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Cousins working together on our family owned farm with the aim of running a commercial modern farm producing high yielding, high standard crops while maximising wildlife diversity. Brian is said to be the farmer and conservationist, whereas Patrick is a conservationist and farmer. This mix has given a new direction for the farm, building upon the work that our fathers and grandfather has done to improve the overall success of the farm business. The farm has gone from strength to strength with the farm being recognised at a national level winning the coveted National FWAG’s Silver Lapwing Award for farming and conservation in 2009 and then Patrick and Brian were named Countryside Farmer of the Year by the Farmers Weekly in 2010.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Crop Update

As Christmas lunch is around the corner seasonal vegetable producers are having a real hard time keeping up with demand. Carrots, parsnips, swede and other root vegetables are locked in the ground by our current soil conditions of permafrost.   They are starting to lift them now so hopefully we can all enjoy the honey glazed roasted carrots and parsnips with our turkey.
So what is this snow and permafrost doing to our crop on the farm? Our soil type is a heavy clay based structure that holds water and becomes waterlogged easily at this time of year. This is why my late Grandfather Eric decided that Sugar beet was not the best crop to grow on our soil. The last crop of Sugar beet was grown in 1968 a very wet year and the machinery could not move in the mud. In the end it was hand picked and loaded onto lorries by gypsies in return we paid them in fire wood! This opened up a slot in our crop rotation and we decided to start growing grass seed.
The grass seed crops in the ground currently have been grazed by the sheep, they have gone over all the crops grazing the plants down to their crowns so come the spring as it warms up the plants will send out new strong tillers. These will hopefully carry good amounts of seed and hopefully produce large amounts of good hay in the summer. The Sheep have now left the farm so that is one less thing to worry about over Christmas.
The winter wheat crop is up and looking strong, we started drill early so that the establishment was good. We have rolled and got 80% of the crop sprayed with our pre and post emergence herbicides to combat the black grass. This cold air is also doing us a favour to kill off any pests like aphids that transmit plant diseases such at Barley yellow dwarf virus (BYDV) and slugs that strip the young plants vegetation. Once the climate starts to warm up and the sun comes out the wheat will quickly move on and so will the weeds. We will catch up with the remaining herbicides and then nutrients will be applied to keep the plant health and green so that it can grow strong ready for the summer.
The Oil seed rape is just being hammered by the constant pressure of pigeons. Pigeons flock up at this time of year and once they have exhausted all other food such as acorns they descend on the oil seed rape crops in vast numbers. They eat the fresh leaves and they can ruin a crop, this is why it is important to get the crop up and established year in the year. We drilled our crops on the 18th and 26th of August and they have looked well ever since, however the pigeon damage in places is becoming a problem. To combat the pigeons we hang rope bangers that keep them moving. We do not use the anti-social gas bangers that echo around the countryside on a 20min cycle. Some times once the pigeons find a field it is very hard to move them on and so shooting them is the only way to really remove them. However pigeon shoot is an art, watching flight lines, positioning the hide correctly, setting out the decoys right with the wind, but it is a great days sport if you get it right! Pigeon shooters are always welcome if anyone does want a day shooting pigeons please get in touch ASAP!!  
The crops that are benefitting the most from this weather are the crops we have not drilled yet. This freezing and thawing is doing great things for the soil that is left on the plough. The land ready for the spring crops has been ploughed and had a deep cultivator pulled through it, this has created cracks in the clods which have filled up with water and as it freezes the ice expands the crack, as it thaws it retracts and the clay soil clods weaken and breaks down. This will make the seed bed come the spring very easy to prepare for the grass seed, spring oats and spring beans we are due to drill come April. Hopefully this will save us a pass with the crawler before drilling depending on how consolidated the seed bed is before drilling.
Well this is a little update on how the crops are fairing in this weather once spring comes we will keep you informed on what we are up to on the fields and around the farm. Have a Merry Christmas and look out for our next post soon. BWB  

In the bleak midwinter…..bare a thought for our top predators!!

