Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Help is on the way!

A very belated post and not really in keeping with the time of year but I have just discovered these photographs on my phone and thought I would share them after a conversation with Caroline Drummond from LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) about the importance of providing habitat for beneficial insects.  In an ideal world it would be good to farm without insecticides; allowing mother nature to control the pests that predate our crops and impact on the quality of the food they produce or the yield.  Is there a way to enable larger numbers of these biological helpers to control the pests for us? Habitats such as grass margins, beetle banks and pollen and nectar strips have all shown to increase the numbers of beneficial insects that can help control the pests.
Work undertaken at the   Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust at Loddington show how a simple step, like creating a Beetle Bank in fields over 20 Ha (50 acres) have have a huge benefit to providing habitat of overwintering beneficial insects like spiders.  These guys are then able to migrate across the field and help protect the crop from invading pests like the black bean aphid or others.  But what about using biological help in a different form?  Could we spray fungi and bacteria onto our fields to help deter pests, disease and potentially weeds?  All things to be considered in the future which are currently being used in green houses and controlled environments but could they be used in the wider landscape? 

Friday, 24 July 2015

Magnificent Margins

Early summer is one of my favourite times on the farm when the hard work of the year, on so many levels, starts to pay off.  The ears of wheat and barley, the pods on the oilseed rape are starting to fill up and the countryside springs into life with a fantastic display of colours and different species. There is no doubt that we live in a sculpted and managed environment.  People are quick to forget this point and since the first settlers began turning their back on nomadic life, our landscape has become man made.
We must not loose sight of the fact that we need to create space for wildlife and mother nature in our very groomed landscape.  We need to create space for our insects to breed and in turn become food for birds.  The space can be populated by flowers adding to our enjoyment of our surroundings and we should take time out to appreciate these wonders.
Our field margins, that we cultivated last autumn are a wonderful mix of poppies, cornflowers and are alive with insects.  There are so many skylarks that tripping over them is almost a certainty!  They are nesting the wheat and barley crops in the purposely sprayed out skylark plots as well as the rough grassland periodically grazed by our sheep.  The diversity of the landscape is what makes it so special.  This must all be done in addition to providing safe, healthy and profitable crops that are wanted by our customers.  Growing wheat that ends up in Kellogg's Cereals as part of the origins group really enables a connection between farmers and customers, a connection we are proud to support.
We have also planted specific pollinator mixes around some of the oilseed rape field margins which are delivering huge benefits in terms of food supply for insects.  Mixtures of crimson clover, phacelia, daisy's and other annual flowers have been a great addition to the work we are doing on the farm to improve diversity of beneficial species and create a better habitat for us all to live and work in.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

A Late Spring?

The spring has finally arrived after a fairly dry but chilly start to the year.  Rainfall totals for the farm, from the remote weather station indicated just over 100mm of rain since 1st January.  Soil temperatures, however have been really cold, only getting into the critical range for seed germination of between 7-8 degrees at the end of March.  Seeds will obviously germinate at lower temperatures but the emergence of the crop will be slower, leaving the seedlings exposed to pest (slug and pigeons) attack for a longer period of time.  An old saying that spring barley should be out of the bag and out of the ground in the same week should be remembered.  This is especially true for crops that are direct drilled in non-cultivated soils.  Cultivation warms up the soil by moving the soil, and can help dry out the soil to allow earlier plantings, but there are disadvantages.
By drying out the soil it leaves less moisture available to germinate the seeds especially if the weather turns warm and windy after the seeds have been planted.  It also risks smearing the soil at the lower depths, where the tine or disk is working, which means putting a deeper compaction layer in the soil. It also burns up the organic matter in the soil releasing carbon into the atmosphere.  I remember in spring 2013 we planted spring barley ahead of my Nuffield trip to Canada and three weeks later the seeds hadn't emerged, it was that cold.  It just goes to show that you can't farm by the calendar!
There is also a practical balance to think about as well, we can't justify having enough man and machinery power to drill everything on the perfect day, so we have to start when we can on the suitable fields in order to get the crops planted.  These are two pictures of beans (top) and peas (below), planted using a direct drill (no cultivation) system.  The peas have germinated and the roots have started to emerge within 3 days, which is great news.  The seedbed was moist and warm so crop establishment will be quick and will hopefully outgrow the early attack of marauding pigeons!  The beans were planted 10 days earlier, but germination was slower as the seed bed was cooler.  As the sun shines the soil will continue to warm up and it is important that these crops get away to the very best start to optimise their potential and deliver a good harvest in August.  There's a long way to go and we'll have to wait and see how the season develops.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Lambing Time is Fast Approaching

