Friday, 11 November 2016

Loosing Our Biggest Asset-or not?

LiDAR Image of the Carrent Catchment - source Environment Agency
Every day is a school day and so we have to keep learning about our environment and how we interact with our natural surroundings.  We are just starting to develop a local group of farmers, with help from Gloucestershire FWAG called the 'Carrant Catchment Restoration Project', with the aim of increasing water quality and biodiversity in the local stream that originates around Bredon Hill.  One of the most staggering bits of information came from our local Environment Agency and uses LiDAR information to look at the erosion risk from farmland.  At first glance this sea of red shows high risk areas all over he top of the hill!  Quite alarming.  We then have to start looking at land use, and some of the red areas are taken out of the equation with woodland and the grassland.  We mustn't ignore the grassland-as significant soil erosion can stem from overgrazed or compacted grassland, but it's the arable area of the hill that is by far and above the largest proportion and so poses the largest risk of erosion.
Surface runoff is caused when the field is at water capacity or when compaction is present, both cause the next rainfall to run downhill taking soil particles with it.  These particles are potentially carrying fertiliser and pesticides off down into the nearest water coarse, causing the very typical brown water often seen after heavy rainfall events.
Winter Barley Rooting Structure on Bredon Hill
Our new system of zero tillage (no till) crop farming is the best way to stop erosion from happening on our fields.  The system means that the soil is not disturbed so it can structure itself to allow more water to enter it, reducing runoff.  By leaving crop residue or by growing cover crops the soil surface is protected form rain droplets, stopping surface compaction from happening.  By not cultivating the land we are not burning the organic content of the fields, reducing green house gas emissions.  From a water storage position the organic matter acts like a sponge so the more we have, the more water we can store before it runs off through the soil profile into the groundwater.  The picture above is from a field that has been in zero tillage for 4 years and is really starting to come to life in many ways.  The crop residue is present and under that a crumbly mixture of roots and soil particles attached to the roots of the plants.  This is just the start of what I hope our soils will turn into over time.

Reed Bed Catchup

Reed bed on water Coarse
It was November 2011 when we dug out the reed bed and silt trap at the far end of the farm to try and intercept the ditch water and improve the quality of the outfall into the Carrant Brook.  The silt trap was used to slow down the water and allow the heavier particles (of silt) to drop out of the water.  The water then carried on through the reed bed in a shallow wide spread to allow the roots of the reeds to take nutrients, nitrate and phosphate, are he main two form the water and capture those nutrients in the form of plant material.
After quite a slow start the reed bed has really taken off providing a great habitat for bird species like reed buntings as well as a more general habitat improvement next to the hedge and copiced willows. We have just started a water sampling project with Gloucestershire University, so it will be really interesting to see what effect a very small investment in time and energy can have on the water leaving the farm.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Buckwheat Cover Crop

Buckwheat Emerging After Peas
We tried a single species cover crop this year in a very quick slot after the hand picked peas up on the hill on those fields that we harvested early enough.  The Buckwheat was planted right behind the pea pickers and rapidly covered the  ground.  The idea was for these roots to start to undo some of the damage to the soil caused by the heavy traffic (tractors and trailers) during the harvest.  The crop grew for 8 weeks and was really flowering well (below top left), almost too well and we are finding a few seedlings in the following wheat crop, which isn't causing me too many alarms.  Buckwheat will die when temperatures get to below 5 degrees. The bottom picture shows the Cross Slot opener (seed placement bit) actually planting the seeds and the third picture (top right) shows what the field looked like after the drill had passed over the field.
Cross Slot Drilling into Buckwheat Covercrop
It certainly looks very different to a conventional field, without the green lines on a brown background but to me this is how mother nature plants her seed, no cultivation just the seeds working into the ground.  It really is a case of retraining the mind to actually appreciate what is happening in the field.   The residue of the peas and the buckwheat is spread on the soil surface with the seedlings making their way up through to the light.  By next harvest all of that residue will have been returned to the soil by the worms and the weather, recycling the nutrients locked up within it.  Where the system really benefits the wider environment in in terms of carbon capture.  Without cultivating the soil the carbon retained within it, in the form of organic matter, stays in the soil, it is not oxidised and released to the atmosphere. So the soil is not being depleted and the dead plant material is slowly being turned into organic matter and then humus.  But it will take a long time!    
Wheat Emerging through Buckwheat Covercrop
Wheat after cover crops have all emerged really well this year which is always a great relief!