As the Christmas carol goes……  
‘In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.’
It certainly has been a cold few weeks with our country freezing to a halt with to much snow, not enough salt and frozen pipes. Even our giant birds were grounded at Heathrow and Gatwick (much to the annoyance of a friend of mine trying to do a quick sun migration to watch a bit of cricket down under!!)
On the farm I have been working hard trying to keep all our small farmland birds fed and watered.  Think I have taken nearly two ton of wheat out around the farm to keep there vital fat stores up so they don’t die in the harsh frosts. Also by us getting out and about we are keeping puddles and the occasional pond surface broken so that fresh water is available to the birds for drinking and washing in so disease does not take hold in some species.
I came across an article in the Daily Telegraph yesterday saying a small Blue tit can lose 5% of its body weight over night in the cold weather just trying to stay warm, I think I will have to try that diet after Christmas!! But all joking aside hopefully we can keep as many of these small birds alive through to the spring, so fingers crossed.
However it’s not as easy for our top predators in these winter conditions. The owls and raptors are really struggling to find enough food. The snow cover has created a white blanket over the long grass making it very difficult for the Barn Owls and Kestrels to find mice, shrews and voles who may have ventured out of there warm nests. I have seen Barn Owls and Little Owls hunting and scavenging all the way through the daylight hours in unusual places as well, I feel sorry for them as we can not put food out for them so they are on their own. Just hope that all our stewardship habitat work is up to standard and is provide enough natural food so they can get through the winter.
Patrick’s famous Buzzard it being looked after very well, Pat has been picking up all road kill and has a freezer full of rabbits caught earlier in the year and he has been leaving them out for it to find close to our bird hide so that I maybe able to brave the cold and get some good pictures of it close up.  Sparrowhawks are also enjoying easy pickings as large flocks are finding our scattered food and opportunities to strike are increased with birds worrying about food not about what may be watching from it perch in the near by tree.
I have seen ground predators out and about mainly foxes and stoats. They have been leaving their tracking in the snow and it is amazing how close you find them to your house sometimes!
Come the long awaited thaw whenever it arrives hopefully we will have kept lots of our small birds alive and we can only hope that the owls and raptors have survived on their own survival skills! BWB  

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Westhorpe Buzzards

On 16th November 2007 a Common Buzzard was seen and recorded in Westhorpe. This caused great excitement as a new bird for our farm list (which now stands at 90 since the commencement of our HLS scheme) but was not thought of as anything other than a fortunate visit however, a pair spotted on the 2nd April above our woodland with the breeding season approaching gave rise to the hope that they might be a pair searching for territory. Sightings started to become more regular and by August although I had no firm evidence I was fairly confident that they had bred and then towards the end of August I was able to watch an adult repeatedly dropping into the wood followed by a juvenile in what looked like a flying and hunting lesson. As we still did not really know how many had fledged or where the nest was this was a challenge I set my  self for the following year. It became apparent that this pair was resident during the winter and spring as they could be seen most days including guest appearances on a number of farm walks and educational visits and even our postman had confessed to going home and looking up buzzards in his bird book as he had seen them so often.

On 1st May 2009 to my relief I found a nest. It was similar to a squirrel’s drey, mostly made up of leaves 45ft up an Oak tree in a ‘V’ against the trunk and a thick branch. With the climbing expertise of Reg Woodhart we were able to record a single egg on 15th May, a freshly hatched chick on 21st May and on 8th June 2009 I ringed the first Buzzard in Suffolk since 1999 and only the 3rd ever in the county. The pair of Buzzards are still seen on and around the farm most days and even though there was no confirmed breeding in 2010 we are all hopefull for 2011.
I feel this represents success on two fronts, firstly for Buzzards as their movement eastwards is well documented but their establishment of a breeding territory over ‘normal’ Suffolk farmland is pleasing. There is not the high density of rabbits as on the sandier soil areas such as The Brecks and on the coast but the high Brown Hare population is aided by 160 acres of herbage grass grown for seed and under and around the nest have been the remains of leverets as well as rabbits, pigeons and moorhens. The second area of success is for us and our own HLS scheme and that we are able to sustain a new pair of Primary Predators. There is regular evidence of Foxes, Sparrowhawks, Kestrels and Tawny and Barn Owls so the new habitats created and improvements to existing ones must be providing plenty of opportunity for the increase of populations of mammals and birds. The fact that only a single chick was raised may be down to the amount of food available so now on the farm any shot vermin or roadkill is left out for the Buzzards. Their presence whilst searching for the food left out especially on freshly drilled Oil Seed Rape fields has proved to be a much cheaper and quieter Pigeon deterrent than bangers!

Monday, 13 December 2010

Farmer vs Black-grass!!!

