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.

Cross Slot vs 750a super spring special

Unfortunately spring hasn’t really sprung yet, but hopefully it will soon. Regardless, here is the latest tiller count data from the drill trial. Same old same old.

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If you’ve read recent posts here you will know about the drone I’ve bought. It may have had a slight altercation with a tree, putting it out of action for the time being, but before that I made a map of the drill trial field. Here it is, along with some more photos taken the same day, but from a somewhat lower altitude. You can click on any of them to get larger versions.

Here is a large version of the whole field photo. Aside from the different drill areas, which will be explained in the next picture, you can see in the top left quadrant a zigzag darker line where we did not spray any Pacifica (a herbicide for killing grassweeds). Alo in the bottom left you can see the remains of some sort of Roman or bronze age settlement.

Here is a large version of the whole field photo. Aside from the different drill areas, which will be explained in the next picture, you can see a zigzag darker line running from half way up the left side to halfway along the top. This is where we did not spray any Pacifica (a herbicide for killing grassweeds). Also in the bottom left you can see the remains of some sort of Roman or bronze age settlement. A stream runs along the bottom, curved, headland and we normally get some flooding, which is what the brown patches are

I tried, and failed, to make some sort of clever overlay of this info on the previous image. The blue section is the Cross Slot area, the red is 750a. Everything else is CO8. The 750a area is very obviously different to the other two, which are indistinguishable. From this perspective the crop looks pretty ropey, so I went down to ground level and took the following photos, the locations of which are also marked on this image

I tried, and failed, to make some sort of clever interactive overlay of this info on the previous image. The blue section is the Cross Slot area, the red is 750a. Everything else is CO8. The CS and CO8 are indistinguishable, but the 750a area looks distinctly different. From this perspective the crop looks pretty ropey, so I went down to ground level and took the following photos, the locations of which are also marked on this image

1 - CO8. Looks much better from the ground!

1 – CO8. Looks much better from the ground!

2 - Cross Slot. Looks similar to CO8, not surprising given that all the numbers match up too

2 – Cross Slot. Looks similar to CO8, not surprising given that all the numbers match up too

3 - The Cross Slot / 750a seam. There was a little bit of overlap between the drills here, so the difference is not as apparent as I thought it would be

3 – The Cross Slot / 750a seam. Is it slightly lighter green than the Cross Slot? I wonder if that could be due to the same amount of nitrogen divided amongst a greater number of plants & tillers.

4 - 750a. Slightly less ground visible, but the difference seems much smaller down here compared to from the drone

4 – 750a. Slightly less ground visible, but the difference seems much smaller down here compared to from the drone

5 - 750a / CO8 seam. Not a very good comparison because of the coincidental tramline it landed in. Still - not a massive difference though

5 – 750a / CO8 seam. Not a very good comparison because of the coincidental tramline it landed in. Still – not a massive difference though. Again, 750a looks maybe a slightly lighter shade of green

So there we have it. Until next time.

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, April 2016

 

What follows is a copy of the first article published in our local village newsletter. It doesn’t follow on very well from the March one, as I actually wrote April first. In the future it will hopefully be more coherent.

This is the time of year when we really get going on farm work again after a quiet winter. Towards the end of March we started to plant our spring crops, and this work will go on until late April. First off we will sow peas, beans and oilseed rape, then move on to oats and barley, and finally linseed and maize towards the end of the month. Unlike most farms we are using a “no-till” system, which means that we try to move the soil as little as possible, so you won’t see a plough or cultivator on our fields. This is because we are trying to preserve moisture, improve the quality of our soils, and save diesel. As an extra benefit it takes much less time as well.

It is also a busy time tending to the crops we established last autumn, like wheat, oilseed rape, barley and oats. These will all be getting their second batch of fertiliser, which as it is a liquid, we can apply with our sprayer. The other really important job now is that we try to protect the crops from the fungal diseases that love our cool and moist climate – all in all it is a busy month for the sprayer.

We will be running tractor & trailer rides at Daffodil Weekend this year, so please come along for a 20 minute tour – there is even a roof in case the weather doesn’t cooperate.

If you want to see which fields are which, and what’s in them, take a look on our map page here.

For more regular updates, follow us on Twitter: @OOOfarmer

To receive email notifications when there is a new blog post fill in your email address at the top right of this page, or click the “follow’ button at the bottom.

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, March 2016

Welcome to the first instalment of WTFIH @ Thriplow Farm. This is going to be a short monthly blog to keep people posted on what is happening at a given point in the year. It came about because I was asked (Ok, actually I volunteered) to write a few hundred words for the local monthly newsletter, aimed at satisfying the curiosity of our neighbours who sometimes look out of their windows/over the fence and think WTF is that tractor doing? However, it will be a decidedly non-technical sort of thing, so probably of no interest to farmers. You have been warned.

