David Short, who until recently was landlord at the Queen’s Head in next-door Newton, is a mine of local historical information. When he tells me that he knows what my family, who used to live in Newton Hall until 1971, got up to back then, there’s always a twinkle in his eye. So far he hasn’t told me any really scandalous stories but I am sure they are in there – certainly there must be something more juicy than where the guy lived who sold my parents their herbal remedies forty years ago. Another scrap he mentioned to me was how when he started working at the pub, one of the old timers, who had never left the village, used to use the old Anglo Saxon way of pluralising words, which was to add the suffix -en, rather than the -s we use nowadays. We still use a few words left over from those days – David’s example was “oxen” – but there’s also “children”, “men”, “women” and a handful more. Anyway, there is one word that David recalled him using a lot, and it’s how he would have described the reason why my eye has been off the farming ball for a lot of 2017: housen.
It’s early November, and we’ve had our first, very light, frosts of the year. Ideally the temperature would drop consistently now, as although the warmth keeps our cover crops growing, and putting more carbon into the soil, it is not very helpful on other parts of the farm. The main reason for this is that insects can only live and move when the temperature is above a certain point, and at this time of year we’d really like them all to go to bed until spring. Our biggest problem are aphids, which can carry a nasty disease called Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus. Confusingly, this doesn’t just affect barley, it also causes problems in wheat as well. We don’t like having to spray any insecticides when we can help it, but in a warm autumn like this, there are so many aphids around for so long, that sometimes it becomes necessary. I’m hoping that the cold weather has arrived just in time, but it may well be that we have to spray a few of our earlier drilled wheat fields.
By now we have planted almost all of the crops that are due to go in this year, the one exception being a field of rye which is waiting for the sugar beet to be harvested before it can go into the ground. This is the first year we have tried growing rye, a grain which is increasing in popularity very quickly, and I’ve got high hopes that it can do well on our lighter, sandy land. Elsewhere on the farm, the wheat is all planted and looks good, and the oilseed rape with its companion plants has gone crazy in the warm, wet weather. The difference compared to this time last year is hard to believe, and the plants are now approaching waist high. Similarly the cover crops, mainly down towards the A505, have done very well, and there are several million sunflowers waiting to be picked – everyone is welcome to help themselves.
The wildflower margins that we planted in September and October seem to have established nicely now, although it is difficult to see what is a wildflower and what is a weed – it takes someone far cleverer than me to be able to pick out all the species in there. Please do remember though to not walk on them, it is a very critical time and they are easily damaged. Hopefully next summer we will have something to show for it all.
For around the last 15 years, the farm has been part of an environmental scheme, run by the government and Natural England, called the Entry Level Scheme. This was a pretty basic program – anyone who entered would be accepted – which meant we placed some grass strips around the place and did a few other bits and pieces. In addition, we were also accepted into the Higher Level Scheme, which was a competitive process. We were successful here because, by luck more than judgement, our farm is environmentally quite interesting. We have three SSSIs, and provide good habitats for a few rare birds as well. Last October, 2016, these schemes ran out, and we moved into an entirely new program called Countryside Stewardship. Once again, we were able to get into the competitive Higher Tier, so we must have been doing at least something right over the last decade.
The amount of land we have set aside for Countryside Stewardship is around double what we used for the old schemes, taking up something like 10% of the entire farm. Ever since harvest we have been busy putting in all the new plots that were needed; margins for wildflowers, rare arable plants, and grass buffers as well as plots for ground nesting birds, winter bird feed and pollen & nectar areas to feed insects. This should make the countryside around us a nicer place to be, but also I’d like to think it will benefit the farm directly as well. I’m hoping they will provide great areas for all our beneficial insects to live, which can go and eat all the nasties in our crops – meaning we can use fewer pesticides.
One of the really big changes from moving into this new system is that the government has changed its mind on allowing access onto these wildlife strips. Whereas they used to encourage it, it has now been decided that people must keep off. This means that some areas of the farm which have been permissive access paths for many years, are now no longer accessible. The single biggest alteration is in the area between Thriplow and the B1368. There used to be a path that looped around this whole block, but it is now entirely gone. However, all of our farm tracks are still open, as they have been since the ‘70s, and in a couple of places we have kept the Permissive Access routes by removing areas from the environmental scheme. It is a bit confusing, and I will put up some signs to make it clear where the changes are, but the best thing to do is to check here. There are still over 7 miles of accessible paths on the farm, so please do respect the changes and keep off the nature reserves. Thank you!