It's that busy time of year again when we start to prepare for the lambing season.  Reg and George have been working hard to prepare the sheep, the buildings and the machinery ready for the mad rush starting around the 10th April.
If you are interested in learning more about how a sheep flock runs or what it's like to work in agriculture do come along to our 'Lambing Live' event on the 19th April.  Tractors and trailers will be ferrying visitors from the village hall in Overbury up to Park Farm to see the sheep flock doing their stuff.  Rides start at 10.00am with the last tractor leaving at 15.00 from the hall - returning at 16.00. Unfortunately we can't accommodate pregnant ladies at the lambing sheds for Health and Safety reasons, but you would be more than welcome to visit the village hall to see the displays and purchase teas and coffee's in aid of the village hall kitchen fund.  If you would to donate to Farm Africa as I am running this year's London Marathon with Michelle,  (See previous blog) for that charity it would be very much appreciated!
Our game keeping team will also be present and available for questions and information on some of the shooting and conservation activities that take place on the farm.  So there will be lots to see and do.  Parking and entry for children is free but we make a small charge of £5/adult.  For the most up to date information please visit Overbury Farms Facebook page and please share the news!

We had a special visit today from some of the senior management team at Sainsbury's where we took the opportunity to show them around the sheep flock and told them of our future plans for a sustainable integrated arable and sheep enterprise.  Almost 100% of our lamb is sold to Sainsbury's and we enjoy a close working relationship with a dedicated ans supporting retailer.  Our lamb is primarily used on the in-store butchery counters so next time you are paying a visit to your local Sainsburys store you could be eating our lamb! 

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Marathon Madness

For those of you that know me well, you will recall that every now and then I set myself a little challenge to raise some funds for a well know charity.  In the past I have run the Bath half marathon for the RNLI and cycled for the Princes Trust as part of the Molson Barley Growers Team.  Well I have signed up with Michelle to run the Virgin London Marathon on the 26th April 2015.  I have run a half marathon before but never committed to the full monty!  Michelle hasn't really done very much running at all but like me is often challenging herself to complete a tough physical challenge.  The training has been on-going, on and off for the last couple of months but now it is time to get serious!

We are running for Farm Africa a charity based in East Africa that aims to help farmers and their families out of poverty and end hunger forever.  Farm Africa's staff provide the tools and expertise enabling small holders to increase their harvests, whether they farm crops, livestock, fish or forest.

Eight of out ten rural Africans scrape their living from small plots.  Soils are often poor, and drought risk is high.  Farm Africa brings in smart crops, moisture retaining farming techniques and marketing skills that make these traditional farming systems viable, profitable and sustainable.
We choose to run for Farm Africa for a number of reasons.  As people connected with producing food and looking after the environment we thought that showing people how to grow food in a sustainable way was certainly better than just donating cash.  Educating and providing tools so people could grow a little more than their families need, to be able to sell or trade has be a more sustainable way of encouraging people to produce food for their communities.  The tools and support we can provide will make a real difference to the East African farmers.  I was born in Zambia and my godfather Martin Riley worked in Africa helping farmers improve their farming systems ultimately growing more food for themselves, which is why I feel that this is a very worth while charity that farming and rural people can help and support.  If you feel that you can donate, then every penny will be well spent.  Please click our Virgin Money Giving Page to get to our fund raising page.  Training updates will follow so please stay tuned to follow our progress!
Quila and myself had a training session along the sea defences at Burnham Deepdale in north Norfolk this weekend after the Norfolk Farming Conference which was a real treat.  Do keep coming back to the blog to see how the miles clock up and training runs progress.  Thank you for your anticipated sponsorship.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Shake Up your Wakeup!

