WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, June 2019

Well, there’s just no getting away from the fact that we are dry. Not just a little bit, but totally, seriously, worryingly parched. The first four months of 2019 have brought us exactly 80.0mm of precipitation, which is around half of what we would normally expect. Unfortunately this comes after a very dry second half of 2018 as well, so levels of water in both rivers and subsoils were already depleted. We have a patch of grass at our grainstore that is on a shallow piece of soil, which is an early warning sign when a drought is beginning to kick in. Ordinarily it would be green up until June or July; this year it was already dying off in the second half of April. Of course, other parts of the country have been doing just fine, proving that on this occasion the grass literally is greener elsewhere.

This is particularly a problem for our spring planted crops, as they have not had the time to get a nice big root system which can gather water effectively. At least the weather warmed up a bit and stopped frosting every night; but all in all, it has been a tough start to their lives. I feel particularly lucky that we have stopped growing sugar beet, as some neighbouring farms are struggling to get any germination at all.

The rest of the farm, all planted last year, ranges from excellent (one particular field of oilseed rape) through average, and down to poor in places (some late drilled wheat after spring barley). There is an increasing divide showing up between our lighter land, where the wheats have gone into suspended animation due to lack of water, compared to our heavier land, which is still managing to hang on. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to go for a drive and see farmers irrigating their wheat, which for April in the UK is an amazing sight.

Another thing you may see on that drive is many bare, or very patchy, fields of oilseed rape. This will probably be due to a combination of slugs, flea beetle, and pigeons. We’ve found ourselves in a strange situation for the last couple of weeks, because the government department which issues licenses for shooting animals lost a court case on the technicalities of how those licenses worked. What that meant is with very short notice – only a few days – it suddenly became illegal to shoot common pests, like pigeons or rooks. This has lead to a massive fight between farmers and the anti-shooting brigade, both of whom accuse the others of being totally unreasonable and generally horrible people. As with most of these situations, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle – and in a few weeks it will have been sorted out, and everyone will forget about it, until next time.

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, May 2019

This is a strange feeling spring; although there are lots of jobs that need doing on the farm, few of them involve actual farming. Normally in early April we would be finishing off drilling, putting fertiliser on the wheat, spraying fungicides, pre-emergent herbicides and various other bits and pieces. But this year, the drilling was completed a month ago, we have already put on the bulk of fertiliser, and new regimes on most of our crops mean that we use many fewer sprays than we used to. 

The dry weather is causing us an increasing amount of concern, as we have only had around 60mm of rain so far in 2019, roughly a third of what we would usually expect. Right now that isn’t a problem, but it means the reserves of water in the ground are low, and so we are much more vulnerable to another drought, as happened in 2018. River and groundwater levels are low for most of the country, so prepare to hear about hosepipe bans if the weather keeps on in the same vein. However, every cloud (or lack of one in this case) has a silver lining, because rain causes plant diseases. 

Unfortunately, it’s often the case that farms are run with a very low appetite for risk, and so crops are treated prophylactically for a wide range of diseases. Nowadays, with better varieties, better natural disease resistance, and more sophisticated forecasting, we can change how we operate. What this means on a practical level is that when it is dry we can not apply fungicides to crops, as the risk of the diseases becomes much lower. This saving in cost doesn’t make up for the loss in yields associated with dry conditions, but it will at least be a small mitigation. 

The other area where we can save money is with fertiliser. There is always a limiting factor determining what your yield will be, and in years where we have plenty of rain and sunshine, that can often be the amount of nitrogen we apply to the crops. In a dry year therefore, it can be possible to put on less fertiliser, without harming the yields. Of course, as always, the problem with this is know what the weather is going to do several months in advance, but that’s farming! Anyway, this year, for the first time, we have decided to put on around 80% of the wheat’s nitrogen, and keep the rest back as a little bonus to be used in the event of some serious rain in April. Again, it doesn’t make a huge difference to the bottom line, but every little helps.

