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? 

Friday, 24 July 2015

Magnificent Margins

Early summer is one of my favourite times on the farm when the hard work of the year, on so many levels, starts to pay off.  The ears of wheat and barley, the pods on the oilseed rape are starting to fill up and the countryside springs into life with a fantastic display of colours and different species. There is no doubt that we live in a sculpted and managed environment.  People are quick to forget this point and since the first settlers began turning their back on nomadic life, our landscape has become man made.
We must not loose sight of the fact that we need to create space for wildlife and mother nature in our very groomed landscape.  We need to create space for our insects to breed and in turn become food for birds.  The space can be populated by flowers adding to our enjoyment of our surroundings and we should take time out to appreciate these wonders.
Our field margins, that we cultivated last autumn are a wonderful mix of poppies, cornflowers and are alive with insects.  There are so many skylarks that tripping over them is almost a certainty!  They are nesting the wheat and barley crops in the purposely sprayed out skylark plots as well as the rough grassland periodically grazed by our sheep.  The diversity of the landscape is what makes it so special.  This must all be done in addition to providing safe, healthy and profitable crops that are wanted by our customers.  Growing wheat that ends up in Kellogg's Cereals as part of the origins group really enables a connection between farmers and customers, a connection we are proud to support.
We have also planted specific pollinator mixes around some of the oilseed rape field margins which are delivering huge benefits in terms of food supply for insects.  Mixtures of crimson clover, phacelia, daisy's and other annual flowers have been a great addition to the work we are doing on the farm to improve diversity of beneficial species and create a better habitat for us all to live and work in.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

A Late Spring?

The spring has finally arrived after a fairly dry but chilly start to the year.  Rainfall totals for the farm, from the remote weather station indicated just over 100mm of rain since 1st January.  Soil temperatures, however have been really cold, only getting into the critical range for seed germination of between 7-8 degrees at the end of March.  Seeds will obviously germinate at lower temperatures but the emergence of the crop will be slower, leaving the seedlings exposed to pest (slug and pigeons) attack for a longer period of time.  An old saying that spring barley should be out of the bag and out of the ground in the same week should be remembered.  This is especially true for crops that are direct drilled in non-cultivated soils.  Cultivation warms up the soil by moving the soil, and can help dry out the soil to allow earlier plantings, but there are disadvantages.
By drying out the soil it leaves less moisture available to germinate the seeds especially if the weather turns warm and windy after the seeds have been planted.  It also risks smearing the soil at the lower depths, where the tine or disk is working, which means putting a deeper compaction layer in the soil. It also burns up the organic matter in the soil releasing carbon into the atmosphere.  I remember in spring 2013 we planted spring barley ahead of my Nuffield trip to Canada and three weeks later the seeds hadn't emerged, it was that cold.  It just goes to show that you can't farm by the calendar!
There is also a practical balance to think about as well, we can't justify having enough man and machinery power to drill everything on the perfect day, so we have to start when we can on the suitable fields in order to get the crops planted.  These are two pictures of beans (top) and peas (below), planted using a direct drill (no cultivation) system.  The peas have germinated and the roots have started to emerge within 3 days, which is great news.  The seedbed was moist and warm so crop establishment will be quick and will hopefully outgrow the early attack of marauding pigeons!  The beans were planted 10 days earlier, but germination was slower as the seed bed was cooler.  As the sun shines the soil will continue to warm up and it is important that these crops get away to the very best start to optimise their potential and deliver a good harvest in August.  There's a long way to go and we'll have to wait and see how the season develops.