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
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
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
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.
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!
As crop farmers, we are almost done for the year now, which gives us time to get on with other bits and pieces around the place that have been put off for the last nine months. Because the weather stayed pretty dry all the way up into November, all of our crops were drilled in good time – if not too early in hindsight. The last field went in at the beginning of November, after the cows had gone to their new home, and all of the fences and water pipes were lifted. Luckily I was on holiday then so could leave the hard work to someone else. This field has had beans put into it, with a very clever type of machine that cuts a small slot in the soil, drops in the seed, and then covers it back over. It really is quite amazing, and almost impossible to tell anything has been planted there. The field is up near Newton if you want to have a look, it is called “Home” and is on the track between the gatehouse on Cambridge road, and the back of Newton Hall. One of the benefits of this type of system is that it leaves the worms undisturbed, and more worms is always a good thing. One night recently after a bit of rain I was walking in the field, and was astounded to see the surface covered in worms lying there all stretched out. I don’t know what they were doing, but as soon as they felt footprints they shot back underground. There must have been 50 or so per square meter, similar to the snake pit in Indiana Jones. Hopefully this is a sign that we are doing something right.
The rest of the crops look fairly well, but are quite small as we did not plant them until later than usual. We are hoping for some colder weather as this will naturally keep down the pressure from pests and diseases, and so I won’t have to argue with the agronomist so much about getting the sprayer out. One thing she can’t help with though is pigeons, which we really need to try and keep off the oilseed rape. If anyone would like to go shooting on the farm over the winter, please do get in touch.
As usual, our lives are dominated by the weather. This time it’s rain, or the lack of it. Since a good rain in the middle of July, it’s been really very dry for us here. That was great news for harvest, but after that there are several reasons we really like plants to be able to grow away quickly. Firstly we have planted lots of cover crops around the farm, which should be busy capturing carbon out of the air and putting it into the soil. This helps improve our soil quality, and, very minutely, air quality too. It also stops other nutrients being washed away into the ground water, so they can be used by next spring’s crops. Secondly, we planted 150 hectares of oilseed rape in August, and this needs good conditions to grow quicker than the pests can eat them. Finally, we would really like any weed seeds that grew in last year’s crops to germinate and grow, so that we can kill them off before planting again with wheat, barley or beans this autumn. So all in all, this very dry weather now does not help us a lot.
Luckily, the farming system we use, eliminating soil movement, keeps in as much moisture as possible. The oilseed rape had a tricky start, but hopefully we over the first hurdles now – although we did lose one entire field to slugs and flea beetles. The cover crops are much worse off, and it may be that we cannot have any sheep here over the winter, as there is just not enough food to make it worthwhile. Speaking of livestock, at the end of October the 77 young cattle we have had all summer will be moving to a different home. They had a slow start with the cold spring, but in the second half of the year have done really well; some of them have grown at over 1kg per day. This month’s main job will be planting the wheat, which has been delayed due to the dry conditions – but it should all be in by November, if everything goes smoothly.
A lot has happened since the last column I wrote. Harvest started in the middle of July with the winter barley, of which we had two fields growing down next to the A505. It wasn’t a great beginning as the yields, and quality, were very disappointing. Next came the oilseed rape, and again the yields were bad. One of the big problems was that huge areas of some fields had been entirely eaten by pigeons, so there was no crop left to harvest; over our entire farm we lost maybe one third of our plants like this. Next followed the wheat, oats, peas and spring barley. Everything had one thing in common – it wasn’t as good as I had hoped it was going to be. This was a real shame because up until July the farm had looked to be in great shape, but in the end a lack of sunshine at critical times really held us back, and meant a lot of the grain did not swell as it could have done. The one bright point was our beans, in particular the winter sown varieties, which yielded really well, and certainly above what I was expecting given what had come before.
So that’s another year over, and it all starts again. We planted our rapeseed in the middle of August, into very dry and dusty soil, but a huge slug attack meant that we had to replant over half of it two weeks later. Now that problem is over, we are suffering with little insects called flea beetles. Getting rapeseed to grow can be quite tricky sometimes! Towards the end of September we will plant a small amount of winter barley, and then the main job of drilling half the farm with wheat starts. This year I’m hoping for a cooler autumn and winter so that we have a better chance of controlling all the pests without chemicals. Fingers crossed.
You may have noticed that I am somewhat obsessed with the weather. Not just obsessed though, but also incredibly fickle. This is how my thought process has been from March until mid July: too cold – too dry – just right! (for a week) – too wet – too cold. In other words, we are never really happy for more than a week, or maybe two at a maximum. We now have enough moisture in the ground, and what is really needed for a great harvest is sunshine, and warmth. The barley down at the southern end of the farm, HC 1 & HC 4, is getting very close to being ripe, and we are on target to start harvest in the middle of July. The oilseed rape is looking like it will be a bit later than normal, so perhaps towards the end of the month. Because we have had so much rain all of the wheat is still very green, which is normally a good sign, although it means a later harvest. One problem we have had with the wet weather is that it came over the period when our spring beans were flowering. This interferes with the pollinator insects and so although the crop looks great from the outside, there is a worrying lack of pods when you take a closer look.
Before harvest we will be re-drilling the small field between Fowlmere and Thriplow. It was supposed to be maize, but the seed never germinated. Now we will put in a green manure cover crop, and plant wheat into that sometime in October. The only other bit of work to be done is to spray some of our oilseed rape where it has been badly attacked by pigeons. This makes the plants mature more quickly, so that it can be harvested (hopefully) before the pods shatter and drop all the seed onto the floor – then we will be flat out combining for most of August.
Last month I wrote about how the warm weather finally arrived; this time it’s all about the rain. Rain is, nine times out of ten, what dictates if we have a good harvest or not. It wasn’t too bad, but things were starting to get a little bit on the dry side at the end of May. So when the prospect of rain appeared, I did what any modern farmer does, and endlessly checked as many different websites and weather apps as I could find. It’s easy to choose the forecast which suits you best, but frustrating when rain keeps coming and going. In the end we did fairly well, getting 18mm, which was a lot less than only a few miles over to the east. Still, I’m not complaining and a further top up the next week, followed by more warm and sunny weather, means that all the crops are really in top gear at the moment. That is particularly the case with the peas, spring beans, and spring oats – which are in the field between Fowlmere and Thriplow, called HC 9. They are worth keeping an eye on as the speed they grow at is incredible.
All the winter crops are also moving fast, and it won’t be long until the barley is ready to harvest – probably in mid July. The wheats are entering a critical period called ‘grain fill’ when they need lots of sun and plenty of water to makes the ears swell, and give us a good harvest. So far so good…
It has been a mixed bag with the cattle. All of the grass has grown quickly – too quickly in fact as when the seed heads start forming, the quality goes downhill fast. We also then get problems as the stalks are very hard and poke the cattle’s eyes, making them more prone to infection. Because of this we had to treat some of them recently with eye ointment, and to try and stop it happening again we will cut the grass with a mower to make it shorter. That’s something I hate doing – but not as much as I hate having sick animals to treat.