Friday, 21 October 2016

Harvest Roundup

Harvest seems a distant memory, as the grain store fan are blowing the cool air through the harvest grain and the Cross Slot drill is wrapping the last few fields of autumn planted winter wheat.    
It has not been our biggest harvest ever, although I think we were spoilt last year with some great yielding crops but it was far from a disaster either.  Our oilseed rape and winter barley were the worst performing crops down about 20% from last year and slightly below our longer 5 year average.  The oilseed and barley grains were small which gave us problems of different sorts.  The barley size meant that we had high screenings, that means that too many fell through a sieve resulting in less usable quality.  The majority of the crop was sold and moved at harvest to Molson Coors.  The oilseed rape has lower oils that last year; about 44% rather than 48% which gives us a slightly lower grain price and the seed sizes were very small.  This meant that the losses from the combine, those seeds that carried straight through in the straw were a bit higher than normal although fairly insignificant in terms of yield loss and on the bright side added to the cover mix. 
The peas where slightly up on last year and have some fantastic colour so will make a good price in a difficult market.  The wheat we harvested was very variable with some every good yields, in excess of 10t/ha and also some wheat from the hill that were slightly disappointing yielding about 8t/ha.  All of the quality has been excellent and with very little drying costs due to the lovely warm sunny weather.
Our new MacDon draper header performed really well across all of the crops we harvested.  It was easy to hitch onto the combine and very easy to alter the header angle and draper speed on the move during operation.
Harvest can be a long drawn out season but thankfully this year; with near perfect weather, it was over in time for a bank holiday weekend off for everyone, the last one was in 2003!  Thanks to all the hard work and effort put in by the whole team and also for the patience to those in the village often held up with tractors and trailers rolling through the village.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Looking Underground for Long Term Solutions

I had a really nice comment, via a good friend, from a local retired farmer. "Bredon Hill is looking very green".  Now I am not sure it was meant as a complement or a statement but I shall take it as the former as that is what we are trying to achieve.  We need to cover up, indeed don't farm naked, to protector our biggest and most valuable asset, our soil.
Buckwheat Companion Crop with Oilseed Rape
We have had a really super summer and autumn, after the damp and cloudy June, we've had good sunlight, warm temperatures and periodic rain events.  It reminds me of the summers I can remember growing up as a child, endless days of sunshine.  Harvest ran like a dream, our new header performing very well and crops nice and dry, although the yields were disappointing they were on par with our neighbours, which with a completely new system is very encouraging indeed.

The cover crops we have planted have all grown very well indeed and are now producing many environmental benefits.  The most obvious to see is the huge array of flowers producing pollen and nectar for insects to feed on.  During the sunny afternoons these fields are filled with bees.  There is so much insect feed available that a local bee keeper has brought 6 hives down for his bees to feed on the flowering buckwheat.

Buckwheat Root, Root Hairs and Mycorrhizal Fungi
There is also a lot going on underground that we are unable to see, unable to really understand, but we are starting to explore the dark world of the plant and fungal interaction.  The fact that we have plants growing in our soils means that they are capturing every bit of sunshine and turning it into organic matter.  They are growing roots, root hairs, leaves, stems and even fruit.  All of this is capturing carbon from the atmosphere and locking it up in the soil.  The roots are pushing into the soil, helping to repair soil structure so that when we get heavy rains it will infiltrate the soil rather than run off.  The leaves will intercept rain droplets and stop them compacting the soil surface.  The roots are feeding the fungal and bacterial populations in the soil, helping to build a web of different colonies able to scavenge for nutrients as the plants need them.  As these populations grow, they excrete waste which the plants can use.  The waste has a high level of nitrogen in it, which is a key nutrient for our crops, so we can in time use less natural resources in the form of fertiliser.

Cross Slot Drill Planting Wheat into Buckwheat Covercrop
One of the key aspects of making this system work is by having a planting machine (drill) that can cut through these heavy crop and cover crop residues to get he seeds into the soil with good seed placement.  The fact that we can also add starter fertiliser and any slug control products at the same time makes this a very efficient system.  Its better for the environment, better for our productivity and our profitability.  In an uncertain; post Brexit world, where farm support will be reduced, reducing costs and reliance on purchased inputs will be essential to arable farming survival but I believe we are developing a system that will enable us to achieve this.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Life on the Margins

It's amazing what you can find while having a quiet wander along the side of the beautiful flower margins on the top of Bredon Hill at the moment.  Many are situated along side public rights of way so there's no need to trample across farmland to view them.  They are created by cultivating the soil to stimulate the wild seeds to grow that have been dormant in the soil for many years.  But the wild flowers are only part of the benefits, the flowers also encourage millions of insects that in turn provide valuable feed for young farmland birds.

