Wednesday, 27 February 2013
Last Thursday, that's nearly a week ago and it only seems like yesterday (time flies when under pressure) I met up with some of my fellow #Nuffield13 scholars at Harper Adams. A few of us interested in Precision Farming wanted to visit Professor Simon Blackmore and the very new (in fact still being built), National Centre for Precision Farming. Our thoughts were to have a look around the centre and the Engineering Dept of the University to see what was going on. I had been to Harper fairly recently but Tom Sewell, one of my fellow Nuffield Scholars had not returned since he left 13 years ago! Tom has started a Nuffield blog about his travels studying the merits of no-till farming. It will be a fascinating subject and one I will watch closely as it's something I think we could try here in the future.
After a brief introduction it was off around the establishment to look at the various training facilities, which were very well kitted out with welding bays, (a nice rubbery smell) and through various other operational teaching zones. One thing that really amazed us all was the 3D printer. Now this was mentioned to me before but I didn't quite grasp it until I saw it in action. Effectively a little robot, builds up melted plastic from a flat surface creating any shape it knows the program for. This could be very beneficial for anything plastic on farm. You could create a tractor panel, bearing housing, pipe brackets and all kinds of very interesting items.
After this we looked at the soil hall where experiments can be undertaken to evaluate new bits of machinery or to look at compaction within the soil. The building can even be irrigated to simulate different soil characteristics.
After a great lunch we had a discussion lead by Professor Blackmore on where the potential for precision farming can go. We talked about biosensors for the early detection of disease, about unmanned aerial vehicles for monitoring crops and grassland sensing. Robots were also mentioned as a way of decreasing tractor size to have a wider window of opportunity on the fields. As people became fewer on the farm, tractors and machinery got bigger and the window of workability got smaller. As the window to work got smaller, tractor and implement size increased reducing still further the window of operation and so the self perpetuating cycle continues. How do we get out of it? Well technology will help but the decisions to be made between the ears. I also had a really interesting conversation with Dr Mark Rutter all about PLF. No? Me neither, but it stands for Precision Livestock Farming. This is much more that EID stuff but researching with GPS technology the movements of sheep across grassland. Could this be used to monitor sheep welfare? For example Flossie usually walks say 1,500m in a day to graze, today she only walked 600m, could she be ill or foot problems? Tomorrow she doesn't walk at all, she has died. Harsh example but a very good way of tracking movements. I think there could be some further investigation here.
Many thanks to Professor Blackmore for his help, not just for Thursday, but for his generosity in supplying pictures for my Oxford Farming Conference talk, back in January.
Friday, 22 February 2013
Well here's the deal, this picture demonstrates to me the challenge that we have set ourselves very clearly. Don't be mistaken though the 20 by 20 is in 20 years not by 2020. The aim of the project at Rothamsted, under the main heading of 20:20 is to provide the knowledge-base and tools to increase UK wheat yield potential to 20 tonnes/ha in 20 years time.
I turned up on Thursday the 14th February to visit Dr Malcolm Hawkesford to start off with. One of the main areas of interest I picked up on was the aspect of light capture. Effectively as farmers we are turning sunlight into food, so how can we maximise that genetic potential? Currently the yield gap between the recommended list varieties and what is produced on farm is getting wider. Therefore we have the genetic potential to get to these higher yields, there must therefore be something holding back the farm yields? Not sure what that is yet but when I find it I will let you know! Malcolm's team is working with other research organisations as part of a wider drive to learn more about wheat genetics and how yield is built. One key aspect of this is Carbon Dioxide. If more CO2 can get into the plant, faster and with the plant using less energy, more carbon can be manufactured and turned into grain. The plants therefore become more efficient. Climate change will result in more CO2 in the atmosphere so some yield improvement will come through this process anyway but not at the pace required to feed the worlds population. One aspect I hadn't considered was looking at the quality of wheat being grown. A higher yield will usually have a lower protein content (nitrogen dilution) so this may effect the desire to maximise wheat yield for some markets.
After a quick lunch I caught up with Professor Martin Parry, Head of Plant Science who is leading the project. Martin explained the mathematical modelling that has been done to ascertain the maximum yield potential of wheat using the best characteristics form current varieties. We also talked about the efficiencies of photosynthesis between different crops (wheat poor and maize good), about light interception and how the roots need enough water to maintain maximum photosynthesis. This could be a limiting factor in the future. If the plant has enough water though, increased photosynthesis will result in a better water use efficiency i.e. it uses less water per calorific output. In order to negate the effects of a late season drought could varieties mature earlier, but would this compromise the requirement for a long slow grain fill, or looking the the research from the John Innes Centre, speeding up the time to flowering to help bring the whole process forward? Lots of questions still be be investigated! My thanks again to Martin and Malcolm for spending time telling me about their research.