OK, let’s get going. March is the month when the farm starts to wake up after the winter hibernation. The first job is applying nitrogen fertiliser to the crops. We start off by putting a little bit on the wheat that was drilled late in the Autumn or the early winter, then we move onto the oilseed rape and barley, which get half their total dose. Finally, around the second or third week of the month, we get on to the main bulk of wheat, which was planted in September 2015. This is when we really start to get busy, because at the same time we will have to start thinking about planting peas, beans, oats and barley – all depending on the weather. On top of that, as the weather warms up so the plants will start to become at risk of attack from fungal diseases, so that really needs protecting against too.

When we can’t work in the fields, then there are a few other bits that need doing. Next month some cows will arrive to graze our pastures, so the fences need to be mended. And there is always something really exciting to be made in the workshop; who doesn’t love a good mudguard?

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If you want to see which fields are which, and what’s in them, take a look on our map page here.

For more regular updates, follow us on Twitter: @OOOfarmer

To receive email notifications when there is a new blog post fill in your email address at the top right of this page, or click the “follow’ button at the bottom.

New Thriplow Farms maps available – very exciting!

OK, I think this is pretty cool. I’ve just added a couple of new pages to the website, if you’re on it now you will be able to see them on the top menu. I should point out though that they will only really be of interest to people who live around here, or those that like pretty pictures.

What’s in that field?

I know that quite often people are walking around the farm and wonder what a particular crop is; this is especially true when there’s something unusual like a cover crop growing. So what I’ve done is create a custom interactive map, that allows you to see all our fields, and bring up their details by clicking on them. If you open it up on a phone then it will even show you where you are on the map at the same time.

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This page can be accessed through the link in the top menu, or by clicking here.

Walking

The second new page is a similar concept, but instead of showing what is growing in each field, it shows on a different map where people can go walking on the farm. Some are public footpaths, some are permissive access routes, and some are just plain old farm tracks (that have been open to the public since the ’70s).

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This page can also be accessed through the link in the top menu, or by clicking here.

Enjoy!

Neonics, pyrethroids, rapeseed, guesses and dodgy stats

Standby for some unscientific science. Here’s a story about two fields of oilseed rape on our farm.

Field 1

Here’s the deets. 18ha field, sown with Campus OSR. Half of it was drilled with Hypro Duet seed dressing, which is a fungicide. The other half had Cruiser dressing, which is a neonicotinoid [neonic] insecticide – and it was drilled roughly a week later. As fans of Countryfile will know, neonic seed dressings are currently banned on oilseed rape…apart from some small parts of the country, one of which happens to be where we farm. Apart from the neonic dressed seeds, the field has had no other insecticides applied at all. Oh, and it had a companion crop of buckwheat, lentils & fenugreek.

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Neonic on left, no insecticide on right

I went out last week to count how many flea beetle larvae there were living in the plants right now. I took 10 plants from each treatment, all samples were done within about a 30m circle. I then split open all the petioles where I could see a brown lesion, and counted the larvae. Sometimes I couldn’t find one when it definitely looked as if I should have; maybe I squashed them or was just blind. But hopefully my errors were consistent.

I found an average of 10.5 larvae/plant in the non-neonic area, compared to 8.6 in the treated. Experiments from AHDB showed that having 5 larvae/plant in the autumn did not have an effect on yield, but obviously both of my results are higher than that. On first glance it would appear the neonics have had a positive effect on keeping the flea beetle infestation down.

The neonic treated plants (left) are significantly smaller than the untreated (right)

The neonic treated plants (left) are significantly smaller than the untreated (right)

But unfortunately it was not as simple as that. The treated area was drilled around a week later, and with a higher seedrate. This meant that the plants were significantly smaller than in the untreated bit. So I walked out again and did a plant population count – 33 vs 58 plants/m2. Multiply this number by the larvae counts, and we see that there are actually more larvae in the neonic area – 345 vs 503 larvae/m2. And finally… I counted how many petioles each plant had, and then divided the larvae count by that number. The result was almost identical 1.18 vs 1.19 larvae/petiole.

So the neonic area “won” the first test, “lost” the second, and “drew” the third. What does it mean? I’ve no idea! As always, harvest will tell the only story that actually matters.

[UPDATE: Since writing this I was worrying about a couple of possibilities, so I have investigated them further. First of all, I wondered if perhaps I had taken the samples from too close; maybe some beetles had leaked over from the non-neonic side. So to test this I went over to the other side of the field, as far away as possible, and checked again. I did not do a full “scientific” sample set, but there were no fewer larvae than the first location.

Secondly I thought maybe the neonic seed treatment was irrelevant, and the higher infestation was down to just the lack of foliar sprays. Luckily I could test this too, as we have a third field that was drilled entirely with neonic seed, but had no insecticide sprays at all. Again I did an informal count and the numbers were much lower, maybe 4-5 per plant. So even with no sprays it is possible to be below the yield reduction threshold.]

