Organic crop husbandry
Organic farming principles tend to encourage a variety of habitats on farms. More organic farms have mixed rotations which tend to encourage a greater diversity of flora and increased numbers of fauna compared with some non-organic farms.
In the UK, the Soil Association Certification Ltd (SA) gives recommendations for improving biodiversity on organic farms; such as maintaining at least 5% of land in permanent pasture or un-cropped areas, or ensuring 10% of cropped land is planted after 1 February. Farmers can choose the appropriate stewardship options to ensure that the SA guidelines are achieved.
As organic farming does not use manufactured fertilisers, energy requirements of this farming system and greenhouse gas emissions are subsequently reducing compared with non-organic systems. But as organic yields in t/ha are usually lower than those obtained conventionally, the total energy requirements for every tonne of crop produced is sometimes not very different. The use of manures and mixed rotations including grass and clover leys are very important for increasing the soil organic matter and carbon sequestration on organic farms.
With respect to resource management and environmental impact, organic farming offers rationales for agricultural sustainability. However, agronomic productivity is usually higher with conventional farming. This work aimed at investigating two factors of major importance for the agronomic productivity of organic crop husbandry, nitrogen (N) supply through symbiotic N fixation (SNF) and weed occurrence. Perennial red clover-grass leys and spring cereal crops subjected to regular agricultural practices were studied on 34 organic farms located in the southern and the north-western coastal regions of Finland. Herbage growth, clover content as a proportion of the ley and extent of SNF in perennial leys, and the occurrence of weed species and weed-crop competition in spring cereal stands were related to climate conditions, soil properties, and management measures. The herbage accumulated from the first and the second cut of one- and two-year-old leys averaged 7.5 t DM ha-1 (SD ± 1.7 t DM ha-1); the clover content averaged 43.9% (SD ± 18.8%). Along with the clover content, herbage production decreased with ley age. Radiation use efficiency (RUE) correlated positively with clover proportion but despite low clover contents, three-year-old leys were still productive with regard to RUE. SNF in the accumulated annual growth of one- and two-year-old leys averaged 247.5 kg N ha-1 yr-1 (SD ± 114.4 kg N ha-1 yr-1). It was supposed that if red clover-grass leys constituted 40% of the rotation, then the mean N supply by SNF would be able to sustain two or three succeeding cereal crops (green manure and forage ley, respectively), yielding 3.0 to 4.0 t grain ha-1. Being a function of clover biomass, the SNF increased from the first to the second cut and thereafter declined with ley age. Coefficients of variation of clover contents (and SNF) between and within fields were around 50%, which was about twice as high as those of herbage production. The lower were the clover contents, the higher were the within-field variations of clover as a proportion of the ley. Low clover contents in one-year-old leys and increasing variability with ley age suggested that red clover growth was limited by poor establishment and poor overwintering. The proportions of clover in leys were lower and their variability was higher in the northwest than in the south. Soil properties, primarily texture and structure, had a major impact on clover proportion and herbage production, which largely explained regional differences in ley growth. Within-field variability of soil properties can be amended through site-specific measures, including drainage, liming, and applications of organic manures and mineral fertilizers. Overwintering and the persistence of leys can be improved by the choice of winter-hardy varieties, careful establishment and the appropriate harvest regime. Mean grain yields of spring cereal crops amounted to 3.2 t ha-1 in the south and 3.6 t ha-1 in the northwest. At 570 and 565 m-2 for the south and northwest respectively, mean weed densities did not differ between the regions, whereas the respective mean weed biomass of 697 and 1594 kg dry weight ha-1, respectively did differ. Weed abundance varied remarkably between single fields. The number of weed species was higher in the south than in the northwest. For example, Fumaria officinalis and Lamium spp. were found only in the south. Frequencies and abundances of Lapsana communis, Myosotis arvensis, Polygonum aviculare, Tripleurospermum inodorum, and Vicia spp. were higher in the south, whereas those of Elymus repens, Persicaria spp. and Spergula arvensis were higher in the northwest. The number of years since conversion to organic farming, i.e. long-term management, was one of the variables that explained the abundance of single weed species. E. repens was the weed species whose biomass increased most with the duration of organic farming. Another significant variable was crop biomass, which was affected by short-term management. The presence of different weed species was related to the duration of organic farming and to low crop yield. This finding demonstrated that it was not the organic farming regime per se, which resulted in high weed infestation and low yielding crops, but failures in the understanding and the management of organic farming systems. Successful weed control relies on farm- and field-specific long- and short-term management approaches. The agronomic productivity of ley and spring cereal crops managed by full-time farmers with an interest in organic farming was on the same level as of the mean for conventional farming. Given the many options for further improvements of the agronomic performance of organic arable systems, organic farming offers foundations for the development of sustainable agriculture. The main threat to the sustainability of farming in Finland, both conventional and organic, is the spatial separation of crop production and animal husbandry by region, along with the simplification of associated crop rotations