Paleonicotinoids

Yesterday we lost the use of neonicotinoid insecticides for almost all agricultural uses in the EU. It’s been coming for quite some time, looking more and more likely since their use as a seed treatment for flowering plants was banned back in 2014. This had an immediate effect on oilseed rape growers, almost all of whom (ourselves included) used this seed treatment on just about all of our crops. The main pest we all wanted to control was Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle, a little shit of an insect which eats the small plants in the autumn, and then lays its eggs in the stem. This means that if the plant isn’t finished by September, the larvae can hatch and complete the job in the spring.

Some areas of the country are more heavily affected than others – we happen to live in one of the hot spots. The autumns of 2015 and 2016 were particularly bad for CSFB, and so to make up for the loss of neonics, everyone went around spraying foliar insecticides to try and control the problem. Now, I have written about this sort of stuff before, and I don’t intend to rehash it at the moment, but generally my feeling is that these foliar sprays are fairly useless. We don’t use them any more. What has made me write this again is hearing so many farmers taking to the internet now that neonics have been banned on all crops, not just flowering ones. That means no more Deter seed dressing for cereals, which contained a neonic designed to control aphids (which can spread a disease known as BYDV). The farmers’ refrain is predictable: “now we can’t use neonics, we will use loads more harmful foliar sprays, which aren’t targeted, so will kill everything. And our yields will suffer as we get more BYDV”.

This is almost identical to what we heard in 2014: We’ll have to use more insecticide. Yields will suffer. No one will grow OSR any more. Well, that was 4 years ago, what has happened? Let’s take a look.

Stats on how many hectares of each crop, and what they yield, is collected and published each year by DEFRA. They are freely available, and for the last few years ADAS & the AHDB have produced a nice report with all the numbers in it as well. So, I spent a little bit of time collating, and here are the results. Firstly, let’s examine the claim that fewer people would grow OSR after the ban.

Total area of OSR grown in the UK

Total area of OSR grown in the UK

That actually looks like it’s probably true. The red line shows when the ban came into effect, and 2017’s area is some 26% lower than the peak in 2012. Next, let’s look at yields.

Average OSR yield (t/ha)

Average OSR yield (t/ha)

Hmmm, OK, this one is a bit different. Far from having a negative effect, the yield in the year following the ban was higher than the year before, as was 2017. I don’t think anyone would claim the yields are consistently going to be higher, but saying they fell off a cliff is clearly wrong. They look about the same to me. [I should also mention that Thriplow Farm’s yields probably knocked about 0.5t/ha off the national average in 2016 & 2017].

Next we can move on to more detailed data. Every two years FERA carry out a pesticide survey, which shows which pesticides were used on which crops, and how often. This is interesting stuff, and it allows me to see if the prophecies from 2014 have come true. Firstly, let’s take a look at the amount of foliar insecticides used on OSR since 2012.

Average number of foliar insecticide applications on OSR per season

Average number of foliar insecticide applications on OSR per season

Here we can see that immediately after than ban, the number of foliar insecticide applications per crop did indeed go up. However, it was still lower than in 2012, when neonics were widely used. Hmmm, maybe there is still more insecticide used per tonne of OSR produced?

Total grams of foliar insecticide used per tonne of OSR produced

Total grams of foliar insecticide used per tonne of OSR produced

Uh oh! This is a killer. Again, the number has gone up a little bit since the ban was introduced, but it is still lower than in 2012.

Let’s think about this again now we see the data. Area grown has gone down. Yield has stayed similar. Foliar insecticide applications have stayed similar, as has the total amount of foliar insecticide per tonne of OSR. But, and this is critical, remember that in that time we have stopped used neonics. Looking back on it, how can anyone really say this was a bad thing? We have reduced our spend on growing the crop, reduced the amount of insecticide going into our soils, and maintained yields.

Farming has a terrible, terrible history of crying wolf. Will the same happen again when everyone stops using the other neonics next year? 100% guaranteed there will be a mega-whinge, but odds are the apocalypse, once again, will be avoided. We’ll just have to wait another 5 years to see the data.

