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Norfolk West Bilney farmer sees profit in peas



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Rapid-growing, high yielding, high protein crops that provide essential ground cover, a saleable crop and, importantly, put nutrients back into the soil.

News of such a crop, which helps significantly improve the health of the soil without the crippling financial and environmental costs of artificial fertiliser, is music to a progressive farmer’s ears.

And who would have thought that the valuable crop would be the humblest member of the legume family – the pea!

Pea farming.
Pea farming.

With tap roots that can grow to a metre in length and with numerous lateral roots, forage peas provide an efficient means of getting nutrients deep into the soil. These long roots break up compaction, while the leaves and stalks can be used as green manure as well as forage.

Livestock farmers use the peas and stalks as hay, or more commonly silage. Analysis demonstrates a high protein and starch value. In addition, the cultivation of peas breaks cereal disease cycles, facilitates weed control and improves soil condition and fertility. Peas, as a legume, decrease the need for artificial nitrogen.

All of which made the decision to step into the world of forage peas an easy one for West Norfolk farmer Charlie Davison.

Pea farming: bales.
Pea farming: bales.

Davison has been a farmer in West Bilney for 31 years, taking on the farm when he was 29. The farm is a sizeable 620 acres on mainly sandy, loamy soils. Milling wheat covers a large percentage of his cropping rotation, with potatoes, onions and carrots.

Recently Davison, who was formerly a committed arable farmer, rented out 57 acres to local, award-winning pig farmers Ian and Michael Baker. It was a move that suited all parties well as the farm produced straw for the pigs and the pigs returned manure for the soil in equal measure.

With one new venture working out well, Davison decided to push the boundaries a bit further, which is where the forage peas came into play.

Pea farming: field.
Pea farming: field.

"I let the carrots be strawed [left on the land covered by straw] throughout the winter but a long wet winter into spring meant I couldn’t get onto the land to prepare a good seed bed for sowing early wheat. I found time was against me when it came to sowing spring cereals of any sort so I did a bit of research and decided to give forage peas a go."

Forage peas are hugely popular as nutritious animal feed in New Zealand and the USA, and Davison’s research led him to invest in Magnus forage peas, which are produced in the UK by Limagrain UK.

The first crop was drilled at the end of April 2021, as the land dried out and warmed up after a cold, long period. Just 14 weeks later and the crop was flowering and podding. The peas were swathed towards the end of July and baled a few days later.

With pea forage silage, getting the bagging right is essential to keep the bales in good condition but the resulting silage is highly nutritious and much valued by sheep and cattle breeders.

Pea farming: cows.
Pea farming: cows.

"With more and more farmers now bringing livestock – particularly sheep – onto their farms in Norfolk and other East Anglian counties, I think pea forage straw can become a major crop in the future. I am always looking for ways to do things that little bit better and the inclusion of the pea crop is a step in the right direction," said Davison.

East Winch cattle breeder Sarah Juggins is one livestock owner who is already taking advantage of the locally-produced feedstuff.

She said: "At this time of year, being able to feed my cattle highly nutritious pea forage is really crucial to helping the animals maintain good body condition throughout the winter months. The fact that it is grown just a couple of miles down the road means the impact of feeding the cattle on the environment is hugely reduced, compared to buying in supplementary food from miles away."

In terms of improving the farm’s soil health, the peas will add nitrogen back into the ground, thereby reducing the need for artificial fertiliser, while the forage peas are sold to livestock farmers within a eight mile radius, so reducing the transport costs of moving other cash crops – such as root vegetables – to distant production plants.

For any livestock owners who want to discuss the availability of pea forage silage, Davison can be contacted on 07974427734.



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