Well, all I can say is Thank God that is over; harvest 2017 was easily the worst I have ever been involved with. It started off well enough, with the winter barley yielding very nicely at the beginning of June. I was quietly hopeful that this was a sign that the other yields might not be as bad as I had thought. As a result, I predicted it was going to be an average harvest, something which turned out to be a bit of a pipe dream. Towards the end of July the oilseed rape was ready to be cut, and the main block turned out to be just about reasonable, but certainly not good. Unfortunately the bits we moved on to afterwards ranged from terrible through to diabolical – the combination of slugs, flea beetles, pigeons, drought and heat waves really knocked it hard. The wheat yields on our light sandy land nearest the A505 were not much better, although as we moved north the yields did improve quite a lot, surpassing Decent, but never getting all the way to Great. If I were an examiner, the marks for harvest 2017 would go as follows: Winter Barley A, Oilseed Rape D, Wheat C-, Oats B, Spring Barley D, Peas E, Beans C+, Weather E-.
Ah yes, the weather. This is what really compounded the misery. It wasn’t that we had a lot of rain, in fact August was around average wetness. The problem was the constant nature of it, and the grey cloudy conditions almost every day. There is nothing more frustrating than waiting two days for the grain to dry, then just as you are about to start up the combine, it rains again, and it’s back to square one. Still, at least we were finished by the end of August, which is not the case for some of my friends who are still going well into the middle of September and beyond. But it’s done now, and we can move on to next year, which I’m sure will be much better.
After our horrible start to autumn in 2016, when most of our oilseed rape failed in one way or another, this year is looking a lot more promising. We planted the rapeseed as early as possible, starting from the first week of August, and now they look great. This is no guarantee that they will go on to perform well next year, but at least they exist, which is a definite bonus. Soon it will be time to plant the wheat, and a new crop for us as well – Rye – which should find its way into a bread loaf near you sometime in 2018/19. Fingers crossed.
Sure enough, after the very welcome rain, the weather turned super dry again in June, and even worse, it was incredibly hot. This caused us quite a big problem, as the plants we grow are all “cool season” grasses and broad leaves. This means that they work best in our normally mild climate, and the grasses will cease to grow as well any time they go above 27℃. We only had a few days when the air temperature went above this, but in the bright sun the leaves were getting up to almost 40℃ – obviously a problem. All of these cool season grasses are what is known as C3 plants, which refers to the type of photosynthesis they use to capture sunlight. If we were growing maize, which is a C4 plant, then it would have been great news, as these are tropical, or “warm season” grasses, which thrive as the temperature goes up – but they do not like our more normal conditions as much. Where I really liked the hot weather was for making hay, which we can do now that there are no cattle on the farm. I felt sorry for the man who came to make the small bales, as he had old tractors with no air conditioning, which must have been like working in a greenhouse. He also had quite a few breakdowns, so was in and out all day, but finally we ended up with almost 1400 bales of very nice meadow hay (which are available to a good home!).
In a normal year harvest tends to start in the middle or end of July, so I was slightly embarrassed to be on holiday at the beginning of the month when I received a text message saying that our barley was being harvested. The red face was short lived, as it turned out to be a lot less dusty and sweaty when you’re 3,000 miles away, but I suppose I should help out with the remaining fields now that I am back at home. We had a pleasing result, with a yield of over 9 tonnes per hectare, some 30% higher than last year. It is an encouraging start, but as barley is so much earlier than other crops, it possibly did not get so affected by the spring drought. It certainly will not be a late harvest this year, with several different crops all vying to be the next to be combined; it could be oilseed rape, wheat, or possibly even peas. Whichever one, we will have it all done for the next column, so you can find out what happened then.
Well, our prayers were finally answered, and not long after I wrote last month’s column, we finally got the rain which was so desperately needed. We ended up with exactly 50mm in the month of May, and there have been a few top ups since, which were perfect. All of our autumn sown crops have probably had enough water to get them through to harvest, so the next ingredient required is sunshine – and it looks like we will get it. Of course, if it get’s too hot for too long I’ll start complaining that we need rain again, for our sugar beet and the other spring planted crops. I talked last month about how I did not like to venture down to our fields by the A505, as they were looking pretty horrible in the drought. Within two days of the rain everything had turned bright green, but unfortunately there was already quite a lot of damage done, so the crops will all be a bit thin down there. The rest of the farm looks quite good, although it’s unlikely to be too much above average; we never really know until the combine goes in at harvest anyway.
Our spring crops are a bit of a mixed bag this year, with the sugar beet in particular not looking very good at all. We tried a new method for drilling the seed, which worked OK on one field, and poorly on the other one, up near Foxton. The seed was trapped under a hard layer of soil, and in the dry conditions they could not grow properly, as a result the plant population is too low. Now that it has rained, the surviving plants have managed to get going, but they are at least a month behind schedule. It will certainly not be a vintage sugar beet harvest this year.
For the first time, we have set out traps for Pea Moths in our pea fields, which work by using hormones to attract the moths, which then get stuck on a little sheet of glue. I’m glad we have done it, as there have hardly been any caught, which means we won’t have to go and spray for them later, which we normally have done every year as a matter of course. It’s only a small cost, but who wants to kill off all those other insects when we don’t have to?
