Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Catch 22

What a difference a fortnight makes. Turning the clock back to less than 2 weeks ago in fact; the soil was hard, dry with anything that had been cultivated over the summer period and not rolled to conserve the moisture. The dreaded Blackgrass was sitting dormant in the dust refusing to germinate and succumb to cheap effective glyphosate, we needed some rain. Then on the 4th October it started to rain. Brilliant we all thought, a few good steady showers to soften the ground and get the weeds to grow but then we seem to have shifted from summer straight into winter with 62.2mm of rain falling in the following 10 days.

On the positive side the Blackgrass flush is well and truly under-way and so, when we do get drilling again we should have a much cleaner seedbed in which to plant and less competition from this invasive weed in the crop. The only question is when are we likely to be able to get drilling again?

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Harvest Update From the Eyes in the Sky

Harvest is progressing well with some spectacular summer weather, which is making harvesting the crops cheaper and easier than for the last few years.  We started harvesting seed crops of winter barley on the 14th July, on the sand and gravel land with good yields considering the warm weather.  I think growing crops that ripen nice and early on that type of land could be the way forward.  Yields have been above our average and the quality on the first few fields has been good.  After cutting the barley we moved onto oilseed rape which was very dry, with moistures down as low as 6%, ideally it needs to be about 7-8% for a small moisture bonus without losing too much weight.
After a few days harvesting the oilseed rape we moved up onto Bredon Hill to start the Cassata winter barley which we grow for Molson Coors as part of the growers group supplying malting barley to be brewed into Carling beer.  While we were combining on the hill Adam, a neighbour who has just bought a drone with a video camera attached, came up to take some footage of the combine harvesting the crop and the results were spectacular.  You can see one of them here Harvest Log 7 It was a great opportunity and the combine undoing in to the trailer was fantastic.  The footage also shows the compaction, caused by the harvest traffic of trailers and tractors, on the headlands which is not great for the following crop.  We even managed to catch the imagination of Simon Mayo's Drive Time radio show when being interviewed about this years harvest on the 23rd July and made it onto his Facebook page

The drone was very simple to fly, so easy Adam actually let me have a go at landing it! The 10-80 hd camera is fixed onto a gimble so the stability of the camera was very impressive and it's all delivered ready to fly and the images are beamed back via wifi to your telephone held on a stand on the controls.  The shot below is from the video and gives you an idea of the different angles and aspects that can be achieved.

We're now on Day 8 of the harvest and we will finish the winter barley tonight before moving back into oilseed rape for a couple more days.  After then we could have a break for a day or two while we wait for the wheat on the light land to ripen.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Open Farm Sunday-8th June

Come rain or shine we will be taking part, along with almost 400 other farmers around the country, in this years Open Farm Sunday.  The annual event is organised by LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) and it is a great day out for all the family.  If you are interested in having a look around a farm to see how your food is grown and how farmers look after the countryside go to the website, type in your postcode and get searching!
We are conducting guided tours around the farm, lasting for about 1.5 hours and taking in some of the tremendous views form the top of Bredon Hill overlooking Cheltenham.  We'll be stopping off at Overbury Stud to visit the horses before heading towards Beckford and heading up the Yellow Brick Road.  We will stop off to look at the arable land and how we are using different crops to protect our valuable soil and increasing the populations of earth worms in our soil.  After this it is off around the hill escarpment to look at pollen and nectar mixes designed to provide much needed pollen and nectar for all of our pollinators and recently planted wild bird food seed mixes.  These are not not harvested but left through the winter to provide valuable winter feed for our farmland birds.  Following on we will be sampling some fresh peas before returning via the Park to look at our sheep flock  then on to the village hall.
Trailers are setting off from the village hall at 9.30, 11.30 2 and 4pm.  Places are limited so you will need to call the Estate Office (01386 725111) or e-mail 