An insight into one of our biggest battles on the farm: Farmer vs Black-grass!!!
Last week Nick our sprayer operator and myself attended a technical conference about pesticide usage and future developments in the agrichemical world. It was hosted by our agrichemical suppliers Hutchinsons and they had some of the region leading agronomists talking about different techniques farmers can use to combat problematic weeds such as Black-grass and common diseases such as Septoria tritici.
The first section of the conference was about Black-grass control. Black-grass on our farm is the most detrimental weed to our crops yield. If you do not keep on top of it you will quickly become over run with it, for example; one black grass seed head can produce one to two hundred viable seeds and large single plants can produce ten to fifteen seed heads so doing the math that one plant could produce 3000 seeds that can stay dormant in the soil for over a year!
The real dilemma for farmers is that this weed is very good at recovering if you do not kill it out right. This means that it can become resistant to common herbicide chemicals that we use on a year to year basis by mutating its genes and then this is passed onto its seed and the problem becomes serious. Currently farmers only have two main ways of attacking the problem these are known as cultural control and chemical control.
On our farm we see chemical control as a last resort and any use of any pesticide is only used when it is really needed, so that we can be as environmentally friendly and economical as possible as these pesticides are not cheap. Any application we do to our crops are done in the best condition and at optimum time to allow excellent control, so we are happy that our expensive chemicals have the best chance of doing the best job so emergency measures are not needed.
We have developed as plan of attack against Black-grass using cultural controls as building blocks and chemical control as the clean up products that allows us to farm effectively. The cultural controls that we employ on the farm are things such as the plough, crop rotation, stale seed beds, cultivation timings and seed rates.
The plough is a traditional piece of farming equipment that has been used for generations to combat black-grass and many other weeds. Through ploughing a control of up to 70% can be gained by burying black-grass seed deep into the soil so they rot and die but some can survive. The surviving one can be removed by stale seed beds, this is when a farmer cultivates stubble soon after the last year’s crop has been removed. This triggers a flush of weed seeds and volunteer seeds from the previous crop to germinate creating green stubble. This flush is then either cultivated out again to allow another flush in bad fields or a broad spectrum herbicide such as Glyphosate (Round up)is used to give a complete kill before the drilling of the next crop. This is the only chemical control that does not have resistance problem in any weed or plant group. Crop rotation from year to year is vitally important to allow different drilling dates which allows more weeds to germinate before crop drilling, also different chemical groups work in different crops so if a black-grass plant is resistance to one chemical group another group can be used to kill it in another crop. If the worst came to the worse and black-grass become too much of a problem (black-grass can reduce wheat yields by 75%) fields would have to be left fallow for a year and stale seed bed techniques used throughout the year to reduce the black-grass seed bank. This would not be very good for our farming output as we have to look at producing the largest amount of food from an ever decreasing farmland area as world population ever increasing.
Black-grass like most grasses has the ability to germinate right though the year but mainly spring and autumn when the soil is warm and moist this is why we work so hard to reduce the weed seed bank using cultural controls and backing it up with correctly timed chemical control.   BWB

Friday, 3 December 2010

Wild Bird Food and Feeding

Throughout the year we try maintain an ample food supply all year round. We do this in a number of ways around the farm from planting specific bird food mixes, managing our hedgerows more sympathetically, leaving the odd weed in some areas and positioning feed stations around the farm. 

The areas of wild bird seed mix are vital in maintain our population of small farmland birds. These are our giant bird tables but are actually grown. In the spring we sow blocks the seed mix around the farm; normally these areas are about half a hectare in size and positioned about 500m apart from each other. The location is important as a small bird in winter will only forage for 500m from its roost site. We also locate them close to a hedge or wood to give weather protection and a safe place for the birds to return to if an alarm call is sounded by one of them. The mix is important and we have tried a few different mixes and have had some good crops and weaker ones. The mix we have sown this year is sunflowers, red & white millet, mustard, phacelia, linseed, oats and triticale. We chose these plants as they all give a good yield of seed but at different times of the year. The sunflowers release seeds early which are important as they mean that the small bird put on weight very quickly before the winter sets in. The millet and cereals hold their seed longer in to the winter.  We have to help bridge 'the hungry gap' which is through the harsh winter months (Dec- Mar) when natural food is scarce. This year we have also used maize as a structural plant to make it stand up longer under the weight of the snow. We use late cobing maize so that the cobs are immature and do not draw in deer and rats that like to feed on them. This is a trial and has worked but the rate was a little high which has meant that the other plants were smoothers out in their growth stages so the amount of food is a bit low, which means that we are still learning and next year we can adjust the rate.

