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

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

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

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

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

The case of the radioactive wheat field

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

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

Why I’m not entirely untrustworthy

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

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

Photos from my house, how exciting

Photos from my house, how glamorous

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

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

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

The photo

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

crop spayin wheat field

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

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

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

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

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

Even Stevie Wonder can tell something is up here

Even Stevie Wonder can tell something is up here

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

I'd say it's 50/50

I’d say it’s 50/50

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

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

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

Day 60 – Viva la resistencia

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Last day in Rosario, and here’s a tip if you ever visit. Don’t go to a sushi restaurant.

Again I was hosted by AAPRESID, and it occurs to me I haven’t actually mentioned them before now. AAPRESID is the Argentinian farmers no-till association, and it’s based in Rosario. They organise farmer groups, like CREA, but also run trials, and once a year organise a huge conference. And let’s not forget all the foreigners they kindly show around the country too.

Red Angus cows & bulls

Red Angus cows & bulls

Today’s visit was to a lady farmer who is using cattle to improve her soils. More specifically, there are some low-lying areas which have suffered from water erosion in the past, and she makes more money there with the animals than with crops. In fact, the beef price is so good here compared to grain that the animals are the most profitable side of the business. Given that the pastures are improving the soils, the brave move would be to put some of the crop fields down to grass for a few years. But that’s easy for me to say from here…

Bird's foot trefoil on left, mixed species ley on right

Bird’s foot trefoil on left, mixed species ley on right

The pastures hon this farm are far more complex than others I’ve seen in the country. Depending on the specific conditions in each field they use tall fescue, brome, lucerne/alfalfa, white clover, red clover and trefoil. The farm’s agronomist, Daniel Canova, is a big advocate for having as many different root types in a rotation as possible; he is sure that this helps to prevent compaction and keep the soils productive. These fields tick that box.

Superficially impressive root nodules on a Soya plant, although most of them were not functional

Superficially impressive root nodules on a Soya plant, although most of them weren’t functional

One of the problems in the GMO using world is the spread of glyphosate resistant weeds. AAPRESID have a team working on this, and they anticipate the number of resistant species will increase quickly in the coming years. We don’t use GMOs in the EU at the moment, but I’m sure that will change in the medium term. When the day comes, it’s of critical importance that we learn the lessons from all of these countries (north & south America, Australia etc) to keep our chemicals working. The temptation will be strong to be lazy: “it won’t happen to me”.

The biggest problems come from using the same crop every year, and then using multiple doses of the same chemical. Here that plant is soya, in the US it’s also maize. So step one is to keep on rotating crops, both for their differing natural weed suppression, but also because it will allow the use of different types of chemicals each year. But what if you have a field, like the pastures here, with have so many different plant types that chemical control is not possible?

Sorghum growing as part of a resistant-weed management technique

Forage sorghum growing as part of a resistant-weed management technique

These pastures are normally kept for four years, by which time they are getting a bit tired (I can’t help but feel some more involved grazing management would help here). At this point field is sprayed off with glyphosate. If there are enough resistant weeds left over, they will then drill oats. The reason for this is simple – their roots have strong allelopathic effects. This means that they exude chemicals which stop other plants from growing. [We currently have a field of oats at home which will hopefully reduce the amount of black grass in the following barley crop.]

Once the oats have grown enough, they are grazed, and then forage sorghum is planted on top of them. Again this will be grazed, but not when the plants are small as it can cause nitrate poisoning which is undesirable in cattle (their mouths turn blue and they die). There might be time for a couple of grazings before the new pasture is sown, but by now the weed burden should be reduced significantly. I think one of the reasons this works so well here is that all the weed seeds are left on the surface because of no-till, and in this climate they will be decomposed very quickly – even after maize the residue is totally gone within six months.

So there we have it, some ideas for farming in Europe in the ’20s. I’ll end with this photo of a typical Argentine motorcycle rider, taken on the motorway outside Buenos Aires.


Day 51 – SOM testing, glyphosate & pH

Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 10.35.17I spent the day today with Michael Eyres, from Injekta Systems, who has organised the last couple of visits for me. He’s a soil agronomist, which basically means he advises on how best to get nutrition into plants according to what type of soil you have on your farm. We drove up to Jamestown to see one of his clients, who has just taken on a new piece of land that he wanted testing.