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Spring Drilling Roundup

We started planting the spring crops on the 19th March into fairly good conditions considering the amount of winter rainfall we have had this year.  It's one advantage of having Cotswold Brash soil; which is very thin and has a deep layer of Limestone underneath which is relatively free draining.  The downside is that without summer rainfall yield can be limited.  We started off drilling at the top of the hill into a sprayed of cover crop of Forage Rye.  This crop was planted in September 2013 and its purpose was to cover the soil creating a layer of organic matter to intercept the rain through the winter, reducing soil erosion and run off.  What a year to start cover cropping!  The forage rye was sprayed off with Glyphosate mixed with liquid Nitrogen fertiliser 5 days before drilling and the cross slot drill then went and planted the seeds directly into the the crop residue.  
This variety of spring barley is called Tipple and is being grown as part of our Molson Coors Growers Group tonnage to go to the Shobnal Malting later this summer to be brewed into Carling Lager. This method moves very little soil resulting in far less mineralisation of nitrogen through reduced carbon disturbance.  It is better for our carbon emissions into the atmosphere, the soil, the water and the environment.
After drilling this field the Cross Slot drill moved down the slope to plant Propino Spring Barley which we are growing for seed for Frontier Agriculture which should hopefully be used by the Molson Coors Growers Group farmers next spring.  The drill coped very well with the amount of surface residue that was not grazed by the ewes during the winter.  There has been plenty of slug activity in the heavy land areas of the field after drilling and before emergence so we have had to apply a dose of Sluxx slug pellets to control, them. 
After about 10 days the crops had germinated well and they emerged within 2 weeks.  The picture below shows the emerging crop pushing up through the previous crop residue.  The stalks are what remains of the mustard cover crop after the sheep had eaten the leaves off.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Cross Slot And Cover Crops Farm Walk

Basking in the first real sunshine of the spring, and on what turned out to be the hottest day of the year so far; in conduction with Agrii we hosted a fan walk looking at direct drilling and the use of cover crops on the farm.  We had farmers from as far a field as Kent (Tom Sewell and Guy Eckley) and Lincolnshire (Jono Dixon) and Wiltshire (George Hosier) as well as many closer to home.  The interest shown and the discussions started really made for a very interesting and educational day. 
We talked about drilling techniques and could direct drilling have an effect on weed populations and what about slugs with more crop residue (not trash) on the crop surface?  Can we control these issues more effectively with better, longer crop rotations, direct drilling and with less reliance on pesticides?  We talked about subsoiling and should we be doing it or whether we could use cover crops, as demonstrated by Jono (below) to do the subsoiling for us?
The roots of the cover crops can easily go down to 1m over an autumn and winter if planted early enough; the ideal time is when the combine is still in the field, when moisture is usually available to get the crop off to the perfect start, or even spun into the crop pre-harvest.
We also talked about the blend, or the mix of the cover crops and what purpose they are being grown for.  Are they there to protect the soil surface, or to remove compaction or to increase organic matter or to provide a winter forage supply for the livestock?  We also talked about nitrogen fertiliser and should we be investing in fertiliser to maximise the benefits of the crop and the financial investment of the seed?  It really was a great morning of very thought provoking idea sharing.  We ended up in the Yew Tree pub for chips and sandwiches before everyone headed home.  Thanks to everyone who turned up and contributed, and to Agrii for supplying the bacon rolls and the lunch!

Monday, 10 February 2014

#Forageaid To Flooded Somerset

On Saturday 8th February, after a few frantic phone calls with the Nation Farmers Union, based in the South West of England we were ready to swing into action.  Everybody will have witnessed the long period of devastation the flooding on the Somerset Levels has caused farmers and home owners; for a period of almost 6 weeks.  Livestock are being moved from flooded farmyards, to higher ground or to livestock markets for their safety.  Access to forage is becoming a problem for these farmers, at home but also for those who's livestock are spread around the countryside.  Much of the forage, made during the summer is underwater and will not be safe to feed to livestock even if they could be reached.
We were more than happy to donate over 80 bales of hay to the crisis down on the Somerset Levels.  We are very grateful to all of the hauliers that are donating their lorries, fuel and labour to help supply feed to the animals in Somerset.  Our feed was transported to the Sedgemoor Livestock Market with hauliers from Walsall in the West Midlands D.E.O'Reilly 
The Somerset Levels have been managed by draining and ditching since days of the Roman Empire.  The most recent drainage scheme was introduced by the Dutch in the 17th Century and have been managed to control the water levels ever since (at least until the late 1990's).  The whole area of about 70,000Ha is very flat, below high tide levels and was once covered by the sea (up until 4500BC). It is not uncommon for this area to flood but the long period of flooding is causing real issues.  The management of the main water courses has changed and water is now much slower to drain out to sea.  Silting up of the rivers since the mid 1990's has reduced the water carrying capacity of the main rivers (Tone and Parrett) to about 60% of their maximum carrying capacity (EA modelling).  This means water backs up and floods the levels and can't feed back into the rivers as the high banks carry the river levels higher than the surrounding farmland.  The cost to farmers and house owners, who's properties have flooded is vast.  Fields of grass will not recover from being under water for this length of time and will need to be resown in the spring, (or whenever the land dries out enough). Management through the ages has allowed the area to drain providing productive agricultural land.  This land is the home many thousands of cattle many of whom are having to be evacuated to higher ground, leaving behind their forage (food) supplies.  Hence the need for the farming community across the country to get involved and send them supplies of hay, silage and feed.  The National Farmers Union is co-ordinaing the supply of forage to the Somerset area, click on the link highlighted above to see if you are able to help, or you are a farmer in need of supplies.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

