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.

 

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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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!

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, October 2017

Well, all I can say is Thank God that is over; harvest 2017 was easily the worst I have ever been involved with. It started off well enough, with the winter barley yielding very nicely at the beginning of June. I was quietly hopeful that this was a sign that the other yields might not be as bad as I had thought. As a result, I predicted it was going to be an average harvest, something which turned out to be a bit of a pipe dream. Towards the end of July the oilseed rape was ready to be cut, and the main block turned out to be just about reasonable, but certainly not good. Unfortunately the bits we moved on to afterwards ranged from terrible through to diabolical – the combination of slugs, flea beetles, pigeons, drought and heat waves really knocked it hard. The wheat yields on our light sandy land nearest the A505 were not much better, although as we moved north the yields did improve quite a lot, surpassing Decent, but never getting all the way to Great. If  I were an examiner, the marks for harvest 2017 would go as follows: Winter Barley A, Oilseed Rape D, Wheat C-, Oats B, Spring Barley D, Peas E, Beans C+, Weather E-.

Ah yes, the weather. This is what really compounded the misery. It wasn’t that we had a lot of rain, in fact August was around average wetness. The problem was the constant nature of it, and the grey cloudy conditions almost every day. There is nothing more frustrating than waiting two days for the grain to dry, then just as you are about to start up the combine, it rains again, and it’s back to square one. Still, at least we were finished by the end of August, which is not the case for some of my friends who are still going well into the middle of September and beyond. But it’s done now, and we can move on to next year, which I’m sure will be much better.

After our horrible start to autumn in 2016, when most of our oilseed rape failed in one way or another, this year is looking a lot more promising. We planted the rapeseed as early as possible, starting from the first week of August, and now they look great. This is no guarantee that they will go on to perform well next year, but at least they exist, which is a definite bonus. Soon it will be time to plant the wheat, and a new crop for us as well – Rye – which should find its way into a bread loaf near you sometime in 2018/19. Fingers crossed.

 

Horrible, shrivelled wheat. Roll on next year

Horrible, shrivelled wheat. Roll on next year

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, August & September 2017

Sure enough, after the very welcome rain, the weather turned super dry again in June, and even worse, it was incredibly hot. This caused us quite a big problem, as the plants we grow are all “cool season” grasses and broad leaves. This means that they work best in our normally mild climate, and the grasses will cease to grow as well any time they go above 27℃. We only had a few days when the air temperature went above this, but in the bright sun the leaves were getting up to almost 40℃ – obviously a problem. All of these cool season grasses are what is known as C3 plants, which refers to the type of photosynthesis they use to capture sunlight. If we were growing maize, which is a C4 plant, then it would have been great news, as these are tropical, or “warm season” grasses, which thrive as the temperature goes up – but they do not like our more normal conditions as much. Where I really liked the hot weather was for making hay, which we can do now that there are no cattle on the farm. I felt sorry for the man who came to make the small bales, as he had old tractors with no air conditioning, which must have been like working in a greenhouse. He also had quite a few breakdowns, so was in and out all day, but finally we ended up with almost 1400 bales of very nice meadow hay (which are available to a good home!).

In a normal year harvest tends to start in the middle or end of July, so I was slightly embarrassed to be on holiday at the beginning of the month when I received a text message saying that our barley was being harvested. The red face was short lived, as it turned out to be a lot less dusty and sweaty when you’re 3,000 miles away, but I suppose I should help out with the remaining fields now that I am back at home. We had a pleasing result, with a yield of over 9 tonnes per hectare, some 30% higher than last year. It is an encouraging start, but as barley is so much earlier than other crops, it possibly did not get so affected by the spring drought. It certainly will not be a late harvest this year, with several different crops all vying to be the next to be combined; it could be oilseed rape, wheat, or possibly even peas. Whichever one, we will have it all done for the next column, so you can find out what happened then.

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, July 2017

Well, our prayers were finally answered, and not long after I wrote last month’s column, we finally got the rain which was so desperately needed. We ended up with exactly 50mm in the month of May, and there have been a few top ups since, which were perfect. All of our autumn sown crops have probably had enough water to get them through to harvest, so the next ingredient required is sunshine – and it looks like we will get it. Of course, if it get’s too hot for too long I’ll start complaining that we need rain again, for our sugar beet and the other spring planted crops. I talked last month about how I did not like to venture down to our fields by the A505, as they were looking pretty horrible in the drought. Within two days of the rain everything had turned bright green, but unfortunately there was already quite a lot of damage done, so the crops will all be a bit thin down there. The rest of the farm looks quite good, although it’s unlikely to be too much above average; we never really know until the combine goes in at harvest anyway.

Our spring crops are a bit of a mixed bag this year, with the sugar beet in particular not looking very good at all. We tried a new method for drilling the seed, which worked OK on one field, and poorly on the other one, up near Foxton. The seed was trapped under a hard layer of soil, and in the dry conditions they could not grow properly, as a result the plant population is too low. Now that it has rained, the surviving plants have managed to get going, but they are at least a month behind schedule. It will certainly not be a vintage sugar beet harvest this year.

For the first time, we have set out traps for Pea Moths in our pea fields, which work by using hormones to attract the moths, which then get stuck on a little sheet of glue. I’m glad we have done it, as there have hardly been any caught, which means we won’t have to go and spray for them later, which we normally have done every year as a matter of course. It’s only a small cost, but who wants to kill off all those other insects when we don’t have to?

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