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An introduction to alternative crops

Adding an alternative break crop to a rotation can bring many benefits such as improving soil structure and possibly health, providing a window to help control troublesome weeds and spreading your market risk. Alternative break crops aren’t without their operational challenges, sometimes requiring specialist knowledge or specific equipment. Collaborating with neighbouring farms or agronomy groups to share knowledge and machinery can improve the chances of financial success with these novel crops.


In this article we will explore a handful of the alternative break crops available to arable farmers as well as the key considerations when assessing potential crops.

 
 

Key considerations to make when assessing an alternative crop.

  • Is the crop suitable to the climate and soil type?

  • Is there a local market for the crop?

  • Is it a true break crop from the perspective of pests and diseases?

  • How will the crop impact on your weed issues?

  • What condition will the crop leave the soil in?

  • What are the storage/cleaning and drying requirements?

  • Are there any clashes with drilling and harvesting times with other crops?

Borage

There is a growing demand for borage in the UK due to its prized oil that contains high levels of Omega 6 fatty acids namely gamma linolenic acid which is used in food supplements, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. It has anti-inflammatory properties and is an important medication for conditions such as arthritis, also used for treating skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. It’s a crop that can grow well in the North and West regions due to cooler temperatures improving the oil content.

  • Bees are required for pollination, so collaborating with a local beekeeper will help to achieve the high pollination levels required.

  • Borage sheds its seeds very rapidly as they mature so careful planning is required during the harvesting stage to ensure that the seeds are not shed. Just before pod dispersal the plants are swathed, leaving the plants laid down in tight rows for up to two weeks before a combine harvester with a pickup header harvests the crop, which will then require further cleaning to remove excess plant material.

  • Fairking is leading the path in this market, as well as growing borage through a large network of growers, they have recently unveiled a borage seed processing facility on their farm near Colchester. They have also developed a microbiological seed treatment for the seed, called KONCIA borage, which coats the seeds with a unique combination of beneficial microorganisms that would naturally be found in undisturbed soil around the roots of established plants which can help the plant to fix nitrogen.

  • With current contract prices in the region of £3,800 tonne/ha and yields of up to £400kg/ha, gross margins can compete with winter wheat.

Quinoa

Quinoa is a flowering plant in the amaranth family. It is an herbaceous annual plant grown as a crop primarily for its edible seeds. It is a warm season crop, originating in south America, however, the development of new Dutch varieties more suited to the northern European climate have made it possible to grow the crop in the UK. Quinoa can be slow to establish until the weather starts warming up, with growth generally taking off in May. As a spring crop it is relatively cheap to grow since there are no pesticides approved for use, but an inter row hoe is generally required to keep on top of weeds.

  • It is more suited to lighter soils and lower rainfall areas and does best after a wheat crop.

  • Due to no approved herbicides, it shouldn’t be grown after oilseed rape as control of volunteers is not possible.

  • It requires a firm, fine seedbed with the seed sown at a depth of 1cm.

  • It is generally harvested in August/September with a conventional harvester.

  • The main input costs are Nitrogen and mechanical weeding, with yields of 1.5-2 tonne/ha and prices of £900 tonne it can be a competitive spring crop.

  • The British Quinoa company hold the license for UK Quinoa varieties and currently offer a buy back contract.

Buckwheat

Originating in south China and commonly grown in the UK as a cover crop, it is growing in popularity as a profitable break crop. Despite the name, it is not actually related to wheat, being in the Rhubarb and Sorrel family. Buckwheat is known as a pseudo cereal due to it being used in a similar manner to cereals in cooking because it has a high starch content. It is naturally gluten free and naturally high protein.

  • Buckwheat is mostly drilled in mid-May due to its sensitivity to cold temperatures, with harvests expected in October.

  • It performs well in well drained, low-fertility, acidic soils, and too much Nitrogen reducing yields. Being an indeterminate crop, it can still be flowering whilst some seeds are ripe, which can make harvesting challenging.

  • Court Hayes farm in the heart of Devon is currently growing, milling, and marketing their own buckwheat flour with great success.

Millet

There is a strong market for Millet in the UK where it is used in wild birdseed mixtures. Around 25,000 tonnes of millet are currently imported, and domestic growers are being sought by birdseed manufacturers.

  • It generally performs best in warm areas of the country requiring minimum temperatures of 10C at drilling, with most of the growth occurring in June - August when temperatures are at their highest.

  • It is an easily combinable crop with expected yields of 3-5tonne/ha and with prices up to £400/tonne it is quite an attractive option.

  • It can be prone to lodging so is not suitable for heavy land, but being drought tolerant it grows well on lighter soils.

Linseed

Linseed is considered by many as an alternative to oilseed rape to avoid flea beetle attacks, it also requires significantly lower input costs, requiring around 90-120kg/ha of Nitrogen, half of the requirement of OSR. Another benefit can be seen through the ability of linseed to improve soils by hosting mycorrhizal fungi, making it a particularly good crop to grow before winter wheat.

  • It can be grown as a winter or spring crop.

  • Linseed has a reputation for being difficult to harvest but new varieties with lower levels of stem fibre have improved the harvesting process.

  • Desiccation is recommended to minimise green patches and weeds wrapping around the combine.

  • 2.5-3 tonne/ha can be achieved with prices over the past 5 years ranging from £300-£400/ tonne.

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