WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, June 2017

I finished the column last month by complaining about the weather, wishing for a wet Easter weekend, and I’m going to have to start off now in the same vein. The last significant bit of rain we had was towards the end of March, coming up for two months ago. If there is one saving grace, it’s that the weather has been fairly cool – although that looks like changing – but even so we are really starting to suffer with the dry conditions. These days I try to stick to the northern half of the farm, above Thriplow, as the heavier textured soil up there is much better at holding on to moisture so the crops look significantly better at the moment. Venturing down towards the A505 is a depressing occupation, as the wheat turns more and more yellow by the day. The crops which have been drilled in the spring still have a little bit of water left, as they are not yet big enough to drink a lot, but that won’t last for long. It is certainly a season when I am grateful that we have not ploughed or cultivated any of our land, a practice which is very effective at drying out the soil. I’m even more relieved that we have no animals this year, as the grass is just not growing, but at least that means my lawn doesn’t need cutting very often either.

All of this trouble makes our life pretty difficult as farmers, since we don’t know what to do with the crops. Do we continue to spend money on them, and hope the weather turns good in the near future, or do we massively reduce the inputs, effectively cutting our losses. If we do the latter, and then we get a lot of rain, it’s very likely that we will have a lot of diseases in the crops as we let the protection slip, but if we continue to spend money and there is no rain, we have just thrown it away for nothing. A crystal ball would always be useful on a farm, but never more so than now.

This is one of our lightest fields, and the gravel patches are already showing up badly at the beginning of May

This is one of our lightest fields, and the gravel patches are already showing up badly at the beginning of May

Real Real Results

Last year, there was what I thought to be a pretty good advertising campaign by BASF (an agrochemical company), called BASF Real Results. This all started after a friend of mine started a little trial on his own farm to see if the top-of-the-range treatment recommended by BASF made him more money than his standard farm practice. It turned out that, in this trial, the BASF products did actually make sense to use, and so the campaign was born from the idea that real farmers could tell other real farmers what worked best for them, on their own farms with their own soil types. Nifty – and quite convincing.

This year, BASF have rolled out the idea to a wider audience, and asked for 50 new farmers to volunteer to be sent some free fungicides, and do the trials on their farm. I thought this sounded like a good idea as well, so investigated further. After a bit of digging I came to the conclusion that, no, actually I don’t think it does what it’s supposed to do. I didn’t want to take part. Here’s the problem.

The philosophy of these trials is that they are “real world”, which means they use big plots, or even just fields split in two. These get cut separately, and weighed, and the results are taken from that. Big areas like this have some advantages over small plots, chiefly that they can be relatively easily managed by farmers with farm scale equipment. Unfortunately, they have a serious flaw, which is that by taking such a small number of samples (normally two in this case), you are relying entirely on the underlying soil in the field to be exactly th same, so that the only factor which may cause the yield to change is the fungicide treatment that you’ve fiddled with. This, in my mind, is impossible. Take a look at these yield maps from our combine:

These maps are relative yield maps, so the darker the shade of green, the higher the yield

These are relative yield maps, so the darker the shade of green, the higher the yield

This is a fairly extreme example, but it makes the point. If you took the 2012 yield maps as being what the field was like, the western half is obviously better. If you only looked at 2013 you would say it’s clearly the eastern half which is best. If I was running a split field trial on this field in 2017, and one side yielded more than the other, how would I know if that was due to the fungicides, or to something else unknown? The simple answer is that there is no way of knowing this, and the only way to get around the problem is by taking a larger number of samples from around the field, and averaging them out. This is the way trials are run professionally, and for good reason. The more samples you have, the more accurate your results will be, from a statistical point of view.

Now, I hear BASF and ADAS cry, we have thought of that. Indeed they have, because there’s a great idea called Agronōmics which is designed to get around this. Remember the 50 farms that have been selected to take part in the Real Results trial? This is where the sample number comes from; each farm may or may not get an accurate result, but bundle all 50 together, and average them out, and then you get something with statistical value. I don’t have any problem with this, in fact it’s a great idea. But it does make a mockery of the supposed idea of the trial, which is that farmers get a real idea of what works on their farm. If you are one part of a large sample set, you’ll never know if you are the outlier, or a good data point. That’s why I didn’t (selfishly) want to waste my time doing it.

