Sunday, 13 May 2018

"To Spray or Not to Spray?"-That is the Question

We have just completed the Health and Harmony consultation organised by Secretary of State for DEFRA Michael Gove where we were asked to put forward our views about the new Agricultural system post Brexit. There was a lot of noise and gesturing from many sides of the argument about what our country side should and must produce. Very sadly the words 'Food Production' were missing from the initial phases of the conversation and ultimately this is only part of the argument. Our ever shrinking and ever compromised countryside has and can produce a wide range of 'public goods' It can provide, food, environmental benefits, jobs, clean air and water, it can provide habitat and food not just for people but also for our wildlife, but it needs a balanced approach.
Lets also be clear that between 2006-2012, 224,200 Ha was developed in the UK (Professor Heiko Balzter-Leicester Uni) for infrastructure, roads, rail, houses, golf courses and wind turbine's. This squeezes the natural world into smaller and smaller segments. More people in the countryside, more disturbance means less wildlife. This was observed in the 2001 Foot and Mouth outbreak when public rights of way were closed during the breeding season and farmland bird numbers rose.
This blog isn't a piece about how we should be supporting farmers to produce food.  It is about supporting farmers to provide what many are already doing-a balance of environmental resilience, economic return and healthier foods. But this way of farming does not come without its risks and sometime for no reward and this Michael Gove, if you are reading this, is where farmers who are doing the right things need support. Let me give you a scenario.

We are a notill farm cropping arable crops and this spring has been the wettest and coldest for a long time, but this farming that's in our bloody, we know the risks. One of the challenges we have set ourselves as LEAF farmers is to reduce our impact on the environment and I have set a challenge to not use insecticides on the farm. The theory being that natural predators will increase with the habitat we have created and help us control pests when they appear. Great in theory but here is a dilemma in some spring sown Linseed.
Linseed with Flax Beetle Damage- Photo from David Miller

The notches you can see are being caused by the flax beetle, (one visible top half toward the right) of which there is no seed dressing to control (not a neonicotinoid solution in this case). We use an economic threshold of 3 beetles in a 5cm row of crop to assess the economic return to make the case for spraying field wide insecticide. Out of stubbornness; I don't want to use insecticides, I try to turn a blind eye to this economic threshold, and environmentally we want to do the right thing. If we don't spray then the plant population could be reduced by 50% and the seed yield at the end of the day will be less than half. This is because fewer plants will be less competitive to weeds, loose vigour and so yield suffers a disproportional reduction. Linseed is worth £375/tonne and has a target yield of 2.25t/Ha, meaning this field (7.5ha) could loose over £3,500 in income (1.25t/Ha @£375/tonne), for a treatment and application cost of £75. (whole field). The economic argument is obviously very clear if you were Mr Hammond sitting in the treasury Dept the decision would be very easy. Are there some alternatives to spraying?
We as a LEAF farmers, as many other farmers do something called IPM (Integrated Pest Management) which encourages us to use lots of other options before resorting to a chemical solution. In the case of this field this meant looking at some options ahead of spraying, including:

  1. A long rotation (never grown Linseed here before),
  2. Increasing seed rate, to compensate for some pest damage,
  3. Planting when soil temperatures are warm, (to enable the crop to establish evenly and quickly), 
  4. Using no-till techniques to avoid the soil drying out (reducing establishment),
  5. Removing weeds before we plant to reduce competition.

We want to farm without insecticides in the hope (and others experiences) that in the long term the build up of natural pests and predators will balance out but in the short term we need an economic return or we won't make it to the long term goal.
You can't look after the green if you are farming in the red and who pays the price for using less pesticides? At the moment the farmer carries all of the risk which if society wants us to use less artificial inputs then the reward must be greater to be able us to handle these losses. Alternatively the imports of food coming into the country must adhere to the same standards. If that's the case then currently we should not be importing any Soya beans (protein source) or Maize (corn) products from the United States as the majority are grown using plant breeding techniques not allowed in the UK and Europe and are treated with many agro-chemicals that, although safe, are not licensed in the EU.

It's a complex path that we have to tread in order to not disadvantage any UK farmers in the future. Maybe as a result of the Health and Harmony Consultation a no insecticide commitment by the farmer should be rewarded with suitable compensation for crop losses to ensure better biodiversity whilst keeping farmers in business?