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, April 2019

Two months on from the start of our 2019 drilling campaign, and the crops are well and truly out of the ground. Aside from the cold spell in January, the weather has been quite favourable, but the jury is still out as to whether or not it was the right decision to plant so early. It is very difficult to judge how well these crops are looking right now, because they were planted into a very thick cover crop. This cover has now died, but it leaves behind a lot of residue, making it tricky to assess how well the new plants coming through are really doing. Hopefully by the beginning of April all of the fertiliser, combined with warmer and longer days, will make everything look much better – and my mind can be put to rest.

The remaining fields of oats were drilled in the second half of February, and the weather was then so warm that I decided to take a risk and plant some peas as well. This is a highly unusual, and risky, approach, as peas do not like cold weather. Consequently we normally plant them from the middle of March, to reduce the risk of catching frosts. So far, touch wood, I think it was the right call, and they will be breaking through the surface around the time we would normally be planting them.

We are now right in the middle of the season for applying fertiliser, which started with oilseed rape in the middle of February. This had half of its total dose, and the second half will be applied in the middle of March. This year we have enlisted the help of a company to make aerial maps of the oilseed rape crops with a drone, and we can use this information to vary the amount of fertiliser applied to different areas of the field. The idea is that to get the best yield, you need a certain amount of leaf area, so places where the plant is smaller receive less nitrogen than those places with bigger plants. We will see if it works as advertised.

The rest of the farm has had at least a quarter of its fertiliser, and now, a couple of weeks later, we can see the wheat plants turning a darker shade of green as they start to pick it up. It’s from this point onwards that we start to be at risk of drought, and with such a dry winter and low ground water levels, the possibility is more real than ever. ‘They’ said 2018 was like 1975, so 2019 could be like 1976 (the hottest and driest summer in living memory). Let’s all hope that ‘they’ are wrong.

 

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, March 2019

It’s been a month now since we planted the barley and oats which I discussed in the last newsletter. Back then I said it should be fine as long as we don’t get any particularly cold weather. Unfortunately that did come to pass, with a few nights dropping to minus five. I’m hoping that we have still gotten away with it, but the situation is certainly not ideal. Both the oats and the barley have germinated, and have roots and shoots growing, but taking so long to emerge from the ground is not a good start to their lives. Thankfully, there has not been too much rain – which can make the seeds rot – and the temperatures are set to increase significantly in February. The barley which we planted after December harvested sugar beet looks very good, having managed to get going before the weather turned cold in January.

Elsewhere on the farm, the oilseed rape is generally good, but with some poor areas. I received a nasty shock when checking a field adjacent to Thriplow church, when I found that there was serious damage from flea beetle larvae in just about every plant. These come from eggs laid by adult flea beetle in August and September, when they are laid on the ground around the plants. When the eggs hatch, the larvae make their way into the plant, and start to eat the stalks, and most seriously, the stems. There is nothing that can be done about it, so it’s a case of waiting and seeing how much the plant will be weakened. Fortunately, the news from every other field was much better, where although it is still easy to find the larvae, they are not nearly as abundant.

Our wheat seems to have enjoyed the relatively mild and dry winter, although one field near Thriplow has suffered a surprise slug attack over Christmas, when I thought the danger had passed. We have probably lost 10-15% of the field, which just goes to show that you can’t let your guard down. At the other extreme of the farm, in Barrington, we have our best looking field of wheat. Unfortunately it is also our smallest field, at around four hectares. 

Soon it will be time to start putting the first little bits of fertiliser onto the oilseed rape, and some of the wheat which needs a kickstart. This really marks the start of the spring season, when the soils warm up and the crops can get going. From there, it’s only a few short months until harvest – again!

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, February 2019

One of the well known benefits of being an arable farmer is the lack of work in the months around Christmas. By and large, that is true, and it’s the main reason why my life became so much easier when I decided to stop being a livestock farmer a few years back. However, just because there is less work, doesn’t mean there is no work.

At the start of December we lifted our second, and possibly last ever, field of sugar beet. A couple of years ago the entire climate for sugar beet changed when the European market was opened up to the world market – something we had been protected from for decades. Inevitably, the world market prices are significantly less than what we were used to receiving. This, coupled with an increase in the price of every other crop we grow, and the fact that sugar beet really doesn’t fit in very well with our whole farming system, means we have decided to bin it. This would have been a very big deal five years ago, because farmers used to have to be in possession of a quota from British Sugar in order to be allowed to grow the crop; but that also fell by the wayside. This means it is much easier to stop growing sugar beet, as in the future we could probably start again just as easily – unlikely, but never say never.

