May – June 2024

The View from the Hill

A few weeks ago our experimental area of bi-cropped wheat with crimson clover looked like this.  The clover, sown at the same time as the wheat last autumn, has become rather dominant, and when it then rained heavily a week or so later, pretty much the whole lot laid over.  Since then the clover has finished flowering and started to die back, and some of the wheat has managed to stand up again.  However the early clover dominance will have depressed the potential yield of the wheat, which is the part we get paid for, and it is far too late now for the wheat to throw up more tillers to fill in the gaps.  The difficulty with minority interest cropping like this is that there is not much guidance aavailable for seed rates etc, so there is quite a lot of guess work.  The wheat/clover bi-crop last year went the other way, we used a less vigorous white clover, so lacking in vigour that there was barely any there at all by spring.  Some other farmers across the country, trying similar things, are having better luck than us, this is what a good clover under-storey looks like, although if I’m honest, there’s not enough cereal (oats I think) in this field.

The reason for the bi-cropping is to see if we can move away from mono-cropping, which can have poor outcomes for soil and environmental health. We are growing the wheat for Wildfarmed, a new company dedicated to growing and baking healthy food which does not degrade the environment, and making it widely available on the high street. Bread widely available in Waitrose and M&S. No chems and limited nitrogen, plus a crop partner. Diverse families of roots in the soil foster a broader range of mycorrhizal and other organic activity in the soil, one way of doing this is to keep an under-storey going through several seasons, it keeps the soil shielded from hot sun and heavy rain, the clover fixes its own nitrogen, some of which can become available to the following crop as the clover dies and regrows. A good under-storey can also shade out weeds.  Diversity is one of the five guiding principles of soil focussed, regenerative farming, which, thanks to the great god Gabe Brown from North Dakota, can be summarised as follows:

  • Minimise soil disturbance. Minimising physical and chemical disturbance to the soil prevents damage to the micro-flora and fauna that form the soil ecosystem. …
  • Keep the soil covered. …
  • Maintain living roots in the soil. …
  • Maximise plant diversity. …
  • Reintroduce livestock.

And here is the great god himself, discussing the finer points of soil management with a hairy farmer from Dorset.  Doug tells me that Gabe has recently added a 6th important element, that of context – by which he means that how you apply these principles to your land should also consider the context, your soil type, location, altitude, aspect etc.  Gabe’s book ‘Dirt to Soil’ is considered by many to be the regenerative bible, it’s a great story, and full of useful guidance. Not all that emanates from the US is bad!

Out here in our herbal ley fields, our cows are happily munching away in their mobs, they have got very used to being moved on to fresh grazing every day, and don’t hesitate to let the world know if we are late to move them on.  This year’s rainy spring has led to a very vigorous grass growth everywhere, an early hay cut has been taken in places, and even parts of the river meadows have been mob grazed this year to force the animals to graze it properly.  The system is working well with the lightweight Kiwi-designed electric fence easy to move, and a network of water pipe across the fields with quick release push-fit fittings so that it is straightforward to empty and move the troughs daily.

As you can see, Theo the bull is enjoying his favourite 6 weeks of the year, with a mob of cows and their calves, including the pretty one in the foreground, one of his daughters from last year, out of cows with a certain amount of Belgian Blue in their genes, which has given us two calves this year with freckles and a white line along the spine, a little reminiscent of the rare breed Gloucester cattle.

Advantages from mob grazing include the following: Fewer flies bothering the animals, fresh grazing every day moves the cattle off yesterdays dung pats where the flies often congregate. Fresh grazing also reduces the pressure from intestinal worms, a 50 day cycle between the grazing of any single part of the field helps to break the lifecycle of worms, so less wormer is needed, which when present in the dungpats, can kill the flies and beetles on which species like the rare Greater Horseshoe bat thrive. (See last month for more on this). Some of the herbs which the animals are grazing can themselves have an anthelmintic effect (discourage or kill intestinal worms). Mob grazing which leaves around a third of the pasture behind allows the plants to regrow more quickly than traditional grazing which takes nearly all the herbage, because there is still enough leaf to enable plenty of photosynthesis. As plants are grazed down, their roots die back, and therefore they take even longer to recover and regrow, both under and above soil level.

Several weeks ago this fellow was spotted emerging from the end of the unloading auger on our combine, so our good friend Alan was called up, and he put in many patient hours of watching and waiting before catching a string of wonderful pictures as Wol emerged, and then took off for his early evening patrol of the surrounding area.  We decided that he was probably a lone male, roosting in the combine during the day, amongst other haunts we believe he uses.  Seeing as we will need the combine in a few weeks’ time, Alan advised us to erect an owl box in the vicinity, in the hope that he moves over before harvest, and that maybe he might find a mate for next season.  The giveaway for other roosting spots are the owl pellets on the floor, and great slashes of white poo below the roost.  Have you ever pulled apart an owl pellet?  Fascinating to find the tiny bones of many little rodents, tidily wrapped up in the indigestible skin of the unfortunate prey.  I have to admit to being very impressed by Chris Packham’s ability to identify different species of small mammals from the jawbones and teeth patterns thereon, which he had teased out of owl pellets on one springwatch episode.

Following swiftly on the heels of the bluebell season, the wild garlic show was as good as it gets this year, here is Fishmore hill near Milton Abbas, the ultimate Dingly Dell, always a joy to drive through at the right time of year, and below is the lane down to Bramblecombe farm from Milton Abbas, where the bridleway crosses the road, thick with garlic on both sides, the walking boots always take on a marvellous aroma.

