Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Spring Drilling Roundup

We started planting the spring crops on the 19th March into fairly good conditions considering the amount of winter rainfall we have had this year.  It's one advantage of having Cotswold Brash soil; which is very thin and has a deep layer of Limestone underneath which is relatively free draining.  The downside is that without summer rainfall yield can be limited.  We started off drilling at the top of the hill into a sprayed of cover crop of Forage Rye.  This crop was planted in September 2013 and its purpose was to cover the soil creating a layer of organic matter to intercept the rain through the winter, reducing soil erosion and run off.  What a year to start cover cropping!  The forage rye was sprayed off with Glyphosate mixed with liquid Nitrogen fertiliser 5 days before drilling and the cross slot drill then went and planted the seeds directly into the the crop residue.  
This variety of spring barley is called Tipple and is being grown as part of our Molson Coors Growers Group tonnage to go to the Shobnal Malting later this summer to be brewed into Carling Lager. This method moves very little soil resulting in far less mineralisation of nitrogen through reduced carbon disturbance.  It is better for our carbon emissions into the atmosphere, the soil, the water and the environment.
After drilling this field the Cross Slot drill moved down the slope to plant Propino Spring Barley which we are growing for seed for Frontier Agriculture which should hopefully be used by the Molson Coors Growers Group farmers next spring.  The drill coped very well with the amount of surface residue that was not grazed by the ewes during the winter.  There has been plenty of slug activity in the heavy land areas of the field after drilling and before emergence so we have had to apply a dose of Sluxx slug pellets to control, them. 
After about 10 days the crops had germinated well and they emerged within 2 weeks.  The picture below shows the emerging crop pushing up through the previous crop residue.  The stalks are what remains of the mustard cover crop after the sheep had eaten the leaves off.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Cross Slot And Cover Crops Farm Walk

Basking in the first real sunshine of the spring, and on what turned out to be the hottest day of the year so far; in conduction with Agrii we hosted a fan walk looking at direct drilling and the use of cover crops on the farm.  We had farmers from as far a field as Kent (Tom Sewell and Guy Eckley) and Lincolnshire (Jono Dixon) and Wiltshire (George Hosier) as well as many closer to home.  The interest shown and the discussions started really made for a very interesting and educational day. 
We talked about drilling techniques and could direct drilling have an effect on weed populations and what about slugs with more crop residue (not trash) on the crop surface?  Can we control these issues more effectively with better, longer crop rotations, direct drilling and with less reliance on pesticides?  We talked about subsoiling and should we be doing it or whether we could use cover crops, as demonstrated by Jono (below) to do the subsoiling for us?
The roots of the cover crops can easily go down to 1m over an autumn and winter if planted early enough; the ideal time is when the combine is still in the field, when moisture is usually available to get the crop off to the perfect start, or even spun into the crop pre-harvest.
We also talked about the blend, or the mix of the cover crops and what purpose they are being grown for.  Are they there to protect the soil surface, or to remove compaction or to increase organic matter or to provide a winter forage supply for the livestock?  We also talked about nitrogen fertiliser and should we be investing in fertiliser to maximise the benefits of the crop and the financial investment of the seed?  It really was a great morning of very thought provoking idea sharing.  We ended up in the Yew Tree pub for chips and sandwiches before everyone headed home.  Thanks to everyone who turned up and contributed, and to Agrii for supplying the bacon rolls and the lunch!

Monday, 10 February 2014

#Forageaid To Flooded Somerset

On Saturday 8th February, after a few frantic phone calls with the Nation Farmers Union, based in the South West of England we were ready to swing into action.  Everybody will have witnessed the long period of devastation the flooding on the Somerset Levels has caused farmers and home owners; for a period of almost 6 weeks.  Livestock are being moved from flooded farmyards, to higher ground or to livestock markets for their safety.  Access to forage is becoming a problem for these farmers, at home but also for those who's livestock are spread around the countryside.  Much of the forage, made during the summer is underwater and will not be safe to feed to livestock even if they could be reached.
We were more than happy to donate over 80 bales of hay to the crisis down on the Somerset Levels.  We are very grateful to all of the hauliers that are donating their lorries, fuel and labour to help supply feed to the animals in Somerset.  Our feed was transported to the Sedgemoor Livestock Market with hauliers from Walsall in the West Midlands D.E.O'Reilly 
The Somerset Levels have been managed by draining and ditching since days of the Roman Empire.  The most recent drainage scheme was introduced by the Dutch in the 17th Century and have been managed to control the water levels ever since (at least until the late 1990's).  The whole area of about 70,000Ha is very flat, below high tide levels and was once covered by the sea (up until 4500BC). It is not uncommon for this area to flood but the long period of flooding is causing real issues.  The management of the main water courses has changed and water is now much slower to drain out to sea.  Silting up of the rivers since the mid 1990's has reduced the water carrying capacity of the main rivers (Tone and Parrett) to about 60% of their maximum carrying capacity (EA modelling).  This means water backs up and floods the levels and can't feed back into the rivers as the high banks carry the river levels higher than the surrounding farmland.  The cost to farmers and house owners, who's properties have flooded is vast.  Fields of grass will not recover from being under water for this length of time and will need to be resown in the spring, (or whenever the land dries out enough). Management through the ages has allowed the area to drain providing productive agricultural land.  This land is the home many thousands of cattle many of whom are having to be evacuated to higher ground, leaving behind their forage (food) supplies.  Hence the need for the farming community across the country to get involved and send them supplies of hay, silage and feed.  The National Farmers Union is co-ordinaing the supply of forage to the Somerset area, click on the link highlighted above to see if you are able to help, or you are a farmer in need of supplies.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

