View from the Hill 12th October 2020
A group of cows with their now 6 month old offspring, chewing the cud between bouts of munching volunteer oilseed rape (self-sown rape from last harvest). After the dry summer, winter fodder is a bit tight, so we are giving the pastures a break while we have crop residue the cows can feed on, until it is time for us to sow with wheat. Then they will be back on the grass for as long as possible, before we house them and they start to tuck into precious conserved fodder. All of our animals are currently feeding on rape, which a year or two ago we would have already sprayed off with glyphosate, sometimes twice, leaving bare soil to run up to sowing time. Recent lessons in soil health have taught us that the soil is happier if something green is growing in it at all times, so we are trying this, hoping it won’t make sowing the next crop more difficult.
You might think the combine must have spilt a huge amount of seed at harvest time for so much to have sprouted and grown, but bear in mind that when sowing a new crop of rape, we only sow around 3 kg per ha, so even if the whole field has turned green, there is likely to be no more than 6 or 7 kg per ha lost, which is not very much out of a yield of say 3 tons per ha ( a quarter of a percent). The cows are doing us a favour by reducing the leaf mass which will need incorporating into the soil before sowing, and at the same time they are spreading liberally from their rear ends, a more readily assimilated nutrient which the wheat will soak up happily.
Talking of nutrients, part of our policy for feeding our crops involves GPS. Every field of our arable land is sampled every four years, and tested for phosphate and potash, two of the most important nutrients for growing crops. Our soil sampler Ian comes along every summer, armed with a bucket and spade, a soil auger, and a hand held GPS unit. He takes a sample from every zone of different soil type, in each field that’s due a test. The samples are sent away for lab testing, for P, K, Mg, Cu and Mn, and for the last 3 years we have also been testing for organic matter (OM), as an indicator of the biological health of the soil. OM greatly influences the ability of the soil to hold water and nutrients, and basically, the more the better. After a few years we will have a picture of any movement of OM levels, in the meantime we are adopting methods which we hope will improve it, such as growing cover crops, reducing tillage, and reducing chemical applications to bare soil. We use a form of fertiliser to provide P&K and other micronutrients which comes from from the ash from power stations which burn chicken manure, yes it’s true. The fertiliser, known as fibrophos, is rich in nutrients, but does not have the acidifying effect that more commonly used fertilisers possess. Its downside is that it needs a specialist spreader to apply it, which trusty contractor Ben Stretton and his team provides, and it is applied using GPS so that the fertiliser is applied only on the areas that need it, as determined by the soil tests.
Elsewhere, the new season rape has got off to a great start, and has managed to shrug off any serious damage from the flea beetle which has caused many farmers to give up sowing rape altogether. We will be repeating last year’s policy of grazing it off with sheep, right up to Christmas, to help us save on weedkiller, insecticide and fungicide, only hoping that we have enough sheep to do the job properly. [One of the drawbacks of this system is that we have missed the boat for early weedkiller, now pointless because the rape leaves are so big that they hide the weeds, which would not be hit by a spray.) However it is all part of the master plan, which will involve the use of a spring weedkiller, when the leaves have been eaten off and any remaining weeds are exposed. Some of course will themselves have been eaten]. Keeping the sheep on rape until Christmas, and then on turnips through till spring, means the pastures will get a good rest and will hopefully offer plenty of early grazing by April. What is noticeable when you get anywhere near the animals when they are on a rape or turnip diet is their terrible cabbage breath!
Autumn sowing is the time for having a go with shiny new toys, and this year is no exception. Right now we have two demo drills on the farm, an Amazone Cayena tined drill, and a John Deere 750A disc drill. Both these drills are designed to sow crops into soils which have not been cultivated beforehand, which we would like to move towards, if we can find a machine which we are convinced will do as good a job as does our existing Vaderstad drill, which needs the ground cultivated to some extent, in order to get a good seedbed. We will not be able to go entirely ‘no-till’ on our land, because, for example, where we apply manure before sowing, the manure must be incorporated into the ground within 24 hours of spreading, and simply drilling into it does not do this well enough. Our flinty soils also present a problem, a disc drill will just ride over the stones if not loosened by cultivation, and the seed will not be buried properly. The seeds need to be sown into the soil and firmed into it to give good seed to soil contact, so all the seeds absorb moisture at the same rate, and then will germinate all at the same time. Getting the right machine to manage this as well as not needing pre-tilling, is a tricky task. Another situation requiring the right machine is where we sow into a cover crop, a tined seeder will tend to rake up the cover crop, and block the machine, making a terrible mess of the seedbed, this is where a disc machine can slice through the plant material, and place the seed into the soil below.
There are a multitude of different designs on the market, and you can see that it is essential to try out a good selection of machines to find the one best suited to our soils. We are hoping to try a Sky drill later this week, and maybe even a Horsch Avatar. Pictures next time.
And finally: we managed to find a spud digger to help us lift some of our lock-down tatties. Scott at Field Barn farm has very kindly lent us his machine, and a sunny Sunday afternoon was spent lifting 30 bags of spuds from our rather weedy rows of Maris Piper. The stony soil did not particularly help, it jammed up the machine from time to time, and needed someone following it on foot to pick the stones out of the works. Though it still made progress a lot quicker than using a fork. A keen team of pickers joined in to help pick the spuds off the ground. Still plenty more to dig yet, if anyone would like some! Let me know.
We took delivery of 200 new (to us) sheep a couple of weeks ago, and whilst counting them out of the lorry, we were reminded how sheep love to jump high in the air when confronted with a change in surface ahead of them, here they all leapt high from the tailboard of the lorry, onto the grass, even though it was resting firmly on the ground. The sheep are a mixture of Beulahs and Improved Welsh.
Whilst making the last silage of the season, from a cover crop we sowed in June after a failed field of poppies, our old Claas baler had a serious breakdown, so we had to call up our mowing, wrapping and hedge-trimming contractor Mark, to beg a favour, he very kindly loaned us his shiny new Massey baler, which enabled Gary to make short work of the remaining baling.