oilseed rape in the catchment, and by rainfall. Modelling suggested that, to keep below the 0.1µg/L limit, the rape area would need to be restricted to just 2-3% of the catchment. This is something that participating farmers felt was not practical to manage across the catchment, given that there were multiple farms and the rape area grown was up to 30% of the land area.

Oilseed rape was considered to be an important part of the rotation. A higher limit for headwater catchments that are distant from drinking water abstraction points might be more manageable but would require coordination of, and collaboration between farmers.

The farmers were more enthusiastic about the use of hybrid barley, a crop which supresses blackgrass, extends the rotation, and provides an early entry for a following rape crop. Rape is the stage in the rotation which requires least soil disturbance and is often direct-drilled, with potential benefits to soil and water.

Reduced tillage and direct drilling reduce the risk of herbicide loss to water while also delivering other public benefits such as reduced sedimentation of watercourses, reduced nutrient concentrations in water, and enhanced aquatic biodiversity. Farmers were also more generally accepting of reduced tillage and direct drilling for other stages in the rotation, but they identified practical constraints and economic barriers which prevented a wholesale switch to this system on our clay soils.

Since our research in 2017, oilseed rape has become a slightly less popular crop. The ban on the use of neonicitinoid insecticides has made the control of cabbage stem flea beetle (a major pest of rape) a substantial challenge. Alternative pyrethroid insecticides, applied as a spray to the crop, rather than as a seed dressing, reduce numbers of a wide range of other invertebrates, including beneficial predators and parasitoids of flea beetles. It is especially important to encourage these beneficial invertebrates as flea beetles are developing resistance to pyrethroids.

Pest problems make growing oilseed rape for vegetable oil and animal feed in the UK increasingly challenging

The area of oilseed rape, its yields and profitability have therefore all declined in the past couple of years.  Up until that time, rapeseed and oil were imported and exported to and from the EU but the UK was essentially self-sufficient.  Reduced production in future could mean increased imports of vegetable oils from other countries.

If rape or sunflower are imported from the EU, the crops are currently subject to the same environmental standards as our own, but if from other countries we may find ourselves using oil and animal feed produced using methods which we would not permit in the UK, while simultaneously disadvantaging UK farmers.  Substitution with palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia has even greater environmental implications.

The use of a herbicide and an insecticide in oilseed rape crops may seem to be independent activities to be considered in isolation, but our research on propyzamide, and the more recent developments with neonicitinoids demonstrate the integration of a wide range of associated activities across and beyond the production of the crop. Our journal paper is available here as a free download until 18 March.

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