Wednesday, 30 May 2012

View From The Margins - by my friend John Clarke

John Clarke who has been helping with the conservation projects at Overbury is the first and maybe only guest blog writter to appear on Farmer Jake's blog.  What he has to say is very inspirational and personally gratifying.  To know that we as farmers can play a really big positive role in our countryside, wildlife and biodiversity.  It's a message we have to share to the wider audience about what is great about British farming, growing food and expanding the wildlife we share our fields with.

As a Conservation Advisor, over the past few years I’ve been working closely with Jake Freestone, offering ideas for wildlife conservation and then monitoring the effect on wildlife. During that time Overbury Farms has gone through an exciting period of change as Government schemes have focused increasingly on wildlife conservation.

It is particularly rewarding as an advisor to see ideas and schemes bearing fruit and for me one of the most exciting aspects concerns field margins. There are a number of options for improving the wildlife value of this habitat – from putting them down to grass, planting a ‘meadow mixture’ of wildflowers and grasses, cultivating and planting with the main crop but leaving the margins unsprayed, planting them with a wild bird seed mixture – or a game crop – or just cultivating and leaving unplanted.

I love walking these margins, which often occur alongside footpaths, and recording all the birds, plants, butterflies – and many other forms of wildlife. I and other advisors love to see a situation where a range of these habitats are connected and planned to link with each other and a range of different wildlife habitats.
 The aerial picture taken by Andrew John shows a good example of what is possible. Running across the area is an old embankment. With its rough grassland top, scrubby sides, wet ditches, scattered trees and some bare ground along the track it is a wildlife oasis in itself. However, its value has been increased hugely by what Jake has created around it. A number of hedges converge on the area and these are being managed sympathetically for wildlife and make perfect wildlife corridors between here and other sites. You can see that alongside the hedges there are grass strips and then out from them are several large cultivated strips. Some of these are sown with wild bird feed mixtures, some as part of the crop but unsprayed and some as game crops. Note the small, brown patches in the cornfields. They are left unplanted in order to attract Skylark to nest there or in the adjacent crop. In the top of the picture there is a small hay meadow.
Imagine other mosaics of wildlife habitats, varying in content and type, stretching from the top of Bredon Hill to the low-lying land below. Well, that is what we have got here.

How do we know that it is working? Well, in simple terms: there are literally dozens of pairs of Skylark breeding across the farm, Lapwing nest in several areas while the hedgerows support breeding Yellowhammer, Linnet and Whitethroat. In the margins the old-fashioned cornfield wildflowers are making a comeback. In some margins we are trialling the introduction of rarer wildflowers. If you are walking on the hill in June listen out for the Skylark – and Meadow Pipit – and look out for unusual poppies, pansies, Night-flowering Catchfly (a campion) and perhaps the odd Cornflower. There are bees and butterflies feeding on flowers in both the arable and grass margins. We have even recorded Corn Bunting and Yellow Wagtail in these new habitats – rare breeding birds which are slowly being attracted back to the area.

How do I feel about the project? When I see the results of all that planning and preparation it is hugely satisfying. To make a comparison: I have often started what I hoped would be a great watercolour painting – but it never was! However, I now know what it would have felt like had I managed it. Farming for wildlife is possible and is much preferred to restricting nature conservation to a few Nature Reserves – isolated and possibly fragile. Here at Overbury, wildlife is managed on a landscape scale and I am proud to have been part of such a great project. Each time that I go out to survey the farm I find something new and exciting. I hope that governments continue to encourage Jake and others to support wildlife in a big way. It is perhaps regrettable that many of us know of these schemes but very few are aware of and enjoy what they can achieve.
John Clarke