[Below is the data in spreadsheet format]5

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WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, May 2018

Reading last month’s column again, it’s amusing to see that I suspected I would be soon complaining the weather was too dry. Safe to say, we aren’t quite at that point yet. The spring drilling started on March 20th, with a field of barley to the south of Thriplow. It was really still a bit too wet, but we were three weeks behind schedule, and mindful of all the work that was coming up soon. It took a day to plant that field, which was slower than usual as we went over the ground twice, in different directions, sowing half the seed each time. This gives us a thicker crop, which helps to suppress the weeds without relying so much on herbicides. Next up were the peas, which went in fine, and at the same time we started on our sugar beet fields.

The first operation here was to cultivate the strips where the sugar beet are going to grow, whilst leaving the other 80% of the field untouched. We got off to a bit of a rocky start, as the old cover crop residue – these were the fields behind Fowlmere which had the sunflowers last autumn – was still damp, and it immediately blocked up the machine. Luckily, later in the day it dried out enough to get going fairly efficiently. After the strips were formed, we strapped the planted onto the tractor, and retraced our tracks to drill the seed. This was not without its complications, due to using an unfamiliar machine which had been lent to us. Over the course of several days we got the job done, and at the same time our other machine headed to Barrington to plant 85 hectares of oats. With the weather forecast looking ominous, there were some late nights, but eventually the last bit was done at 1am on a Tuesday morning. At 8am that same day, it started raining, and has been fairly constant since then, with around 60mm in the three weeks since we finished.

In general, this sort of wet weather is good for our farm, which is mostly on drought prone land. But there are limits, and no seeds like to sit in cold, wet ground. Particularly in Barrington, where the soil is much wetter and rich in clay, quite a few of the seeds are rotting, although exactly what proportion is difficult to say at the moment. Still, we are the lucky ones. All around the country most farmers have ether not even started their spring work, or have only done a little bit. Even worse, all the livestock farmers are tearing their hair out – no sun, and too much rain, means there is no grass for the animals. Spare a thought for them, it is not easy at the moment.

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, April 2018

Need I even talk about the weather this month? Oh well, I might as well mention it. Needless to say, conditions have been somewhat less than ideal at the beginning of March. We had really hoped to have had all of our spring cereals, that’s oats and barley, planted at this point, and ideally poking their heads out of the ground. As it turns out, a snow covering, and temperatures below freezing for days on end, is not very helpful. It’s the middle of March now, and with all this rain we keep having it’s really difficult to see when we actually get started with the drill at all. Provided we do manage to get going in March I won’t be too upset; if we venture into April, particularly with the sugar beet, then it may start to become a bit of a problem. Of course, now it’s too wet, and next month I’ll almost certainly be complaining that it’s too dry – the joys of farming.

Luckily we haven’t been entirely prevented from working, and the first batch of fertiliser has been applied to all of the crops that need it. We started at the end of February on our wheat fields that we thought needed a helping hand to get growing quickly. These tend to be the ones where we have planted wheat after another straw crop, like wheat, oats or barley. What happens is that because we leave the old straw undisturbed on the surface, as it breaks down slowly it uses up some of the soil’s nitrogen supply, leaving less for the growing crop. Hence we get started on these fields a little bit early to bring them up to speed. After this little job was finished, and the snowy interlude, we moved on to the rest of the wheat fields, along with the rye and the oilseed rape. This all went smoothly, and was finished in only three days.

Usually at this point, towards the end of March, we would be thinking about applying our first of four sets of fungicides to our wheat crops, we call this timing T0 (to be followed by T1, T2 & T3). However, we have now started selecting our wheat varieties not only for yield, but also for their natural disease resistance, so we can skip the T0 on most of the farm. It’s only a small cost saving, but they all count – and who wants to be applying pesticides when you don’t have to?

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, March 2018

It is still fairly quiet on the farm as we come towards the end of winter, with time being spent cutting hedges, digging out ditches, and getting machinery ready for work to come over the next few months. It has been tricky trying to time the last bit of sugar beet harvesting between Foxton & Fowlmere, as every time we get a start, it rains. Hopefully it will all be done by the time this article is published, and the resulting pile will have been taken to Bury St Edmunds where it is turned into Silver Spoon sugar. If you want to support British agriculture, you should buy this instead of Tate & Lyle, which is all made from imported sugar cane.

