WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, November 2019

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

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

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

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

Breaking ground, September 30th 2019

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, October 2019

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

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

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

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

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, September 2019

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

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

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

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

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

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, July & August 2019

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

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

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

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, June 2019

Well, there’s just no getting away from the fact that we are dry. Not just a little bit, but totally, seriously, worryingly parched. The first four months of 2019 have brought us exactly 80.0mm of precipitation, which is around half of what we would normally expect. Unfortunately this comes after a very dry second half of 2018 as well, so levels of water in both rivers and subsoils were already depleted. We have a patch of grass at our grainstore that is on a shallow piece of soil, which is an early warning sign when a drought is beginning to kick in. Ordinarily it would be green up until June or July; this year it was already dying off in the second half of April. Of course, other parts of the country have been doing just fine, proving that on this occasion the grass literally is greener elsewhere.

This is particularly a problem for our spring planted crops, as they have not had the time to get a nice big root system which can gather water effectively. At least the weather warmed up a bit and stopped frosting every night; but all in all, it has been a tough start to their lives. I feel particularly lucky that we have stopped growing sugar beet, as some neighbouring farms are struggling to get any germination at all.

The rest of the farm, all planted last year, ranges from excellent (one particular field of oilseed rape) through average, and down to poor in places (some late drilled wheat after spring barley). There is an increasing divide showing up between our lighter land, where the wheats have gone into suspended animation due to lack of water, compared to our heavier land, which is still managing to hang on. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to go for a drive and see farmers irrigating their wheat, which for April in the UK is an amazing sight.

Another thing you may see on that drive is many bare, or very patchy, fields of oilseed rape. This will probably be due to a combination of slugs, flea beetle, and pigeons. We’ve found ourselves in a strange situation for the last couple of weeks, because the government department which issues licenses for shooting animals lost a court case on the technicalities of how those licenses worked. What that meant is with very short notice – only a few days – it suddenly became illegal to shoot common pests, like pigeons or rooks. This has lead to a massive fight between farmers and the anti-shooting brigade, both of whom accuse the others of being totally unreasonable and generally horrible people. As with most of these situations, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle – and in a few weeks it will have been sorted out, and everyone will forget about it, until next time.

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, May 2019

This is a strange feeling spring; although there are lots of jobs that need doing on the farm, few of them involve actual farming. Normally in early April we would be finishing off drilling, putting fertiliser on the wheat, spraying fungicides, pre-emergent herbicides and various other bits and pieces. But this year, the drilling was completed a month ago, we have already put on the bulk of fertiliser, and new regimes on most of our crops mean that we use many fewer sprays than we used to. 

The dry weather is causing us an increasing amount of concern, as we have only had around 60mm of rain so far in 2019, roughly a third of what we would usually expect. Right now that isn’t a problem, but it means the reserves of water in the ground are low, and so we are much more vulnerable to another drought, as happened in 2018. River and groundwater levels are low for most of the country, so prepare to hear about hosepipe bans if the weather keeps on in the same vein. However, every cloud (or lack of one in this case) has a silver lining, because rain causes plant diseases. 

Unfortunately, it’s often the case that farms are run with a very low appetite for risk, and so crops are treated prophylactically for a wide range of diseases. Nowadays, with better varieties, better natural disease resistance, and more sophisticated forecasting, we can change how we operate. What this means on a practical level is that when it is dry we can not apply fungicides to crops, as the risk of the diseases becomes much lower. This saving in cost doesn’t make up for the loss in yields associated with dry conditions, but it will at least be a small mitigation. 

The other area where we can save money is with fertiliser. There is always a limiting factor determining what your yield will be, and in years where we have plenty of rain and sunshine, that can often be the amount of nitrogen we apply to the crops. In a dry year therefore, it can be possible to put on less fertiliser, without harming the yields. Of course, as always, the problem with this is know what the weather is going to do several months in advance, but that’s farming! Anyway, this year, for the first time, we have decided to put on around 80% of the wheat’s nitrogen, and keep the rest back as a little bonus to be used in the event of some serious rain in April. Again, it doesn’t make a huge difference to the bottom line, but every little helps.