We maximize our natural food by using correct management of our natural larders, our hedgerows. We have to cut and control the growth of them but we do this on a 3 year cutting rotation. Leaving the hedgerows for three years allow the hedge plants to produce bumper crops of berries in years 2 and 3. Hedges that have been cut that year never produce as many as the budding parts of the plant are removed in the cutting process. The cutting timing is done within the regulated time of year allowed by Natural England and we try and do it when all the berries have been removed by the large numbers of Thrushes, Fieldfares and Redwings that descend on to the farm on their migratory routes.

We also supplement these areas throughout the year with hoppers and ground scattered wheat and barn sweepings. All the seed that is taken out of our wheat that has been dressed in the barn is bagged up and store for the real cold snaps. In the last week through this time of snow we have taken out close to a ton of wheat to these area and the pheasants have done a great job keeping the food clear of snow so that the small birds can feed as well. These areas are full of birds currently, large mixed flocks of Yellowhammers, Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Reed buntings and mixtures of Blue, Great, Coal and Marsh tits. Pat will soon have his nets up to start our program of bird ringing on the farm. I'm sure he will keep you informed as he hangs the nets in these areas.

This is what we do around the farm to help the populations of birds but every little helps. So please try and keep your garden bird tables and bird feeders stocked well throughout the winter. Peanuts, fat balls (remember to remove the green net bags so birds feet don't get caught), Sunflower seed and mixes of cereals are vital food sources for all birds and you may be surprised what finds them. This picture of a Treecreeper was taken out of our office window tucking into the peanuts on offer! BWB

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Suffolk NFU MPs Dinner

On Friday evening I was able to attend the Suffolk NFU MPs dinner at Trinity Park. With over 100 people in attendance it was a very enjoyable and useful evening for Suffolk farmers to have the opportunity to meet Tim Yeo (South Suffolk), Dr Daniel Poulter (Central Suffolk & North Ipswich), Therese Coffee (Suffolk Costal), David Ruffley (Bury St Edmunds) and Geoffrey Van Orden (MEP for the East of England) and other special guests including Simon Ash (Chief Constable), Richard Scott (Chairman Suffolk NFU) Stephen Rash (Suffolk's NFU National Council Delegate) and Pam Forbes (NFU Regional Director). With all of the food sourced from Suffolk farms and food producers their was much to celebrate.

Tim Yeo spoke very passionately about his role as and MP and it was reassuring to hear that farming is high on the list of priorities for our representatives in parliament and that they understand the importance of the agricultural industry in rural constituencies. The evening went very well and hopefully is the first of a number of events of this nature giving farmers confidence that they have a voice in Parliament.

Having met Agriculture Minister Jim Paice recently I know that farming is high on the political agenda and that as an industry we have people who know what they are talking about in Westminster setting policies and working on plans to reduce bureaucracy and promote British farming and local produce. PJB

Sheep are back

Anyone driving between Westhorpe and Walsham Le Willows in the last week will have noticed that we have a flock of 310 ewes and 6 tups on the farm grazing our grassland. This is an important part of the crop management for the herbage grass crops which are all rye grass and grown for seed. The two varieties of grass being grown are both different with one producing a fine, rich grass which will go for lawns and sports pitches and the second, a rougher, hard wearing grass for paddocks and verges. We are able to establish the grass early by sowing it under the spring oats so that by the time the oats are combined there is a layer of grass already growing. The grass crop is down for 2 years, taking off one seed and one hay crop per year and is grazed twice, once in the first winter and once in the second. The grass plays a crucial part of the rotation with crop adding valuable Nitrogen to the soil giving the land the ability to grow wheat for the following 3 years. The yield and quality of the grass crops has significantly increased since the re-introduction of grazing into the rotation and has reduced some of our management as well. Sheep are the ideal animals for this type of grassland management as they nibble grass down to a 2cm sward rather than the ripping that cows do. Grazing removes the need to mow the field at any point during the autumn or winter and increases tillering of existing plants, gives the field an additional covering of organic matter in the form of manure and the constant hooves in the soil increases germination of new grass and weeds such as blackgrass giving us the opportunity to spray out the germinated competitive weeds once the sheep have departed. As with any livestock their are benefits to the farm’s biodiversity with a range of species present as a result of the presence of the sheep, many insects and beetles can be found in the fields in the manure and bird species such as meadow pipit and skylark are found in greater numbers in the fields with sheep.

It goes without saying that if you see the sheep whilst out please keep dogs on leads, especially as the electric fence is on and if you see any sheep in distress (not limping) or anything untoward going on ring any of the numbers on the boards around the edge of the field.