Thursday, 20 December 2018

Conservation Cattle

Red Poll Cattle Grazing Old Grassland

This winter we have an exciting new project on the summit of Bredon Hill. At about 950ft above sea level we have some very thin soil which has been growing enough grass for our sheep since about 1990 when it was converted from crop production. All of the grasses and wild flowers have naturally appeared from the soil seed bank or from birds bringing them in. 
The grassland has become quite old and matted so a change in grazing technique was required. As we have cattle of our own we have very kindly adopted, for a few weeks, some young heifers from the Kemerton pedigree Red Poll herd. Their job is to eat the standing grass, which as this time of year is like a hay crop, and tread in the inedible bits. All of these hooves will push the uneaten old and dead grass into the soil where the biology (bacteria and fungi) will start to break down the material and recycle the nutrients.
Over time this will improve the quality of the grassland enabling wider species to be introduced. The cattle are being fed hay, which we made back in July, from the species rich tower field with the hope that these ancient species will be moved across to improve the diversity of the sward in the neighbouring fields. The cattle will be socked quite tightly to make sure they eat the right amount of grass and moved on accordingly, always with a supply of hay nearby.
It's a great example of how farmers can work together to get the best results for all parties. These cattle are traditional breeds and will be very happy on the hill whatever the British climate will throw at them.

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Aphid Alert

Wheat Drilled into Oat Stubbles
I think this could have possibly been one of the best autumns for establishing winter crops I can remember for quite some time. After the very dry summer months we started to get rain at just about the right time. This rain enabled weeds to germinate in the stubble's and cover crops before the main crops were planted. We had enough rain over the planting period to make sure that the seeds we planted germinated rapidly and emerged very quickly.
This year we have only used seed dressings with Zinc and Manganese on them to kick start the growth of the young plants, except on 1 block of barley we are growing for seed. Every year we have tested leaves for deficiency and these trace elements have always come up short.
One dilemma I have had is whether or not we should be spraying an autumn insecticide to control aphids. The aphids (Bird Cherry-Oat and Grain Aphids) could be carrying a virus called Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus which stunts the growth of plants and reduces yield. The only problem is you don't know if the aphids in our crops are carrying the virus and if the plants have been infected until the spring, when its too late to treat. The AHDB has developed a tool to assess when you should spray for aphids. This can play a crucial role when we are using Integrated Pest Management to responsibly use pesticides. This means that when we see a pest, we monitor its development and then spray with the correct product, with the correct amount of water and the correct dose rate to take the pest out. The tool can be found HERE 
As we are trying to reduce the levels of insecticide we apply on our fields I have decided not to spray half of the wheat area that was later planted but rely on our beneficial predators to help reduce the numbers of aphids. There are always lots of spiders webs across the fields and the aphids should provide a tasty snack! The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust did some research which indicated that the effect on beneficial insects of that autumn spray was still apparent the following June.
Providing grassy margins around our field boundaries and beetle banks within larger fields also help create habitat for beneficial insects to live ready to strike at invading aphids. We will see in the spring whether or not this was a good decision! We need a good hard winter to help kill off as many aphids as possible.

