WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, March 2017

We are starting to get close to spring, when the farm comes back to life, and our proper work starts. There has a been a little taster of this already, when we put a small amount of fertiliser onto our oilseed rape in January, hoping to give it a bit of a boost. The weather has been slightly on the cold side for it to work perfectly, but as there has not been much rain all the fertiliser is still there in the ground, waiting to be used. Elsewhere we have applied little patches of the oilseed rape fields with a chemical to try and control a few problematic grass weeds that have popped up. The rest of the farm looks pretty good now, with the recent patch of warmer weather getting all the wheat going, even if it didn’t quite get warm enough for the rapeseed. Towards the end of February and beginning of March work will start in earnest, with the first main doses of nitrogen fertiliser going onto the oilseed rape, winter barley, and wheat.

I’m going to go slightly off the farm track now, because I want to mention pesticides. I’m pretty sceptical about a lot of them, and quite often give talks to farmers saying that we use too many, often for no real benefit. But there is a lot of news around at the moment about one in particular, glyphosate, often known as Roundup. Here’s a chemical which is less toxic than many things we eat all the time, like table salt, ibuprofen and caffeine. However, it has been classed as “probably carcinogenic to humans” – which I admit sounds rather ominous. But this is the same rating as red meat, and a lower rating than bacon & sausages, which are both labelled as “carcinogenic to humans” (note, no ‘probably’ about it). Glyphosate is one of the pesticides that we use which allows us to farm in a way I believe is a net benefit for the environment, soil health, and wildlife like ground nesting birds – and it also hugely cuts down the amount of diesel we burn. So please do bear this in mind when Facebook bombards you with posts about how evil the stuff apparently is.

 

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, February 2017

It’s a bit of a difficult column to write this month, as not much has happened over Christmas. The farm doesn’t really start to get going again until February, when we think about putting some fertiliser on the oilseed rape, and this year we will be keen to try and get that going as early as possible, because the crops are small and need a bit of a boost to get them moving. The weather has been a bit too warm, although nowhere near as bad as last year. I’ve got my fingers crossed that we do get a cold spell later in January, as this is pretty critical to keep plant diseases and pests at bay – both in the short term and also stretching through to next autumn when we feel the effects from winter breeding of slugs and insects.

I whinged at the end of last year about pigeons eating the oilseed rape, and because the plants are so small there is not much safety margin before they are all gone. Luckily they have not been too bad so far, but it was February & March last year when the real damage was done. Sticking with the theme, we are seeing a lot of rabbits, something that has not been a problem in the last three or four years. We are trying both prevention, by putting up temporary electric fences, and cure – 74 were caught in only a few hundred metres of ditch down near Fowlmere. I’ve got a feeling it will be a busy spring trying to keep them under control.

The other pests that have appeared a lot over winter have been the hare coursers. A few were caught and prosecuted by the police, but by and large they came and go as they please – and in one case they drove through an electric fence near Foxton that was keeping a flock of sheep in. Luckily the sheep didn’t escape, but if you do see coursing happening, please call 999 immediately, and definitely before calling me or another farmer!

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WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, December 2016

As crop farmers, we are almost done for the year now, which gives us time to get on with other bits and pieces around the place that have been put off for the last nine months. Because the weather stayed pretty dry all the way up into November, all of our crops were drilled in good time – if not too early in hindsight. The last field went in at the beginning of November, after the cows had gone to their new home, and all of the fences and water pipes were lifted. Luckily I was on holiday then so could leave the hard work to someone else. This field has had beans put into it, with a very clever type of machine that cuts a small slot in the soil, drops in the seed, and then covers it back over. It really is quite amazing, and almost impossible to tell anything has been planted there. The field is up near Newton if you want to have a look, it is called “Home” and is on the track between the gatehouse on Cambridge road, and the back of Newton Hall. One of the benefits of this type of system is that it leaves the worms undisturbed, and more worms is always a good thing. One night recently after a bit of rain I was walking in the field, and was astounded to see the surface covered in worms lying there all stretched out. I don’t know what they were doing, but as soon as they felt footprints they shot back underground. There must have been 50 or so per square meter, similar to the snake pit in Indiana Jones. Hopefully this is a sign that we are doing something right.
The rest of the crops look fairly well, but are quite small as we did not plant them until later than usual. We are hoping for some colder weather as this will naturally keep down the pressure from pests and diseases, and so I won’t have to argue with the agronomist so much about getting the sprayer out. One thing she can’t help with though is pigeons, which we really need to try and keep off the oilseed rape. If anyone would like to go shooting on the farm over the winter, please do get in touch.

