Friday, 30 March 2012

Rothamsted Research Facility

Yesterday I attended a fantastic site in Hertfordshire with our regional (West Midlands) Combinable Crops Board for the National Farmers Union (NFU)  The site is all over the newspapers at the moment due to the GM wheat trials that are being run there.  The site is of course Rothamsted where they have been at the forefront of Agricultural Research since 1843 when experiments were first conducted there by Sir John Bennet Lawes.  These experiments are still running today, known as the Broadbalk Experiment, and is testament to the incredible foresight of these pioneers of science and those that have followed.  Standing on the site with other farmers it is very easy to imagine farmers 100 years ago (and more) on the same spot thinking the same thoughts and try to solve, I suspect, very similar problems.  The trial site has some plots that have received no nitrogen for 160 years, other sites have received farm yard manure every year (hope they're not in a NVZ) and many different management regimes travel across the plots with different herbicide or pesticide applications on to see what impact they have.  The water draining from the plots can also be collected and monitored.
The trees in the distance are also part of the experiment, to see what would happen if farmers just abandoned the fields, how long it would revert to woodland and what species would thrive?
The plot above shows very clearly the effect of herbicide taking out many of the weeds that are taking nutrients and water away from the wheat crop.  Each year samples of straw, soil and grain are collected and stored for future examination. In total over 250,000 samples have been collected.  The soil could tell us when the Chernobyl accident occurred with increased radiation, with a time lag of 6 months.  It really is an incredible place.  It is only fitting then that the scientists there should be trialling the first GM trials in the country for nearly a decade.  The team led by Prof. John Picket CBE DSc FRS is trialing wheat that has been modified to give off warning pheromones (from a mint plant) that when released repel aphids and attract their natural enemies the parasitic wasps, who then lay eggs in the aphids killing the few stragglers off.   We as a country in line with the rest of the EU are lagging behind in the experimental research into these crops.  The EU is happy to import products that contain GMO's but do not want us to grow them here.  If there is a risk then why are we happy to export that risk to other countries?  It does seem a bit crazy to me. Food prices have increased by over 30% in the last 4 years and will only increase as the world population increases and weather effects limit the supply of food to the worlds population.  Only when the price of food; or the lack of it, puts pressure on the system will the EU then allow farmers to use this technology but by then it might be too late, with much of the research being conducted elsewhere in the world.

We were very lucky to actually be allowed onto the trial site, although the crop of Cadenza Spring Wheat, had only just been planted and therefore there was nothing for us to see.  The fencing, security and camera's have cost over £120,000 in a bid to try and keep any protesters out.  I just hope that the team are able to get through the trial so that we can actually learn about these techniques and see what advantage they offer us in a bid to feed a lot of very hungry mouths in the future.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Dear Oh Deer

On these warm spring days it is great to spend a bit of time trying to find a little more of our wildlife that we have on the farm.  I managed to take this picture up on the hill of three fallow deer, sunning themselves and having a quick breakfast .  (It was last week, before winter returned!).  We have quite a healthy population of Fallow and Roe deer on the farm and also a few Muntjac deer as well, which are treated as more of a pest.  It is nice to see a few deer around on the farm although they can cause quite a lot of damage when numbers are high.  Damage includes grazing grass and crops, knocking over stone walls, when they try and jump over them, destroying any newly planted tree saplings and crashing through electric sheep fence.
They spend much of the time out in the fields, grazing our combinable crops or eating grass, meant for the sheep.  Sometimes they are found in the woodland, which is not a problem in a mature woodland but we now have to fence them out of any new woodland plantings as they would decimate the newly planted trees.
They soon become a very expensive addition to our wildlife up on the hill.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Hartpury Day Trippers