Friday, 9 November 2018

Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle

Well what a trying autumn it has been for our oilseed rape crops! 2 years ago the EU restricted the use of, and has subsequently banned neonicotinoid seed dressing on our crops. These insecticide seed dressings were a valuable tool in terms of getting crops established when dealing with a tricky pest called Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle. The insecticide was applied to the seed and when the plant grew the chemical was taken in by the plant. This meant that when the beetle took a bite out of the plant leaves it received a dose of insecticide and died. This meant that we didn't have to spray for the pests when the crop had emerged with an indiscriminate insecticide across the whole field. There are parts of the country where it has become impossible to grow these crops anymore. Why should that be a problem? For several reasons oilseed rape is a very important crop. It enables farmers to have a rotation, growing different crops in the field every year rather than continuous cereals. It's actually pretty profitable, which means we can invest in our farms and the countryside. The oil that it produces is valuable to the country as its turned into bio diesel and vegetable oils, and the yellow flowers are a really important source of pollen and nectar for bees producing honey.
If the UK stopped growing oilseed rape, the grains would still be imported from abroad. Last year 200,000 Tonnes of oilseed rape was imported from Australia, where these chemicals (and others), banned in the EU, are still permitted. So in effect we would be exporting our environmental  conscious abroad.
We have learnt a lot from the this years establishment of the crop.  There are a lot of practical, physical tools that we can apply using the principles of IPM (Integrated Pest Management). Drilling date has been key to getting crops established and to have grown at least a true leaf before the beetles attack. The weather and crucially moisture at drilling is key to getting oilseed rape established quickly. Direct drilling helps retain valuable moisture at this key timing for the crop. Placed fertiliser enables a quick get away when the plant starts to grow. High levels of crop residue also help conceal the crop from the beetles, but comes with the added issues of slugs hiding in the straw ready to pounce. For the last 4 years we have been planting companion crops (buckwheat, vetch and clover) to help mask the crop still further. These companions also have benefits of weed suppression and the legumes are able to fix a certain amount of free nitrogen from the atmosphere.
We haven't sprayed any insecticide on the oilseed rape crops this year. Partly because we are trying to farm without using insecticides as we want to encourage our beneficial insects to predate the pests and partly due to the fact that I am not sure exactly how efficient they are due to pest resistance. It seems that they are becoming resistant to the active ingredient so their extended use is probably not justified.
Either way new research is needed to find out more about the pest and how we can manage or disrupt its life cycle. What percentage of the population is resistant? What environmental trigger makes them hatch?  How long is the feeding period for?
These are some of the issues faced on the farm by one crop and one pest. We have a massive challenge to maintain active ingredients that enable us to continue to grow food in the UK. Food sovereignty should be very much at the fore front of the thinking of the population in a post EU world but we will need to tools that will unable us to product this food for an ever increasing population.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Harvest Roundup

Harvest 2018 was a very interesting time with some very strange results, although probably not surprising considering the weather that has been thrown at the crops this year. The weather went from a very late cold spring (snow ploughing at the start of March), through to a warm spell at the end of April and then straight into summer. We had some rain at the end of May and then into a very hot and dry June (3.8mm) and July (36mm). The winter crops didn't fair too badly on the whole and grain quality was fantastic. The milling wheat averaged about 10% down from our rolling average and proteins were very high, and with good hagbergs (stretchyness for flour). We trialled a new monitor, called a Crop Scan in the combine this year which measures the protein levels of the grain as we harvested. This gave us some very valuable real time information of crop quality. It also showed the grain moisture. This was installed by Precision Decisions and supplied by Agri-EPI and is a very interesting piece of farm equipment.
Winter Oilseed rape was down 10% but the winter malting barley actually increased its yield from last year. The disappointment came when we started combining the spring crops. These were typically 30% down on our historic yields, although quality was good. The recent increase in prices due to lower world yields will not make up the financial difference incased by lower yields. On the plus side we didn't need to buy any diesel for drying the grain and all of the farm machinery behaved very well with no real hiccups!

Sunday, 17 June 2018

#YourHarvest, Get the Message Out There

At the Cereals Event Tom Bradshaw, (National Farmers Union - Crops Board Chairman) launched a campaign to highlight the importance of the arable sector; raising awareness of its importance to many other sectors of UK Agriculture. Much of the grain we produce goes to feed poultry, pigs, cattle and sheep, in addition to supplying us with bread, beer and proteins. Without a profitable and vibrant arable sector this could open the door to cheaper imports, produced to lower standards, using chemicals and products that are not registered or licensed in the UK.
Grain is probably one of the easiest crops to store and then export around the world. If stored correctly it will last for years. The infrastructure is in place around the world to move grain from farms to ports and then its a relatively cheap cost to move that grain around the world. This could give us opportunities, if we can produce quality wheat but that is not reliable year on year due to the vagaries of the UK summer weather.Realistically the UK only produces about 1% of the worlds wheat-we are small fish in a very large commodity pond.
So here is the idea. If you are an arable farmer (or any farmer for that matter) use this harvest as an opportunity to show people what you do; what you grow and how that is relevant to everyone else in the country. Tweet loads of pictures of #YourHarvest and use the hashtag.
Find your local MP and invite them out to the farm. In fact invite those from neighbouring constituencies as well and spend a few hours doing a spot of show and tell. Remind them about the technology we use to ensure we are efficient with our crop inputs, that pesticides and fertiliser applied stay in the field. Show them the margins with wildflowers; the wild birdseed mixtures; the fallow plots and the woodland, the new hedges and the trees planted. We have to get this message across. 2 hours is nothing compared to what is at stake over the next 25 years.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