Field 2

45ha field, all drilled at the same time with Picto and a companion crop of vetch, buckwheat and lentils. The seed dressing was Hypro Duet – i.e. not an insecticide.

Does it matter what is what? There's no visible difference

Does it matter what is what? There’s no visible difference. Although perhaps more interestingly the combine wheelings are fairly obvious

In September there was some flea beetle pressure, so we were given a recommendation to spray with a pyrethroid. Personally I was less than convinced, having done similar things last year – so we left 25% of the field un-sprayed. A month or so later we had another recommendation for pyrethroids again, this time for stem weevil. The whole field was treated.

I took all the same measurements as in the first field. There were more larvae in the once treated area compared to the bit sprayed twice – 3.6 vs 1.5. However, both are still below the threshold of yield reduction. Plant populations were odd; 81 vs 63/m2. It didn’t look different to the eye, but the stats never lie (errr…). This means we had more flea beetles in total in the once treated bit, 293 vs 94 larvae/m2. The plants were of pretty similar size, 7.6 vs 6.8 petioles/plant, which in turn means double the number of larvae/petiole in the once area.

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I think drawing conclusions is easier here, as there’s a much closer and more scientific comparison. It seems clear that the first application of pyrethroids had some effect on reducing the number of flea beetles. That shouldn’t be surprising, but as the plants seem healthy and the larval numbers are below yield affecting thresholds I’m happy with the decision not to spray. In fact I only wish I had left some of that part of the field un-treated on the second application as well.

I think the difference between the two fields is interesting. The neonic treated field has a much higher burden of flea beetle larvae than the untreated one, but they are a few miles apart, using different varieties and different companion crops. The only certainly at this point is that neonics are most definitely not a guaranteed way to keep flea beetle at bay. I’ve been saying for a while now that if we grow rapeseed next year it will not be treated with neonics, even if they are permitted. I haven’t seen a reason to change that opinion yet.

Stop the pigeon

Back in August we drilled four fields of rape, all with a companion crop mix of one sort or another. For my money the most interesting is where we planted a mixture of lucerne, buckwheat and fenugreek; the lucerne is planned to stay as an understory in the following crops that will supply some “free” nitrogen. This particular field is looking good, the lucerne seems to have established well.

Left: October 16th | Right: February 2nd

But that’s not what I want to talk about here. One of the other fields had a mix of vetch, buckwheat and lentils. You can see the results above – it’s looked great all year. Incidentally, this field was drilled without neonic seed dressing, and although it was “hammered” by flea beetle in September we left 25% unsprayed, and the result is the lefthand picture above.

Anyway, there are a couple of hectares at the end of the field that are a trial without companion cropping (OK so I ran out of seed early) and today I went down to take a look. It’s an incredible result, and one I hadn’t anticipated at all.IMG_6235IMG_6237IMG_6238

So spectacular is it that I’ve had to post three (ok, four) photos. On the left is the companion cropped, where only the vetch has really survived the winter, and on the right is plain. What’s amazing is that the plain rape has been hammered by pigeons, and they (literally) haven’t touched the companioned bit.

One of the theoretical benefits of companion crops has always been how they could confuse or distract pests, but only in the context of slugs or insects – I’ve certainly never heard of a pigeon effect. Long may it continue – who likes gas guns, flags etc etc; they don’t even work anyway.

I was even so excited I made a video, for the first and perhaps last time. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending in your viewpoint, it was too windy and so most of what I said was lost. But still, the effect is obvious. Enjoy.

CS vs 750a Xmas update

It’s about 6 weeks since drilling, and the field is looking good, with only a small amount of blackgrass. Excellent.

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The 750a (left) / CS (right) seam, November 13

The nice people at ProCam have set up some plant population experiments for me, and have now performed two counts. At one end of the field (slightly lighter soil) there are 10 sample locations for each drill, so the results should be statistically significant. At the other, heavier, end we have just got one sample site per drill. The first set of results were interesting, but it turns out that there had been a bit of an error, and the varying drills’ row widths had not been taken into account. In a nutshell, that’s bad news for the CS and CO8, as their plant counts had been overstated by around 45%.

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The CS plots being counted, December 4th

Let’s get on to the data. Remember, all drills put seed on at the same rate, which was 225kg/ha AKA 480 seeds/m2. Here’s the lighter land bit, with 10 samples per drill:

light

And the heavier bit, with just the one sample:

heavy

Clearly, the 750a has managed quite a lot better rates of establishment than the other two. There has been slug activity, which probably explains the decreasing plant counts over the last month; the heavier section was pelleted, the lighter bit was not. The differing growth stages are interesting, but at this point, I don’t know what is “best”. Could it be the CS is the lowest disturbance, and less mineralised N means slower plant development? That’s not what a certain S.Townsend preaches, but I have no idea if he is right or not.