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Grain To Glass

On June 26th 8 intrepid novice cyclists are setting off from the Shobnal Maltings (Burton-upon-Trent) in order to raise money for the Molson Coors Growers Group charity, The Prince's Countryside Fund.  Our aim is to raise awareness of the supply chain from farm to maltings to brewery to customer.  Our barley, (as those followers of this blog know) goes to Molon Coors as part of the growers group.  This group, of over 90 farmers, aim to supply 30,000 tonnes of British barley into famous brands such as Carling, where they use 100% British barley for the brewing process.
The group is made up of 4 farmers, (Mark Blakeway, James Cox, Andy Roberts and me), two staff from Molson Coors (Jerry Dyson and Debbie Read), Jon Duffy from Frontier and David Hall from the EFFP 
We are funding the whole operation ourselves so every penny that you are able to give will be donated to the charity.  I have been training fairly hard, managing about 45 miles on my longest ride, about half of the actual daily ride on the longest two days.  The route will take us over 180 miles from start to finish and we will be stopping off along the way collecting, hops and barley to present to the master brewer at Molson's brewery in Alton (Hamphire) sometime on the 28th June.
If you feel you can sponsor us then please use the Virgin Money Giving  link to get to our sponsorship page.
many thanks in advance and we'll keep you posted on twitter using the hashtag #GraintoGlass
Hopefully there will be a cold Carling waiting for us in Alton when we complete the ride!

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Shooting Wildlife

Over the last couple of days I have carrying my camera around to try and capture some of the wildlife that I am seeing around the farm at the moment. This lovely spell of warm weather is really bringing the wildlife out to enjoy it as much as I am. The picture (above) about shows 7 Brown Hares (BAP Species) adults and young all enjoying the morning sunshine on a recently mowed pollen and nectar mix. The area measures 0.70 Ha and is really crammed with wildlife. The hares were enjoying the shelter of the Oilseed Rape should any predators pass by.
Up on the top of Bredon Hill our resident herd of Fallow Deer are also basking in the sunshine. These are young males that gather together at this time of year. This field hasn't been planted yet as it is part of the hand picked peas operation and will be planted in June.

This little guy was probably the best find of the day (and his 3 other siblings). The Lapwing parents were getting very cross with me as I sneaked up to take the picture of a young Lapwing chick foraging for insects in a flooded part of a wheat field. It's an area of very poor drainage and under the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme I have plans to put a pond here but I might just excavate the scrape more to provide lots of wet feeding grounds for the next generations of lapwings.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Phantom of The Opera

Every now and again mother nature throws up some interesting quirks in any population. This is one of my favourites! She's a Texel cross North Country Mule with some very strange markings indeed. She certainly stands out when driving through the park. She's one of a twin so it might be that we keep her as one of the flocks replacements to breed from in the future, who knows what patterns her offspring might have on them?

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, 11 May 2012

Arable Bird Survey

Today I managed to fit in a couple of hours walking round one of our survey areas on the farm with John Clarke. John has been helping me with our bird surveys since 2004 and we try and walk set routes three times a year to monitor and record the bird species that we find. Today the skylarks were out in great numbers singing like mad while hovering, seemingly effortlessly, in the sky, even on a chilly windy morning. It was a real pleasure to actually see the benefits of the conservation work we are doing coming to reality. There were skylarks on our creation of species rich grassland areas, landing in and taking off from the skylark plots (good news really) and also using the unplanted nesting plots to land on and scurry into the crop for cover. In total we spotted over 20 breeding pairs on their territories, while walking the small survey area. Great news and hopefully a good sign to come for our Higher Level stewardship surveys later in the year. We weren't just just skylark spotting we also spotted Brown hares (4), fallow deer (40 -eating my wheat!) wheatears (2), pipit's (6) and Linnets (12), all good as some of these are BAP species.
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Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Nuffield Conference 'Fertiliser For The Future'