The next farm job will be to start applying fertiliser to the oilseed rape, and some of the wheat which we think needs a helping hand to get growing quickly. At around the same time we be starting to plant our spring crops, beginning with either oats or barley. After the cereals will come sugar beet – making use of a new machine we are being lent – and then finally the peas in around the middle of March. All of these spring crops are planted into a cover crop, which was killed off in the middle of January. As anyone who spent time around Fowlmere & Thriplow will know, last autumn was a great one for our cover crops, as they really enjoyed the wet and warm weather. There are several reasons why we plant these covers, but the main one is that we are trying to put carbon back into our soils, as that increases their fertility and ability to hold onto moisture, both of which are very important to us as farmers. It also takes carbon out of the atmosphere, and locks it into the soil, which is good for the environment as a whole. Finally, another benefit is that these growing plants hoover up any leftover nutrients in the soil, which stops them being leached down into the aquifers, where they could cause water pollution. So you can see why the government is so keen that we grow them.

Lastly, I need to talk quickly again about the walking routes over Thriplow Farm. I am still getting many questions about what has happened, and why, so I have written an in-depth analysis. Unfortunately some of our signs which tell people to keep off the environmental strips have been vandalised recently, which is a real shame. I would ask people to remember that we are voluntarily providing over 6 miles of walking access that we are in no way required to, so even if it does not go exactly where you would like it to, please try and appreciate that there are reasons why it is how it is. We love to see people enjoying the farm on these tracks, so please get out there and use them as the weather gets better.

 

Trying to do the right thing

I’m warning you now, there’s a bit of a whinge coming up.

Last year we altered some of the walking routes on the farm, partly due to a change in the environmental scheme we are in, and partly due to a field reorganisation. This has prompted responses ranging from disappointed to flat-out angry, from the people who had become used to using these access routes over the last decade or so. I have received many emails asking me to explain what we have done, as well as hearing some whispers going around the villages- I’m sure that most of them I don’t hear though. Eventually I wrote an article, with maps, to explain in detail what has happened.

So why am I annoyed? We provide over 9 miles of walking access on the farm, about 3 miles of which is Public Footpath. The rest, more than 6 miles, is opened up voluntarily by us, for which we receive no money and no real benefit. Perhaps wisely, none of the other farmers around these villages do the same; as far as I’m aware, there is not a single meter, let alone mile, of access given voluntarily on their farms. Yet I am the one who has to field angry emails, attend parish council meetings to explain myself, and tell irate walkers why they can’t go wherever they want. Someone even wrote a letter to the local council telling them that we should not be granted planning permission for our grainstore because David Walston has greatly reduced the “number of footpaths” available to the village.

It does make you wonder, is it really worth trying to do the right thing, or should we have an easy life and close off the whole farm? Anyway, here is the document I mentioned earlier, which explains the history of the farm’s paths, and how they have evolved over the years.

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, February 2018

There is not much that happens on the farm over Christmas – mostly because we don’t keep any animals at the moment. Just before Christmas we had our first field of sugar beet harvested, which performed quite a lot better than we thought it would, although it still did not reach full potential. That was really all down to mistakes we made in the spring when it was planted. The rye we have put into the field after the beet is looking nice, I’m feeling optimistic that this will turn out to be a good crop for us, although there is still a long, long way to go until harvest. Our second field of sugar beet is still in the ground, and will not be lifted until the end of January. We are really hoping that the weather dries out a bit before then, as otherwise it is easy to cause a lot of soil damage in sodden fields.

One of the main jobs over winter is trying to maintain some of the woodlands around here, although these days with so few people working on the farm that is really difficult. When Thriplow Farms used to employ 70 people, then a whole team of them would spend two months over winter working in the woods, clearing deadwood and brush. Now it is more of a firefighting operation, as we only have time to remove what is an immediate problem – particularly after storms like at the start of January, when five separate trees fell on to Cambridge Road overnight, and we had to spend a couple of hours with the police that morning getting the road open again.

Looking forward to work that is coming up, we are now planning our spring crops, and when they will be planted. There will be a bit of a change for 2018, and instead of delaying our barley drilling to April, we will try the opposite and put it in the ground in late February or early March. That means the cover crops have to be disposed of now, so that the nutrients are available for the barley at the right time. Even sooner than this job will be to start fertilising the oilseed rape, probably at the start of February – all the while trying to keep the pigeons from eating it all up. It’s still a quiet time on the farm really, but a busy couple of months are lurking just around the corner.