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33.33cm x 33.33cm

My personal feeling is that the differences in growth stages will even out by the time summer comes around. Luckily we will be measuring the yields scientifically (and hopefully significantly), and that, as always, is what matters here.

Next update in the spring.

Days 38 & 39

I don’t know if these really count as Nuffield travels, but I will scribble about them anyway. If nothing else, the locations were incredibly exotic.Screen Shot 2014-09-28 at 20.30.20These visits were only quick stops, to look at some machinery – two drills to be exact. The first, in Leicestershire, is a John Deere, and the second a Pillar Laser.

Top: John Deere. Bottom: Pillar Laser

Top: John Deere  –  Bottom: Pillar Laser

These are both interesting tools, with strong North American roots. The John Deere uses their standard single disc openers, the same that you can buy on a standard UK 750a. The difference is that JD only make machines up to 6m wide – if you want them to fit on our little European sized roads. In the rest of the world they make much bigger versions, but they are all 4m+ wide when folded.IMG_3658

When this drill was born in the US, it was 40ft (12m) wide. Last year it was imported to the UK by a guy called Steve Heard, who then spent all winter in the workshop (he claims to not know how long) cutting, welding and modifying. A bit later it popped out, having been reduced to 9m, and the fold had been changed to make it legal on our roads. One key point is that there is a separate tank for fertiliser; something the official UK machines do not offer.

Watch in HD for best effect

So what’s it like? Well, the openers are well known and well proven; there’s nothing new here apart from custom made closing wheels, that seem to work well. It looks like a brilliantly engineered solution, but one that would be beyond most peoples’ capability to make on farm. One potential question is how much weight can it put on to the discs? A 750a can manage ~200kg per opener (when the seed tank is empty). This drill can take a lot of weight off the seed tank wheels – so much so that when I visited two of the rams were bent from doing just that, and were awaiting repair. My suspicion is that there is not enough weight as is, but adding more to the frame as needed should be trivial because there is plenty of space to do it. Overall it’s a great idea, and done to a level that looks as if it came straight from the JD factory – very impressive.

IMG_3674My second visit was in Dorset, and it was to see a Pillar Laser in action. You will of course remember that I almost went to the factory in Canada back on Day 30, but I did visit a farmer who was a user. This drill is the only one in the UK (possibly Europe too?) so I was very keen to actually see it in action.

OSR planted August 28th

OSR planted August 28th

The first thing to greet me was a great looking field of rapeseed. It had been drilled on August 28th and looked excellent – certainly the best crop I have seen this year. The drill must be alright to be able to do this, but to be fair there had been quite a lot of starter fertiliser (100kg of placed DAP) and chicken muck in the spring too. It also doesn’t look like flea beetle is a problem in the part of Dorset.

Seed & fertiliser separation

Seed & fertiliser separation

The Laser has two main selling points. The main one is that it combines the lower disturbance of a disc drill with the ability of a tine (or hoe as they say in Canada) to place seed into clean soil. The second is that the seed and fertiliser are separated, both vertically and horizontally. The fertiliser is dropped down directly in the shadow of the disc, and the seed onto a little ledge created by the small winged tine. The photo above shows it pretty clearly (this seed had been blown out when stationary, it would not normally be left on top of the ground).

Wheat drilled into raked OSR stubble

Wheat drilled into raked OSR stubble

You have to be dedicated to buy one of these drills to use here. Pillar do not make machines that fold to UK sizes (sound familiar?) so it will always be necessary to get your own frame made up, and then attach the openers afterwards. One benefit of the design is that because the discs have a double angle, which can be seen in the photo four up from here, they pull themselves into the ground. This means that weight is not needed for penetration, unlike the JD (or a Cross Slot). Hence the frame can be much simpler, and the seed cart can be a separate unit. This could be a plus or a minus depending on your point of view!

Watch in HD for best effect

I’ve gone through the positives of this design, but I do feel there are some drawbacks too. Primarily there is a bit too much disturbance for what I am looking for. Admittedly it is less than a standard tine drill, but it could not be described as ULD (Ultra Low Disturbance). It is possible that agronomically this is actually a good thing, but right now I think as little as possible is desirable. The second point is that there is a potential issue with trash clearance, as can be seen in the video. The problem is that there is not a great deal of distance between the ground and the main disc bearing. I think it was exacerbated in these conditions as there was plenty of loose fluffy material right on the surface (raked cattle muck and OSR stubble), and going into a firmly rooted cover crop or untouched stubble would probably be fine. But it is still a bit of a concern.

All drills have compromises (unfortunately), but does this one have less than the others? I’m not sure: maybe if an off-the-shelf product was available, but I don’t think I am convinced enough to consider going through the hassle of having a machine custom made.

Next stop… Australia.