February 2020

12th February 2020

Loving licks from a new Mum.  The 2020 calving season began on Monday 3rd February, and we have had 6 births in the first week.  With 55 cows and heifers expected to calve by the end of March, we could have around one per day to look forward to for a few weeks.  Each calf has to be given those hideous yellow tags to identify them, one is required in each ear.  Strict identification of every animal became a legal requirement in the wake of the BSE crisis many years ago.

The cows are being fed on hay this year, rather than silage which they were last year, and in most previous years.  Three reasons for this: firstly, we are trying to reduce the amount of plastic we use, even though the film we use to seal the silage bales gets recycled into useful products.  Refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle is the latest version of the well-known maxim I learnt at a climate/environment meeting in Blandford last Saturday.  The plastic and the work of wrapping the bales costs around £4 per bale, so there’s a second reason.  A third is that the hay is lower in protein than silage, and a high protein diet makes the cows poo very wet, so they need more straw to soak it up and keep the bedding dry.  Hay is therefore reducing our use of straw, with another cost implication.

There are also a couple of disadvantages: hay needs to be stored indoors, and undercover space is something we are short of,  so several machines have had to spend the winter outside, and secondly reducing the usage of straw means that we will have less manure to put on the land to fertilise crops next season.  None of these decisions are straightforward.

The sheep have almost finished chewing down the oilseed rape, as mentioned last month.  As the weather warms up the rape will soon enter stem extension, and we don’t want the sheep eating off the growing points, so they are moving onto other fields containing green fodder now, which once eaten off will see spring barley or poppies sown, hopefully during March.

In some of the wetter areas of the fields the sheep have been in, you can barely see the rape plants, and the sheep hoofprints are still visible in the mud, however once the woolly flock has moved on, the milder recent weather has seen the rape growing quite markedly.

By the end of February we will be thinking about applying some nitrogen fertiliser to give the crop a pep up.  I only hope the worst of the rain will have passed by then.  This has been one of the wettest winters we have ever recorded, the only surprise is that the river has only once or twice broken its banks onto the meadows between Durweston and Bryanston.

Nitrogen testing of the soils in fields where our winter barley is growing has shown that there is very little nitrogen left in the soil after all the wet weather, so the recommendation is that we should apply slightly more artificial than usual, to achieve the right balance between yield and nitrogen content of the grain, always vital in malting barley crops.  Too much N causes cloudy beer, not a good sales technique.  The testing costs £125 per sample, so this admittedly rather inaccurate science is not employed in very many fields every year, but it shows we are trying to get the job right.

Our carbon capturing cover crops which have been growing all winter in some of the fields destined for barley and poppies in the spring, have in some places needed mowing off to prevent blockages of the drill when sowing, this prior to spraying off the greenery so we start the new growing season with a weed-free seedbed.  Normally the seedbed will be prepared for drilling with a couple of cultivation passes, however recent farm visits, and various influences from across the industry, are encouraging us to try to reduce the number of cultivations, therefore moving the soil less, before sowing the next crop.  Excessive soil movement has a number of disadvantages:

  • Cost.  In time, tractor fuel and tyre rubber
  • Upsets the worms and other soil dwelling organisms
  • Oxidises organic matter so carbon is lost from the soil, into the atmosphere
  • Mineralises nitrogen held in the soil, making it vulnerable to leaching if wet weather follows before the next crop has had a chance to assimilate it.

To help us to move towards reducing soil disturbance, we visited a farm demonstration this week, where several designs of seed drill were on display, and some were working in the soil, which was slightly damper than ideal for drilling.

A couple of drills caught our eye, one each of the two predominant designs, of disc and vertical coulter types.  They are well built machines, and seemed to be straightforward to operate, but neither seemed to incorporate quite all that we are looking for, and conversely both seemed to include some features that we feel quite strongly are not quite what is needed.  Our current drill (a Vaderstad Rapid) does an extremely good job in lightly tilled ground, but is not heavy duty enough to sow seeds at consistent depth in a no-tillage scenario.  It is nine years old now, having done a lot of work, but we don’t particularly want to change it.  However the right design of direct drill could save us cultivation costs, and help us to capture and keep more carbon in the soil.  Watch this space.  Perhaps the way forward will have to include having two drills in order to deal with all circumstances.

The Sky drill, a disc based design, the seed enters the ground through the coulter that runs tight alongside the disc.  The machine can exert up to 250kg weight per disc if necessary to penetrate the soil.  Twice as much pressure as a conventional tillage drill.

The Sky drill again, this time with discs engaged in the soil, showing depth wheel in front, (left) and consolidation wheel behind (right)

This picture shows the business end of a John Deere 750A no till drill.  These are very popular in no till situations in America, and suit some UK soils as well, we feel that the flints in our soils will play hell with the rubber wheels.

The dealer wasn’t keen to muddy up this machine at the demo day, although they promised we could have a demo on our own farm any time!

A recent survey of the ponds on the farm confirmed to us that two of the three are home to great crested newts.  The survey involved testing the pond water for the DNA of the newts, and two tested positive.  A visit with the drone a couple of weeks ago shows the extent of open water, and of shading by neighbouring trees.  The first one , at Folly, needs more sunlight, so a bit of work must be done to trim back some of the surrounding trees. 

The second, on Shillingstone Hill,  is suffering from over-vigorous plant growth in the pond itself.  We can remember it being dredged with an excavator at least 40 years ago, and  although simply dredging it all in one go seems too violent, we think that some careful clearance of a section at a time, over several years, should be appropriate. 

The third, on Bonsley Common, has a good expanse of open water, no overhanging trees, and looks lovely in the open pasture landscape, with scattered oak trees and a couple of ancient tumuli not far away.

The last two are traditional dew ponds, originally dug to provide water for grazing animals.  The Folly pond was originally a clay pit, where the clay was used to make the many thousands of bricks which are found in local buildings.

Lobster pots on Mudeford quay, on the edge of Christchurch harbour, right next to where the River Stour reaches the open sea, found after a short canoe expedition.

A handsome Reeves pheasant who found his way onto our farm last autumn.  He is quite territorial, but lets you get quite close to take pictures.

Inquisitive calf, less than a week old.

An amusing, if rather blunt slide at a conference in Exeter, where we were learning about cover crops, soil health, how to deal with cabbage stem flea beetle, and how to counteract bad press which farmers sometimes seem to attract. It says plant flowers and bird food.  We do!

Last month

10 years ago on the Hill

Next month

6 thoughts on “February 2020

  1. We have a couple of Newt Ponds too and are currently looking to do some work next year on another, the whole place will soon be knee deep in Great Crested Newts which were never particularly rare in the UK but are in Europe hence their exalted status.

  2. Excellent as ever. Particularly interested in the sheep grazing of rape. Can’t help but think a lighter grazer would be better but one not prey to foxes. Snails of course are vociferous grazers.
    Secondly how do you get on your land to mow off the phacelia in this weather? Even my light soil on the top of a hill has had standing water on it.

  3. Looking forward to the Beavers leaking from the Otter valley and creating a few more ponds for you… certainly a view now espoused by our new Minister

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