WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, August 2018

Last month I talked about falling at the final hurdle. The hurdle came, and we crashed straight into it. June 2018 was actually even drier than the famous June of 1976, when crops died, hosepipes were banned, and the country baked. Luckily we are not so badly off this time, as from October 1975 to June 1976 there was around 190mm of rain in Cambridge, whereas in the same period this year we have had double that – so the ground water reserves were significantly higher.

We are currently still waiting to start harvest, as we do not have any winter barley, and the oilseed rape is stubbornly remaining just a little bit too wet to cut. I have sold most of this crop to be collected next week (it’s Thursday now), so I’ve very much got my fingers crossed that we start before the weekend. Having been optimistic about he oilseed rape yield all year, we are now at crunch time, and I’m getting nervous as to whether it lives up to expectations. The hot weather has really brought forward harvest quite significantly for the later crops, and as soon as the rapeseed is finished we will be straight into one of wheat, rye or peas. The peas in particular have suffered badly, on light land, and are looking to be ready some 2-3 weeks ahead of schedule. This is not a good sign, and coupled with a bad pea moth infestation (due to faulty moth traps, which we use to know if there is a problem that needs treating), I am glad we only have a very small acreage of peas. 

Back in 1976 the wheat harvest was a disaster, with yields of around half of average. I don’t think we will be that bad this year, but we are unlikely to beat our 5 year average of around 9 tonnes per hectare. Probably the worst looking crop is our winter beans. In the middle of June they looked excellent, with a good amount of pods set on the bottom of the plant, and the top half still flowering. Unfortunately the lack of rain, the high temperatures, have ensured that literally none of those flowers have formed pods – limiting our yield to perhaps half of what it could have been. The sugar beet looks relatively good, but it does desperately need water as well, as will the oilseed rape and cover crops that we will plant at the start of August. But first let’s keep it dry for a week, so we can get the first part of harvest finished.

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, July 2018

I’ve been away for most of the time since I wrote the last column here, first a family holiday, and then a trip to Russia and Ukraine to look at farms. It’s been an interesting ten days – I’m writing this in Kiev airport waiting to fly back to Gatwick – starting off right in the south near Georgia, before taking a 3,000km loop up through Rostov, Kursk, Kiev and then finally to Odessa. We’ve skirted the war zone, but there are plenty of tanks moving about in Ukraine on training exercises. This region, around the Black Sea, is really important as it produces a large amount of wheat, some 45 millions tonnes of which is exported into the world market. That means that the size of their harvest has a huge impact on grain prices – much more than whatever happens in the UK. 

For the last few months there has been a drought, and prices have been moving ever upwards as a result. Obviously this is great news for me, and we have sold wheat for over £150 per tonne for the first time in four years. However, having spent time here and talked to the farmers, I’m not sure if maybe the fears have been slightly overplayed; it just doesn’t seem all that dry, and harvest is about to start. This wasn’t the main reason for the trip though, I really came to see how they manage to grow wheat so cheaply. The answer is not exactly what I expected; the actual standard of farming is generally not very special, and attention to detail is fairly limited. What they do manage very well is using old, small machinery much more efficiently that we can. Huge fields – some bigger than our entire farm – also help, as does the comparatively cheap price of that land and a climate that doesn’t promote fungal diseases. Some of this we can learn from, but some is just intrinsically different. One thing is clear though – they aren’t going away, and neither are their 45 million tonnes of wheat.

Back at home we like the crop prices, but I’m getting increasingly worried about harvest. Whereas up until May the weather had been great, since then there has been a notable lack of rain. I think the oilseed rape should be OK, but everything else will be suffering significantly. It isn’t too late, but that time is fast approaching. It will be frustrating, to say the least, if we fall at the final hurdle having come so far. Fingers crossed.

Russia/Ukraine III

It’s all about vertical integration here, for the big businesses at least. These guys do it all, starting with growing the crops, raising cattle, and processing it through to steaks and burgers. The slaughtering and processing happens in one building, and is quite the sight. We couldn’t take photos of the gory bits – they were a little stomach turning. The technology is impressive however, like this automated meat grading camera:

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At the moment the feedlot can hold 20,000 cattle, this is going to get bigger.

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A rare crop of lupins

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And a nice (and moist) piece of the black earth. Most of the crops look pretty decent.

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A large portion of Russians still grow a lot of their own food on small holding like this, where we found tomatoes,

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spring onions,

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apples,

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cows,

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chickens,

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and rabbits [not for cuddling].

