Press release Permanent clover fields, innovative sowing methods, strip cropping: ILVO shares latest insights into agroecological agriculture during Demo Day in Hansbeke.


Can you sow a main crop without destroying the green cover and thus maintain a permanent ground cover that benefits the soil? What does a strip crop with alternating protein and grain crops give in terms of yield and quality? And are old grain varieties profitable to grow agroecologically? During the 4th edition of the demo day at the Proefplatform Agro-Ecologie in Hansbeke (Deinze) ILVO researchers and partners presented the results of the tested innovative agro-ecological methods for soil and crops. Over 200 farmers and interested parties from the broad agri-food sector will attend the event.

Can you sow a main crop in soil permanently covered with clover?

One of the core principles of agroecology is to keep the soil continuously covered. This is to prevent desiccation, promote sponginess and prevent unwanted weed growth. According to current practices, after the main crop, a follow-on crop or green cover is sown, which is then harvested, destroyed or undercut. On the trial platform in Hansbeke, a new and alternative method is being tested: what if we do not incorporate the green cover but sow through it? Specifically, the experiment involves 5 ha of permanent clover fields in which grain is sown through. The expectation is that the grain can make use of the present and constant nitrogen fixation by the clover.

Before sowing the grain, we calm the clover using a roto harrow. This suppresses the growth of the clover's shoots. By not destroying the green cover crop, my tillage is even more minimal. This is beneficial for soil quality and fuel consumption, among other things.

Felix de Bousies, farmer at PHAE

In the coming years, we will investigate whether this method produces higher yields of grain compared to the traditional rotation of three years of grass-clover followed by two years of grain.

The ground cover does currently compete with the crop. If the ground cover develops too much, the yield of the crop can drop too much. We need to monitor and optimize that carefully.

Koen Willekens, ILVO onderzoeker en coördinator Proefplatform Agro-Ecologie Hansbeke

Do protein crops produce higher and higher quality yields in strip cropping? (Leg-O project)

The cultivation of protein crops in Flanders for human food still has challenges: annual yields fluctuate too much, quality is not stable and crops often suffer from diseases and pests. Recent research in the Netherlands shows that growing in strips can offer a solution, with less infestation by diseases and pests and a more stable yield. Therefore, an innovative and multi-year experiment is being started in Hansbeke, among other places.

We examine whether the principle of strip cultivation can offer a solution. During this season in Hansbeke, 6m-wide strips of protein crops are alternated with 6m-wide strips of cereals. We also closely monitor the crops for their nitrogen and water requirements, disease and pest pressure.

Inge Speeckaert, ILVO researcher

Combining a protein crop (pea, field bean or red kidney bean) with a cereal crop (baked wheat, durum wheat, malting barley) is expected to increase biodiversity, which may attract more insects such as ladybugs, hoverflies and other natural enemies of pest species. Researchers are examining the extent to which increased biodiversity can control pests and diseases and the impact on yields. Furthermore, scientists are also investigating the nitrogen aspect in the rotation: how much nitrogen do red kidney bean, pea and field bean leave in the soil? What do subsequent main crops pick up from that? Is there then a difference in yield and quality of the main crops? The trials are running in both conventional and organic growing conditions.

Leg-O is a project funded by VLAIO, the project partners are ILVO, HoGent, UGent and Inagro.

Despite lower yield: better profits with old grain varieties (Grain Farmers with Nature)

Even if the production volumes in the agroecological plots do not reach half of the usual plots, the agroecological arable farmer achieves a higher net profit thanks to less input costs and currently better market prices. This is evident from a comparison made within the "Grain Farming with Nature" project. The project brings farmers, millers, bakers and researchers from ILVO and INBO together around agroecological practices in grain farming. Also in terms of biodiversity and the presence of natural control agents in the fields, agroecological cultivation of old cereals scores better.

The close cooperation with millers and bakers spreads the risks. The final producer uses high quality and locally grown raw materials. This allows the baker to market a value-added final product that consumers love.

Myriam Dumortier, INBO researcher

Reed fescue yields up to 45% more than ryegrass in dry years (Klimgras)

The drought-tolerant Reed fescue has a yield potential up to 20 % higher than the classic forage grass, ryegrass. In the dry year 2022, yields were even up to 45 % higher. But digestibility in cows is lower: the organic matter digestibility coefficient of reed fescue is 68%, that of ryegrass is 78%. As a result, there is a limited decrease in feed intake and milk production when reed fescue is incorporated into a dairy ration. For dairy cows where 2/3 of the roughage ration consists of grass, this results in a milk production decrease of 5%. But: this disadvantage disappears when 40 % of the grass share in the forage is replaced by red clover.

The use of reed fescue should enable dairy farmers to harvest enough forage during prolonged dry periods to continue producing quality and sustainable milk. The lower forage value and how to deal with this in the ration are concerns to be overcome.

Maarten Cromheeke, ILVO researcher

In Hansbeke worden de prestaties van de droogtetolerante grassoorten zoals rietzwenkgras en kropaar getest en vergeleken met Engels raaigras. Dit onderzoek dat In Hansbeke, the performance of drought-tolerant grasses such as reed fescue and cocksfoot are being tested and compared with ryegrass. This research that monitors, among other things, yield, forage value, palatability, milk production and milk quality is part of the VLAIO LA project Klimgras.

Compost, no-till, herb-rich grassland, chickpea

Other implementations of agroecological principles shown during the demo day include the cultivation of chickpea, the recirculation of nutrients and organic matter from residual streams through farm composting, herb-rich grasslands with attention to the control of dominant species such as chicory and deep-rooting crops that can break through compacted layers in the soil. Finally, demos will take place of innovative agricultural machinery that has proven its usefulness for non-return tillage, innovative (re)seeding methods and mechanical weed control.

About the Agroecology Trial Platform in Hansbeke

Since 2020, the Agroecology Trial Platform in Hansbeke has been scientifically monitoring the agroecological practice of the 50-hectare farm PHAE and conducting field experiments to optimize that practice. These are all innovative experiments and practice-oriented innovations that also inspire traditional farmers. During the annual demo day, knowledge sharing of the results is central.

More info (in Dutch)? Nieuws - PPAE Hansbeke


Contact us

Koen Willekens

ILVO researcher

Alain Peeters

Directeur RHEA, Secretary general of Agroecology Europe