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, April 2019

Two months on from the start of our 2019 drilling campaign, and the crops are well and truly out of the ground. Aside from the cold spell in January, the weather has been quite favourable, but the jury is still out as to whether or not it was the right decision to plant so early. It is very difficult to judge how well these crops are looking right now, because they were planted into a very thick cover crop. This cover has now died, but it leaves behind a lot of residue, making it tricky to assess how well the new plants coming through are really doing. Hopefully by the beginning of April all of the fertiliser, combined with warmer and longer days, will make everything look much better – and my mind can be put to rest.

The remaining fields of oats were drilled in the second half of February, and the weather was then so warm that I decided to take a risk and plant some peas as well. This is a highly unusual, and risky, approach, as peas do not like cold weather. Consequently we normally plant them from the middle of March, to reduce the risk of catching frosts. So far, touch wood, I think it was the right call, and they will be breaking through the surface around the time we would normally be planting them.

We are now right in the middle of the season for applying fertiliser, which started with oilseed rape in the middle of February. This had half of its total dose, and the second half will be applied in the middle of March. This year we have enlisted the help of a company to make aerial maps of the oilseed rape crops with a drone, and we can use this information to vary the amount of fertiliser applied to different areas of the field. The idea is that to get the best yield, you need a certain amount of leaf area, so places where the plant is smaller receive less nitrogen than those places with bigger plants. We will see if it works as advertised.

The rest of the farm has had at least a quarter of its fertiliser, and now, a couple of weeks later, we can see the wheat plants turning a darker shade of green as they start to pick it up. It’s from this point onwards that we start to be at risk of drought, and with such a dry winter and low ground water levels, the possibility is more real than ever. ‘They’ said 2018 was like 1975, so 2019 could be like 1976 (the hottest and driest summer in living memory). Let’s all hope that ‘they’ are wrong.

 

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, March 2019

It’s been a month now since we planted the barley and oats which I discussed in the last newsletter. Back then I said it should be fine as long as we don’t get any particularly cold weather. Unfortunately that did come to pass, with a few nights dropping to minus five. I’m hoping that we have still gotten away with it, but the situation is certainly not ideal. Both the oats and the barley have germinated, and have roots and shoots growing, but taking so long to emerge from the ground is not a good start to their lives. Thankfully, there has not been too much rain – which can make the seeds rot – and the temperatures are set to increase significantly in February. The barley which we planted after December harvested sugar beet looks very good, having managed to get going before the weather turned cold in January.

Elsewhere on the farm, the oilseed rape is generally good, but with some poor areas. I received a nasty shock when checking a field adjacent to Thriplow church, when I found that there was serious damage from flea beetle larvae in just about every plant. These come from eggs laid by adult flea beetle in August and September, when they are laid on the ground around the plants. When the eggs hatch, the larvae make their way into the plant, and start to eat the stalks, and most seriously, the stems. There is nothing that can be done about it, so it’s a case of waiting and seeing how much the plant will be weakened. Fortunately, the news from every other field was much better, where although it is still easy to find the larvae, they are not nearly as abundant.

Our wheat seems to have enjoyed the relatively mild and dry winter, although one field near Thriplow has suffered a surprise slug attack over Christmas, when I thought the danger had passed. We have probably lost 10-15% of the field, which just goes to show that you can’t let your guard down. At the other extreme of the farm, in Barrington, we have our best looking field of wheat. Unfortunately it is also our smallest field, at around four hectares. 

Soon it will be time to start putting the first little bits of fertiliser onto the oilseed rape, and some of the wheat which needs a kickstart. This really marks the start of the spring season, when the soils warm up and the crops can get going. From there, it’s only a few short months until harvest – again!

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, February 2019

One of the well known benefits of being an arable farmer is the lack of work in the months around Christmas. By and large, that is true, and it’s the main reason why my life became so much easier when I decided to stop being a livestock farmer a few years back. However, just because there is less work, doesn’t mean there is no work.

At the start of December we lifted our second, and possibly last ever, field of sugar beet. A couple of years ago the entire climate for sugar beet changed when the European market was opened up to the world market – something we had been protected from for decades. Inevitably, the world market prices are significantly less than what we were used to receiving. This, coupled with an increase in the price of every other crop we grow, and the fact that sugar beet really doesn’t fit in very well with our whole farming system, means we have decided to bin it. This would have been a very big deal five years ago, because farmers used to have to be in possession of a quota from British Sugar in order to be allowed to grow the crop; but that also fell by the wayside. This means it is much easier to stop growing sugar beet, as in the future we could probably start again just as easily – unlikely, but never say never.