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, November 2016

As usual, our lives are dominated by the weather. This time it’s rain, or the lack of it. Since a good rain in the middle of July, it’s been really very dry for us here. That was great news for harvest, but after that there are several reasons we really like plants to be able to grow away quickly. Firstly we have planted lots of cover crops around the farm, which should be busy capturing carbon out of the air and putting it into the soil. This helps improve our soil quality, and, very minutely, air quality too. It also stops other nutrients being washed away into the ground water, so they can be used by next spring’s crops. Secondly, we planted 150 hectares of oilseed rape in August, and this needs good conditions to grow quicker than the pests can eat them. Finally, we would really like any weed seeds that grew in last year’s crops to germinate and grow, so that we can kill them off before planting again with wheat, barley or beans this autumn. So all in all, this very dry weather now does not help us a lot.

Luckily, the farming system we use, eliminating soil movement, keeps in as much moisture as possible. The oilseed rape had a tricky start, but hopefully we over the first hurdles now – although we did lose one entire field to slugs and flea beetles. The cover crops are much worse off, and it may be that we cannot have any sheep here over the winter, as there is just not enough food to make it worthwhile. Speaking of livestock, at the end of October the 77 young cattle we have had all summer will be moving to a different home. They had a slow start with the cold spring, but in the second half of the year have done really well; some of them have grown at over 1kg per day. This month’s main job will be planting the wheat, which has been delayed due to the dry conditions – but it should all be in by November, if everything goes smoothly.

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, October 2016

A lot has happened since the last column I wrote. Harvest started in the middle of July with the winter barley, of which we had two fields growing down next to the A505. It wasn’t a great beginning as the yields, and quality, were very disappointing. Next came the oilseed rape, and again the yields were bad. One of the big problems was that huge areas of some fields had been entirely eaten by pigeons, so there was no crop left to harvest; over our entire farm we lost maybe one third of our plants like this. Next followed the wheat, oats, peas and spring barley. Everything had one thing in common – it wasn’t as good as I had hoped it was going to be. This was a real shame because up until July the farm had looked to be in great shape, but in the end a lack of sunshine at critical times really held us back, and meant a lot of the grain did not swell as it could have done. The one bright point was our beans, in particular the winter sown varieties, which yielded really well, and certainly above what I was expecting given what had come before.

So that’s another year over, and it all starts again. We planted our rapeseed in the middle of August, into very dry and dusty soil, but a huge slug attack meant that we had to replant over half of it two weeks later. Now that problem is over, we are suffering with little insects called flea beetles. Getting rapeseed to grow can be quite tricky sometimes! Towards the end of September we will plant a small amount of winter barley, and then the main job of drilling half the farm with wheat starts. This year I’m hoping for a cooler autumn and winter so that we have a better chance of controlling all the pests without chemicals. Fingers crossed.

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, August 2016

You may have noticed that I am somewhat obsessed with the weather. Not just obsessed though, but also incredibly fickle. This is how my thought process has been from March until mid July: too cold – too dry – just right! (for a week) – too wet – too cold. In other words, we are never really happy for more than a week, or maybe two at a maximum. We now have enough moisture in the ground, and what is really needed for a great harvest is sunshine, and warmth. The barley down at the southern end of the farm, HC 1 & HC 4, is getting very close to being ripe, and we are on target to start harvest in the middle of July. The oilseed rape is looking like it will be a bit later than normal, so perhaps towards the end of the month. Because we have had so much rain all of the wheat is still very green, which is normally a good sign, although it means a later harvest. One problem we have had with the wet weather is that it came over the period when our spring beans were flowering. This interferes with the pollinator insects and so although the crop looks great from the outside, there is a worrying lack of pods when you take a closer look.

Before harvest we will be re-drilling the small field between Fowlmere and Thriplow. It was supposed to be maize, but the seed never germinated. Now we will put in a green manure cover crop, and plant wheat into that sometime in October. The only other bit of work to be done is to spray some of our oilseed rape where it has been badly attacked by pigeons. This makes the plants mature more quickly, so that it can be harvested (hopefully) before the pods shatter and drop all the seed onto the floor – then we will be flat out combining for most of August.