So Wheat Crops - How are you looking after the Winter?

One of the key wheat growing lessons I learnt from my Nuffield travels was the need to get the plant population right in order to set the crop up to optimise yield.  Too thick i.e. too much biomass and the crop has a greater risk of lodging and if it stays upright then there will be less light interception lower down the plant canopy.  On thinner land more plants will be competing with each other for moisture later in the critical grain fill period.  Obviously the crops planted at Overbury were done before my travels so I have been keen to take a look at what was planted and what has survived the winter.
Dominic Swainson (Agrii) came out to start the assessment process with me.  We had a 50cm by 50cm square which we randomly threw across the field and where it landed, as long as it wasn't in a tramline or something, that's where we took our plant count from. The target is to try and achieve 100-125 plants/m2 which in theory could produce about 4.5 tillers each totalling between 450-550 ears at the end of the day.  What we found was the variability of plants during the counts.  I think I will have to do more to get a more accurate picture but it took a surprisingly long time. Once we had located the area, we picked out all of the plants (very well rooted), counted them, and the tiller numbers per plant and got our averages.
There were some tremendous variability in survival rates in relation to seeds/m2 planted and that varied per planting machine, soil type and establishment technique.  The field of KWS Croft, shown here had a seeding rate of 103Kg/ha planted on the 21st September,  which meant we were planting 190 seeds/m2.  When we came to do the plant counts we averaged 114 plants/m2 which meant we lost 76 seeds/m2 or 40%!  So there a statistic on it's own, how do you calculate field loss, either through stone content, soil type, slug pressure (after oilseed rape) and then winter kill.  Don't forget this winter has been so mild soil temperatures at 800' above sea level are still average 4 degrees and on this free draining land we have lost very few plants through  the winter period. 
What is also interesting is that we averaged 8 tillers/plant, meaning we currently have the potential to achieve 912 tillers/m2 which is almost twice as many as we need!  So what do we do next?  Well that is the $1,000,000 question and I would appreciate some advice from the other side of the world!  I have an idea but you will have to read another blog later in the season to see what my plans are.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Community Get Together in The Orchard

Talk about being lucky with the weather.  On Sunday morning, armed with spades, hammers, staple and nails the volunteer members of the Conderton and Overbury Community Orchard met on a bright and sunny morning to plant the trees.  It was quite amazing to see the sun after one of the wettest January's in a long time.  Having said that the mission to collect the trees, on Saturday, proved a little more stressful, as the picture above demonstrates, but we got there in the end and collected the trees from Walcot Organic Nursery  
Although the soil was wet underfoot the spirit of the helpers was just brilliant.  The target was to plant 41 apple trees in the ancient orchard being restored partly funded through our Higher Level Stewardship Scheme.  This time we were planting a mixture of eating and cider apples.  Varieties such as Blenheim Orange, Cox's Orange Pipin, Worcester Pearmain for eaters, along with cider varieties such Ten Commandments, and Harry Master's Jersey will make for some very interesting taste discoveries in the years to come either picked straight from the tree or waiting a few months for the fermentation process to be completed!
Derek and Gordon set the planting pattern out and managed to get the main stakes knocked in earlier in the week, tiptoeing around the wet ridge and furrow.  Everybody turned up between 9.30 and 10 am to set up digging, planting and fertilising the trees.  It was great to see the progress across the orchard and by 12 o'clock the job was done!  We are all due to return in a couple of weeks to prune the trees we planted in the previous two years.  It is a great opportunity to see the fruits of our previous years labour growing and needing a little TLC.  I am looking forward to that morning, fingers crossed we are treated to another lovely few hours in the orchard.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Day 27 - To Boldly Go!

Following our visit to Mike Solari's, Steve and I headed on to a very last minute appointment having seen an article in a farming magazine all about the use of drones in Agriculture.  Neil and his son Mark have been developing remote control drones (helicopters) to help with livestock observations and monitoring on their 446 Ha family farm. When some technical issues have been ironed out this technology is going to be a game changer for livestock and arable farmers, of that I am sure.  So what are the boys up to?