Just for information the field was sprayed with a heavy heart last Thursday.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Amazing Mother Nature

There has always been a saying-'You can't fight Mother Nature', and it is so true.  From the heavy snow we had at the beginning of March; through to the very wet Easter weekend, the weather never ceases to amaze me. March saw a record rainfall and snow melt of 95mm (almost 4") and then followed the very wet Easter weekend where we saw another 48mm of rain arrive to sit firmly on the top of our already cold and damp soil.  Soil temperatures at the start of April were only 4.2 degrees and nothing was really growing.  No daffodils, a few hardy snowdrops but the farm crops refused to grow.
Fast forward to the 16th April and after a couple of sunny days, with some brisk winds, the soil dried enough to get planting spring barley, into some pretty good conditions.  All of the fields destined for spring cropping had a cover crop growing on them over the winter.  Some were grazed and others were not.
Planting Spring Barley 16th April 2018
This was the first field that we planted. The cover crop was a mixture of vetch and oats which the sheep grazed before Christmas.  The top was nice and dry but conditions under the surface were a little damp, but we had to get going.  Derek made a start and before long the fields were planted (2 days) and we moved on to plant other crops.  I had a look on Friday morning to see if the seeds had germinated (started to grow) and to my astonishment-not only had they germinated  but there were small shoots appearing.  I measured the soil temperature at 14 degrees, and with plenty of moisture the seeds were off to a flying start.
Barley Seeds Germinating After 4 days
I called into the field today to see how things were progressing only to be met with small green shoots bursting up from the clutches of the soil.  Incredibly after 6 days, almost to the hour ,we had some crop emergence.  I have never known such a short period from planting to emergence as I have witnessed this year with the barley.
Barley Plants Emerging
To me this really is amazing because only a few weeks before we were sitting looking at wet, cold fields with little prospect of planting anything this spring.  The crop has a long way to go before it will hopefully be harvested.  It will be attacked by pests and disease, which we will have to regularly check for. It might be hot or cold, dry or wet from now on, but for now, the little plants are on their way!




Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Snow Joke

Overbury in the snow
Well mother nature certainly has a great way of bringing us back down to earth with a reminder of who really is in charge! Last week we saw temperatures plummet to -8 degrees with added windchill taking the temperature down into double digits below zero.  Then came Storm Emma sucking Siberian air across Europe and freeze blasting the UK.

In a funny kind of way we were very lucky to only have a few inches of snow, but when the wind blew the trouble started.  Our small roads, bordered with beautiful hedgerows acted as sinks for the snow to settle in. Many of our roads, including the one to the main farm had 5' of snow drifts making them impossible to get through even with a 4 wheel drive truck.
Clearing snow on the Eckington Road
Like many farmers we have some good equipment that could be deployed to help clear the snow. Working on behalf of Worcestershire County Council to clear the larger trunk roads before moving into the smaller lanes to ease up more local traffic.  In total we had 3 team members (Tim, Derek and Gordon) out for 2.5 days clearing snow around Bredon Hill. I think we have been very lucky, lambing is not due to start for another month and my heart goes out to those spending hours rescuing stranded livestock.
If there are a few messages that these events can draw out, they would be that community spirit is not dead, much help was available to clear driveways, collect shopping and shovel snow from valley gutters.
Farmers have an active role to play, not just to produce food and look after the natural resources but also to keep the roads open to allow others to go about their daily lives.  Next time you get stuck behind a slow moving tractor and trailer of hay, or a combine harvester moving around the lanes, just pause for a moment and think they are doing their jobs just as you were able to get through the snow to do yours.

Drifting snow
3 days later we are all back to normal, with only a few farm tracks impassable to vehicles smaller than a tractor and the sun is shining.  Spring feels like it is just around the corner.  We will have to wait and see!

Monday, 18 December 2017

Grazing Ewes on Cover Crops

Ewes Grazing Cover Crops
Well the rams have really been doing their stuff in the last 4 weeks with almost all of the ewes now hopefully pregnant.  In the first week over 600 ewes were mated, as indicated by the chalk dye that the rams leave of the rumps of the ewes during mating.  The colour is changed every week so we have an idea of which ewes are likely to be lambing and when. The gestation period is about 5 months so we're on for a mid April lambing, which next year will be outside for the majority of the flock for the first time.
At the moment all of the ewes are out grazing the cover crops on the arable fields.  The cover crops are a mixture of forage rye and vetch or black oats and vetch with a few extra goodies thrown in for good measure.  These extras include phacelia, buckwheat and berseem clover.
The hard spell of weather recently, although it didn't last very long, has certainly knocked the cover crops down but it hasn't killed them and we are getting some regrowth on the rye fields.  This will hopefully continue over the winter and into the spring to enable another grazing before the ewes lamb and the fields are planted with spring cropping. The field below is due to be planted with Soya Beans in late April so we should get a second grazing before then.
Cover Crop After Ewe Grazing
The ewes are doing a great job of eating the majority of the green material. But it's not just the cover crops, volunteer wheat and some black grass as well, whilst trampling some of the material into the soil to feed the microbes and worms. This is a great news as the field/soil surface looks well protected from the heavy winter rainfall that we must surely get at some point.  We'll have to watch it on the heavy land fields so that we don't get too much surface compaction if it gets too wet, but we are not there yet.  The soil has restructured itself  beautifully on the clay soil part of the farm enough to carry stock, but it has taken 3-5 years of no till to reach this point. There is still a long way to go until the spring so we'll have to see how things progress.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Crimper Conundrum