Anyway, the last field was harvested, with another poor yield, but as a consolation we managed to plant the following crop into what were very good conditions for mid-December. Historically we have always grown wheat after sugar beet, but this year we have mixed it up, and have gone with spring barley. The idea is that a spring crop will be better suited to utilising the truncated growing season which results from planting so late in the year.

The dry conditions which allowed us to get onto the fields in December have continued all the way into the new year, and have actually persuaded me to do something which is totally alien to our normal methods: start our spring crop planting in January. This year we are growing spring peas, oats and barley. The peas definitely need to wait for warmer soils, probably in March, but the barley can deal with much cooler temperatures. So for the first time ever, we planted 33 hectares of barley in mid January, some two or three months before when we would normally do it. This can potentially give us higher yields come harvest, but if the weather over the next few weeks is particularly cold or wet, I may live to regret the decision.

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, December/January 2018

Autumn drilling has gone well, with rain at just the right times to keep the seedbeds nice and moist, but not too sticky. At the start of November we lifted our first field of sugar beet, next to Fowlmere. This crop has looked poor all year, and although we don’t yet know the yield, the pile of beet in the field looks worryingly small. A small consolation has come from the fact it was harvested in relatively dry conditions, which limits the damage caused by the huge, 60 tonne, harvesters. Within 24 hours of the field being cleared, we had it drilled with wheat, which turned out to be excellent timing, as there was an unexpected deluge over the weekend which followed – one which would have prevented any work on the field for at least a week. We now have one more field of beet to harvest, and re-plant with barley, and that will be most of the work done for 2018. So instead of waffling about the farm does over winter, I thought I would publish an abridged version of an article I wrote last month instead:

The hot topic this month seems to be whether, after Brexit, we should allow imports of food made using techniques that are outlawed for UK producers. Several months ago that centred on hormone fed beef, and chlorinated chickens. More recently, perhaps due to farmers thinking about flea beetles and aphids, we are talking about neonicotinoid seed dressings, which have been banned in the EU.

So now, when we think how we would like UK agriculture to look in a few years, the very obvious point has been made that having decided that neonicotinoids are not safe for use here, isn’t it morally wrong to import food from other countries that is produced using them? The logic is so strong that even the RSPB and NFU are singing from the same song sheet. Even more bizarrely, I too agree with both of them, and would strongly support imports to be required to meet our own standards. There’s really just one problem with the whole thing though:

It’s never, ever going to happen.

How can I say this with such certainty? Easy – just look at any one of a thousand examples of asymmetrical regulations to be found happening right this second. How about labour laws? It’s not difficult to find cheap clothes on the high street, and why are they cheap – because they are made by kids in the far east, something that would never be permitted here. It’s not just poor countries though, look at anything imported from the US. They have zero days mandatory annual leave, and zero days maternity leave – neither of which is legal in the UK. OK, I can hear you thinking – but isn’t that different to polluting the environment, as neonicotinoids are supposed to do? Anyone who owns a smartphone can’t really complain about this; they full of rare earth minerals that are often mined with terrible pollution effects. Just Google ‘yttrium mining pollution” and see what comes up. Perhaps most damning of all, is that we already import thousands of tonnes of food produced with pesticides that we are not allowed to use – paraquat or any number of different GMOs would be good examples. Somewhat amusingly, many of the farmers who voted a few years back to leave a huge trading bloc with aligned standards are the same ones who now complain that we may have deal with countries using different standards. What a shock!

At the end of the day we don’t really need to look abroad, or on the internet, we need to look at our own lives: I’ve just written the above on an American computer, made in China. The clothes I’m wearing come from God-knows-where, but certainly not the UK. My car is German, and my supper will be Japanese. With the possible exception of the last point, I’m no different to so many farmers in the UK. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have this choice, whilst compelling everyone else in the country to buy our produce (or something else made to the same standards), and to probably pay a premium for it? Too right it would! But can we do that without being massive hypocrites? I’m not so sure.

