Monday, 23 January 2017

A Shout Out for the Worms!

Preparing to count worms
At long last we have finally managed to get some time in the field to do some worm counting.  I have been trying to find a few hours for quite some time BUT at long last we have created a bit of a benchmark.  It should have been done at the start of the switch into no-till farming but as always its not until you start something that you realise what is important and believe me-these guys are important! So what did we find out?  Firstly that there are many factors that have an effect of worm numbers.  The first field we sampled was on our sand and gravel fields with a high sand content.  
We randomly sampled 4 separate areas within the field, each sample measured 20cm wide x 20cm across and 30cm deep.  This field is only into year 2 of no-till farming and as you can see from the photograph below the worm numbers are quite low.  On this field we had an average count of 11 worms/sample section with a minimum number of 6 and a maximum number of 15.  Our target is 16 worms in a spade full, so roughly our sample size.  We measured the soil temperature as a point of reference to see, when we re-sample, what effects this might have on the population and all sample points were geo-tagged so we can return.
This field averaged out at 268 worms/m2 which is slightly short of our target population of 400 worms/m2.  So there is some work to be done!  By reduced cultivation or no-tilling our fields and by returning crop residue, or by adding compost as worm feed we should be able to build populations over a relatively short period of time.
Worm count form Bottom Heath-Sandy field
The next sample field was up on Bredon hill at an altitude of 900ft above sea level in a field planted with winter wheat, after oilseed rape (same rotation as the sandy field).  Up here the worm populations were very pleasing with some sites hitting 45 worms/sample.  Most of them were epigeic worms, which move around in the upper surface layers of the field feeding on crop residue and will help to recycle the decaying material.  The counts ranged form 12-45/sample area.
Worm count from Shaldons-Cotswold Brash
But why bother, what is the point of having more worms, what do they do for us in the middle of an arable field?
Worms are important for many reasons; their burrows aerate the soils, moving fresh air (oxygen) down into the plant rooting zone, breathing life into the deeper layers of soil.  We must not forget that soil is made up of 25% air.  Worms also feed on soil, reformatting its structure in the form of casts on the soil surface.  These casts are rich in available plant nutrients held in a stable organic state, unlikely to leach through the soil surface.  These castings can contain 7 x more phosphorus, 10 x more potassium, 5 x more nitrogen 3 times more magnesium and 1.5 x more calcium than the surrounding soils.  Recycling the dead plant material is also a key role played by these sub terrain dwellers, coming up to the surface and dragging down plant material such as straw, leaves and any organic material we may add.  They are also key when it comes to field drainage.  The burrows of Anecic worms can go down 2-3 meters which are very helpful for taking storm water down into the subsoil and stopping it running off from the fields, helping reduce flash flooding events further down the catchment.  Worms are also food for others, so a good supply can only benefit the populations of birds and small mammals increasing overall farmland biodiversity. 
Worm Cast in Shaldons
There is more to do.  I will be sampling the heavy land fields (4 years no-tillage) and some other areas of the farm that have recently been cultivated to see what numbers are lurking in the soil.  We will be looking at increasing the feed for worms to continue their growth in some areas.  Can we get too many worms or will dry summers and cold winters even out the populations?  Only time and monitoring will tell.  If you want to find out more information then please consider joining the Earthworm Society of Britain who are looking for new members and people to search for and record their worm populations.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Open Farm Sunday Reflection

Open Farm Sunday in numbers
The New Year is a great time to look back at the achievements of the previous year and cast an eye to the coming year and what might be coming over the horizon.  Open Farm Sunday is always the first date that goes into our farming diary at Overbury and although our visit is quite low key and limited in numbers, it's a great opportunity to talk real farming issues to those guests who book onto our tractor and trailer rides.  Our contribution is small, but collectively our industry, when it puts it's mind to it, can achieve great things.
I had a quick look back to 2011, when it was a wet and cold event at Overbury and nationally 120,000 people visited events.  Staggeringly 2016 saw in excess of 260,000 people visiting our open farms. Some of the quotes from host farmers in 2011 still ring true today:

"highly rewarding and the feedback has been extremely positive",
"I feel really proud to talk about the food we produce and the work we do for the environment".

Those messages are still so true today.  Our food and the environment, in which it is grown and nurtured, are so important and in the coming months and years we must not loose sight of this important message.  As negotiations take place about how we exit from the European Union (Brexit) it is a matter of national importance to secure a safe supply of home produced high quality, nutritious food from a protected but managed environment.  Our countryside is under pressure from more houses, more people and more access, it's something that won't change or reverse so we all need an understanding of how our countryside works.  Farm visitors also get so much out of the events, it really is a two way conversation:

"Wow, absolutely superb day.  Thoroughly enjoyed every part and my children had a great time"
"Showed a good insight into live on a working farm"

In the great world of on-line social media to get #OFS16 trending is a great achievement and it really does help to spread the word to see what we actually do. In 2011, 362 farmers opened their farm gates.  In 2016 this number had risen to 382.  My challenge to our industry is to get out there, welcome people and get involved before it is too late.  Now is the time to add June 11th into your diary, the next Open Farm Sunday event. If you are unsure about what is involved or concerned about any aspect of becoming a host, there are free training sessions run by LEAF to give you all the information you need.  So there it is, an easy New Years resolution, host an Open Farm Sunday event, make a difference to your industry and have some fun!

Friday, 11 November 2016

Loosing Our Biggest Asset-or not?