But I did still want to know what works here, so together with BASF and The Farming Forum, we have devised a more detailed experiment, which I feel a bit more comfortable in conducting with the aim of having usable results for myself. It doesn’t just include BASF, we also have trials with Syngenta, Bayer, and an untreated plot. It doesn’t just use the combine yield monitor, we also have a plot combine coming to take multiple samples. It doesn’t just take place on one field with one variety, there are two locations, with two varieties. It doesn’t just mean me getting one set of freebies, it also…well, you get the picture.

The basic outline is the same as the other 50 farmers, we use farm standard sprays at T0 and T3 (that’s the first and last fungicide applications), but for T1 and T2 we will be putting on farm standard, BASF, Bayer, Syngenta & nothing at all. There are three replications of each treatment, except for the untreated, which only has one for fun. the plots are 30x100m in size, and the trials look something like this:

HC 2

We have two fields in the trial:

HC 2

Soil type: chalky sandy loam – probably the least productive field on the farm

Variety: KWS Crispin – very good intrinsic disease resistance

Yield potential: 7-9t/ha

Farm standard T1 treatment: 0.8l/ha Keystone, 1l/ha CTL, 1l/ha CCC, 0.165l/ha Scitec, 7.5kg/ha Bittersaltz

Stocks 3

Soil type: chalky clay loam – in the top third of of fields for average yield

Variety: Reflection – poor natural disease resistance, but our best yielder in 2016

Yield potential: 9-11t/ha

Farm standard T1 treatment: 1.25l/ha Adexar, 1l/ha CTL, 1l/ha CCC, 0.2l/ha Moddus

On both of these fields, the farm standard fungicides will be substituted for the following,

BASF: 1l/ha Adexar, 1l/ha CTL

Bayer: 1l/ha Aviator 235 Xpro, 1l/ha CTL

Syngenta: 0.8l/ha Seguris, 1l/ha CTL

I’m quite looking forward to taking these all to yield, as I really believe it could effect our thinking for the future, especially as we have the mix of good fields, bad fields, good (disease resistance) varieties, and less good ones. And hopefully, because of how it’s designed, it really will be Real Real Results.

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, May 2017

Since this column last month work on the farm has moved on quickly, and we are totally up to date. This means that all of the spring drilling was completed over a three week period, starting with the peas, then the sugar beet, then a few more peas, then oats, and finally barley. There is always a balancing act when choosing the drilling date for crops, as generally you get higher yields from putting them in the ground earlier, but on the flip side, your weed control is worse. Because a large part of the reason for us growing crops like spring oats is because they control some types of weeds very well without having to resort to pesticides, we waited until the start of April to drill it, which is perhaps three to four weeks after the best timing for high yields. The return will come in later years however, when we can grow better crops with fewer inputs. We are in the lucky position of farming our own land, meaning it’s possible to not always be looking to extract the maximum amount of money out of every hectare every year – not everyone can do that, which is a shame.

Our sugar bet drilling, which I mentioned last month as we were using a new machine, went fairly well, although we realised after almost completing the first field that we had been putting in 30% less seed than we thought. In a crop like sugar beet, this will almost certainly reduce our yields significantly. The peas all went in nicely, and I am excited about a trial down near the A505 (the field is called HC 1), where we have mixed oats in with the pea seed, with the hope that they will suppress weeds naturally, and also provide a trellis for the pea plants to climb up – which will make harvesting them much easier.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a proper farming column without moaning a little bit about the weather. We are never happy for more than a week or so at a time, and now it’s beginning to get very dry. With any luck, Easter weekend will have been a washout – but there is no rain on the horizon. If you see anyone dancing in the fields, it’s probably a rain dance, so don’t call the police (unless they also have dogs chasing hares, in which case call 999!).

