NEWCASTLE University recently hosted an Open Day featuring organic wheat and organic potato production trials, as well as dairy herd “mob-grazing” and multispecies grazing platforms.

The university's Nafferton Farm has been at the forefront of organic wheat and potato trials with a diverse range of varieties grown in trial plots. In total, 20 wheat varieties are grown at Nafferton, as well as at four 'satellite' farms working in association with the university.

As farmers take on board the high cost of fertiliser owing to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Russia banning the export of ammonium nitrate fertiliser in February, more farmers are believed to be looking at organic systems or hybrid versions in order to lower cost structures.

The trial plots include European wheat varieties and this helps provide further feedback across a wide-range of environment, soil types and soil conditions according to Newcastle University’s Senior Lecturer in Crop Production, Paul Bilsborrow.

He says: “We are planting the best available organic varieties in Europe to perform under UK conditions. This will provide more variety, more choice and better screening.

“We are working with 25 partners, including partners in the US and China, as well as 15 plant breeding operations. The 2022 crops are not yet been harvested (July) and due to the hot weather and lack of rainfall, we expect an earlier harvest owing to crops maturing earlier with potentially lower yields, similar to the crop conditions encountered in 1976.”

Part of the trials include crop varieties being used to make locally-produced artisan organic bread with several bread varieties being made available for food-tasting at the open day. One of the Austrian varieties, Alessio, has performed well at Nafferton and at the four satellite farm sites states Mr Bilsborrow.


Paul Bilsborrow of Newcastle University

Paul Bilsborrow of Newcastle University


“Across all 2021 sites, most varieties achieved the UK milling specification except for Revelation, which is a UK soft Group 4 conventional variety used for animal feed. Alessio and Royal showed consistently high specific weight across all the trial sites. KWS Extase and Revelation are both on the UK Recommended list of varieties for conventional production and were the best performing varieties across the trial sites.”


German variety Alessio has performed well

German variety Alessio has performed well


Potato trials

Newcastle University has ongoing extensive organic potato trials with more than 300 varieties being grown in trial plots at Nafferton. The varieties are grown in a large single block under the same environmental and soil conditions. Each variety has four tubers planted and the crop is subsequently managed under the same conditions.

This year’s potato crops were planted on May 5, and are expected to be harvested in September. The crop is mechanically harvested using state-of-the-art technology and under strict quality control, the potatoes are individually measured and weighed and bagged before storing.

The ongoing organic potato trial is significant according to Paul Bilsborrow.

He says: “Potatoes are the world’s fourth largest human food crop and essential to global nutrition. Growers need to consider aspects such as our changing environmental conditions and look at potential drought resistance varieties. However, many of the varieties in the trials are familiar to UK farmers and growers such as Cara and Casablanca.

“As part of the trials, we are currently testing 66 varieties in Europe and monitoring how the crops perform under different climatic and environmental conditions in Poland, Hungary and Slovenia. We will now be monitoring how crops have performed under UK 2022 drought-like conditions, a dry spring and lower than normal summer rainfall. Other trial aspects include weed control, blight and late blight control and monitoring.”

Mixed grazing platforms

Nafferton Farm has been undertaking trials on mixed grazing platforms in order to discuss performance and species usage under grazing pressure. The diverse pasture plots will help evaluate the establishment and survival of species used under grazing pressure.

The grazing method includes 21 to 24-day rotational grazing system according to Dr Dave George, Precision Agronomy, Newcastle University.


Dr Dave George of Newcastle University

Dr Dave George of Newcastle University


He says: “We’re using five different species mixes that are replicated eight times across eight blocks in 12m by 24m plots.

“Mix one is perennial ryegrass with medium white clover and medium-large clover. The four other seed mixes include chicory and this deep-rooting plant has proven very successful, especially in this year’s dry conditions. Furthermore, chicory, sheep’s parsley, yarrow and burnet help improve the mineral and nutrient profiles of the sward.

“Deep roots help break up soil compaction and improve soil structure, as well as improving drainage, infiltration and also help lock up carbon. Mixed grazing platforms containing various grasses, legumes and herbs root down to different levels. In addition, diverse grazing platforms will help extend the grazing season and improve efficiency.”

Mob versus rotational grazing

Nafferton Farm’s dairy herd is involved in ongoing three-year trial with Defra into mob versus rotational grazing systems involving grazing herbal leys and herbal ley plots. The herd is grazing at identical stocking rates of three livestock units per hectare.

The trial is on-going says Nafferton Farm Manager Gareth Hancock. “We’re in the early stages of the trial and not prejudging any outcomes at this stage. We are keen to explore a hybrid in the future which we believe will suit our system and climate.

“There are various aspects to the trial including cow body-score conditioning, soil structures and sequestration. We’re also monitoring bird and mammal counts within the fields using eight cameras mounted on posts. Dung plats are also being monitored post grazing for dung beetle count and digging tunnels into the structures and taking nutrients down into the soil.”