The list of spices very evident is long, from bumblebees, butterflies, hoverflies, beetles and other pollinator species.  There were also many insect feeding birds such as Skylarks, Yellow Hammers, Goldfinches Meadow Pipits and Linnets, all feeding in the margins and carrying the feed out into the fields or up into neighbouring trees or hedges, where their nests are located.  You may have seen the small bare patches that have no crop in them which provide landing areas for Skylark and today they were singing with joy, that the sun had finally appeared!
Not all of the margins are this successful; in other margins we have had to mow the margin to stop the weed seeds from becoming fertile and adding to the weed seed bank, which is necessary for the long term benefit of the strip.  We hope that you enjoy walking on the hill and looking at what nature is providing and in order to enhance the benefit please do not let your dogs disturb the birds busily collecting feed for their young, by keeping them under very close control or ideally on a lead.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Planting Peas Into Cover Crops

The cool spring has certainly held up planting progress on the farm this  year.  The weather felt warmer in December than it did in April which is crazy.  The maximum air temperature for example in December was 13.9 degrees and in April the maximum was only 14.9!  The minimum air temperature in December was 2.1 and April the minimum was lower at -0.9.  

As a result of the cooler temperatures and a wetter start to the year;  Every month since January has been 30% wetter than our 25 year average.  As a result we have 
had to be very patient to wait for the right ground conditions before we could start planting our spring crops.

Barley started on the 23rd March when soil temperatures were rising but the peas really had to wait until we had a constant 10 degrees soil temperature so that they could be planted and emerge very quickly.  This field was planted on the 25th April, on light sandy soil, into brilliant conditions.  The cover crop was a mixture of oil radish and oats which survived the winter and really had started to grow.  The peas germinated within 5 days and this picture was taken at that point and shows the young root just emerging from the seed.  The pink colour is a fungicide to stop disease slowing the growth of the plant in the very early stages.  As you can see from the photograph the cover crop and the use of zero tillage (or direct drilling) has really helped the survival of earthworms in the soil partly through not disturbing their habitat, through cultivations, but also through providing them with a food source through the winter.

So the crop is off to a good start so we will see how the season goes and how many tonnes of mushy peas will be harvested later in the year.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Preparation for the 2016 Big Farmland Bird Count!

For the third year in a row the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust is running its Big Farmland Bird Count. It's a great opportunity for land owners, farmers and anyone connected with the countryside to get out and count the wonderful array of species that live in our beautiful countryside.  For 30 minutes between the 6th and 14th of February the idea is to get a 30 minute snap shot of what species are on our farms.  The data can then be sent to the GWCT to give a national picture of how these import species farmland bird species are benefiting or otherwise from our countryside management. Are the numbers increasing or decreasing it's very important that we can identify these trends and act accordingly.  Now I for one, am not a brilliant birder or twitcher but I know a man who is!  On a very sunny day last week we hosted a Farmland Bird Identification training session at Overbury sponsored  by BASF with expert training from Peter Thompson.
We had a fantastic turnout with nearly 30 people, starting in the village hall, to hear about the different species of bird, the nesting habitat they need and the food sources for adults and chicks.  After a great lunch we headed out for a bit of a ramble around the vale farm to see what species we could identify.  Considering the noise, chatter and wind I think we did rather well.  In total we spotted 28 different species, many of which are target BAP species (Biodiversity Action Plan) meaning they are under special priority measures to try and look after them.  Many of the Higher Level Stewardship options we have taken up are being used to encourage these species.  Options such as grass margins, unharvested and unfertilised headlands, wild bird mixes, skylark plots and some fallow patches are all important to create habitat and food sources for these birds.  We looked in hedgerows, on grassland, over water, on farm tracks, adjacent to field margins, in arable fields and across game covers to see what was on show.  Eyes and binoculars were pointing in all directions and here's the species list on show that day. We spotted mallard, coot, heron, robin, dunnock, wren, pied wagtail, blackbird, song thrush, redwing, fieldfarerook, jackdaw, carrion crow, magpie, raven, buzzard, sparrow hawk, yellowhammer (one of my favourites), goldfinch, linnet, chaffinch, skylarkblue tit. great tit, long-tailed tit, pheasant and red-legged partridge.  We are heading out on Thursday morning to put our new identification skills to the test to see if we can beat this impressive list of species.  Many thanks to Peter, to the GWCT and BASF for the event sponsorship as this training will last much longer than just a day in February.  I would encourage everyone who can take part to get out, count some birds and upload the results. It's a very important source of information, helping to prove that we are looking after and enhancing the environment in which we live and work!

