Home » Issue 26-2023 » Farm report » Longer growing season – new possibilities: Håkon Huseby, NO

Longer growing season – new possibilities

Håkon Huseby and his sons Kristian and Knut Arne notice it clearly: the growing season in Norway is getting longer. This opens up new opportunities with regard to crop production.

“I took over the farm in 1988 when my father died. Since then, the growing season has become longer: one more week in spring and two more weeks in autumn”, Håkon Huseby says. Together with his wife Ragna Kirkeby he manages the respective family farms Kjølstad and Skoftestad in Ås, a municipality half an hour south of the capital Oslo. The farms are mere arable farms as it is common in this area. In Norway, only 3 % of the land is cultivated.  In Denmark, the neighbouring country in the south it is more than 60 %! “The agricultural area in Norway amounts to approx. one million hectares. 70 % of it are only suitable for the cultivation of grass. The remaining area is mainly used for cereals and oil crops. These also are our main crops. Step by step we established a more and more stable and more and more varied rotation”, Håkon Huseby states.

Varied rotation

Today, there is a seven-year rotation on both farms. In the first year, they grow winter barley as a previous crop for winter rapeseed which in turn is an excellent previous crop for winter wheat in the third year. As soon as the wheat has been threshed and also after winter barley in the fourth year, catch crops are sown. In the fifth year, they cultivate field beans and in the sixth year, winter wheat again and catch crops. Rotation ends with oats in year seven. “With the winter barley we have enough time to sow winter rapeseed every year. This is the key for us in a way. In our region, rapeseed has to be sown at the beginning of August. And usually, we manage to keep that date as we normally thresh winter barley in the last week of July”, Håkon Huseby explains.
Winter barley is grown rather rarely in Norway, but the Huseby family has been including it in their rotation for already a long time. “It is not common in Norway to sow in autumn as the plants often do not survive the winter. But there are constantly new varieties. It simply is about finding the most resistant variety. We already started ten years ago to import the hardiest varieties from Sweden and Denmark. In autumn, we used Yara Mila (NPK 8-10.5-20) for fertilisation and at the same time sprayed the population against hibernating fungi. This always worked well for us. However, you clearly depend on good sowing conditions. Winter barley should be sown until 15th September at the latest. But the optimum time would be earlier, around the 20th August, if the weather conditions allow for it. If you sow winter barley into wet soil, the results will be rather poor”, the farmer knows from experience.

Conservation farming

Nine years ago, spring rapeseed was taken out of the rotation and replaced by winter rapeseed. In Norway, oil crops that are sown in spring often face major problems with gloss beetle and cabbage moth. Rapeseed that is sown in autumn has already developed further and this problem is avoided. “Since we have been stopping growing summer rapeseed, we have not used any pesticides at all.”
Another change with regard to the cultivation method is that tillage was reduced step by step. Most of the fields are now sown with a direct seed drill. “We cultivate according to the principle of conservation farming. Our objectives are a continuous plant cover and minimum resp. reduced tillage or, even better, direct seed. And our good yields show that this new strategy is successful“, Håkon Huseby confirms.

Successful with direct seeding

In 2001, he stopped ploughing and bought the first HORSCH Terrano 6 FG in Norway instead. For a few years he used the Terrano after a shallow tillage pass with the Joker directly after combining. In 2010, he bought a Pronto: “We were very satisfied with this combination. But we still carried out some tests with regard to direct seeding with the Pronto.”
However, they noticed that harrowing encouraged weed germination. Inspired by the longtime membership in the Foreningen for Reduceret Jordbearbejdning FRDK (Association for reduced tillage) in Denmark and due to the subsidies for reduced tillage, they soon put a real direct seed drill on their wish list. “With direct seeding and good previous crops you can achieve excellent results even without tillage.“
After the hot, dry summer of 2018, their confidence into the system was once more confirmed. The average yields in the region amounted to two tons but the Huseby family harvested more than four tons – without irrigation. “Every kind of tillage extracts water from the soil. Another advantage of direct seed is that there is no risk of incrustations or surface runoff.”

Larger row spacing

Previously, a row spacing of 12.5 cm was common. With the Pronto it was increased to 15 cm and after that, with the first HORSCH Avatar in Norway, to 16.7. “I really trust the Avatar. It places the seed extremely precisely and hardly touches the soil.”

The direct seed drill was delivered in autumn 2019. In summer 2021, they bought a second-hand Focus 4 TD from Denmark. “With Avatar and Focus you actually do not need any preparatory tillage. Our plan is to carry out tillage only every ten years – when we spread sludge. Apart from that, we only sow direct. At the moment we sow winter rapeseed with the Focus. In a three-year trial with the Norsk institutt for bioøkonomi NIBIO (Norwegian Institute for Bioeconomics) we also tested sowing winter wheat with a row spacing of 28.7 cm. I guessed that we would lose 500 to 1,000 kg in yield. But the figures from the first year are absolutely surprising. The field sown directly with the Focus was the field with the highest yield – over 12 t/ha! Therefore, I am not afraid of working with a larger row spacing. But is clear that we still have to learn a lot. If you for example sow spring wheat on a level field in hard, heavy clay soil, the results could be completely different. In this case, 12.5 cm would be better. But with our cultivation strategy with rotations and catch crops we are not afraid to increase the row spacing.”