Peas & oats growing together

Peas & oats growing together


Here’s a column I wrote recently, which is being published in the Farmers Guardian today:

It’s impossible to go onto Twitter at the moment if you’re a farmer without having your screen melt down with one of the most extreme examples of preaching to the converted that I’ve ever seen; the campaign to save glyphosate from being banned by the EU, and the hashtag #glyphosateisvital. All of us farmers are loving spending hours telling each other what a disaster we’re facing – and for good reason. We use plenty of of the stuff, it’s a key part of the way we work, and losing it in the future would be a massive shock to the system; I personally believe it would be worse not just for my pocket, but the environment as well.

However, I can’t help but feel very uneasy with the way my farming comrades are getting more and more shrill and hysterical by the day. Firstly, I’m going to have to go all literal. The definition of vital is ‘absolutely necessary or essential’, and clearly this is not actually true for glyphosate. It was invented only a few decades ago, and I’m told on good authority people managed to farm before then. Even today, rumour has it that there are successful farming systems that work without glyphosate, some even say they produce better quality food as well. So really, it is fairly clear cut that glyphosate is not actually vital at all. Trying to pretend otherwise is no better than someone else claiming it is highly toxic and gives puppies cancer. Staking out the ‘scientific evidence’ high ground is a great idea, but please let’s not undo the good work by letting the hyperbole get out of control.

Secondly, I’ve got to take issue with the message of “we can’t keep on farming like we do without glyphosate”. Twitter is full of the Conservation Agriculture Brigade showing us how the ground nesting birds love not being disturbed by cultivating their nests every year, or how their cover crops are putting carbon back into the soil, and that’s great. I love it. But this type of farming is a real minority in the UK, and let’s face facts here; there are some really bad farming practices going on as well – not that anyone will admit to it – and most of these will also be making heavy use of glyphosate. An example of this might be the countless times I have seen someone complain that their farm would be over run with black grass if they couldn’t use glyphosate. When I hear this, I can’t help but think of the old Einstein chestnut, “Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results”. Well perhaps it is time to think about how a farming system can be made better to get around around our problems, rather than hammering the same pesticide buttons over and over again each year? No matter how benign this chemical is, our total reliance on it is not a place we should be aiming for, and publicly using this addiction as a justification is a circular, unproductive, and slightly embarrassing argument.

So next time the blood begins to boil as another celebrity calls for signatures to ban your favourite pesticide, don’t be tempted to crank up the hyperbole generator, and don’t start shouting how you need your drug fix like you’ve always had before. Behave like a grown up, and stick to the facts. Is glyphosate safe? Probably. Can it allow us to farm better? Yes. Is it vital? No.

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, April 2017

Touch wood, it looks as if we are having a normal sort of spring for the first time since 2014, not another really cold one like the last couple of years have been. This is very welcome, as it gets the plants going, and we can really start to see now the fertiliser starting to get picked up in the oilseed rape. I won’t keep harping on about it too much, but the pigeons are still a huge problem for us, even though we have got plenty of new shooters in to try and keep them at bay. At the end of February we put the first bit of fertiliser on some our of wheat fields, where the previous crop had been another cereal, like wheat or barley. A couple of weeks later the rest of the farm had its first application as well, so that job is finished until later on in March, when the second half goes on. By and large the farm looks pretty good, although still the fields which we would consider easier seem to look worse than the more difficult ones, and everything is a little behind where it would have been normally, due to the funny autumn.

March’s major job is the start of spring drilling, which will kick off with a couple of fields of sugar beet. We are borrowing a nifty little piece of equipment from Cousins, a local company based near Wisbech, which is called a strip-till machine. This allows us to prepare the soil for sugar beet (a sensitive crop which needs very loose ground) only where the plant will grow – in a strip. On the back of this machine is the seed drill, so in one pass we cultivate and sow the seed. Fingers crossed it works well. After the beet we will get on with the rest of our crops, starting with peas, then oats and barley a bit later. We usually have around a third of the farm planted in the spring, although these crops are risky for us if there is a drought. However, they are great in the rotation to keep weeds and other pests under control, so on balance it’s a chance worth taking.