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, November 2018

The problem with not writing a column for September is that I have to cram all of harvest into the October space, and that doesn’t leave room to talk about all the drilling we are doing at that time. So rewind the clock back to the beginning of August – just after harvest had finished on the 3rd. Nowadays we like to plant our oilseed rape as early as possible as soon as July is done and dusted. This year was an ideal opportunity to get it in the ground at the perfect time, with one major exception: the soil was drier than a desert. There is not a lot of point in putting seeds into dust, as they will either sit there and do nothing, or even worse, they may germinate and then die if rain doesn’t come quickly enough. So we sat on our hands for a week or so, and luckily the rain did come. Once the decision had bene made it took around 5 days to get 160 hectares planted, which went fairly smoothly aside from the usual temperamental nature of our oilseed rape drill causing a few headaches. The worst of these involved me “drilling” 7ha of a field late on a, very wet, Saturday night, only to find out a week later that I had not actually put any seed into the ground. Luckily we noticed quickly, and were in time to redo it. This year we have slightly changed the mix of plants that we grow alongside the rapeseed, so there is also vetch, buckwheat, and fenugreek, all of which will either die off over the winter, or be killed off by us in the spring. Once again we have managed to avoid problems with the dreaded Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle, and so the crops remain insecticide free, which is one of my big goals for the farm.

Until a few years ago, we used to start drilling wheat from the second half of September onwards. More recently we have started to delay this by somewhere between one and five weeks, which gives us better weed control, and reduces the likelihood that we will have to use insecticides to control aphids. The tradeoff is that you do risk worse drought tolerance in the spring, which is a real concern on our farm. This year we started off on the lightest land at the end of September, and have moved at a relaxed pace from the southern end of the farm going northwards. The plan will be to finish drilling in the month of October, the last fields being either beans in Barrington, or perhaps a field of wheat to the south of Thriplow which has had a particularly bad black grass problem over the last decade. Hopefully we are getting on top of it now, and this extra-late drilling with be the coup de grace for that particular weed. Of course, after this we must plant wheat and barley following sugar beet, lifted in November and December, and when it gets that late in the year, we are really in the lap of the Gods. I may have to pray a lot next month.

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, October 2018

It has certainly been an interesting summer: in some ways terrible, in other ways excellent. Harvest started quite early – July 15th – which is probably four or five days before normal. What made this summer truly extraordinary was the speed at which we managed to get the crops in from that point onwards. Normally there is a slow progression from one crop type to another, and from the lighter soils in the south of the farm to the heavier soils in the north. Not so in 2018, where the fierce heat and hot winds dried everything out at records speeds. 

Some crops are particularly vulnerable to this, and so we were having to start cutting oilseed rape at 5am so that it had picked up some moisture from the overnight dew, and was wet enough to be accepted by our buyers. They will not take anything less than 6% moisture content, as it becomes too difficult to extract the oil, but luckily we only had to make couple of early starts. At least with oilseed rape we get paid a bonus for dry crops, as there is more oil per tonne of seed; with everything else, we are paid the same price, and so when the moisture content goes down, so does the weight – meaning the value to us also decreases. This is a bit unfair since our buyers adjust the moisture to what they want, and get to take all of the value we have lost. Perhaps one day someone like the National Farmers Union can come up with a new type of contract which evens out these imbalances?

The actual harvest results were mixed. Because conditions in the spring had been good, but then we had the dry and hot spell for so long, the crops which did best were those that matured soonest, as they had the least growing time in drought conditions. The best crop was oilseed rape, which is the first time in perhaps five years that it has performed really well. Wheat, our mainstay, was around 10-15% down on an average year, which was reasonable given the circumstances. Peas, which are usually cut in the middle of August, were ready in the middle of July, and were predictably terrible. Rye, barley and oats were all a bit down on where we would have liked, but similar to the wheat. The real frustration was knowing that one proper rain in June probably would have turned this below-par harvest into a record breaker. However, the real upside to harvest 2018 was that it finished on August 3rd, roughly a month ahead of normal. I often say that the worst thing about my job is always having to work for the whole of August. Not this year though, and I loved it!

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.