As part of the HGCA's Shake Up Your Wake Up week we took the Overbury Grasshoppers out onto the farm to see where the raw ingredients for their breakfast cereals or toast start off.  It was a cold blustery start in the wheat fields, and it certainly woke all the children up, as well a healthy breakfast!
The field we looked at was a field of Invicta wheat which we are growing for Kellogg's.  The plants are very small at the moment due to the winter cold temperatures and low sunlight levels.  As spring warms up and the plant food is delivered they will soon start to grow.  After the field we headed to the grain store to look at the breakfast cereal making wheat we grew last year, to have a look at the raw ingredients that are milled and turned in great tasting breakfasts such as Bran Flakes, Sultana Bran, Fruit and Fibre, Minimax and Special K.  
The children certainly enjoyed getting handfuls of wheat and letting it run through their fingers, feeling the texture and the hardness of the small grains.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Wychall School Visit

A rather cold and windy day greeted the school children from Wychall School in Birmingham as they visited the farm today.  However after the forecast on Friday we managed to stay outside all day, which was a bonus.  The children started off being split into 4 groups, the first looking at the vegetables being grown in the kitchen garden.  There isn't much at this time of year but a healthy supply of sprouts, cabbages, leeks and potatoes.  The second group called in at the green house and inspected the limes and flowers, from much warmer climates.  The third group came along with me to look at habitats and sheep.  Standing by the field entrance how many habitats could we see?  We easily spotted parkland trees, woodland, grassland, verges and a pond, a great game of eye spy.  The last group went to the Estate workshop to meet up with Alan and Simon to learn about the types of wood we use; and to make what, on the Estate and what a diverse natural material it is! The children all rotated around the four groups for an hour, with the movement keeping everyone warm! 
After a very hearty soup, made with vegetables the children saw earlier in the day growing in the kitchen garden and a warm up in the village hall; it was off in the coach to have a look at a field of Oilseed Rape.  Here we looked at the roots and earthworms, all helping to improve the soil and re-cycle the previous crop material.  Apart form someone falling over in the mud, everyone had a great day out and headed back to Birmingham with the fresh air filling their lungs. 

Friday, 2 January 2015

Interest In Cover Cropping

In the run up to Christmas I hosted almost 100 farmers on three different visits to look at the Cover Crop trials that we planted back in August and September.  The seed was generously supplied by Kings and used in a trial to look at the benefits and costs of using cover crops in the farm rotation. Cover crops have only recently come to my attention through my Nuffield Farming Scholarship Trust award to look at increasing wheat yields n the UK.  Although we have been using turnips and forage rape for years as a sheep feed through the winter period, there is so much more a cover crop can deliver other than feeding ewes or lambs through the winter.  The cover crop idea has also sprung into life as they can count towards Ecological Focus Areas (EFA's) in the the new Common Agricultural Policy.  In total we have planted 11 different mixes or single variety species to see what benefits or negative effects can be measured..
Paul Brown (above) from Kings, demonstrating the tap rooting ability of radishes to push down into the soil to break up compaction caused by farm machinery.  The ability of all of the mixes to scavenge for nitrogen and phosphate that would otherwise be lost from the field is tremendous, and if your include vetches into the mix their ability to fix nitrogen form the atmosphere is staggering.  The plot of straight vetch analysed at over 30% protein and was holding over 200Kg/Ha of nitrogen that will be available for the following crop!  Species in the various mixes included, mustard, forage rye, vetch, radish, oat, berseem clover, phacelia, buckwheat and linseed.  The mixes have been assessed by NIAB as part of our Kellogg's Origins Group, looking at ways in which we can farm in a more environmentally and financially sustainable way.

The crops certainly tick all of those boxes by: intercepting sunlight through the autumn and winter, turning it into carbon (plant matter) to improve soil organic matter levels (when decomposing); help remove compaction by aggressive rooting; locking up nutrients that would otherwise be washed through the soil into the environment; provide valuable late season pollen and nectar sources (bees using ours until November), provide a nutritious balanced diet for overwintering stock: stabilise and protect the soil surface from heavy rainfall events.  It is almost all positive effects form these crops bar the creation of a lovely slug habitat.  This will need watching and monitoring through the winter and into the drilling period to keep on top of the slippery problem!