WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, April 2020

For most of the time since my article last month, not a lot has been happening on the farm. The combination of cool weather and the constant topping up of soil moisture levels has meant that we haven’t been able to get on with as much field work as I would have liked. That is not to say we have done nothing though – all of the oilseed rape and winter wheat has received their first batch of nitrogen fertiliser. We had planned to put on a third of the total requirement onto the wheat in mid February, which is quite early. Again though, the weather delayed this a bit, and by the time we did apply it all at the start of March, it wasn’t really early at all. Perhaps because of this I could have increased the amount up to around half the total, but in the end we stuck with the original plan. Most of the oilseed rape has really started to pick up its fertiliser now, and is growing well. There is, however, a big question mark on a large field we have in Barrington, which seems to have been particularly badly affected by the flea beetle larvae. Some areas have been completely written off by the little bug[ger]s, so now the difficult job becomes where to draw the line of what is worth trying to save.

More recently, the weather has become a lot more in line with what we needed to get the rest of our spring work going. All of the fields which are due to be planted wth spring oats have had their first dose of fertiliser, and in fact we even managed to drill two of these fields on March 12 & 13. The rest will have to wait until the following week, as they are on heavier soil, which is still too wet. We have another 65 hectares of oats to drill, and the same area again of peas. I’m optimistic that they should all get off to a good start, and then it’s down to the Gods as to what happens next.

As tends to happen with farming, all the jobs come at once, so at the same sort of time that we will be drilling the oats and peas, we also need to be getting the remainder of the fertiliser onto the oilseed rape, and then towards the end of March, we will finish off the wheat fertiliser too. There is always a debate about the timing for this, as we have to balance the needs of the plant with the risk that it may not rain later in the spring, and also the tendency of the liquid fertiliser to scorch the leaves badly as we get warmer weather into April. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it’s about the only way we can see whether we made the right decisions or not during the previous season.

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, March 2020

I definitely can’t say yet that Spring has Sprung, but we are just starting, as I type this, to get back onto the fields. The first job of spring is always to begin applying fertiliser onto our oilseed rape. We want to wait until the plants have started to wake up and grow again, otherwise they cannot use the fertiliser, and there is a risk that too much rain will wash it away – wasting our money and also possibly causing problems further along in the water system. Although it was frosty this morning, the weather has generally been warm, and the forecast is good for next week. As always, it is a bit of a balance, because we need a certain amount of rain – about 5mm – to wash the fertiliser into the soil, but we don’t want so much that it all disappears. Hopefully all will go well, and the plants can start to grow quickly, which they will need to do to protect themselves from pigeon damage, and also to mitigate the effects of the flea beetle larvae that they all have growing in their stems.

The next job will be to start on fertiliser for the wheat, although here we only apply around a third of the total to begin with, compared with just under half with the oilseed rape. At a similar time we will be thinking about applying half the required fertiliser to our spring oat fields, and shortly after that we would like to drill the seed. By applying the fertiliser before the seed there is a nice amount of nutrition sitting in the ground, ready for the oats to use straight away. This is fairly critical for spring crops, which have a much shorter growing season, and so must hit the ground running and grow as fast as possible. 

Thankfully the rabbits, which I complained about last month, seemed to have eased off a bit, and the wheat they had damaged is recovering nicely. In general the crops are looking fairly decent at the moment, although there is a long, long way to harvest – and much that can still go wrong (or right?).

Almost more of a problem has been the wind, which has made it very difficult to spray the fields after drilling, something which is very time critical in our system. This is because we do not kill off the plants already in the field, either with cultivations or chemicals, before we drill the wheat into them. This means that it is essential that we can do this before the new wheat seedlings emerge out of the ground, or else it will be too late, and the crop will be ruined. Luckily we have just about managed to find the times and places to make it work, so are about up-to-date with what needs doing.