Friday, 21 October 2016

Zerotill Barley

I have to say that I am really pleased with the way the winter barley has emerged this autumn. Drilling started on the top of Bredon Hill on the 22nd September and continues down in the Vale a couple of days later.  This field is down behind Beckford and is following spring barley, which is normal in the rotation.  Oilseed rape will follow this crop.  The barley is destined to be harvested in July 2017 and will hopefully make the grade for Molson Coors Growers group and Carling.  The planting machine (or drill) planted these fields with a target of placing 350 seeds/m2.  We have been using variable rate seeding depending on soil type.  This system uses GPS technology to locate the tractor and change the seed rate depending on the prescription that it has been loaded onto the on board computer. 
With the crop having established so well it will certainly be able to fend off any slugs that might try and eat the leaves.  We did apply one application to the surface after the crop had been planted to protect the seedlings.  Now it's a case of watching and waiting to see what weeds appear through the straw mulch, in an ideal world there won't be any that are too expensive to control.  We will have to wait and see. 
There are so many benefits to the environment in farming this way; the soil is covered and therefore protected from erosion, the straw acts as a mulch reducing weed competition and the residue (previous straw and leaves)breakdown acts as a brilliant source of food for the arm of worms growing under the soil surface.  

Harvest Roundup

Harvest seems a distant memory, as the grain store fan are blowing the cool air through the harvest grain and the Cross Slot drill is wrapping the last few fields of autumn planted winter wheat.    It has not been our biggest harvest ever, although I think we were spoilt last year with some great yielding crops but it was far from a disaster either.  Our oilseed rape and winter barley were the worst performing crops down about 20% from last year and slightly below our longer 5 year average.  The oilseed and barley grains were small which gave us problems of different sorts.  The barley size meant that we had high screenings, that means that too many fell through a sieve resulting in less usable quality.  The majority of the crop was sold and moved at harvest to Molson Coors.  The oilseed rape has lower oils that last year; about 44% rather than 48% which gives us a slightly lower grain price and the seed sizes were very small.  This meant that the losses from the combine, those seeds that carried straight through in the straw were a bit higher than normal although fairly insignificant in terms of yield loss and on the bright side added to the cover mix. 
The peas where slightly up on last year and have some fantastic colour so will make a good price in a difficult market.  The wheat we harvested was very variable with some every good yields, in excess of 10t/ha and also some wheat from the hill that were slightly disappointing yielding about 8t/ha.  All of the quality has been excellent and with very little drying costs due to the lovely warm sunny weather.

Our new MacDon draper header performed really well across all of the crops we harvested.  It was easy to hitch onto the combine and very easy to alter the header angle and draper speed on the move during operation.
Harvest can be a long drawn out season but thankfully this year; with near perfect weather, it was over in time for a bank holiday weekend off for everyone, the last one was in 2003!  Thanks to all the hard work and effort put in by the whole team and also for the patience to those in the village often held up with tractors and trailers rolling through the village.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Looking Underground for Long Term Solutions

I had a really nice comment, via a good friend, from a local retired farmer. "Bredon Hill is looking very green".  Now I am not sure it was meant as a complement or a statement but I shall take it as the former as that is what we are trying to achieve.  We need to cover up, indeed don't farm naked, to protector our biggest and most valuable asset, our soil.
Buckwheat Companion Crop with Oilseed Rape
We have had a really super summer and autumn, after the damp and cloudy June, we've had good sunlight, warm temperatures and periodic rain events.  It reminds me of the summers I can remember growing up as a child, endless days of sunshine.  Harvest ran like a dream, our new header performing very well and crops nice and dry, although the yields were disappointing they were on par with our neighbours, which with a completely new system is very encouraging indeed.

The cover crops we have planted have all grown very well indeed and are now producing many environmental benefits.  The most obvious to see is the huge array of flowers producing pollen and nectar for insects to feed on.  During the sunny afternoons these fields are filled with bees.  There is so much insect feed available that a local bee keeper has brought 6 hives down for his bees to feed on the flowering buckwheat.