The problem with failing to keep up with a monthly edition of this publication, is that with so much going on at this time of year, things are being missed, I really must try harder.  Here is Tangle with the first lambs of the season, born on May 5th, they are now considerably bigger.  We had a good lambing, one triplet, 3 singles and 8 twins, overall average 175%.  12 ewes is admittedly not much to get excited about, but you need to remember these are special sheep, kept entirely for their entertainment value for school visits, and not at all for commercial reasons.  Many a child has lit up when let loose with the sheep and a handful of toast, the screams of laughter and excitement are a great reward, I am quite often told that children otherwise uninspired by school life, come alive on such outings. Sheep therapy should become a thing, they are rich in character and greediness.

A fascinating seminar with local grain merchant Bartholomews, held at the Hall and Woodhouse brewery, not only fed a group of farmers with a very fine cooked breakfast, but with vital intelligence on the current grain markets.  An essential event in the farming year, this meeting, presented by grain trader Edd Britton, gave us much useful information which will help us to navigate the minefield that is the world wheat market for the next few months.  The weather in the US and Russia, (both major world wheat producers) have been very influential factors recently, with quite violent up and down swings in grain price over a short period of time, making rational sales decisions very tricky.  The graph here shows how the balance between import and export of wheat in and out of the UK has altered over the last 10 years.  In most years we are now a net importer, for several reasons, firstly the good old reliable British weather, followed by the bioethanol and starch plants further north, which take a great deal of grain, sucking it in from a wide area, and helping keep the market buoyant.  However if prices rise too far they will close for a while until things calm down.  Then there are generally lower levels of production as farmers commit more land to environmental schemes, taking (usually poorer) land out of production in exchange for payments of public money for public goods like wild flower headlands and wild bird food.  Housebuilding has some effect, taking land out of production for ever, and then there is the contentious issue of organisations like the Dorset Wildlife Trust, in conjunction with Natural England, purchasing land with Nutrient Neutrality money, paid by housing developers in exchange for planning permission.  Please see this page https://viewfromthehill.org.uk/my-day-out-at-lyscombe-farm-cheselbourne for a full account of my day out with the DWT as they celebrated the revolutionary purchase of Lyscombe farm, which by reverting it to 100% nature, and no food production, will somehow unlock the building of 3700 new homes in the Poole harbour catchment, in which the farm sits. As you will see, I am not convinced by the wisdom of this in terms of value for money, or whether any actual improvement will occur in Poole Harbour as a result of this purchase. Is this where I should be banging on about the importance of looking after our home grown food supply? There has to be room for food production to thrive, we have a growing population, and some of the best soils and weather climates for food production anywhere in the world, but without care for soils and nature, healthy food production will become increasingly difficult. Weeds and insects become resistant to chemicals, which all too often wreak collateral and unintended damage elsewhere, so we have to learn to be cleverer.

Fred’s big sky big hay yield picture from the meadows. We haven’t seen grass like this for a very long time on this field, something to do with being flooded 4 or 5 times over the winter perhaps, borrowing fertility from upstream?

Another big sky from when the rape was in flower, the green, yellow, blue, and clouds look just wonderful.

A common spotted orchid found in a brand new site, on a wildflower margin miles from any other orchids. Now approximately 14 years away from being intensively farmed, we are seeing some interesting plants showing up on our oldest margins, I am reliably informed that the tiny orchid seeds, almost dust-like, will have sat in the soil for decades, waiting for the right conditions to return to enable germination. They need the right mycorrhizal conditions to develop, to connect the seeds with the right nutrients in the soil. They have endured so many years asleep in the soil, through generations of evolving human activity, only to return to life when government schemes pay farmers to rein back a bit on the intensive farming, we have to make room for nature in and around our food production, and this shows it can work.

Baboons invade Durweston, during Dorset Art weeks. Not only a very skilled photographer of owls, hares, newts, and countless other wildlife, our clever friend Alan has been exhibiting his latest talent. I love the way the chicken wire has been brought to life, the animal has a cheeky look to him.

We also played host here at the farm, to local artists, during the county wide art festival, such a variety of work was to be found down so many winding lanes, in private houses or other venues in the towns and villages across Dorset. Here is a lovely painting by Claire Thomas, exhibited at the Big Yellow Bus project in Shillingstone, it is a view of the lane between Travellers Rest and Shepherds Corner, I love her interpretation.

Dog endlessly fascinated by these prickly garden visitors, they are definitely enjoying a revival around these parts.

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6 thoughts on “May – June 2024

  1. Hello George and all the Hosford family, wonderful to get your latest edition. As always a lot to take in. Your clover crop looks very good and I can understand your concern for the intending crop. Surely the rain this year has been a difference which must be taken into account. In my allotment my simple rain guage has been interesting this year, surely the weather has to be taken into account. I have watched a lot of Gabe’s stuff on U Tube and I can see the basics, I think the devil is in the detail.
    Please keep doing what you are doing and thank you for including me in your web.
    All the very best, Mike Huntington.

  2. Hasn’t there always been a baboon in Durweston?
    Love these articles. Was looking at Farmers Weekly of 90 years ago… very little different to today’s. Farmers encouraged to feed grass to cattle. I ask you!

  3. Another tour de force George. Thank you. I am now wonder if I’m correct in identifying the single Trifoleum Rubens plant growing in our garden as the very same as your vigorous red clover crop plant….. ? If so , it’s great in a herbaceous border if no longer welcome as a wheat buddy. Thanks again for a fascinating read.

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