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.