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.
Last year, there was what I thought to be a pretty good advertising campaign by BASF (an agrochemical company), called BASF Real Results. This all started after a friend of mine started a little trial on his own farm to see if the top-of-the-range treatment recommended by BASF made him more money than his standard farm practice. It turned out that, in this trial, the BASF products did actually make sense to use, and so the campaign was born from the idea that real farmers could tell other real farmers what worked best for them, on their own farms with their own soil types. Nifty – and quite convincing.
This year, BASF have rolled out the idea to a wider audience, and asked for 50 new farmers to volunteer to be sent some free fungicides, and do the trials on their farm. I thought this sounded like a good idea as well, so investigated further. After a bit of digging I came to the conclusion that, no, actually I don’t think it does what it’s supposed to do. I didn’t want to take part. Here’s the problem.
The philosophy of these trials is that they are “real world”, which means they use big plots, or even just fields split in two. These get cut separately, and weighed, and the results are taken from that. Big areas like this have some advantages over small plots, chiefly that they can be relatively easily managed by farmers with farm scale equipment. Unfortunately, they have a serious flaw, which is that by taking such a small number of samples (normally two in this case), you are relying entirely on the underlying soil in the field to be exactly th same, so that the only factor which may cause the yield to change is the fungicide treatment that you’ve fiddled with. This, in my mind, is impossible. Take a look at these yield maps from our combine:
This is a fairly extreme example, but it makes the point. If you took the 2012 yield maps as being what the field was like, the western half is obviously better. If you only looked at 2013 you would say it’s clearly the eastern half which is best. If I was running a split field trial on this field in 2017, and one side yielded more than the other, how would I know if that was due to the fungicides, or to something else unknown? The simple answer is that there is no way of knowing this, and the only way to get around the problem is by taking a larger number of samples from around the field, and averaging them out. This is the way trials are run professionally, and for good reason. The more samples you have, the more accurate your results will be, from a statistical point of view.
Now, I hear BASF and ADAS cry, we have thought of that. Indeed they have, because there’s a great idea called Agronōmics which is designed to get around this. Remember the 50 farms that have been selected to take part in the Real Results trial? This is where the sample number comes from; each farm may or may not get an accurate result, but bundle all 50 together, and average them out, and then you get something with statistical value. I don’t have any problem with this, in fact it’s a great idea. But it does make a mockery of the supposed idea of the trial, which is that farmers get a real idea of what works on their farm. If you are one part of a large sample set, you’ll never know if you are the outlier, or a good data point. That’s why I didn’t (selfishly) want to waste my time doing it.
But I did still want to know what works here, so together with BASF and The Farming Forum, we have devised a more detailed experiment, which I feel a bit more comfortable in conducting with the aim of having usable results for myself. It doesn’t just include BASF, we also have trials with Syngenta, Bayer, and an untreated plot. It doesn’t just use the combine yield monitor, we also have a plot combine coming to take multiple samples. It doesn’t just take place on one field with one variety, there are two locations, with two varieties. It doesn’t just mean me getting one set of freebies, it also…well, you get the picture.
The basic outline is the same as the other 50 farmers, we use farm standard sprays at T0 and T3 (that’s the first and last fungicide applications), but for T1 and T2 we will be putting on farm standard, BASF, Bayer, Syngenta & nothing at all. There are three replications of each treatment, except for the untreated, which only has one for fun. the plots are 30x100m in size, and the trials look something like this:
We have two fields in the trial:
Soil type: chalky sandy loam – probably the least productive field on the farm
Variety: KWS Crispin – very good intrinsic disease resistance
Yield potential: 7-9t/ha
Farm standard T1 treatment: 0.8l/ha Keystone, 1l/ha CTL, 1l/ha CCC, 0.165l/ha Scitec, 7.5kg/ha Bittersaltz
Soil type: chalky clay loam – in the top third of of fields for average yield
Variety: Reflection – poor natural disease resistance, but our best yielder in 2016
Yield potential: 9-11t/ha
Farm standard T1 treatment: 1.25l/ha Adexar, 1l/ha CTL, 1l/ha CCC, 0.2l/ha Moddus
On both of these fields, the farm standard fungicides will be substituted for the following,
BASF: 1l/ha Adexar, 1l/ha CTL
Bayer: 1l/ha Aviator 235 Xpro, 1l/ha CTL
Syngenta: 0.8l/ha Seguris, 1l/ha CTL
I’m quite looking forward to taking these all to yield, as I really believe it could effect our thinking for the future, especially as we have the mix of good fields, bad fields, good (disease resistance) varieties, and less good ones. And hopefully, because of how it’s designed, it really will be Real Real Results.
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!).
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.