Elsewhere on the farm the oilseed rape continues to grow, having been held back by the very dry September. Unfortunately, although it has mostly established well, we are already starting to find the larvae of flea beetle infesting some of the plants, which could spell big trouble next spring and summer. The cover crops we have planted this year are some of the worst I have ever seen, due largely to the incredible amount of wheat seeds that have germinated in the fields with them – seeds that were knocked out of last year’s crops by high winds in August. These compete strongly with any other plants, meaning that the money spent on cover crop seeds has been largely wasted.

The forecast for the next couple of weeks looks pretty good, so I am hopeful we can get the rest of the wheat in soon, and then finally the beans at the end of October. And on the bright side, the rivers and ground water have been so low, this rain really is needed. Let’s just wait until November until there is too much more, please.

Breaking ground, September 30th 2019

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, February 2020

It’s the middle of winter – but it really doesn’t feel that way. There have only been a couple of frosts so far, and they have all been pretty minor. Cold weather is actually an important part of the farming year fo us, as it stops the cycle of some pests and diseases. Aphids and slugs are both sensitive to the cold, but perhaps more important is are the fungal diseases, particularly on our wheat plants. A very mild winter, like the one we had in 2015/16, can see so much disease creep onto the leaves that we start off the spring with yellow plants. That is not likely to be such a severe problem this year, for two reasons. Firstly, we now grow only specific varieties with good innate genetic disease resistance, but also the earlier you plant a crop, the more susceptible to disease it will be. This year – or last autumn to be precise – was certainly not a time when crops were early drilled, because it was so very wet.

We currently have three crops in the ground, all of which are just about visible at this point. The oilseed rape is superficially fairly satisfactory, but on closer inspection there is a large problem with flea beetle larvae. Just about every single plant, over an area of 160 hectares, is infested with them. This becomes a real problem when the larvae move into the stem of the plant, something which is occurring currently in about a third of the plants – but that number will rise as the spring goes on. If, as in 2019, we have another dry spring, the problem become magnified, so that is one more reason to hope for rain at the right times.

The wheat, which was all drilled by the end of October (just) is actually looking quite good in general. There is one bad field, but luckily that is small. The rest has established well given that conditions at drilling were far from ideal. Rabbits are starting to become a problem again, having been relatively low in numbers for many years. Some fields have been heavily grazed, forcing us to get out the electric rabbit fencing, and also call the ferret man to come and scare them off.

Finally, our winter beans, drilled in the middle of November, have appeared above ground after a prolonged period of germination. The cool wet soils didn’t do much for their speed of emergence, but better late than never. A series of mechanical problems with our seed and drill made getting this crop into the ground very difficult, so it is a relief to see that all the hassle was worth it. We definitely learnt a lesson there – never put nutrient seed dressing on beans!

Almost more of a problem has been the wind, which has made it very difficult to spray the fields after drilling, something which is very time critical in our system. This is because we do not kill off the plants already in the field, either with cultivations or chemicals, before we drill the wheat into them. This means that it is essential that we can do this before the new wheat seedlings emerge out of the ground, or else it will be too late, and the crop will be ruined. Luckily we have just about managed to find the times and places to make it work, so are about up-to-date with what needs doing.

Elsewhere on the farm the oilseed rape continues to grow, having been held back by the very dry September. Unfortunately, although it has mostly established well, we are already starting to find the larvae of flea beetle infesting some of the plants, which could spell big trouble next spring and summer. The cover crops we have planted this year are some of the worst I have ever seen, due largely to the incredible amount of wheat seeds that have germinated in the fields with them – seeds that were knocked out of last year’s crops by high winds in August. These compete strongly with any other plants, meaning that the money spent on cover crop seeds has been largely wasted.

The forecast for the next couple of weeks looks pretty good, so I am hopeful we can get the rest of the wheat in soon, and then finally the beans at the end of October. And on the bright side, the rivers and ground water have been so low, this rain really is needed. Let’s just wait until November until there is too much more, please.

