View from the Hill 11th April 2020
From flood to near drought in only a month, via pestilence. After record rainfall for the whole winter, it finally stopped on March 19th and within not too many days we were able to get on at last with spring sowing. Firstly 3 small fields of spring beans, followed by a sizeable area of spring barley, and finally 60 hectares of poppies. Two varieties of barley this year, one, Planet, which is tried and tested for malting for beer, and a second newer one, Laureate, with supposedly better disease resistance and better yield. One hopes that the newer one will be as acceptable to the maltsters as the older. After a great deal of fuss in recent months over whether we will be able to sell our malting barley into Europe after we leave the EU, we are suddenly hit with a problem far worse, which has closed the pubs, slowed the flow of beer to a trickle, and reduced the future price of malt barley even further. Not to mention the fact that it has made a great many people ill, and caused heartache and death on a frightening scale.
The Vaderstad seed drill wends its satellite guided way across a field sowing barley seed, shortly before being followed by the rollers, which firm the soil around the seed, this helps to keep the moisture in the soil where the seedling will need it, and to push in any stones so they don’t damage the combine at harvest time. It may be hard to believe, but the time between the seedbed being too wet to do anything with at all, and it having dried out so much that we worry the seed will not germinate due to lack of moisture, can be as little as ten days in some soils. By the time we finished sowing the poppies, we were turning round the fields from stubble to rolled seedbed as quickly as possible, because the sunshine and bitter north wind were drying the soils out very quickly. The tiny poppy seeds are only sown into the very surface of the soil, and without moisture will not germinate.
Before we were able to start sowing there was a chance to get some grassland rolled. Here is the result on the new herbal ley in Wynchard field behind Durweston. We roll it to make sure there are no stones which will cause problems for the mower if we need to cut any of the grass for silage.
One of our next jobs is to divide the field up into 8 paddocks, with a water supply to each, to enable us to try the mob grazing which we are planning for this new pasture. Short sharp grazing sessions over a small area, followed by a long recovery period for the pasture, should encourage more top growth, more photosynthesis and better rooting.
In spite of the relentless rain all winter, a weatherproof hurdle maker has been hard at work in Norton wood coppice. The mature hazel is just at the right stage for hurdles, usually seven years after the previous cutting. In a very orderly fashion, the wood has been cut and sorted into different sizes to suit the different jobs required of it in the making of a hurdle. The stouter ones are used for the end posts, others are split longways to be woven back and forth between the uprights, and the thinner round branches can be woven in to provide a decorative contrast in the finished article.
Here is an aerial shot showing a selection of newly sown poppy, bean and barley fields looking towards Shepherds Corner from Websley. In the foreground we have left 2.5 hectares of winter cover crop, mainly phacelia, to take to harvest to give us a supply of seed to sow as next season’s cover crops.
The picture below shows our experimental field lab with Innovative Farmers, where two thirds of the field was grazed by sheep in January. The yellower plot was left ungrazed, and is flowering sooner, but larval counts in the different plots showed 6 and 9 larvae per plant in the grazed plots respectively, whereas the ungrazed plot was found to be carrying 26 larvae per plant. Although flowering much earlier than the grazed plots, when you look closely, the ungrazed still contains many larvae, and shows a great deal of their damage.
And for those who still haven’t seen enough pictures of cabbage stem flea beetle larvae, here is another. They have continued to burrow through the leaf stem, and don’t seem to have much left to eat now. At least they haven’t broken through into the main stem, and hopefully will shortly drop out of the plant to pupate in the soil. If we can encourage beetles, spiders and parasitic wasps, by creating more habitat for them, and by not applying insecticides, we hope that we may get some natural control of this pest in the future.
A farmer is often at his most productive when leaning on a gate. A time for cogitation, wrangling, and generally deep thought.
Lambing time approaches
The first week of May sees lambing time begin on this farm. Many other farmers’ sheep have been lambing in February, March and April, generally indoors. For many years we have gone for a different approach here, shearing before lambing, then settling the ewes into small groups in small paddocks where they can get on with it uninterrupted when the time comes. For this reason we ask that people please take extra special care when walking the footpaths around the farm, and keep dogs on leads at all times. It takes very little to spook sheep, they are very stupid at times and a loose dog can do untold damage because they often over-react.
Since the first draft of this month’s episode was written, further inspection of the rape fields has revealed even more insect activity. First of all there are the usual pollen beetles, who as their name cunningly suggests, are really only after one thing – pollen. These little shiny black fellows will burrow into unopened flowers in search of pollen if there are no flowers open, and this will cause the flower to die. Once some flowers have opened however, the risk of damage is hugely reduced, because the pollen is far easier to access, and in fact the beetle can be beneficial, because it aids pollination. Unfortunately this year, it is accompanied rather earlier in the season than usual, by the seed weevil, who we haven’t seen in any number for some years. The seed weevil burrows a hole in the developing pod in order to lay its eggs there, the larva, on hatching, will eat around 25% of the seeds in that pod. The more important damage though, is done by the bladder pod midge, who uses the weevil’s entry and exit holes to gain access and lay its own eggs in the pod. This time the hatching larvae will consume all the seeds in the pod. There is a threshold of one seed weevil per plant for treatment to be recommended, and as you can see from these pictures, we have many more than that. We are now conflicted, because we are trying to turn the farm insecticide free, for reasons I have mentioned before, primarily to encourage natural predators. Do we break our 18 month insecticide-free run, or take the damage on the chin in pursuit of a greater goal? Some farmers reading this will think we are quite mad, “get on and kill the little devils” I hear them scream, but others may mutter quiet encouragement under their breath, because they too wish to jump off the chemical treadmill, but want to see some other mug do it first.
An agronomist friend has described this year’s insect explosion, due to the dry sunny weather, as an orgy, and when looking closely at these pictures you can see he is not wrong.
New videos added to youtube this month: please have a look