On Thursday 19th April I had a really interesting trip up to Harper Adams University College to listen to the Nuffield 'Fertilisers for the Future' Conference.  Its a subject that I feel, we as an industry, have to get to grips with and try and use our existing energy hungry sources of fertiliser more efficiently.  There were four great speakers with a very varied choice of subjects all of which I found very interesting.
First up was Nik Johnson (JSE-Systems Ltd) who gave us a brief overview of the Phosphorus perspective.  I didn't realise that Morocco, China and Iraq have 75% of the worlds phosphate supply and with current political unrest around the world, could conceivably make this a very scare nutrient to western arable farmers.  Most of the phosphate is also shifting East to West in the form of grain and straw to livestock enterprises, not just in the UK but around the world.  Basically Nik was saying that we need to get the phosphate reclaimed form other sources and stop wasting what we have in our soils, through soil run-off, taking the nutrient away locked onto soil particles. In the future we have to understand how P works in different soils, the interaction of cultivation, organic matter and rotations all have a part to play.  Fascinating stuff and good to know that at Overbury we're heading in the right direction with our increased use of organic matter in the arable rotation.
Mark Tucker (Yara - the largest N fertiliser manufacturer in the world) followed with the Nitrogen story. Nitrogen has such an important role to play in our crops and our environment as 50% of applied nitrogen ends up in the environment (leaching and volatilisation), which is expensive and damaging.  Mark talked about how we can reduce our reliance on manufactured nitrogen through rotations, cover cropping, green manures and livestock, a tall order to supply our needs but we need to do what we can.  These tactics can help build the soils natural fertility and help retain more of the nutrients we apply.  Should we be looking at genetically modified crops that are more efficient at harvesting nitrogen fertilisers therefore reducing the levels lost to the environment?  We need to look at the science for the answers.
The theme of soil fertility continued after lunch with Jo Franklin talking about nutrients, organic matter and bugs (NOB's) which linked is so well to the earlier presentations.  The soil is such a complex living thing that is delicate and needs to be looked after to have any chance of sustainable agriculture in the future. Clive Blacker finished the presentations with an overview of precision farming, which those of you who follow my blog will know that's right up my street.
In summary the event has raised more questions than answers and given me some things to think about here on the farm.  I'm sure some of those thoughts and trials will come forward in future blogs.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Agrii Agronomy Day

On the 1st May I had a really interesting agronomy meeting (day) with Agrii down near Marlborough.  It consisted of a morning session in a rather chilly grainstore and an afternoon session outside in the first bit of sunshine I had seen for nearly a month!.  I met up and had a good conversation with Stuart Alexander from Soilquest (part of Agrii ) all about using precision farming techniques to really target nutrient application.  The Soilquest system works in a slightly different way to that of SOYL who's technology we have been using since 2006 but ultimately using expensive nutrients targeted in the correct areas of the field has to worth while both from a financial and environmental aspect.
Stuart had some really great pictures demonstrating how soil changes with a field.  As farmers we have been joining fields together to get more efficiencies, to use bigger and bigger machinery.  Many of the old field divisions, such as hedges or walls, were put in place where different soil types naturally occurred and those different fields needed different applications and handling and here we are putting them all back into one area.  Now we can try and manage those smaller parcels of soil differently within the same field, which can only lead to better yields with targeted management.  However, and this is where precision farming can be a loose arrangement; if we have a fertiliser spreader or a sprayer at 24, 36 or even over 40m wide then that is currently as precise on these inputs as we can get.  When using narrower seed drills (ours is 6m) that I feel is the way to start the process off by trying to create a more even establishment of plants at the start of the year.
In addition to the Soilquest team Dr Peter Gladders was there talking about disease levels in this years Oilseed Rape crops, especially sclerotinia, which at the time were not very threatening, (cooler night-time temperatures stopping the sporilation). He also spoke about the long flowering period that we may have with  these lower temperatures that could expose the crop to risk for a longer period of time, if the weather warms up.  Therefore timings of fungicide are crucial this year as there is no 'kickback' control on sclerotinia.  Verticillium wilt was also mentioned where there is potential to build up the fungi in the soil, with close rotations of rape and certain varieties, (such as Excalibur) increasing it's occurrence from 6% of the UK's arable fields. I will be out spotting the disease later in the year, usually about symptoms start appearing as the crop is getting ready for dessication.
Finally I found listening to Phillip Marr very interesting, he spoke about the flowers being formed in the plant in mid winter (say dec on a conventionally timed crop).  at this point the crop turns from being vegetative to being reproductive and new main root development stops.  All that happens through the spring and summer is the root cells increase in size giving an appearance of growth, so root development shouldn't be hindered in the autumn with poor cultivations or poor fertility, everything is linked together and can therefore only be managed with Integrated Farm Management it's where autumn metconazole has a great role to play.