Breaking ground, September 30th 2019

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, November 2019

It was always likely to happen. We have very much now swung on the pendulum of dampness from one extreme to the other, and the fields are soaking wet. My plan had been to wait until October 1st to start drilling the wheat, but on September 30th the forecast didn’t look very good, so my nerve broke and we started a day early. There was only time for one field to be planted, but over the next couple of weeks we could sneak in a field here and there, until at this point, half way through the month, we have done two thirds of the work. I had intended to be all finished by now, but beggars can’t be choosers – and many other farmers haven’t even managed to get started, let alone be this far along. Generally the conditions have actually been pretty good when we have been in the field, and the first bits of wheat are now well emerged and on their way to next harvest. 

Almost more of a problem has been the wind, which has made it very difficult to spray the fields after drilling, something which is very time critical in our system. This is because we do not kill off the plants already in the field, either with cultivations or chemicals, before we drill the wheat into them. This means that it is essential that we can do this before the new wheat seedlings emerge out of the ground, or else it will be too late, and the crop will be ruined. Luckily we have just about managed to find the times and places to make it work, so are about up-to-date with what needs doing.

Elsewhere on the farm the oilseed rape continues to grow, having been held back by the very dry September. Unfortunately, although it has mostly established well, we are already starting to find the larvae of flea beetle infesting some of the plants, which could spell big trouble next spring and summer. The cover crops we have planted this year are some of the worst I have ever seen, due largely to the incredible amount of wheat seeds that have germinated in the fields with them – seeds that were knocked out of last year’s crops by high winds in August. These compete strongly with any other plants, meaning that the money spent on cover crop seeds has been largely wasted.

The forecast for the next couple of weeks looks pretty good, so I am hopeful we can get the rest of the wheat in soon, and then finally the beans at the end of October. And on the bright side, the rivers and ground water have been so low, this rain really is needed. Let’s just wait until November until there is too much more, please.

Breaking ground, September 30th 2019

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, October 2019

In the end, harvest finished quickly – too quickly – and easily. The wet weather all cleared up, and I could turn off the crop drier. The last third of the wheat was a disappointment, largely because the storms in the middle of August had been fairly devastating, with the 50mph winds and marble sized hail knocking a significant amount of grain out of the ears and on to the floor. Right now these fields look a bit like a lawn, as much of the wheat has germinated and grown where it fell. It’s not easy to know exactly how much we lost, but I think it is somewhere around 1 tonne per hectare, or roughly 15% of the total crop. Another piece of misfortune – or maybe just bad farming on my part – saw our biggest field of wheat yielding around 2t/ha less than its potential, due to growing a catch crop of oats and radish last year, before we planted the main crop in the middle of October. We can tell this was the culprit, as the neighbouring field, which was treated in exactly the same way save for the lack of the catch crop, produced that extra 2t/ha. So overall we ended up with a wheat yield of 7.9t/ha, the lowest in my career, and the worst since 2001.  Without the storms and poor farming, the yield would have been perhaps half a tonne per hectare greater. This still would not have made it a great harvest by any means, especially with prices as low as they currently are.

Of course, the cropping years always overlap, and all our oilseed rape was planted by August 6th. It went in to pretty good soil conditions, and then received a lot of rain after drilling. This was good to get the seeds germinated, but it did mean there was a struggle to keep slugs at bay for several weeks. Right now, the crops range from excellent on the very first drilled fields, to slightly-slow-but-still-ok on the later drilled ones. The main problem is that, yet again, the weather has turned very dry; even the grass in my garden has started to die back once more. What with the abnormally low ground and river water levels in our region, we really could do with some sustained wetter weather.

As for right now, farming jobs for September are fairly thin on the ground as we do not cultivate, so aside from trying to control some grass weeds in the oilseed rape, it is mainly a waiting game until the start of October, when we will begin sowing the wheat, with any luck, into a damp soil…

This photo was taken immediately after the combine had passed, so they had been knocked to the ground a week or two previously.

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, September 2019

As I write this, we have completed nearly three quarters of harvest, but the weather is looking pretty rainy for the foreseeable future, so it is unclear when the end will actually come. All that is left is four days of wheat harvest, and although we have not had to fire up the grain drier since 2017, I am fairly certain that run is about to come to an end. 