The Cousins Strip-Till machine

The Cousins Strip-Till machine

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, March 2017

We are starting to get close to spring, when the farm comes back to life, and our proper work starts. There has a been a little taster of this already, when we put a small amount of fertiliser onto our oilseed rape in January, hoping to give it a bit of a boost. The weather has been slightly on the cold side for it to work perfectly, but as there has not been much rain all the fertiliser is still there in the ground, waiting to be used. Elsewhere we have applied little patches of the oilseed rape fields with a chemical to try and control a few problematic grass weeds that have popped up. The rest of the farm looks pretty good now, with the recent patch of warmer weather getting all the wheat going, even if it didn’t quite get warm enough for the rapeseed. Towards the end of February and beginning of March work will start in earnest, with the first main doses of nitrogen fertiliser going onto the oilseed rape, winter barley, and wheat.

I’m going to go slightly off the farm track now, because I want to mention pesticides. I’m pretty sceptical about a lot of them, and quite often give talks to farmers saying that we use too many, often for no real benefit. But there is a lot of news around at the moment about one in particular, glyphosate, often known as Roundup. Here’s a chemical which is less toxic than many things we eat all the time, like table salt, ibuprofen and caffeine. However, it has been classed as “probably carcinogenic to humans” – which I admit sounds rather ominous. But this is the same rating as red meat, and a lower rating than bacon & sausages, which are both labelled as “carcinogenic to humans” (note, no ‘probably’ about it). Glyphosate is one of the pesticides that we use which allows us to farm in a way I believe is a net benefit for the environment, soil health, and wildlife like ground nesting birds – and it also hugely cuts down the amount of diesel we burn. So please do bear this in mind when Facebook bombards you with posts about how evil the stuff apparently is.


The case of the radioactive wheat field

It’s been an interesting time on Twitter recently, after a tweet from The Soil Association appeared a couple of days ago. Here it is,

Screen Shot 2017-02-14 at 15.29.08

I’m going to ignore here the overall message the SA is trying to promote, about glyphosate being horrible and trying to get it banned. What I saw when I looked at the photo was something that jumped out and slapped me around the face – why are the colours so totally out of line with reality? I replied to this with a tweet saying that it was not fair to use a doctored photo to try and make a point, and it all went from there. If you’re interested, the whole thread is here. Frankly it could have probably been left at that, except that first the SA’s own Twitter account, and then that of the SA’s Policy Director, Peter Melchett, insisted that the photo was not altered, and that there was nothing wrong with it. Personally I can’t stand that sort of myopic view of something so obviously wrong. So here we are.

Why I’m not entirely untrustworthy

I think I need to spend a bit of time establishing my bona fides for this particular article, as it’s such an emotive subject in the farming world. Firstly, before I was a farmer I was a professional photographer. I ran a small business and we had several other photographers who worked for us. I used to edit all the photos that come through the company, which was over 100 weddings each year, so around 120,000 to 150,000 photos in a year, and getting towards a million in my ‘career’. I’m far more skilled as a photo editor than as a farmer – which won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has seen me farming. The company still exists, although the name changed after I left. This is what our wedding website looked like back in 2008.

Next up, I don’t think I’m anti-Organic. I spoke at the ORFC this year, and whilst I was there I went to a talk chaired by Peter Melchett, where my head was turned about the increased levels of Omega 3 fatty acids in Organic whole milk. Ever since then I’ve bought it for my kids. We also get our veg from Riverford, who are Organic. As it happens I don’t buy because it’s Organic, but I don’t have a problem with it at all.

Photos from my house, how exciting

Photos from my house, how glamorous

I also don’t just do this pedantic photo picking with the SA, or with people I don’t like. See here for an example of where someone on the opposite side of the fence from the SA, Agrovista, used some equally absurd photos to make a point.