On Tuesday this week we entertained a group of final year students from Hartpury College.  It was a double act between Alex Milne, the Overbury Estate Manager and me.  The group consisted of Equine, Countryside Manager and Agrics, so a great mix of different interests, right up our street.  After a quick introduction it was all aboard our trailer and off to the Overbury Grasshoppers nursery school.  Alex spoke about the village residential and business portfolio and how the farm and estate interact on different projects.  Then we met Kathrine for an introduction to the Overbury Stud and how a stud farm works.  It's such a scientific business, I always end up learning something myself!
We then headed up the hill and stopped overlooking the Vale of Evesham, see above, where we spoke about the arable unit, irrigation, rotations, Integrated Farm Management, Woodland, Management, varieties of wheat and how the machinery fits into the system, it was a long stop that provoked much discussion.  Following on we headed to one of  the many conservation areas where our Higher Level Stewardship Scheme is starting to deliver real benefits to our local bird populations, not to mention how our flora is developing in both the grassland systems and in the arable crops.
By now we were running late so we popped into the sheep unit to talk about how they integrate into our farming systems and our relationship with Sainsbury's, before heading down the hill and away.
I hope we managed to generate some interesting thoughts and ideas for the next generation heading through the college ranks, we certainly enjoyed the trip and await next years group!

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Cracking Coverage

We should finish planting the spring barley today after a prolonged drilling period with the foggy weather.  The fog has really stopped the ground drying out and meant that we have had to stay off the fields until they are dry enough to travel on with out doing too much damage to the soil structure.  After the drilling we have been following along with a herbicide (weed killer) to reduce the competition from certain weeds.  This year we have been using some new nozzels which are angled.  One faces forwards and the other backwards.  This helps coat the ground more evenly, especially if there is a clod to two, with the herbicide.  This picture was taken up on the hill in a field called Kemerton Larches and it was a field that we direct drilled with our Horsch Sprinter 6 drill and then rolled.  Most of the field has gone in well but there are a couple of patches where it was a bit damper, mainly under the woodland, that the seedbed isn't ideal. 
the crop should be up in about a week or so which will be great to see, as long as we can keep the crows from doing too much damage.  

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Spring Barley Being Planted

We've started drilling our spring barley crop this year about a week earlier than last year up on the top of Bredon Hill.  The weather has been a bit frustrating with the hill covered in cloud for a couple of mornings stopping the fields drying and almost wetting them again.  With only 21mm of rainfall in February I thought the fields might be a little drier.  Some fields have come out of overwintered stubble as part of our Higher Level Stewardship Scheme.  This means that we can't do anything to the fields until after the 15th February.  They are left untouched to see if they will provide winter seed for birds and also a nice stubble for great habitat for hares to live in.  The fields were cultivated once with our Vaderstad Topdown before being drilled.  We are planting Concerto with variable seed rates across the fields depending on soil type.  More seed is being put on the parts of the field that are very stony or heavier, where the seed losses are higher, and less seed is being planted on the better parts of the field where the seed losses are less.
We've had some rain today so we'll have to delay the drilling until after the weekend when hopefully we can carry on and get the crop planted into warm damp soil.  The Concerto is all contracted to the Molson Coors Growers Group and will end up in a pint of Carling or Worthingtons later this year or next.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Lambing Update

The first group of ewes are now over halfway through their lambing with only about 60 to go.  Things have been going really well and the weather is almost perfect for putting young lambs and ewes out into the fields.  Fortunately we have avoided the Schmallenberg disease which is a real worry in the back of our minds all the time.  Every time a ewe lambs, it's fingers crossed to see what appears.  There is absolutely nothing we can do for the lambs or the ewes if they have been bitten by the midges last year and contracted the disease.  There is no vaccine available so we have to just wait and see what happens.  It appears that the time of infection is during the first trimester of pregnancy and is affecting sheep lambing now.  There are currently cases that have been identified in Worcestershire and Gloucestershire so it really is pot luck whether or not we escape.  I guess with climate change, resulting in warmer drier weather ,we can expect to have more disease outbreaks like this in the future but it makes it very hard work to plan for our industry going forward.  The last outbreak with similar threats would have been blue tongue about 4 years ago.  The good news is that it is not transferable sheep to sheep, there are no restrictions on livestock movements and it can't be contracted by humans.
Fingers crossed we have many more healthy lambs born on the hill this year.