Harvest started in the middle of July, with oilseed rape, as is the normal way. The first field we cut, HC 8, behind our grainstore, was one of the single worst fields I have ever seen. The edges were reasonable, but the middle was just terrible. The main problem was that we had a severe infestation of flea beetle larvae, which had eaten out the middle of almost every stem in the field, stopping the plants from developing properly – a particular problem in a year like this when water was very scarce. That field ended up yielding just over one tonne per hectare, and several others also had yields starting with a one. The solitary field we had which had looked really good all year managed a yield of over three tonnes to the hectare, and luckily it was also the biggest field of rapeseed on the farm. The final average yield of 2.12t/ha is almost exactly half of what we managed in 2018. Not a great year.

As I’ve known for quite some time, our pea harvest was also terrible, stemming firstly from an unknown problem with establishing the plants – whole areas of the fields were bare, but also from the lack of rain, as peas are particularly susceptible to drought. The other spring crops, oats and barley, were not too bad considering the season, managing roughly 5t/ha.

Wheat has been a mixed bag, but generally disappointing. The lighter end of the farm, near the A505, has performed as expected, with yields around 6-7t/ha, whereas some heavier land in Barrington has reached almost 11t/ha. We still have the middle section of the farm to harvest, but I am expecting an average yield somewhere in the low 8 tonnes per hectare. There has been one high point of harvest ’19 – a big field of beans in Barrington, which has broken our farm record, and yielded just under 6t/ha. This shows that heavier land, and a later crop which was able to make use of the late rains, was capable of.

The other notable thing about harvest this year occurred on July 21st, when I died in the middle of the night. Luckily for me a combination of my wife’s excellent CPR skills, the first responders, paramedics, and doctors at Addenbrookes and Royal Papworth meant I was back at work about 10 days later. If you Google “david walston cambridge news”, you can read all about it.

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, July & August 2019

Finally, some rain. After 3 months of crops suffering through drought, we got the moisture I had been praying for. It really would have been better back in April, but I won’t complain too hard – for most of our fields it’s still wasn’t too late. Unfortunately the wheat at the drier end of the farm, towards the A505, had already been quite severely damaged by the dry conditions, but the other half of the farm still looks quite good. The oilseed rape is still green, and so I hope it can use at least a bit of the water, although some of the fields have taken a turn for the worse over the last month, as damage from Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle larvae infestations has taken its toll. On the brighter side, a couple of the fields are actually a bit better than I had hoped, so maybe it will balance out. One thing is for certain though, I don’t think we will be repeating our great yields from 2018.

Where the drought has really caused a problem is with our spring crops, which by their very nature are more vulnerable to dry weather, since they have not had the entire winter to grow a big root system to capture water from deep in the soil profile. By miles the worst crop on the farm are our peas, which are verging towards crop failure in some places. How much of this is due to my decision to plant very early, in February, is unknown, since we do not have any later planted fields to compare with. I suspect it may have least had some negative effect though. Also in a bit of trouble are the spring oats and barley, particularly two fields on Rowley’s Hill, between Newton and Foxton. These are normally two good fields, but for some reason they have struggled this year compared to other fields planted at the same time. I suspect that the high chalk concentration in those soils, which turns them almost pure white at the top of the hill, has kept the soil temperatures low, so the seeds did not grow well to begin with. The oats up there are particularly poor, struggling to reach my knees – which is at least a foot shorter than I would have hoped for.

Although the rain has certainly been good, we did not actually get very much, something like 30mm, compared to other places nearby, or particularly Lincolnshire, where rivers have been breaking their banks and flooding entire farms. We do have enough moisture now to get to harvest, but the soil profile as a whole is still very dry, as I have seen this week when we dug a trench to put in some water pipes. Even after all the rain, we still only had wet soil down to about 15cm; below this it is powder dry. Let’s just hope that harvest isn’t the time the weather gods decide to fix that particular problem.

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.