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

The 5 Minute Fallow

The 5 Minute Fallow

Well after 2 years of trialling and testing, of calculating and studying our Cross Slot drill has finally arrived, imported all the way form New Zealand.  I say finally arrived, it actually arrived in July 2015 but shamefully I have neglected my blog, so here's an update on my latest thinking and plans.

The 5 minute fallow is the first place to start.  The picture above shows the drill planting a cover crop mix directly behind the combine.  Why are we doing this, I hear you ask?  The cover crop plants will stay in the ground after the oilseed rape has been harvested and before we plant wheat in the same field.  The job of the cover crop is to:

Cover Crop at 4 weeks old

  1. Intercept the sunlight during the period of maximum radiation and turn that sunlight into roots, shoots and leaves.  This plant material will have several benefits to the new zero tillage farming system we are adopting.  The roots will penetrate down in to the soil breaking up soil compaction, create drainage channels (when they die) and release sugars in the soil to feed the soil fungi and bacteria, which in turn feed earthworms.
  2. The leaves and stems of the plants will store nutrients that might otherwise leak or escape from the soil which could create pollution.  Things like sulphate and nitrate are very soluble in water  but non-mobile when part of a plant.
  3. Create soil armour.  August has always been the farms wettest month, with heavy thundery summer storms hammering down on the soil surface.  By having a protective shield on the surface, in the form of leaves, the rainfall is intercepted and can infiltrate at a faster rate, with reduced micro compaction on the surface.
  4. When the cover crop is destroyed the dead material will slowly turn into organic matter (OM) which can hold greater amounts of nutrients and water than mineral particles.  OM can potentially hold 10x more water than the mineral soil alone.  Few arable soils in the UK or around the world have OM levels greater than 5%, which is where it needs to be as a minimum.  The OM will help to feed the soil bacteria and fungi which in turn will help to feed our crops.
  5. Reduce weeds in the seed bank, as some of the seeds will be germinated when the cover crop is planted which will be destroyed with the cover crop.
After the cover crop comes the main crop in the case of the field below, wheat. This picture was taken at the end of October when the crop was about 4 weeks old and shows good even plant establishment with little sign of pest (slug) activity.  The crop, if anything, is a little too thick.  
Wheat Planted after Cover Crop
A cover crop is not a "fix all problems in the field from a bag, rather than a chemical container" but it does have a lot of advantages when it comes to improving the soil health and workability of the soil.  It will contribute to increasing OM levels and it will create drainage channels to improve water infiltration into the soil, key when reducing soil erosion and storing more water in the fields, and can help reduce flooding down-stream.  We use cover crops to reduce the exposure of our soils to the elements of wind, sun and water; all of which have massive long term benefits.  I will be back with a follow up blog on dealing with cover crops and getting the next crop established through increased levels of crop residue.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Help is on the way!

A very belated post and not really in keeping with the time of year but I have just discovered these photographs on my phone and thought I would share them after a conversation with Caroline Drummond from LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) about the importance of providing habitat for beneficial insects.  In an ideal world it would be good to farm without insecticides; allowing mother nature to control the pests that predate our crops and impact on the quality of the food they produce or the yield.  Is there a way to enable larger numbers of these biological helpers to control the pests for us? Habitats such as grass margins, beetle banks and pollen and nectar strips have all shown to increase the numbers of beneficial insects that can help control the pests.
Work undertaken at the   Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust at Loddington show how a simple step, like creating a Beetle Bank in fields over 20 Ha (50 acres) have have a huge benefit to providing habitat of overwintering beneficial insects like spiders.  These guys are then able to migrate across the field and help protect the crop from invading pests like the black bean aphid or others.  But what about using biological help in a different form?  Could we spray fungi and bacteria onto our fields to help deter pests, disease and potentially weeds?  All things to be considered in the future which are currently being used in green houses and controlled environments but could they be used in the wider landscape?