So Wheat Crops - How are you looking after the Winter?

One of the key wheat growing lessons I learnt from my Nuffield travels was the need to get the plant population right in order to set the crop up to optimise yield.  Too thick i.e. too much biomass and the crop has a greater risk of lodging and if it stays upright then there will be less light interception lower down the plant canopy.  On thinner land more plants will be competing with each other for moisture later in the critical grain fill period.  Obviously the crops planted at Overbury were done before my travels so I have been keen to take a look at what was planted and what has survived the winter.
Dominic Swainson (Agrii) came out to start the assessment process with me.  We had a 50cm by 50cm square which we randomly threw across the field and where it landed, as long as it wasn't in a tramline or something, that's where we took our plant count from. The target is to try and achieve 100-125 plants/m2 which in theory could produce about 4.5 tillers each totalling between 450-550 ears at the end of the day.  What we found was the variability of plants during the counts.  I think I will have to do more to get a more accurate picture but it took a surprisingly long time. Once we had located the area, we picked out all of the plants (very well rooted), counted them, and the tiller numbers per plant and got our averages.
There were some tremendous variability in survival rates in relation to seeds/m2 planted and that varied per planting machine, soil type and establishment technique.  The field of KWS Croft, shown here had a seeding rate of 103Kg/ha planted on the 21st September,  which meant we were planting 190 seeds/m2.  When we came to do the plant counts we averaged 114 plants/m2 which meant we lost 76 seeds/m2 or 40%!  So there a statistic on it's own, how do you calculate field loss, either through stone content, soil type, slug pressure (after oilseed rape) and then winter kill.  Don't forget this winter has been so mild soil temperatures at 800' above sea level are still average 4 degrees and on this free draining land we have lost very few plants through  the winter period. 
What is also interesting is that we averaged 8 tillers/plant, meaning we currently have the potential to achieve 912 tillers/m2 which is almost twice as many as we need!  So what do we do next?  Well that is the $1,000,000 question and I would appreciate some advice from the other side of the world!  I have an idea but you will have to read another blog later in the season to see what my plans are.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Community Get Together in The Orchard

Talk about being lucky with the weather.  On Sunday morning, armed with spades, hammers, staple and nails the volunteer members of the Conderton and Overbury Community Orchard met on a bright and sunny morning to plant the trees.  It was quite amazing to see the sun after one of the wettest January's in a long time.  Having said that the mission to collect the trees, on Saturday, proved a little more stressful, as the picture above demonstrates, but we got there in the end and collected the trees from Walcot Organic Nursery  
Although the soil was wet underfoot the spirit of the helpers was just brilliant.  The target was to plant 41 apple trees in the ancient orchard being restored partly funded through our Higher Level Stewardship Scheme.  This time we were planting a mixture of eating and cider apples.  Varieties such as Blenheim Orange, Cox's Orange Pipin, Worcester Pearmain for eaters, along with cider varieties such Ten Commandments, and Harry Master's Jersey will make for some very interesting taste discoveries in the years to come either picked straight from the tree or waiting a few months for the fermentation process to be completed!
Derek and Gordon set the planting pattern out and managed to get the main stakes knocked in earlier in the week, tiptoeing around the wet ridge and furrow.  Everybody turned up between 9.30 and 10 am to set up digging, planting and fertilising the trees.  It was great to see the progress across the orchard and by 12 o'clock the job was done!  We are all due to return in a couple of weeks to prune the trees we planted in the previous two years.  It is a great opportunity to see the fruits of our previous years labour growing and needing a little TLC.  I am looking forward to that morning, fingers crossed we are treated to another lovely few hours in the orchard.