Buckwheat Root, Root Hairs and Mycorrhizal Fungi
There is also a lot going on underground that we are unable to see, unable to really understand, but we are starting to explore the dark world of the plant and fungal interaction.  The fact that we have plants growing in our soils means that they are capturing every bit of sunshine and turning it into organic matter.  They are growing roots, root hairs, leaves, stems and even fruit.  All of this is capturing carbon from the atmosphere and locking it up in the soil.  The roots are pushing into the soil, helping to repair soil structure so that when we get heavy rains it will infiltrate the soil rather than run off.  The leaves will intercept rain droplets and stop them compacting the soil surface.  The roots are feeding the fungal and bacterial populations in the soil, helping to build a web of different colonies able to scavenge for nutrients as the plants need them.  As these populations grow, they excrete waste which the plants can use.  The waste has a high level of nitrogen in it, which is a key nutrient for our crops, so we can in time use less natural resources in the form of fertiliser.

Cross Slot Drill Planting Wheat into Buckwheat Covercrop
One of the key aspects of making this system work is by having a planting machine (drill) that can cut through these heavy crop and cover crop residues to get he seeds into the soil with good seed placement.  The fact that we can also add starter fertiliser and any slug control products at the same time makes this a very efficient system.  Its better for the environment, better for our productivity and our profitability.  In an uncertain; post Brexit world, where farm support will be reduced, reducing costs and reliance on purchased inputs will be essential to arable farming survival but I believe we are developing a system that will enable us to achieve this.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Life on the Margins

It's amazing what you can find while having a quiet wander along the side of the beautiful flower margins on the top of Bredon Hill at the moment.  Many are situated along side public rights of way so there's no need to trample across farmland to view them.  They are created by cultivating the soil to stimulate the wild seeds to grow that have been dormant in the soil for many years.  But the wild flowers are only part of the benefits, the flowers also encourage millions of insects that in turn provide valuable feed for young farmland birds.

The list of spices very evident is long, from bumblebees, butterflies, hoverflies, beetles and other pollinator species.  There were also many insect feeding birds such as Skylarks, Yellow Hammers, Goldfinches Meadow Pipits and Linnets, all feeding in the margins and carrying the feed out into the fields or up into neighbouring trees or hedges, where their nests are located.  You may have seen the small bare patches that have no crop in them which provide landing areas for Skylark and today they were singing with joy, that the sun had finally appeared!
Not all of the margins are this successful; in other margins we have had to mow the margin to stop the weed seeds from becoming fertile and adding to the weed seed bank, which is necessary for the long term benefit of the strip.  We hope that you enjoy walking on the hill and looking at what nature is providing and in order to enhance the benefit please do not let your dogs disturb the birds busily collecting feed for their young, by keeping them under very close control or ideally on a lead.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Planting Peas Into Cover Crops

The cool spring has certainly held up planting progress on the farm this  year.  The weather felt warmer in December than it did in April which is crazy.  The maximum air temperature for example in December was 13.9 degrees and in April the maximum was only 14.9!  The minimum air temperature in December was 2.1 and April the minimum was lower at -0.9.  

As a result of the cooler temperatures and a wetter start to the year;  Every month since January has been 30% wetter than our 25 year average.  As a result we have 
had to be very patient to wait for the right ground conditions before we could start planting our spring crops.

Barley started on the 23rd March when soil temperatures were rising but the peas really had to wait until we had a constant 10 degrees soil temperature so that they could be planted and emerge very quickly.  This field was planted on the 25th April, on light sandy soil, into brilliant conditions.  The cover crop was a mixture of oil radish and oats which survived the winter and really had started to grow.  The peas germinated within 5 days and this picture was taken at that point and shows the young root just emerging from the seed.  The pink colour is a fungicide to stop disease slowing the growth of the plant in the very early stages.  As you can see from the photograph the cover crop and the use of zero tillage (or direct drilling) has really helped the survival of earthworms in the soil partly through not disturbing their habitat, through cultivations, but also through providing them with a food source through the winter.

So the crop is off to a good start so we will see how the season goes and how many tonnes of mushy peas will be harvested later in the year.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Preparation for the 2016 Big Farmland Bird Count!

