November 2020

View from the Hill                                                                12th   November 2020

These sheep have been left chewing down a grass paddock, when the rest of the flock have been grazing rape for the last 6 weeks, are they looking envious?  These are the tame ones who were hand reared as lambs, they had to stay near the farm to entertain our only school visit of the year.  Covid has made transport and bubbling too tricky to negotiate for most schools, which has been a great shame, farm visits are usually very popular with teachers and pupils alike, in easier times.  I sincerely hope we can get through this, and resume educational visits in the spring.

Here are two groups of sheep munching their way through two of our big and blousy rape fields, turning the huge leaves into fertiliser for later in the growing season, as well as acting as growth regulators, weedkillers and insecticides.  In the first week of December they will be joined by some itinerant rams from Somerset, to ensure that lambing will begin in early May.  Long after the Brexit shock has died away (some hope).  What kind of market will we have for our prime English lamb by then?  In the mean time we face huge uncertainty for this year’s lambs, they will not be finished before the end of the year, and where the lamb price will be in January is anyone’s guess, what kind of a way is this to carry on a business relying partly on export of quality products to our nearest neighbours?  Farmers have always had to be optimists in order to plant any crops, or rear any animals, trusting that there will be a market for their produce when it is ready for sale, the weather, currency, and normal world market fluctuations have always been variable, but the Brexit fiasco is surely a self-inflicted act of madness?  Let’s see, will I be wrong? I hope so, but it’s a massive gamble. Here is an explanation of our autumn sheep grazing policy on oilseed rape.

Elsewhere on the farm we have been playing with more shiny kit, though we won’t be risking any purchase until we see the lie of the land next year.  We are exploring the market for no-till drills, that is, machines which will sow crops directly into the soil without tilling it first.  This is a further step forward after years of honing our minimal tillage techniques, having dumped the plough back in 2002, our tillage system has evolved considerably, always looking for a way to produce an acceptable seedbed with minimal passes, saving on fuel and time, as well as seeing a significant improvement in our soil quality and resilience.

We have long felt that there wasn’t a machine on the market capable of establishing a successful crop in our stony soils without tillage, but then we hadn’t really looked very hard.

With apologies to the less technically minded, I know some of my readers will be interested in a bit of detail.  As reported last month, we tried the Amazone Cayena, a German tined machine, provided by Martin from CJ Cox at Bagber.  We were sowing winter barley directly into stubble, it did a lovely job, there was no trash or tangled weed, which I think would be its undoing, it would then act like a rake and pull crop residue up into heaps and block up.  The barley is now well up and looking good, one comment that would apply to any tined drill like this would be that it does not leave the seedbed as firm as a disc drill, so in dry conditions you might get variable germination, secondly, it could hardly be termed a minimal disturbance drill, if that’s what you are looking for, and the faster you go the more disturbance you cause. A disc is better at inserting seed with little disturbance. Less disturbance means less loss of organic matter by exposing it to oxygen, and less stimulation of weeds to start growing.

This barley was sown by the John Deere 750a, an old American design which has not kept up with the times.  The coulters (the part that engages with the soil) do a great job of placing the seed in the ground, as you can see from the rows of barley emerging in the picture, and it can cope with a lot of trash or cover crop without blocking up, but the rest of the machine needs a massive makeover.  For the operator it is terrible, access to the tank is non-existent for cleaning out, and calibration is far from straightforward.  When folded, the wings obscure the steps, making it all but impossible to fill the hopper.  Apologies to our friends at Smart Ag services who kindly brought the machine over and showed us how to use it, but JD need a kick up the backside to bring this machine up to scratch, such a contrast to most of their kit, just take a look in our tractor shed!

Next up was the Sky drill, a French-built machine (by Sulky) imported by Opico.  The coulters are derived from the tried and tested Moore Unidrill, but the hopper, metering and general sophistication are all new.  The coulters are at least as competent as the JD, and arguably the press wheels do a better firming job behind the discs, making sure the seed is properly covered.  However the real treat comes when you discover that the drill has four hoppers, and can sow four different things at once, through two different sets of pipes, to each coulter.  This means for example, that when sowing a cover crop, large seeded beans could be sown from one hopper, buckwheat from another, both through the deeper coulter pipes, and then a blend of say clover and phacelia sown through the shallow set of pipes as they only need to be sprinkled into the surface of the soil.  Another example might be sowing spring barley to a depth of 30mm, and undersowing it with a grass/clover mix into the surface, in a single pass.  This is all a bit more than we need at the moment, but we can see a day when it might be useful, and the price reflects this additional cleverness with a sizeable premium.  Calibration and tank access also get the thumbs-up.

Multiple seed pipes from two distribution heads enable the Sky drill to sow more than one crop at a time.