Finally, I’m not just picking on the SA because I don’t agree with their position on glyphosate. I think this is pretty well illustrated here where I am arguing against a journalist from the Farmers’ Guardian who thinks Chris Packham should not be able to voice his (negative) opinion of glyphosate in public. And although I am not an Organic farmer, I do not believe the ‘conventional’ system is right, either for us as farmers or the environment. I’ve gone on record saying this many times, and frequently give talks about it as well.

So, with that out the way, let’s get on to the photo.

The photo

First of all, it needs to be pointed out that this picture is a stock photo, which was not adjusted in any meaningful way by the SA themselves (they have adjusted the saturation and brightness, but it’s minor). The picture is available for sale here, and I have bought a license so that I can legally use it in this blog post. Here’s a copy of it, straight from the iStockPhoto download.

crop spayin wheat field

It would be interesting to have access to the original, un-editied, version of this picture to show the differences, but in a nut shell, the colours have been changed on most of the wheat by adjusting the hue, and the contrast has been heavily increased in all areas apart from the middle quarter, running horizontally (i.e. the sprayer itself). If I had to guess, I would say the clouds and right hand side of the photo have been selectively burnt as well.

What makes this so obvious, is both the psychedelic colours, and the fact that they change across the picture so abruptly, as shown here:

A: Right in front of the sprayer here, the wheat is a normal colour B: Here is is bright yellow/verging towards green C: Getting close to red in this bit D: Now in to bright orange

A: Right in front of the sprayer here, the wheat is a normal colour B: Here it is bright yellow/verging towards green C: Getting close to red in this bit D: Now in to bright orange

Let’s put these colour changes into perspective now, by comparing the correct colours directly with the incorrect:

Even Stevie Wonder can tell something is up here

Even Stevie Wonder can tell something is up here

And here’s the last photo I’m going to put up. It’s one I took of our combine at harvest, getting near to finishing a field (of oats as it happens) off. There are two sections of crop left to cut. One I have left in the correct colours, the other I have changed (using hue, saturation and contrast only) to match what is shown in the photo used by SA, which they claim to be perfectly natural. See if you can tell which is which.

I'd say it's 50/50

I’d say it’s 50/50

So there we have it. To finish off, I would like to make the point that the photographer has done nothing wrong by processing his picture in this way, that’s just how he wanted it to look. That’s fine, and I’m sure it’s a coincidence that it happens to look as if they sprayer has caused the discolouration, especially in the cropped version used by the SA.

What is not Ok is to use the picture to illustrate a serious point, and then try and pretend there is nothing wrong it with. Out of interest, I put the picture into Google Image Search and it seems to be used exclusively by web pages illustrating how nasty glyphosate or GMO crops are. So although it was probably not made intentionally to look bad, clearly it is being used for that reason by these guys – claiming it was the only photo out there is not a valid excuse here I’m afraid.

Please Soil Association, do yourself a favour and change it for something that isn’t a cartoon.

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, February 2017

It’s a bit of a difficult column to write this month, as not much has happened over Christmas. The farm doesn’t really start to get going again until February, when we think about putting some fertiliser on the oilseed rape, and this year we will be keen to try and get that going as early as possible, because the crops are small and need a bit of a boost to get them moving. The weather has been a bit too warm, although nowhere near as bad as last year. I’ve got my fingers crossed that we do get a cold spell later in January, as this is pretty critical to keep plant diseases and pests at bay – both in the short term and also stretching through to next autumn when we feel the effects from winter breeding of slugs and insects.

I whinged at the end of last year about pigeons eating the oilseed rape, and because the plants are so small there is not much safety margin before they are all gone. Luckily they have not been too bad so far, but it was February & March last year when the real damage was done. Sticking with the theme, we are seeing a lot of rabbits, something that has not been a problem in the last three or four years. We are trying both prevention, by putting up temporary electric fences, and cure – 74 were caught in only a few hundred metres of ditch down near Fowlmere. I’ve got a feeling it will be a busy spring trying to keep them under control.