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A risky crop of spring oilseed rape in such a dry climate.

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The first combine, near Odesa

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cutting a very thin looking sample of winter barley.

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Quite a bit of sugar beet is grown in the region, and most looks in good condition.

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What goes clip-clop, clip-clop, BANG BANG, clip-clop, clip-clop? An Amish drive-by

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Chronic Irrigation

We started off the day looking at a field of wheat being sprayed with a fungicide. This seemed like a waste of time to me, as it was bone dry, hadn’t rained for two months, and the crop would be dead in a bout a week. Still, they wanted to do everything. When it came time to fill up again, very sweetly, the booms were given a nice rest by lying them on the floor.

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Here are a couple of crops I Wasn’t expecting to see, linseed and peas. Both very much cool season plants, in a hot season climate.

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I think we have an easy farm, this place is another planet. Here’s a rectangular 600ha field of wheat.

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These zero-tilled sunflowers looked really good, considering the lack of rain. No problems with compaction that we could see – nice straight roots.

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Onto the biggest irrigation project in Russia. They have around 100 pivots, some of which are 480m long covering 129ha of crops each.

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This pump house can move 3 tonnes of water every second:

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Back in Stravropol there was a first- a black burger which came complete with black latex gloves for eating it with:

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And finally another arty farty photo:

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From Russia with photos

It’s time to crack out the travel blogging again, but at this point I can’t be bothered to write much, so there will only be a few pictures to look at.

This involved getting up at 4.45am, battling with cancelled trains on the way to Gatwick, spending 4 hours in Riga, a night in Moscow – but 24 hours later we arrived:

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The first field we stopped in was very black, very dry, and very sparse. Not a good advert for Russian wheat:

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It did have one thing going for it however. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had leguminous weeds like these peas, clover and vetch?

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The next field was even worse. Heavily over-cultivated, there was terrible soil erosion on what was only a very slight slope. The sunflowers looked very sorry for themselves, although amazingly this isn’t considered a write-off.

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This photo was only a kilometre or so away, but the farming is clearly a lot better. This should yield perhaps 3-4t/ha.

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Confirmation, as if it were needed, that we don’t work machinery hard enough in the UK. Some of these tractors have done over 20,000 hours, and they work 24 hours a day in 12 hour shifts on a 9,000ha “smallholding”. This is one way fixed costs are kept so much lower than we can manage.

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The landscape is really unusual (for me anyway), and beautiful:

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And to finish, an arty farty photo of a grainstore roof:

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WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, June 2018

Wow. I have to say, for the last six weeks, the weather has been just about perfect. Sun follows rain follows sun follows rain – and quite warm too. If we continue on like this for the next six weeks then harvest could be quite exciting. Most of the spring crops we planted last month have been performing well since they dried out a little bit, with the exception being the large field of oats over in Barrington where a fairly significant proportion of the seed, perhaps a quarter, rotted in the ground before it could germinate. This causes a double problem because not only is there no crop, there is also no competition for the weeds, which then go out of control. So we will have to kill off those patches fairly soon to stop the problem getting any worse. The other unexpected piece of spring crop news was a last minute decision to try growing soya. This is a massive crop on a global scale, but almost un-cultivated in the UK, where our weather is a bit cooler than is ideal. We planted it towards the end of April, and hope to have it harvested by the end of September, or early October at the latest. I love drinking soya milk, so it’s quite exciting, and I think I’ll have a go at making a bit of tofu as well – if we can keep the hares, slugs and pigeons off long enough for it to produce a decent crop.

Elsewhere on the farm, the winter crops are looking good, with all of our fertiliser applied, and all the spraying up to date. It has been a real pleasure to drive around for the last few weeks, and see the oilseed rape fields bright yellow from edge to edge. This is not something we have had the pleasure of seeing for several years, so I’m quietly [dangerously?] optimistic for harvest. The same goes for most of our wheat fields, which keep on being watered just as I begin to wonder when we will get the next bit of rain. The plants are tall and bushy, without much disease pressure. Again, I’m optimistic, although there is a very long way to go before harvest, and plenty that can go wrong. Let’s just keep this sunny weather, with a nice bit of rain once a week, preferably overnight. That isn’t too much to ask, is it?

Our first crop of soya starts to poke its head above ground

Our first crop of soya starts to poke its head above ground

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?