Once seen as something that only works on the continent, concerns over rapidly declining soil fertility have fostered a renewed interest in the use of catch crops. Working with catch crop specialists Saaten Union, Elsoms Seeds is making high-performing varieties and proven techniques available to UK farmers and growers. The Summer 2014 edition of the Agronomist and Arable Farmer contains an excellent BASIS training module that provides a wealth of information on this subject and which can be downloaded from this page by kind permission of the publishers.
Proposing the use of catch crops in the UK has received, at best, a mixed response over recent years. Typically farmers and agronomists are sceptical as to the claims that have been made regarding the control of soil-borne pests, while rotational and climate differences have made the transfer of catch cropping techniques between the UK and continental Europe difficult to achieve in practice. Not surprisingly then, the use of catch cropping in the UK has remained stuck in its infancy. Despite this, however, major concerns over the impact of intensive arable rotations on soil quality have now resulted in catch cropping attracting a lot of renewed attention as the improvements to soil quality and hence productivity achieved in mainland Europe through catch cropping look increasingly attractive and necessary for maintaining long-term profitability.
WHAT IS CATCH CROPPING?
The aim of catch cropping is to improve overall soil quality. Depending on specific circumstances, biofumigation may play a key role in improving soil quality, and hence yield potential, but is only one of the potential benefits of a catch cropping programme. Catch crops can make as important a contribution to a farm’s overall income as major crop types through their effect on long-term soil quality. The status of soil obviously directly affects the yield potential of the crops that it is used to produce and the objective of growing a catch crop is to improve soil quality and hence yield and income potential. Catch cropping should benefit soil quality by protecting soil against erosion, locking in nitrogen, preventing nutrient loss, promoting biological activity and improving water management, weed control and soil structure. While planting a crop that provides no obvious immediate direct return has proved to be a difficult concept for many farmers, catch crops are widely and successfully used in Germany and the Netherlands to directly improve yields across very intensive agricultural rotations.