The other pests that have appeared a lot over winter have been the hare coursers. A few were caught and prosecuted by the police, but by and large they came and go as they please – and in one case they drove through an electric fence near Foxton that was keeping a flock of sheep in. Luckily the sheep didn’t escape, but if you do see coursing happening, please call 999 immediately, and definitely before calling me or another farmer!


Too good to be true?

Ages ago now, I visited a guy call David Brandt in Ohio (and wrote about it). One of the things he showed me was this photo:

We dug these two lumps of soil up from adjacent fields. The bit on the right was from his original farm that he had been on for decades, whereas the left was a new bit of land he had just bought from his neighbour that year. As a very rough rule of thumb, the darker a soil the more SOM (Soil Organic Matter) it contains, and we all know that is a good thing. He claimed that it was possible to change his field on the left to the one on the right in about 5 years. I was amazed.

Later on I became more skeptical, as we had not taken the samples from a few metres apart, as would have been perfectly possible, but instead we walked maybe 100m for the second one. Did he know there were very different soil types there? I don’t know, maybe it was an innocent sampling error, maybe not.

Anyway, back to the real world. Back in 2013 I planted a herbal grass ley in one of our arable fields, and then grazed it for the next three years, using a technique called Mob Grazing. Very briefly, this means we moved the cattle every day onto a new piece of grass, and then left it a long time before coming back to graze it again – somewhere between 40 and 120 days. The idea, amongst other things, is that the plant roots can develop much more, which pumps more carbon into the soil. In a very rough sense, more carbon in the soil = more SOM, and we all know that is a good thing.

This autumn the experiment finished, and we have drilled some winter beans into the old grass, after it was killed off. This went really well, and the beans are, as I type, starting to emerge. Here’s a nice video showing the drilling in action.

We didn’t make much money from the cattle grazing, but it did have a positive margin – unlike some break crops in the last few years. However, the real return will come from any soil improvement that the grass and the grazing has given us…if it has done anything at all. Last week I was digging some soil sample in front of a camera (yup, glamorous), and we took one bit from the bean/grass ley field, and then walked about 10 m into the neighbouring field, which has been farmed “normally” for the past several decades. Most recently it was wheat, then a cover crop that has just been grazed by sheep. This was the result:


OK, so it is not as dramatic as the first photo from Ohio, but there is a clear visible difference. On the left is the bean/grass field, on the right the wheat/cover crop. Darker = more SOM, right? I had to find out, so I came back a few days later and, took some samples which were duly sent off to NRM for analysis. Before I started with the grass, both fields were around 3-3.5% SOM, so I would expect the wheat/cover crop field to still be around this mark. I’ve just got the results back, which are:

  • Wheat/cover crop – 3.0%
  • Bean/grass – 5.0%

Wow! That is a great result, and way beyond what I would realistically hope for in three years. The water holding capacity increase alone in that would be of some serious value in dry/normal years, and then there is the increased nutrient availability as well. Amazing.

But hold on. The LOI test for SOM is a very crude instrument, and it measures anything that can burn, not just the valuable, decomposed, forms of SOM like humus. I did of course try to not include any bits of grass or root in my samples, but I still feel like the SOM % will probably fall in the bean/grass field in the next year or two as it stabilises. I’ll have to keep an eye on that, and do some wider measurements over the whole fields. I feel it would also be interesting to measure different depths, as theoretically my deep rooting ley should have put SOM further down the profile as well – this test was the top 10cm.

Of course, the only result that actually matters is the £s, and that will come later down the line as the cropping syncs up, and we see what happens with yields across all the fields. So come back in 5 years and I may have something truly interesting to report. Until then, Merry Christmas.

Thriplow Farms Annual Report XLIII – 2016: Flattering to deceive

So, the first year without any cattle of my own – and life was a lot less stressful. But that didn’t mean we had no cows, as for the second year a bunch of small dairy cattle turned up to graze for the summer. And to be honest, they did terribly. We can do the post mortem a couple of pages further on, but to begin with everything was poor, only to look much better later on, and then finally the end result was a disappointment. This would also be a pretty good way of describing the rest of the farm this year.

Read the full report