For the third year in a row the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust is running its Big Farmland Bird Count. It's a great opportunity for land owners, farmers and anyone connected with the countryside to get out and count the wonderful array of species that live in our beautiful countryside.  For 30 minutes between the 6th and 14th of February the idea is to get a 30 minute snap shot of what species are on our farms.  The data can then be sent to the GWCT to give a national picture of how these import species farmland bird species are benefiting or otherwise from our countryside management. Are the numbers increasing or decreasing it's very important that we can identify these trends and act accordingly.  Now I for one, am not a brilliant birder or twitcher but I know a man who is!  On a very sunny day last week we hosted a Farmland Bird Identification training session at Overbury sponsored  by BASF with expert training from Peter Thompson.
We had a fantastic turnout with nearly 30 people, starting in the village hall, to hear about the different species of bird, the nesting habitat they need and the food sources for adults and chicks.  After a great lunch we headed out for a bit of a ramble around the vale farm to see what species we could identify.  Considering the noise, chatter and wind I think we did rather well.  In total we spotted 28 different species, many of which are target BAP species (Biodiversity Action Plan) meaning they are under special priority measures to try and look after them.  Many of the Higher Level Stewardship options we have taken up are being used to encourage these species.  Options such as grass margins, unharvested and unfertilised headlands, wild bird mixes, skylark plots and some fallow patches are all important to create habitat and food sources for these birds.  We looked in hedgerows, on grassland, over water, on farm tracks, adjacent to field margins, in arable fields and across game covers to see what was on show.  Eyes and binoculars were pointing in all directions and here's the species list on show that day. We spotted mallard, coot, heron, robin, dunnock, wren, pied wagtail, blackbird, song thrush, redwing, fieldfarerook, jackdaw, carrion crow, magpie, raven, buzzard, sparrow hawk, yellowhammer (one of my favourites), goldfinch, linnet, chaffinch, skylarkblue tit. great tit, long-tailed tit, pheasant and red-legged partridge.  We are heading out on Thursday morning to put our new identification skills to the test to see if we can beat this impressive list of species.  Many thanks to Peter, to the GWCT and BASF for the event sponsorship as this training will last much longer than just a day in February.  I would encourage everyone who can take part to get out, count some birds and upload the results. It's a very important source of information, helping to prove that we are looking after and enhancing the environment in which we live and work!

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

The 5 Minute Fallow

The 5 Minute Fallow

Well after 2 years of trialling and testing, of calculating and studying our Cross Slot drill has finally arrived, imported all the way form New Zealand.  I say finally arrived, it actually arrived in July 2015 but shamefully I have neglected my blog, so here's an update on my latest thinking and plans.

The 5 minute fallow is the first place to start.  The picture above shows the drill planting a cover crop mix directly behind the combine.  Why are we doing this, I hear you ask?  The cover crop plants will stay in the ground after the oilseed rape has been harvested and before we plant wheat in the same field.  The job of the cover crop is to:

Cover Crop at 4 weeks old

  1. Intercept the sunlight during the period of maximum radiation and turn that sunlight into roots, shoots and leaves.  This plant material will have several benefits to the new zero tillage farming system we are adopting.  The roots will penetrate down in to the soil breaking up soil compaction, create drainage channels (when they die) and release sugars in the soil to feed the soil fungi and bacteria, which in turn feed earthworms.
  2. The leaves and stems of the plants will store nutrients that might otherwise leak or escape from the soil which could create pollution.  Things like sulphate and nitrate are very soluble in water  but non-mobile when part of a plant.
  3. Create soil armour.  August has always been the farms wettest month, with heavy thundery summer storms hammering down on the soil surface.  By having a protective shield on the surface, in the form of leaves, the rainfall is intercepted and can infiltrate at a faster rate, with reduced micro compaction on the surface.
  4. When the cover crop is destroyed the dead material will slowly turn into organic matter (OM) which can hold greater amounts of nutrients and water than mineral particles.  OM can potentially hold 10x more water than the mineral soil alone.  Few arable soils in the UK or around the world have OM levels greater than 5%, which is where it needs to be as a minimum.  The OM will help to feed the soil bacteria and fungi which in turn will help to feed our crops.
  5. Reduce weeds in the seed bank, as some of the seeds will be germinated when the cover crop is planted which will be destroyed with the cover crop.
After the cover crop comes the main crop in the case of the field below, wheat. This picture was taken at the end of October when the crop was about 4 weeks old and shows good even plant establishment with little sign of pest (slug) activity.  The crop, if anything, is a little too thick.  
Wheat Planted after Cover Crop
A cover crop is not a "fix all problems in the field from a bag, rather than a chemical container" but it does have a lot of advantages when it comes to improving the soil health and workability of the soil.  It will contribute to increasing OM levels and it will create drainage channels to improve water infiltration into the soil, key when reducing soil erosion and storing more water in the fields, and can help reduce flooding down-stream.  We use cover crops to reduce the exposure of our soils to the elements of wind, sun and water; all of which have massive long term benefits.  I will be back with a follow up blog on dealing with cover crops and getting the next crop established through increased levels of crop residue.