As the soils become more biologically active, ant numbers have increased. It's common to find places like this where they have collected up weed seeds as a food store, sort of like a squirrel. I wonder if this could ever have a significant effect on above ground seed populations?

As the soils become more biologically active, ant numbers have increased. It’s common to find places like this where they have collected up weed seeds and taken them underground as a food store, sort of like a squirrel. I wonder if this could ever have a significant effect on above ground seed populations?

Michael is meticulous in his soil sampling technique, and he will make sure that each individual layer is tested separately. Often he will spend a day digging proper pits, but this was a quicky so they just took little core samples. This particular farm has two very distinct  layers within the top 10cm or so. The top 5cm is particularly high in potassium which makes the clay particles stick together very closely – an artefact that is apparently often blamed on compaction caused by sheep grazing. When this bit is crumbled by hand it turns into a very fine, almost dusty, powder. The second layer is higher in magnesium, and forms into harder, but more distinct lumps. Beneath this is a high magnesium clay layer, which when dry is very, very hard. This soil type is more suited to tine type direct drills, as it is beneficial to have a cultivation effect to break up the top crust.

The high potassium layer can be clearly seen on the right. The top photo is how the sample came out of the ground, in the bottom photo it has been manually broken up

The high potassium layer can be clearly seen on the right. The top photo is how the sample came out of the ground, in the bottom photo it has been manually broken up

Back in June I wrote a little bit about the common way of testing for SOM (Soil Organic Matter), which is the LOI (Loss On Ignition) test. This is done by burning the sample, and then seeing how much less it weighs afterwards. Anything that has gone is assumed to be SOM. This can be problematic, as it does not distinguish between a piece of fresh straw and older, more stable forms of soil carbon (humus, not humous). Here in Australia they use a test called Walkley-Black. The difference is that the sample is put through a very fine, 0.42mm, sieve first of all to take out larger (and presumably un-decomposed) items, and then… well it’s easier if you read it here;

The method measures the amount of carbon in plant and animal remains, including soil humus but not charcoal or coal

Oxidisable matter in the soil is oxidised by 1 N K2Cr2O7 solution. The reaction is assisted by the heat generated when two volumes of H2SO4 are mixed with one volume of the dichromate. The remaining dichromate is titrated with ferrous sulphate. The titre is inversely related to the amount of C present in the soil sample.

So there you have it. I don’t know if the result is actually more accurate than LOI, but it seems like it should be.

Enough tyres?

Enough tyres? These temporary bins are used in the field when there is no lorry available to empty directly into

A further point of interest that came up was the efficacy of glyphosate (Roundup) in hard water. It’s something that has been on my mind for the last year, but I’ve not yet been proactive enough to actually do anything about it. According to Michael, the optimum pH for glyphosate is 3.2. This is much lower than our water, which I guess would be about 8. The problem is that in hard water the calcium ions bind with the active ingredients, making them less effective. He recommends the cool (no pun intended) sounding “Glacial Acetic Acid” to bring down the pH. It’s fairly easy to get hold of, so I have no excuse for not giving it a go. It’s also worth noting that, even at low pHs, it is still necessary to use ammonium sulphate water conditions to get the best effect, as this helps out in a different way to simply changing pH.

A JD Conservapak drill, with a massive seed & fertiliser cart

A JD Conserva Pak drill, with a massive seed & fertiliser cart

The farmer we visited has a 3 year old Conserva Pak drill, which is rigged up with a Liquid Systems (see yesterday’s blog) pump. The seed cart, which weighs 15t when full, has 3 sections. The largest is for solid fertiliser, which is straight MAP for legumes, or an MAP/Urea blend for cereals and OSR. The next compartment is for seed, and the smallest is for the liquid trace elements, and also inoculants for legumes and fungicides for OSR. The liquid tank actually started life as a solid fertiliser hopper, but was sprayed inside with a polymer to waterproof it, and then just had a metering system fitted on the bottom. You can see it fairly clearly in the picture above. The Conserva Pak drill works by putting solid fertiliser down behind the front tine, and then the seed goes down the back leg. The liquid goes in the same trench as the seed, again you can see it clearly in the picture.

I played some Aussie Rules this evening, but there are no pictures, probably because I was only allowed on the pitch for about 3 minutes. Bloody Poms.

Wheat after wheat is inter-row seeded. I just liked this photo

Wheat after wheat is inter-row seeded. I just liked this photo of the old and new stubble side by side