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, July 2016

Last month I wrote about how the warm weather finally arrived; this time it’s all about the rain. Rain is, nine times out of ten, what dictates if we have a good harvest or not. It wasn’t too bad, but things were starting to get a little bit on the dry side at the end of May. So when the prospect of rain appeared, I did what any modern farmer does, and endlessly checked as many different websites and weather apps as I could find. It’s easy to choose the forecast which suits you best, but frustrating when rain keeps coming and going. In the end we did fairly well, getting 18mm, which was a lot less than only a few miles over to the east. Still, I’m not complaining and a further top up the next week, followed by more warm and sunny weather, means that all the crops are really in top gear at the moment. That is particularly the case with the peas, spring beans, and spring oats – which are in the field between Fowlmere and Thriplow, called HC 9. They are worth keeping an eye on as the speed they grow at is incredible.

All the winter crops are also moving fast, and it won’t be long until the barley is ready to harvest – probably in mid July. The wheats are entering a critical period called ‘grain fill’ when they need lots of sun and plenty of water to makes the ears swell, and give us a good harvest. So far so good…

It has been a mixed bag with the cattle. All of the grass has grown quickly – too quickly in fact as when the seed heads start forming, the quality goes downhill fast. We also then get problems as the stalks are very hard and poke the cattle’s eyes, making them more prone to infection. Because of this we had to treat some of them recently with eye ointment, and to try and stop it happening again we will cut the grass with a mower to make it shorter. That’s something I hate doing – but not as much as I hate having sick animals to treat.

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, June 2016

Finally, finally, the warm weather came. The cold spring that I talked about last month turned out to be much colder and longer than we thought it was going to be, and that has caused some big problems for our spring planted crops. What we really want at this time of year is for the seeds to germinate and grow away quickly, so that they keep head of any nasties trying to eat them, and the roots develop well and can take in as much water as possible as the weather dries up. A month of freezing weather does not help at all, and some of our crops have suffered badly. In particular we have been plagued with slugs in the spring barley, some of which looks pretty sorry for itself. We are not alone in this, all around the country whole fields have been written off after slugs ate every plant; that’s one problem with such a warm winter with no frosts to keep their numbers down.

Although we have loved the sunshine and warmth, it did mean that when we applied liquid nitrogen fertiliser to our wheats, we have ‘scorched’ the tips of the leaves. This turns them yellow and makes the whole field look a bit sick. It’s mainly a cosmetic problem, and soon they will be nice and dark green again – hopefully.

The big change this month has been the arrival of 79 young cattle, aged from seven to nine months. They are a really nice bunch, not mad and hyperactive like the ones we were sent last year. They live up near Newton, and having been trained on what an electric fence looks like, are now on the field called Home, which you can see on the Thriplow Farms website map as usual. The are grazing a herbal ley, made famous recently by featuring on The Archers, and get moved every day into a new cell of grass. Please go and take a look, and let me know if you see any where they shouldn’t be!
WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms is aimed at anyone, not just farmers, who are interested in what we are doing throughout the year. It is originally published in the Fowlmere & Thriplow Newsletter.

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, May 2016

It has been a pretty cool early spring, just like in 2015. Unlike last year however, it has also been very wet. One of the benefits of our farming system is that by not moving the soil we keep more moisture there, so when the almost inevitable summer drought comes, the plants can go that little bit longer without getting any rain. The flip side of that is that in a wet spring the soils don’t dry out very quickly, and so it is more difficult to drill our crops. We have managed to get almost everything in the ground, although on the heavier clay soils towards the north of the farm it did make a bit of a mess. Now all we have left to do is a field of linseed down near the A505, and a small field of maize, on the road between Thriplow and Fowlmere.

Elsewhere the main work is centred around the constant fight to keep the wheat leaves free of disease so that they can capture as much sunlight as possible, and at the same time giving them their second and final dose of fertiliser. We will soon have livestock back on the farm when 80 young cattle arrive for the summer. Not long after that, probably some time in May, a flock of sheep will also arrive to graze a mixed cover crop on Perrins, which is just to the north of Thriplow – go on the website to see a map. There are tracks all around it for public access, so if you want a challenge go and see which plant species you can find from this list that we planted: millet, vetch, linseed, sunflower, clover, radish, rape and turnip. Good luck!

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms is aimed at anyone, not just farmers, who are interested in what we are doing throughout the year. It is originally published in the Fowlmere & Thriplow Newsletter.

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.

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