The new Agriculture Act, finally passed just last week, has laid the foundations for UK agriculture to become much more environmentally focussed than it was under the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy, and we are promised that this will reward us for farming in a more sustainable fashion, incorporating such things as cover crops, companion crops, and no-till into our systems, to become more carbon friendly, and ultimately help us to become carbon neutral as a nation.  There is huge potential to build carbon levels in the soil by such regenerative practices, plants capture carbon from the atmosphere, and turn it into organic matter which benefits the soil in many ways, such as making it better at holding water and nutrients, and enhancing soil fauna and flora. 

This picture shows wheat which had been sown into a very unpromising looking seedbed by the Sky drill, we were sowing into a rape stubble still largely covered in dying rape plants, and we have been amazed what a good job it has done, the wheat has emerged evenly and is growing well.  The soil was a mat of rape roots and stems at sowing time, and there was little bare soil visible.  We are learning that this is a good thing, ‘keep the soil covered by vegetation at all times’ is one of the regenerative mantras.  It protects it from heavy raindrops, which can cause the soil particles to run together, reducing drainage and preventing air from freely moving in and out of the soil, via pores and worm holes. 

Matthew at C&O tractors organised this demo for us, and is taking us out for a further grilling by the rep next week, socially distanced of course.  The JD drill worked in this field as well, and it is now very hard to see where one drill stopped and the next began, both have done a very good job.

“A Horsch, a Horsch, my kingdom for a Horsch”.  Was King Richard III drunk on the battlefield, or just dazed after falling off?

The last drill we tried this season was the Horsch Avatar, some say with that name it should be blue not red, a movie reference, to an excellent film.  Provided by the team at Claas Western at Puddletown, this machine possesses coulters very similar to the JD, but with a rather better operator experience above the coulters, frankly still not up there with the Amazone or the Sky drill though.  It is fiddly to calibrate, awkward to fill, and you can’t access the tank with the wings folded. The seed sown by the Avatar has not yet emerged, but I suspect that it will look very similar to that sown by the JD and the Sky drills.

Freshly sown wheat into rape aftermath, by Horsch Avatar, soil in nice ridges and weatherproof condition.

A huge caveat that should be borne in mind before we get too carried away with ideas of regenerative agriculture, is: how will we do it if glyphosate (roundup) is to be banned?

If we are going to sow new crops into the remains of the previous crop, that previous crop itself, or spilt seed from it, will continue to grow if not terminated in some way, and will compete with the newly sown seedlings.  The commonest technique now is to spray the field with glyphosate shortly before sowing, (or sometimes afterwards, by braver farmers than me), confident that the chemical will do its job.  The old crop slowly shrivels up just as the new seedlings emerge, it’s a great system.  Killing weeds between crops has to be more desirable than spraying selective weed killers onto the growing crop surely ?

The EU is moving towards banning glyphosate, more a political decision than a scientific one.  Being outside the EU we may be allowed to keep it for a bit longer, but the writing is on the wall, and some manufacturers are already working on ways we might find to cope without it.  Clearly the organic farmers cope without it, but they find it very difficult to farm without using the plough, which in my book is more damaging than the occasional squirt of glyphosate.  Which is the least bad option I wonder ?  Clearly neither is perfect, but we haven’t found a better solution yet.

For a fancy 5 minute multimedia report on our drill demonstrations, click here:

Our new hens have now started laying, and are enjoying scratching round the farmyard.

“As I’ve told you already, yes we are social distancing……..”

Nice bushy cover crop, harvesting carbon happily.  A bit linseed heavy, but there’s plenty of phacelia, vetch and clover in there too.

Bonsley pond in reflective mood

Would you eat this one?

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8 thoughts on “November 2020

  1. Hi George
    Another interesting read (although I skipped some of the technical bit in the centre)
    I love the photo of Bonsley pond, can I steal it and have a go a painting a picture please?

  2. Wonderful edition. I loved all the sheep and rape footage as well as all the details on drills. Videos better with music. I vote for Sky but agree leave the decision until nearer next season when other factors might be clearer. If glyphosate is banned you might need a blow torch boom forward mounted to burn off weed seeds and seedlings … and the fire brigade on standby!

  3. This edition is so interesting, George. Thank you. Pleased to hear you think the new Agriculture Bill is a positive move. Look forward hearing from you in due course what approach the manufacturers are taking re substituting glyphosate, as and when it is banned.

  4. Terrific piece again George. We should all admire you farmers for your stoicism and pragmatic approach in the face of such uncertainty. Glad to see you sicial distancing with as much precision as one of your drills.

  5. I am one of the sad ones very interested in the different drill types, the overwhelming problem with them all is that they are too expensive. I like the look of the Moore unidrill myself and am saving up.

    I wouldn’t eat that toadstool, even if you told me it was nice.

  6. George,your ability to précis and still keep the narrative flowing with fascinating descriptions is such a delight for this non farmer 👩‍🌾! On a damp November morning it’s sucha delight to be reminded of sunnier days .Fingers crossed for the future news re. The B .word Keep the reports coming please,they help transport us to another place for some moments.Rog.

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