"To Spray or Not to Spray?"-That is the Question

We have just completed the Health and Harmony consultation organised by Secretary of State for DEFRA Michael Gove where we were asked to put forward our views about the new Agricultural system post Brexit. There was a lot of noise and gesturing from many sides of the argument about what our country side should and must produce. Very sadly the words 'Food Production' were missing from the initial phases of the conversation and ultimately this is only part of the argument. Our ever shrinking and ever compromised countryside has and can produce a wide range of 'public goods' It can provide, food, environmental benefits, jobs, clean air and water, it can provide habitat and food not just for people but also for our wildlife, but it needs a balanced approach.
Lets also be clear that between 2006-2012, 224,200 Ha was developed in the UK (Professor Heiko Balzter-Leicester Uni) for infrastructure, roads, rail, houses, golf courses and wind turbine's. This squeezes the natural world into smaller and smaller segments. More people in the countryside, more disturbance means less wildlife. This was observed in the 2001 Foot and Mouth outbreak when public rights of way were closed during the breeding season and farmland bird numbers rose.
This blog isn't a piece about how we should be supporting farmers to produce food.  It is about supporting farmers to provide what many are already doing-a balance of environmental resilience, economic return and healthier foods. But this way of farming does not come without its risks and sometime for no reward and this Michael Gove, if you are reading this, is where farmers who are doing the right things need support. Let me give you a scenario.

We are a notill farm cropping arable crops and this spring has been the wettest and coldest for a long time, but this farming that's in our bloody, we know the risks. One of the challenges we have set ourselves as LEAF farmers is to reduce our impact on the environment and I have set a challenge to not use insecticides on the farm. The theory being that natural predators will increase with the habitat we have created and help us control pests when they appear. Great in theory but here is a dilemma in some spring sown Linseed.
Linseed with Flax Beetle Damage- Photo from David Miller

The notches you can see are being caused by the flax beetle, (one visible top half toward the right) of which there is no seed dressing to control (not a neonicotinoid solution in this case). We use an economic threshold of 3 beetles in a 5cm row of crop to assess the economic return to make the case for spraying field wide insecticide. Out of stubbornness; I don't want to use insecticides, I try to turn a blind eye to this economic threshold, and environmentally we want to do the right thing. If we don't spray then the plant population could be reduced by 50% and the seed yield at the end of the day will be less than half. This is because fewer plants will be less competitive to weeds, loose vigour and so yield suffers a disproportional reduction. Linseed is worth £375/tonne and has a target yield of 2.25t/Ha, meaning this field (7.5ha) could loose over £3,500 in income (1.25t/Ha @£375/tonne), for a treatment and application cost of £75. (whole field). The economic argument is obviously very clear if you were Mr Hammond sitting in the treasury Dept the decision would be very easy. Are there some alternatives to spraying?
We as a LEAF farmers, as many other farmers do something called IPM (Integrated Pest Management) which encourages us to use lots of other options before resorting to a chemical solution. In the case of this field this meant looking at some options ahead of spraying, including:

  1. A long rotation (never grown Linseed here before),
  2. Increasing seed rate, to compensate for some pest damage,
  3. Planting when soil temperatures are warm, (to enable the crop to establish evenly and quickly), 
  4. Using no-till techniques to avoid the soil drying out (reducing establishment),
  5. Removing weeds before we plant to reduce competition.

We want to farm without insecticides in the hope (and others experiences) that in the long term the build up of natural pests and predators will balance out but in the short term we need an economic return or we won't make it to the long term goal.
You can't look after the green if you are farming in the red and who pays the price for using less pesticides? At the moment the farmer carries all of the risk which if society wants us to use less artificial inputs then the reward must be greater to be able us to handle these losses. Alternatively the imports of food coming into the country must adhere to the same standards. If that's the case then currently we should not be importing any Soya beans (protein source) or Maize (corn) products from the United States as the majority are grown using plant breeding techniques not allowed in the UK and Europe and are treated with many agro-chemicals that, although safe, are not licensed in the EU.