There is so much public awareness of the perceived issues with Glyphostate at the moment even though 3300 studies have shown it to be a very benign chemical when used correctly in the field.  With any potential restriction on its use being enforced on us I wanted to have a look at an alternative method of killing a cover crop before we plant our harvestable, or cash crop, into the field.  To me a cover crop can only enhance the soil and the wider environment.  It shields the soil from rain, reducing runoff and erosion; it feeds the soil biology with carbohydrates and encourages the development of below ground microbial populations; provides winter feed for our sheep; increases soil organic matter to hold more nutrients and water-its a no brainier for the farm and the wider environment.
Black Oat and Vetch Covercrop
Without glyphosate the termination, or killing, of these crops could prove to be very tricky in our maritime climate.  The cover crop can grow rather large and I don't want to have endless passes with toppers or cultivators to kill the cover crops.  Doing this is expensive, uses fossil fuel and releases CO2, cultivations mean even more CO2 released from the organic matter held in the soil, as it is exposed to oxygen, it means more tractors on the land, causing compaction where they drive which can lead to poorer water infiltration and therefore soil erosion.  So what's an alternative?

With a loan of a crimper roller from Cotswold Grass Seeds (thank you) we had a little play in a large cover crop of black oats, vetch, phacelia and berceem clover.

The idea of the crimper roller is to lay the plants down and squash the stems with metal blades in the hope that this bends or cuts the stems stopping nutrients getting up the stem into the top of the plants, end result being the killing of the cover crop, and any nests or wildlife that gets in the way-but we'll gloss over that for now!
Crimper Roller
We tried the crimper roller on the back of a tractor at first and drove in reverse to make the chevrons point in the right direction but ended up going in round in circles!  So we unhitched the weights from the front linkage of another tractor and set off across the field at 10kph, with the crimper on the front with a bit more success!  The roller weighed in at 620Kg for a 2m machine so about 310kg/m.
Crimped Covercrop 7 Days Post Crimping
I came back to the plot 7 days later to see if it had actually worked and I am sorry to say that it didn't. The oats seems to still be alive and the vetch, which I though would have been totally animated, were still just about hanging on.  The concern for me is we need to find something that works consistently every year and as every season if different.  We need to grow significant levels amounts of green matter and these need killing-somehow.

Maybe we used the wrong machine, maybe at the wrong time  for the plants growth stage,or at the wrong speed or it wasn't heavy enough?  Maybe we need to graze some of the covers down first to weaken then plants?  Maybe it just doesn't work in our climate where we don't always have a frost to follow up and finish off the wounded crop?  Who knows and more work needs to be done, but for now I am not impressed.





Great Companions

Great Companions,

For the last 3 years we have been experimenting with companion crops in our oilseed rape fields.  The companions are mainly based around legumes to try and increase the amount of atmospheric nitrogen that we can capture and then make available to our farming system, and why wouldn’t we?  The atmosphere is 76% nitrogen and yet our cereal and brassica plants cannot use any of it.  But legumes can-and they do it very quickly.
For the first time we have been using berseem clover and vetches together, all planted at the same time as the oilseed around the middle of August.  It has amazed me how quickly the seeds geminated and the speed at which they have continued to grow.

Almost immediately the plants germinated in the no-till soil, where the surface hadn’t dried out and the vetch was soon putting a decent tap root down in to the soil.  This I think has helped the oilseed rape, slightly slower to germinate, by starting to create routes down through the soil in search of nutrients and water.

After 6 weeks I dug up some of the vetch plants to reveal that they had already started to nodulate and the bacteria has started to convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into a plant available form.  This works really well when the soil is aerated, (soil needs oxygen) there is a host and the right bacteria are present in the soil.

The oilseed rape plants look healthy, the weeds have virtually all been competed out and with no broad leaf weed herbicide,

due to the canopy development and we are producing nitrogen for free.  We will see how the companions develop over the winter before they are all terminated, releasing their stash of nitrogen for the oilseed rape plants to use next spring and summer.


Monday, 23 October 2017

Pondering Picking Peas

Peas emerging 19th April
For the first time we have no-tilled all of the hand picked peas up on the Bredon Hill.  Previously the crop had been cultivated to create the seedbed to plant into.  Historically the fields would have been ploughed in the autumn and left bare over winter, then cultivated ahead of the drill (planter).  More recently the fields were cultivated (quite deeply) ahead of the drill and then planted, but not any longer!  The picture above shows the peas emerging through a sprayed off cover crop of oats.  The oats were planted the previous autumn and left to grow over the winter.  The plants were using the sunshine and nutrients available to them to capture carbon, in the form of plant material-roots, stems and leaves and also feeding the biological process in the soil with sugars which the plant releases through the roots.
Peas in row 11th May
Once the crop was sprayed off with glyphostate, to kill all the green material, the seeder planted the peas.  It was a very dry spring this year but by not cultivating the soil we held all the available moisture-enough to get our crops to establish very evenly.
Peas meeting across the row 26th May
As you can see from the pictures above the crop established very well and continued to grow on and produce a very good yield of quality peas for the fresh vegetable market.  This year the fields designed for peas have once again been cover cropped with oats and they are preparing the seedbed for next years peas which we will start to plant from the end on March 2018.