The drone, which can currently fly for 22 minutes has the ability to follow a flight path or as Mark, who’s 13 – (the pilot), calls it ‘the mission’.  Following GPS coordinates the drone can fly out to inspect water troughs to look for leaks and record video footage of any that are currently not working or leaking.  The drone is also able to record its flight paths through a Go-Pro camera which can record what it sees.  This means that video footage of the sheep paddocks can be viewed to count sheep or check for cast sheep or those having difficulty lambing.  The drone flies high enough to not disturb the livestock, which is a massive benefit.  The drone can check the water troughs around the farm in 20 minutes, a task that tasks 2 hours on a quad bike.  Imagine the savings in fuel and labour, all lowering the carbon footprint of the farm.  If an issue is identified then direct action can be taken to go straight to the problem immediately.
The camera is able to take still images of the paddock and using software developed for counting penguins in Antarctica sheep numbers, including differentiation between ewes and lambs, can be recorded. 
Mark and Neil are very confident about the wide range of uses for the equipment.  In an arable situation it could easily be used to monitor leaf area index or crop emergence at the far end of the field, saving time by not having to walk everywhere.  Imagine crop walking 440ha in and hour or so and having recorded footage to monitor immediately or later in the season.  It could be used to check crop emergence or to identify weeds around the paddock.  Leaf area index maps could easily be constructed with farm software to create variable rate fertiliser plans.  Imagine using the drone to round up the cows before milking so they are ready and waiting for you at the cow shed when you turn up having spent an extra half and hour in bed!
From a farm safety angle it could be deployed to round up deer or herd sheep in form the steepest farmland avoiding the need to take a quad bike up onto difficult terrain. The possibilities are endless and it was great to hear the passion and vision that Neil has for the project and it will be very interesting to see what the project evolves into. 

He's a Record Breaker -Day 26

The following morning I set off in search of a world record holder.  Mike Solari currently holds the Guinness Book of Records highest recorded wheat yield in the world.  The record, harvested on the 8th March 2010 was a crop of Einstein, which averaged out at 15.637 t/Ha.
Mike farms with his wife Margaret near Gore in Southland, just down the road from where I stayed the previous night with Peter and Esther.  I met up with Mike, Margaret and Steve Wilkins for a yarn about rotation, wheat varieties, fertilizer, fungicides and how all of these ingredients add up to a record breaking crop.

We started off at the very beginning with the rotation which includes a two year grass break to help build organic matter and create soil structure.  Included in this rotation are 3 wheat’s, a spring barley, spring peas winter Oilseed rape and finally a winter barley to get good establishment of the grass ley.  The grassland is now let out to a local farmer who runs ewes and lambs over the whole area for grazing only.  Many of the lambs are finished very quickly, due to the clover in the grass fields especially in the second year.
The soil type is a silt loam over silt and some gravel in places, and the cool climate suits slow grain filling for large crops of wheat.  The natural rainfall, especially summer rainfall, during grain fill maximize the potentially high yields of all crops on the farm.
All of the crop residues are chopped and ploughed in to return organic matter to the soil, which is sub-soiled twice in the rotation before wheat, once after peas and the second time after oilseeds.  Mike is sure that sub-soiling helps to structure the soil, which has the tendency to run together, so no rolling post drilling is allowed. Mike aims to establish a modest plant population of about 100-110 plants in the spring with somewhere near 600ears/m2 and it’s not hard to see where they can come from!
This plant had about 18 tillers, admittedly it was from a slightly below average population but it just goes to show what potential there is for the plants to develop and tiller out with strong viable stems.  The plants are not wasting energy by growing tillers and then aborting them.  If this amount of growth appears above the ground then what are the roots doing to support this growth? 
Fertilizer plans are mapped out at the start of the season feeding for expected yield and soil mineral nitrogen samples are taken to monitor the available nitrogen held within the soil.  After the two years of grass there could be as much as 140Kg/ha available to the following wheat crop.  The highest yields have come further into the rotation after the peas though.  A total of 5 applications are used on the crop to steady build the yield through the growing season.  Fertilizer is used as a tiller management tool, when required and Mike will be ruthless in holding back fertiliser until GS 31/32 if there are two many tillers.  Even to the stage of the crops turning yellow with tiller loss.
Prolonging the photosynthesis of the plants is also key and keeping disease out of the canopy is of prime concern.  A strong fungicide approach, aimed at septoria control, means that the high yielding crops remain in the field for 51 weeks of the year.  It’s this extended grain fill period, coupled with cool temperatures and good solar interception that Mike is sure accumulates the yield in the crop.
This picture above is one of Mike’s crops of Einstein a variety that obviously does very well on the farm.  Mike’s attention to detail; spending time in the field, the rotation, timeliness of application, forward planning, passion and the love of growing crops all contribute towards a very productive farm with some of the best crops I have seen on this trip.  It was great to finally meet Mike and learn about his farming philosophy, aims and objectives and to see what I can take home to increase not just our wheat crop performance but arable cropping in it’s entirety.