Thursday, 21 February 2013
Well its that time of year again when we go and test the amount of nitrogen left in the soil after the winter. The nitrogen is measured after the winter so that we can take account of any nitrate that has leached (washed) out from the soil. The nitrogen left in the soil has come form a few places. There might be some that we applied, left over that the plants were unable to absorb in the previous crop. Some has come from the breakdown of the plant material by soil microbes in the autumn, before the temperatures got too cold and the stopped working, and some has come form mineralisation of the soil, during cultivations. It is important to have an idea of what nitrogen is available for the crop because it will affect how much we are allowed to add artificially and how much the crop needs to produce an optimal yield. Artificial nitrogen is very expensive, has a huge carbon footprint, is potentially damaging to the environment so we need to be absolutely sure what we apply is used by the crop.
The probe on the quad bike, is a service offered by Soil Quest through Agrii (first time we have used it), also logs the sample location with a GPS point, so that we can come back year on year to assess the variability between years. There is some discussion as to the accuracy of the sampling (to a point) but over time it will show a trend of how much nitrogen is available to the plant and at what depth. The probe samples soil between 0-30cm and between 30-60 cm, then the driver has to sample by hand the 60-90cm depth (if you have enough soil!)
The results are back now and they are showing a range of between 48Kg/Ha on the sandy soil up to 61Kg/Ha on some of the brash soil. These two I can understand but then I also have a heavy clay soil with a reading of 50kg/ha which seems odd. I guess though all of these values are low, due to the heavy rainfall we've had all winter, so we will have to apply a greater amount of purchased nitrogen fertiliser this season if we are to produce out optimum, and not maximum yield. Imagine if we were in an organic system, there would be very little nitrogen left over from previous clover leys to feed this crop.
Well where do I start? I have had a very busy 10 days or so continuing my Nuffield research into the 20t/ha wheat project and it has literally taken me all over the country. On Sunday the 10th February I had a lovely 8 hour drive from Overbury to Dundee, Invergowrie actually, home of the James Hutton Institute I was there to meet Professor Geoff Squire the following morning to have a look around the research facility and see what is going on. I was very interested in this area, firstly as I hadn't been this far North in a very long time and secondly, the JHI experimental farm is a LEAF Innovation Centre. Monday morning soon arrived and after meeting Geoff I headed out with Euan Caldwell, the Farm Manager to tour farm. The range of crops and experiments fitting into the fields was incredible and the 'commercial' aspect of the farm had to fit around the experiments. There were blueberries, raspberries, kale, swede, onions, cabbage, radish, broccoli as well as potatoes and cereals. The JHI hosts the annual 'Potatoes in Practice' event; hats off to Euan, there is a lot going on. I was really interested in two main aspects of the farm, firstly the Centre for Sustainable Cropping system and also the genetic work on nitrogen uptake and efficiency, as well as some interesting faba bean nodule banter with Euan and Pete!
Whilst touring the farm Euan showed me another experiment going on capturing the water run-off along tramlines. All the water is collected (in the mini culvert above) and analysed to measure nutrient and soil sediment loss. Different tramlines have had different treatments to try and reduce erosion. Some cultivated, some with different tyre patterns. All very interesting and practical experiments, aimed to really make a difference on farm.
The sustainability field trials were a really great study topic. How can a 6 year rotation be evaluated for it's impact on the environment? The JHI guys and gals, were trying to find out. The project is being coordinated by Dr Cathy Hawes and involves 6 fields split down the middle with the two halves being managed in different ways. The, shall we say conventional, half is managed with current best local practise and the sustainable half is managed in a way as to maintain crop output but with a reduction in crop inputs. This reduction is in the way of artificial fertilisers, fuel and pesticides. Everything imaginable is being monitored leaving the systems. Soil movement in the different cultivation techniques, weed seed bank movement, nematode movement, water movement and even small mammal trapping to see if they prefer the sustainable farming method. The project is in year 4 now, having had to years of straight maize (a C4 plant in a C3 rotation so the degradation rates can be monitored) and two years of the proper rotation.
