December 2017

View from the Hill                                                           12th December 2017


The boys arrived yesterday, to begin work on Monday, their arrival aroused a certain amount of interest in the field across the road, amongst our 6 tame ewes freshly sorted and with feet trimmed, ready for the new season.

Last weekend we had got the tame bunch into the yard to sort out those who would be meeting the rams, and those who would not.  In the ‘Not meeting the rams’ paddock are this year’s lambs, plus Rocky, and old Sammy, who wasn’t meant to get in lamb last year due to the fact that she can’t produce milk any more, she then produced her 6th set of triplets in as many years, 2 of them having to be taken as orphans, like we did the year before.  No more lambs for her, but her bloodline continues as we have one of her 2013 lambs and one from 2016 in the flock.  There’s another from 2017 who will join next year.  She has given birth to 19 lambs in all, over 7 years, retirement beckons.  It is rare to know such a detailed history because we don’t individually record all our ewes normally.


Trimming overgrown sheep feet.

A friend recently sent me a copy of an article he found in the Scientific American magazine, about Precision Farming.  It was right on the button with regard to some of the technologies being used, although somewhat ahead of where we are in Dorset at the moment.  High value generally vegetable crops are more likely to justify the levels of extra expense related to in the article, but if it means less chemical being used, and more effective use of resources generally it must be a good thing.IMG_2792Already we use GPS here on our own farm to guide us in a number of ways.  It guides the combine and some of the tractors, it means they operate mostly in straight lines using satellite guidance, which means there is less overlap between bouts and machines are using their full width all the time.  In the case of the combine, as well as steering it to keep the header cutting at full width, it measures the yield as it goes along, so we can produce pretty colourful yield maps for each field.  Making best use of these maps is the trickier part, because some years can look like the exact opposite of others, for example due to different rainfall patterns.  It is as usual a case of the more you know, the more there is to find out.

The yellow dome on the roof of the tractor is the GPS receiver, it takes signals from at least 12 satellites at once to pinpoint its position on the earth’s surface.

IMG_2605The sprayer also uses GPS, it has auto switching of the nozzles, so that if the tramlines are too close together in places, the outer nozzles will switch off to avoid over-dosing and waste.  When spraying or fertilising a field, one would traditionally dose the headland first, followed by the centre of the field. The machine will switch the nozzles off when it gets to the point where the headland application was made, again to make sure that every part of the field receives just the one dose of fertiliser or spray. If the operator is really on the ball, he will have all the headland areas saved on the system, so that he can dose the centre of the field first, and finish on the headland, thus ensuring that he doesn’t drive on freshly applied land.

For several years we have been using GPS on the fertiliser spreader.  All of our soils are tested for the key nutrients every 4 years, the fields have all been divided into zones based on soil type and colour, and the tester carries a GPS locator, so he knows where he is in the field.  The test results are then fed into a program which produces an application map for each fertiliser type that we use.  When the spreader is working in the field, the tractor knows where it is at all times, and alters the aperture on the spreader according to what is required, so that the fertiliser is spread only where needed.

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The combine’s GPS means you can cut neat straight lines and fill the header from one side to the other

At the end of November I had the good fortune to join a farmers study tour in eastern Germany.  We were based in Berlin, which is a fascinating place for anyone to visit, and each day we travelled out in different directions to visit various farms, 5 over 3 days.  3 of the farms were large state run farms in the communist era, and it was very interesting to see how they have evolved since the wall came down in 1990.  They are now run as co-operatives, each very different, yet to varying degrees still exhibiting levels of the old mentality, e.g. High labour and a lack of capitalist zeal for ‘progress’.  The first one we visited kept their cows indoors all year round, in rather unloved and ancient buildings, on slats, in cubicle houses with narrow passageways which most UK farmers would frown at these days.  Their milk production seemed surprisingly high seeing as the cows were not in very special housing conditions.  Their food is carried to their cubicles on long rubber conveyors, which when new at least 40 years ago would have been state of the art, the feed itself looked to be high quality and consistent in quality.  There was clearly no plan to replace the buildings any time soon, because there was a gang of workers on one of the roofs, with no hard hats, no hi vis clothing, and no safety rails or nets in sight.  They were installing solar panels on the roofs of all the buildings, which would need at least 20 years in place to pay back the installation cost.


IMG_7367We detected a generally lower stress approach to life in one case, an organic farmer running his own business, he was very happy growing high quality, valuable crops on a small scale, happy to take whatever the soil gives him each year, low rainfall and poor sandy soil make it difficult to grow good crops every year.  He keeps a small number of sheep as well, to take advantage of the grass and clover in his fertility building rotation.  They suffer predation from Ravens from time to time, a very large bird, a Raven will take quite well grown lambs, and what makes it very hard for the farmers is that they are a protected species, so cannot be deterred by shooting.  A couple of the other farmers explained to us what a problem they face with wolves, also a protected species, when their cattle are grazing outside, wolves will attack the younger animals.  Consequently some farmers will run donkeys with their cattle, which in some way protect the cattle from wolf attacks.  To quote from

Donkeys who do attack a predator will be very aggressive, using their teeth and hooves. They may bray loudly. They will charge the threat and attempt to chase it away. If they confront the predator, they will attempt to bite at the neck, back, chest or buttocks. They may slash out with their hooves or turn and kick the predator. Experienced owners strongly suggest you do not attempt to stop a donkey that is charging or attacking and that afterwards, you allow the donkey to calm down before approaching it.

I have met American farmers in the past who also run donkeys with their cattle, to prevent attacks from coyotes.  Here is one I met a couple of years ago, on a farm in Georgia.


Returning to Berlin each evening, and having a bit of a wander was even more interesting, the Holocaust memorial was very sobering, grim frankly, everyone should visit it to remind us of how evil man can be. As if that wasn’t enough, imagining the city divided by that wall for 30 years was quite challenging.  Its route is marked on the ground through the city by a double line of bricks.  More on this trip next month.


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