Useful lessons from reference fields

The main catch crops grown on the farm are forage vetch, oil radish and honeysuckle. But in co-operation with the Norwegian Agricultural Advisory Service (NLR) the Huseby family also tests other mixtures and cultivation methods. “Our farm is located near the Oslo Fjord where water quality ranks first for the authorities. Therefore, we get subsidies for the cultivation of catch crops and for minimum tillage. But to see how important catch crops are for a high yield, is motivation enough. On fields with medium to good catch crops we can save 1/3 of fertiliser in the following spring”, Håkon Huseby confirms.
With up to 10 t or more winter wheat the large amount of straw residues might cause problems. But in this respect, too, the catch crops have a positive effect. “Any kind of reduced tillage starts with the combine. The straw has to be cut properly and distributed regularly over the whole width of the header. Last year, we harvested almost 11 t of winter wheat – and, of course, a corresponding amount of straw remained on the surface. Without the catch crops the decomposition would have taken very long as we saw on the reference fields. No matter which field test you carry out, reference fields are extremely important.”   

About Kjølstad Drift:

440 hectares crop production. 150 hectares are owned, the rest is rented.

Year 1: Winter barley
Year 2: Winter oilseed rape
Year 3: Winter wheat followed by catch crop
Year 4: Winter barley followed by catch crop
Year 5: Beans with white clover
Year 6: Winter wheat followed by catch crop
Year 7: Oats

Yields in 10 years average
8,000 kg/ha Winter wheat
4,200 kg/ha Spring beans
7,000 kg/ha Winter barley
4,000 kg/ha Winter oilseed rape
6,500 kg/ha Spring barley
6,500 kg/ha Spring oats

Earthworms increase the amount of air in the soil

Håkon Huseby is always looking for knowledge and inspiration – locally but also abroad. His sons Kristian and Knut Arne also keep with this principle. “It may seem silly to invest so much time in own trials but I wanted to show my sons that farming consists of ups and downs – and regardless of the result: you always gain experience. Moreover, it is exciting, and it is fun to learn more. And we have to get better year by year. In autumn 2014, we went to Denmark to learn more about catch crops. One of the most important things we learned was to use the spade! Danish farmers attach major importance to a healthy soil. A good rotation provides a healthy soil with a lot of earthworms. This was a useful lesson!”

Once home from Denmark, the Huseby immediately put their ideas into practice and the spade has become a regular partner in the fields. “The number of earthworms depends on the tillage method. Earthworms do neither like the plough nor the harrow. In conservation farming where the straw is always left on the surface, there are significantly more earthworms. Especially the large ones, that dig vertically. Earthworms do not cause any operating costs, but they guarantee an optimum drainage and bring air into the soil. After a few successful years with catch crops and direct seed on rented land we often notice that the water in the ditches drains better.”
Another positive effect of the catch crops is that nutrients are taken up and are stored for the next season. “Good catch crops replace high amounts of fertiliser. In Danish field tests with barley, a maximum yield was achieved with only 80 kg N. We apply a small amount of glyphosate after each catch crop. If you have a seed drill that can place the seed in a clean soil at a depth of 3 to 4 cm, I see no reason for an intensive tillage. We save a lot of expensive diesel, and we get subsidies for direct seed and catch crops. Since we bought the Avatar, our yields have not decreased compared to the time when we still worked with the plough and tillage. It is entirely possible to achieve high yields with a direct seed drill”, Håkon Huseby confirms.

Drain own and rented land

In the regions where the Husebys live, the annual rainfall amounts to 800 to 900 mm. In intensive rain periods there is a lot of rainfall, however, there also are long periods without any rain. “When I was young, we went skiing every year before Christmas. The winters were hard and long, and there was snow from December all through the long winter. The climate has changed, and the weather is getting milder and milder. This winter, it was colder in March than in January, and the snow was washed away by rain several times. Thus, the soil is more exposed, and this is the reason why we find conservation farming so interesting. It gives us a good feeling if the fields are either covered with catch crops or if winter crops have already been sown without any previous tillage. The soil remains on the field.“

Despite catch crops and a varied rotation – the basis for high yields has to be given. The Husebys invested considerable sums in drainages and liming. “Good draining is very important. Our objective is to drain 10 ha per year. One year we even drained 77 ha of rented land! The ditch spacing amounts to six to seven metres.”

Objective: high pH value

The soils are very variable, and you can even find different types of soil in one field – from sand to stiff clay. With regard to the pH value, the Husebys have to take the differences within one field into account. To achieve the same pH value in a field, they have been applying lime via GPS signals for years. “Our aim is a pH value between 6.7 and 7.0. It is better to apply small amounts of lime more frequently. Especially in conservation farming where there is a lot of fine earth and organic matter on the surface.”
Compared to Håkon Huseby’s early years as a farmer the strategy regarding pH value has changed significantly: “The right pH value has always been important to us, but we have changed our strategy quite often. In the 80s, 6 was fine. Today, Swedish field tests show that highest yields are achieved at 7.2. So I think our aim of 7.0 is ok. Considering today’s fertiliser prices, it becomes more and more important to make optimum use of the expensive nutrients. With a pH value of 6.0 it is said that only half of the applied phosphorus is used. You always have to keep the costs in mind. And though it is expensive to apply lime, it is even more expensive not to!”