LiDAR Image of the Carrent Catchment - source Environment Agency
Every day is a school day and so we have to keep learning about our environment and how we interact with our natural surroundings.  We are just starting to develop a local group of farmers, with help from Gloucestershire FWAG called the 'Carrant Catchment Restoration Project', with the aim of increasing water quality and biodiversity in the local stream that originates around Bredon Hill.  One of the most staggering bits of information came from our local Environment Agency and uses LiDAR information to look at the erosion risk from farmland.  At first glance this sea of red shows high risk areas all over he top of the hill!  Quite alarming.  We then have to start looking at land use, and some of the red areas are taken out of the equation with woodland and the grassland.  We mustn't ignore the grassland-as significant soil erosion can stem from overgrazed or compacted grassland, but it's the arable area of the hill that is by far and above the largest proportion and so poses the largest risk of erosion.
Surface runoff is caused when the field is at water capacity or when compaction is present, both cause the next rainfall to run downhill taking soil particles with it.  These particles are potentially carrying fertiliser and pesticides off down into the nearest water coarse, causing the very typical brown water often seen after heavy rainfall events.
Winter Barley Rooting Structure on Bredon Hill
Our new system of zero tillage (no till) crop farming is the best way to stop erosion from happening on our fields.  The system means that the soil is not disturbed so it can structure itself to allow more water to enter it, reducing runoff.  By leaving crop residue or by growing cover crops the soil surface is protected form rain droplets, stopping surface compaction from happening.  By not cultivating the land we are not burning the organic content of the fields, reducing green house gas emissions.  From a water storage position the organic matter acts like a sponge so the more we have, the more water we can store before it runs off through the soil profile into the groundwater.  The picture above is from a field that has been in zero tillage for 4 years and is really starting to come to life in many ways.  The crop residue is present and under that a crumbly mixture of roots and soil particles attached to the roots of the plants.  This is just the start of what I hope our soils will turn into over time.

Reed Bed Catchup

Reed bed on water Coarse
It was November 2011 when we dug out the reed bed and silt trap at the far end of the farm to try and intercept the ditch water and improve the quality of the outfall into the Carrant Brook.  The silt trap was used to slow down the water and allow the heavier particles (of silt) to drop out of the water.  The water then carried on through the reed bed in a shallow wide spread to allow the roots of the reeds to take nutrients, nitrate and phosphate, are he main two form the water and capture those nutrients in the form of plant material.
After quite a slow start the reed bed has really taken off providing a great habitat for bird species like reed buntings as well as a more general habitat improvement next to the hedge and copiced willows. We have just started a water sampling project with Gloucestershire University, so it will be really interesting to see what effect a very small investment in time and energy can have on the water leaving the farm.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Buckwheat Cover Crop

Buckwheat Emerging After Peas
We tried a single species cover crop this year in a very quick slot after the hand picked peas up on the hill on those fields that we harvested early enough.  The Buckwheat was planted right behind the pea pickers and rapidly covered the  ground.  The idea was for these roots to start to undo some of the damage to the soil caused by the heavy traffic (tractors and trailers) during the harvest.  The crop grew for 8 weeks and was really flowering well (below top left), almost too well and we are finding a few seedlings in the following wheat crop, which isn't causing me too many alarms.  Buckwheat will die when temperatures get to below 5 degrees. The bottom picture shows the Cross Slot opener (seed placement bit) actually planting the seeds and the third picture (top right) shows what the field looked like after the drill had passed over the field.
Cross Slot Drilling into Buckwheat Covercrop
It certainly looks very different to a conventional field, without the green lines on a brown background but to me this is how mother nature plants her seed, no cultivation just the seeds working into the ground.  It really is a case of retraining the mind to actually appreciate what is happening in the field.   The residue of the peas and the buckwheat is spread on the soil surface with the seedlings making their way up through to the light.  By next harvest all of that residue will have been returned to the soil by the worms and the weather, recycling the nutrients locked up within it.  Where the system really benefits the wider environment in in terms of carbon capture.  Without cultivating the soil the carbon retained within it, in the form of organic matter, stays in the soil, it is not oxidised and released to the atmosphere. So the soil is not being depleted and the dead plant material is slowly being turned into organic matter and then humus.  But it will take a long time!    
Wheat Emerging through Buckwheat Covercrop
Wheat after cover crops have all emerged really well this year which is always a great relief!

Friday, 21 October 2016

Zerotill Barley

I have to say that I am really pleased with the way the winter barley has emerged this autumn. Drilling started on the top of Bredon Hill on the 22nd September and continues down in the Vale a couple of days later.  This field is down behind Beckford and is following spring barley, which is normal in the rotation.  Oilseed rape will follow this crop.  The barley is destined to be harvested in July 2017 and will hopefully make the grade for Molson Coors Growers group and Carling.  The planting machine (or drill) planted these fields with a target of placing 350 seeds/m2.  We have been using variable rate seeding depending on soil type.  This system uses GPS technology to locate the tractor and change the seed rate depending on the prescription that it has been loaded onto the on board computer. 
With the crop having established so well it will certainly be able to fend off any slugs that might try and eat the leaves.  We did apply one application to the surface after the crop had been planted to protect the seedlings.  Now it's a case of watching and waiting to see what weeds appear through the straw mulch, in an ideal world there won't be any that are too expensive to control.  We will have to wait and see. 
There are so many benefits to the environment in farming this way; the soil is covered and therefore protected from erosion, the straw acts as a mulch reducing weed competition and the residue (previous straw and leaves)breakdown acts as a brilliant source of food for the arm of worms growing under the soil surface.  

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.