It's a complex path that we have to tread in order to not disadvantage any UK farmers in the future. Maybe as a result of the Health and Harmony Consultation a no insecticide commitment by the farmer should be rewarded with suitable compensation for crop losses to ensure better biodiversity whilst keeping farmers in business?

Just for information the field was sprayed with a heavy heart last Thursday.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Amazing Mother Nature

There has always been a saying-'You can't fight Mother Nature', and it is so true.  From the heavy snow we had at the beginning of March; through to the very wet Easter weekend, the weather never ceases to amaze me. March saw a record rainfall and snow melt of 95mm (almost 4") and then followed the very wet Easter weekend where we saw another 48mm of rain arrive to sit firmly on the top of our already cold and damp soil.  Soil temperatures at the start of April were only 4.2 degrees and nothing was really growing.  No daffodils, a few hardy snowdrops but the farm crops refused to grow.
Fast forward to the 16th April and after a couple of sunny days, with some brisk winds, the soil dried enough to get planting spring barley, into some pretty good conditions.  All of the fields destined for spring cropping had a cover crop growing on them over the winter.  Some were grazed and others were not.
Planting Spring Barley 16th April 2018
This was the first field that we planted. The cover crop was a mixture of vetch and oats which the sheep grazed before Christmas.  The top was nice and dry but conditions under the surface were a little damp, but we had to get going.  Derek made a start and before long the fields were planted (2 days) and we moved on to plant other crops.  I had a look on Friday morning to see if the seeds had germinated (started to grow) and to my astonishment-not only had they germinated  but there were small shoots appearing.  I measured the soil temperature at 14 degrees, and with plenty of moisture the seeds were off to a flying start.
Barley Seeds Germinating After 4 days
I called into the field today to see how things were progressing only to be met with small green shoots bursting up from the clutches of the soil.  Incredibly after 6 days, almost to the hour ,we had some crop emergence.  I have never known such a short period from planting to emergence as I have witnessed this year with the barley.
Barley Plants Emerging
To me this really is amazing because only a few weeks before we were sitting looking at wet, cold fields with little prospect of planting anything this spring.  The crop has a long way to go before it will hopefully be harvested.  It will be attacked by pests and disease, which we will have to regularly check for. It might be hot or cold, dry or wet from now on, but for now, the little plants are on their way!

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Snow Joke

Overbury in the snow
Well mother nature certainly has a great way of bringing us back down to earth with a reminder of who really is in charge! Last week we saw temperatures plummet to -8 degrees with added windchill taking the temperature down into double digits below zero.  Then came Storm Emma sucking Siberian air across Europe and freeze blasting the UK.

In a funny kind of way we were very lucky to only have a few inches of snow, but when the wind blew the trouble started.  Our small roads, bordered with beautiful hedgerows acted as sinks for the snow to settle in. Many of our roads, including the one to the main farm had 5' of snow drifts making them impossible to get through even with a 4 wheel drive truck.
Clearing snow on the Eckington Road
Like many farmers we have some good equipment that could be deployed to help clear the snow. Working on behalf of Worcestershire County Council to clear the larger trunk roads before moving into the smaller lanes to ease up more local traffic.  In total we had 3 team members (Tim, Derek and Gordon) out for 2.5 days clearing snow around Bredon Hill. I think we have been very lucky, lambing is not due to start for another month and my heart goes out to those spending hours rescuing stranded livestock.
If there are a few messages that these events can draw out, they would be that community spirit is not dead, much help was available to clear driveways, collect shopping and shovel snow from valley gutters.
Farmers have an active role to play, not just to produce food and look after the natural resources but also to keep the roads open to allow others to go about their daily lives.  Next time you get stuck behind a slow moving tractor and trailer of hay, or a combine harvester moving around the lanes, just pause for a moment and think they are doing their jobs just as you were able to get through the snow to do yours.

Drifting snow
3 days later we are all back to normal, with only a few farm tracks impassable to vehicles smaller than a tractor and the sun is shining.  Spring feels like it is just around the corner.  We will have to wait and see!