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Thriplow Farms Annual Report XLIIV – 2017: Housen

David Short, who until recently was landlord at the Queen’s Head in next-door Newton, is a mine of local historical information. When he tells me that he knows what my family, who used to live in Newton Hall until 1971, got up to back then, there’s always a twinkle in his eye. So far he hasn’t told me any really scandalous stories but I am sure they are in there – certainly there must be something more juicy than where the guy lived who sold my parents their herbal remedies forty years ago. Another scrap he mentioned to me was how when he started working at the pub, one of the old timers, who had never left the village, used to use the old Anglo Saxon way of pluralising words, which was to add the suffix -en, rather than the -s we use nowadays. We still use a few words left over from those days – David’s example was “oxen” – but there’s also “children”, “men”, “women” and a handful more. Anyway, there is one word that David recalled him using a lot, and it’s how he would have described the reason why my eye has been off the farming ball for a lot of 2017: housen.

Read the full report

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, December 2017

It’s early November, and we’ve had our first, very light, frosts of the year. Ideally the temperature would drop consistently now, as although the warmth keeps our cover crops growing, and putting more carbon into the soil, it is not very helpful on other parts of the farm. The main reason for this is that insects can only live and move when the temperature is above a certain point, and at this time of year we’d really like them all to go to bed until spring. Our biggest problem are aphids, which can carry a nasty disease called Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus. Confusingly, this doesn’t just affect barley, it also causes problems in wheat as well. We don’t like having to spray any insecticides when we can help it, but in a warm autumn like this, there are so many aphids around for so long, that sometimes it becomes necessary. I’m hoping that the cold weather has arrived just in time, but it may well be that we have to spray a few of our earlier drilled wheat fields.

By now we have planted almost all of the crops that are due to go in this year, the one exception being a field of rye which is waiting for the sugar beet to be harvested before it can go into the ground. This is the first year we have tried growing rye, a grain which is increasing in popularity very quickly, and I’ve got high hopes that it can do well on our lighter, sandy land. Elsewhere on the farm, the wheat is all planted and looks good, and the oilseed rape with its companion plants has gone crazy in the warm, wet weather. The difference compared to this time last year is hard to believe, and the plants are now approaching waist high. Similarly the cover crops, mainly down towards the A505, have done very well, and there are several million sunflowers waiting to be picked – everyone is welcome to help themselves.

The wildflower margins that we planted in September and October seem to have established nicely now, although it is difficult to see what is a wildflower and what is a weed – it takes someone far cleverer than me to be able to pick out all the species in there. Please do remember though to not walk on them, it is a very critical time and they are easily damaged. Hopefully next summer we will have something to show for it all.

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WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, November 2017

For around the last 15 years, the farm has been part of an environmental scheme, run by the government and Natural England, called the Entry Level Scheme. This was a pretty basic program – anyone who entered would be accepted – which meant we placed some grass strips around the place and did a few other bits and pieces. In addition, we were also accepted into the Higher Level Scheme, which was a competitive process. We were successful here because, by luck more than judgement, our farm is environmentally quite interesting. We have three SSSIs, and provide good habitats for a few rare birds as well. Last October, 2016, these schemes ran out, and we moved into an entirely new program called Countryside Stewardship. Once again, we were able to get into the competitive Higher Tier, so we must have been doing at least something right over the last decade.

The amount of land we have set aside for Countryside Stewardship is around double what we used for the old schemes, taking up something like 10% of the entire farm. Ever since harvest we have been busy putting in all the new plots that were needed; margins for wildflowers, rare arable plants, and grass buffers as well as plots for ground nesting birds, winter bird feed and pollen & nectar areas to feed insects. This should make the countryside around us a nicer place to be, but also I’d like to think it will benefit the farm directly as well. I’m hoping they will provide great areas for all our beneficial insects to live, which can go and eat all the nasties in our crops – meaning we can use fewer pesticides.

One of the really big changes from moving into this new system is that the government has changed its mind on allowing access onto these wildlife strips. Whereas they used to encourage it, it has now been decided that people must keep off. This means that some areas of the farm which have been permissive access paths for many years, are now no longer accessible. The single biggest alteration is in the area between Thriplow and the B1368. There used to be a path that looped around this whole block, but it is now entirely gone. However, all of our farm tracks are still open, as they have been since the ‘70s, and in a couple of places we have kept the Permissive Access routes by removing areas from the environmental scheme. It is a bit confusing, and I will put up some signs to make it clear where the changes are, but the best thing to do is to check here. There are still over 7 miles of accessible paths on the farm, so please do respect the changes and keep off the nature reserves. Thank you!