Here's a view of one of the fields with a beetle bank through the centre. It will be a fascinating research project and hopefully funding will continue to keep this going for more than a couple of rotations, i.e at least 15 years. We need this research to measure longer term farming interactions with our environment.
The second area of interest was the work being undertaken by Dr Ali Karley she is looking into root traits for better or more efficient use of nitrogen. In fact has the wheat breeding in the past been aimed at breeding wheat varieties that only perform well in high input, especially nitrogen, farming systems. Ali's work is looking at finding traits that enable wheat plants to perform in lower input systems, or those traits that make the plants more tolerant of sub optimal fertility sites. I learnt that there is about 3,000-4,000Kg of Nitrogen locked away in each hectare of soil (varies a little depending on soil types etc), mainly in organic matter and that plants are fairly efficient in the UK farming system at utilising the nitrogen we deliver through organic and inorganic systems. I also heard about utilisation efficiency, how much of the nitrogen gets into the grain, (yield and quality implications). I was also very interested in the work looking at root penetration of compacted soils. Can we breed wheat plants with stronger more robust rooting systems to be more efficient in their nitrogen utilisation as well as bust through a compacted layer during difficult seasons when compaction could be a problem?
I would like to pass my thanks on to Geoff and his team for looking after me so well and sharing lots of very good information. I fear that this may not be my last trip to Dundee! After Dundee I headed back done the motorway to Rothamsted.......
Sunday, 3 February 2013
Our second very successful tree planting morning was held today in the COCO (Conderton and Overbury Community Orchard). We had to cancel the planned session last weekend as the ground was so frozen the nursery's couldn't get the trees out of the ground. The forecast didn't look great but we pressed on and stayed dry all morning. It total we planted 35 trees, a mixture of perry pears and cider apples, (not that we are all alcoholics you know), but it was traditionally this kind or orchard. Varieties included Judge Amphlett, Blakeney Red and Moorcroft (perry pear) and Tom Putt, 10 Commandments and a few other cider apples. In the past the farm workers would have been paid in cider and they would have had a daily ration, so orchards were planted up to maintain this staple requirement.
It was a great opportunity to meet up and spend a couple of hours chatting and getting some fresh air as well as contributing to the local landscape and providing interest and a wildlife benefit for the generations to come.
Saturday, 2 February 2013
A little while ago I posted a blog on whether or not we should be trimming sheep's feet when they have foot problems. Or whether we should only inject them with antibiotics and allow the hoot to repair itself after the infection has been cleared up. The thought is that hoof trimming the over grown or rotting hoof removes a partial source of infection, allows the air to circulate the hoof and help dry it out. The risk is that over-enthusiastic trimming can result in more damage to the hoof delaying the recovery time. So we thought we would conduct a scientific experiment to find out whether recovery from foot problems is faster if the hoof is trimmed.
With the help of the EBVC we applied for funding through Sainsbury's R&D to explore this very vital aspect of research into a major problem, except we choose probably the coldest day of the winter to start! Lame sheep obviously have a welfare issue in their mobility but this lameness will cause further problems. If they are lame they are likely to have lower body condition, i.e. not carry so much weight and fat, this means they are more susceptible to disease and stress, less likely to get in lamb, have fewer lambs and actually more likely to die. So it is a big problem not only for the sheep but the business as well.
So what are we doing in the trial? We have gathered in 34 of our sheep that are lame, each sheep was turned over so that the foot (or feet) could be inspected by Fiona, Phillipa and Tod. The cause of the lameness was recorded and which foot it related to. The ewes were scored according to their mobility and the severity of the foot problem. We found ewes with scald, foot rot, CODD, Shelly Hoof, horizontal cracking, arthritis and a toe abscess, so each problem was recorded and a photograph taken of the offending hoof or foot. Each ewe was given an injection of antibiotics and those with odd number ear tags had their feet trimmed as normal farm standard practise. Trimming the odd numbered tagged sheep gave us a random method for trimming.
So my telephone is now filled up with sheep's feet photographs, having taken well over 50 photographs on the first run through with the ewes. We also took a photo of the trimmed feet post trimming. Each week for 5 weeks the same group of sheep are to be examined again, scored and photographed. Who knows what the outcome will be but we are learning a lot about the causes and recovery time of lameness. In time we'll find out whether it really is better to trim or not to trim to give the sheep the fastest possible recovery time.