Anyway, the last field was harvested, with another poor yield, but as a consolation we managed to plant the following crop into what were very good conditions for mid-December. Historically we have always grown wheat after sugar beet, but this year we have mixed it up, and have gone with spring barley. The idea is that a spring crop will be better suited to utilising the truncated growing season which results from planting so late in the year.

The dry conditions which allowed us to get onto the fields in December have continued all the way into the new year, and have actually persuaded me to do something which is totally alien to our normal methods: start our spring crop planting in January. This year we are growing spring peas, oats and barley. The peas definitely need to wait for warmer soils, probably in March, but the barley can deal with much cooler temperatures. So for the first time ever, we planted 33 hectares of barley in mid January, some two or three months before when we would normally do it. This can potentially give us higher yields come harvest, but if the weather over the next few weeks is particularly cold or wet, I may live to regret the decision.

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, December/January 2018

Autumn drilling has gone well, with rain at just the right times to keep the seedbeds nice and moist, but not too sticky. At the start of November we lifted our first field of sugar beet, next to Fowlmere. This crop has looked poor all year, and although we don’t yet know the yield, the pile of beet in the field looks worryingly small. A small consolation has come from the fact it was harvested in relatively dry conditions, which limits the damage caused by the huge, 60 tonne, harvesters. Within 24 hours of the field being cleared, we had it drilled with wheat, which turned out to be excellent timing, as there was an unexpected deluge over the weekend which followed – one which would have prevented any work on the field for at least a week. We now have one more field of beet to harvest, and re-plant with barley, and that will be most of the work done for 2018. So instead of waffling about the farm does over winter, I thought I would publish an abridged version of an article I wrote last month instead:

The hot topic this month seems to be whether, after Brexit, we should allow imports of food made using techniques that are outlawed for UK producers. Several months ago that centred on hormone fed beef, and chlorinated chickens. More recently, perhaps due to farmers thinking about flea beetles and aphids, we are talking about neonicotinoid seed dressings, which have been banned in the EU.

So now, when we think how we would like UK agriculture to look in a few years, the very obvious point has been made that having decided that neonicotinoids are not safe for use here, isn’t it morally wrong to import food from other countries that is produced using them? The logic is so strong that even the RSPB and NFU are singing from the same song sheet. Even more bizarrely, I too agree with both of them, and would strongly support imports to be required to meet our own standards. There’s really just one problem with the whole thing though:

It’s never, ever going to happen.

How can I say this with such certainty? Easy – just look at any one of a thousand examples of asymmetrical regulations to be found happening right this second. How about labour laws? It’s not difficult to find cheap clothes on the high street, and why are they cheap – because they are made by kids in the far east, something that would never be permitted here. It’s not just poor countries though, look at anything imported from the US. They have zero days mandatory annual leave, and zero days maternity leave – neither of which is legal in the UK. OK, I can hear you thinking – but isn’t that different to polluting the environment, as neonicotinoids are supposed to do? Anyone who owns a smartphone can’t really complain about this; they full of rare earth minerals that are often mined with terrible pollution effects. Just Google ‘yttrium mining pollution” and see what comes up. Perhaps most damning of all, is that we already import thousands of tonnes of food produced with pesticides that we are not allowed to use – paraquat or any number of different GMOs would be good examples. Somewhat amusingly, many of the farmers who voted a few years back to leave a huge trading bloc with aligned standards are the same ones who now complain that we may have deal with countries using different standards. What a shock!

At the end of the day we don’t really need to look abroad, or on the internet, we need to look at our own lives: I’ve just written the above on an American computer, made in China. The clothes I’m wearing come from God-knows-where, but certainly not the UK. My car is German, and my supper will be Japanese. With the possible exception of the last point, I’m no different to so many farmers in the UK. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have this choice, whilst compelling everyone else in the country to buy our produce (or something else made to the same standards), and to probably pay a premium for it? Too right it would! But can we do that without being massive hypocrites? I’m not so sure.