About Us

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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.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Simba SL400 Cultivator

Name:  Simba SL400 Cultivator
Operator: John Leggett as it can only be pulled by our largest tractor, the Challenger, on tracks.
Visual Description: A long 4 metre wide orange trailed cultivator, with rows of soil-moving discs and tines and a metal DD packer roller on the back. On top, there is a white tank and a number of pipes that can be used to broadcast Oil Seed Rape seed or slug pellets, if required, as it moves over the soil.
Size: It is 4m wide and about 15m long and is fixed onto the tractor by a bar that is connected to the two arms on the back of the tractor, so that the operator can always keep the implement level, depending on the depth that the soil needs to be worked to.    
Work rate: With an start and an finish, you would easily cover 40 hectares of stubble, which varies on field size, headland shape, depth of work, but still is much quicker and more fuel efficient than ploughing. General rule of cultivations: the deeper you move the soil the slower you go and the more fuel you burn and the more pounds that are added to the cost of productions.
Controls: There are not many controls for the operator in the cab, apart from the unit required to power and calibrate the broadcasting seeder on the back. Other than that, the tractor pulls the implement behind it and hydraulic oil from the spool values, linked to the levers in the cab, lifts up the wheels at the back or moves the packer roller on the back to ease the SL400 in and out of the ground.
Cost: We had been looking for a primary cultivator that could work at a range of depths. The SL400 first arrived on the farm as a demonstration unit from a local machinery dealer after we had looked at it in the year. Unfortunately, that one was sold before we had made a decision about buying it so we had to look to the second hand market in the farming publications. We came across this one with the added bonus of an already installed seeder on the back, so were happy to invest a bit more as we would not have to adapt our other seeder to fit on the back. We brought it back in March of 2011 and are really happy with the job it does and money it has saved us in reduced passes of cultivations this year. The whole machine cost £34,750 but this is a long term investment as the frame is built very strong, so hopefully only wearing parts will need to be replaced.        
Jobs it does on the farm:  This is a primary cultivator that is designed to break up the soil right behind the combine. It has five rows of soil movers attached to the frame.  It starts with a row of concave discs that are designed to cut, mix and break the surface of the stubble. Then two rows of sprung loaded tines are pulled through at a depth depending on what the aim is of the cultivation. Another row of discs then follow the tines to level the ground off before a packer roller consolidates the soil by pressing the weight of the machine down on to the surface of the soil. This produces what is known as a ‘rough stale seed bed’, which is left to allow any old grains of wheat dropped during harvest and any weed seeds to germinate and start to grow, so that we can then kill them off with a herbicide as they are unwanted. We sowed our Oil Seed Rape using the broadcaster on the back this year and it has radar on the frame that measures the unit’s speed which is calibrated to blow seed down the pipes to be dribbled on the soil surface. This is a vey cheap way of establishing the Rape and it worked well this year as the soil was very damp, which is ideal for starting a crop off well. The tines that are on the machine are designed to be lifted easily up and down so the depth is very flexible, when we sowed the rape we put them in deeper (8-9 inches) as the rape plant likes deeply loosened soil, whereas when we were using it for wheat establishment we lifted them up as shallow as we could to move the full width (3-4 inches) if we knew that the soil was in good condition underneath. We would judge the soil structure by digging a test pit or by looking at the crop previously grown in it and by notes taken throughout the year.

Monday, 19 December 2011

John Deere 6430 Tractor

Driver: John Leggett during the spring and myself during the cultivations.  It is our jump-on-and-drive tractor, so even the senior generation on the farm can drive it without worrying about any computers or too many buttons to press!
Visual Description: The John Deere livery of distinctive dark green and yellow. It is a small compact tractor that is light, nimble and speedy.
Size: This is our smallest work horse on the farm, it has 110Hp with a power boost when needed to give it an extra 15Hp if we are pulling heavy trailers or using the PTO, which is the power take off; this is the system that transfers movement through a shaft from the tractor into any implement that requires powered movement of parts e.g. makes the blades rotate on the mower mounted behind the tractor.    
Weight:  When we looked for a replacement for our old tractor that did similar jobs, I wanted a tractor that was as light as I could justify without losing its capability to lift and pull certain implements that may be needed. The 6430 is considerably lighter that the Challenger and the Fendt , but still has good pulling power when we need it. We wanted it as light as possible as it would be covering the land at critical times of year when soil compaction could easily be caused e.g. fertiliser spreading in early spring after wet winters and rolling after drilling.

Controls: The controls of the John Deere are much more traditional, a gear box with range selected by the driver on a standard ‘H’ like a car but within each gear selected it has an added four levels to select or you can ask the tractor to select the most efficient of the four by a button called Auto Power.  With the latter, it slips up and down the range automatically depending on the strain on the engine.    
Cost: The 6430 is not a premium size or a very high spec tractor like the Fendt but even with the exchange of our other old John Deere, we still had to pay £28,000 to change. We also have accessorised it with some new wheels and tyres. Tyre technology has dramatically improved and they are a very important part of the tractor, as they are needed to transfer its power on to the ground to move it forward but also they need to be sympathetic to the soil as we do not want to damage the soil through compaction as it is expensive to restore. The traditional tyre has a ridged wall, high air pressure and they spread the weight by being very wide, so creating a large footprint but the new tyres we bought have a soft wall, very low pressure and are not so wide, making it safer on the road. The clever bit is that by having soft walls and low pressure, the tyre bellows out and flexes to increase the amount of tyre in contact with the ground and so the footprint increases. They only run at 6-7psi pressure and look flat as the wall rolls out so much but they are spreading the weight of the tractor very well and you don’t leave a rut or mark on the field.        
Jobs it does on the farm: This tractor does all the light work, firstly in the year it rolls the whole farm after the drill to press the seed into the soil, then it will cover the farm 3 or 4 times spreading fertiliser. In the summer it does all the mowing, teddering, and raking of the hay crop and also the flailing of the grass with the large 6m topper but is has the ability to pull our 14T grain trailer if needed. It is a very useful tractor and a lovely size for the range of jobs it does, we would certainly not be without a tractor of this size as it fits so well into our farming approach of using the correct size tractor for the specific jobs that are needed to be done throughout the year. We record all our fuel usage into every tractor so we know when tractors are efficient in fuel intake for every job they do.   

Christmas Down on the Farm

In the deep mid winter, all is quiet on the farm. As the winter moves in, life on the farm slows down and the list of winter jobs written on the wall slowly get reduced day by day.

For the past month we have 750 sheep on the farm, three different flocks all grazing our herbage grass crops tight to the ground and a smaller flock concentrating on grazing our conservation grassland. It is nice to have the sheep on the farm but they do need to be checked twice a day as some get stuck on their backs and occasionally we have an escapee!
Twice a week, one of us will be out and about adding supplement feed to our areas of wild seed mix that, due to the dry spring, have not filled out with as much natural food as we had hoped, so each area gets 50kg of old wheat and rape seed that has been sieved out of the crop that we put in the barn during harvest.
Pigeons are also flocking up and starting to move in on the nice lush Oil Seed Rape fields, so every day we will be out checking on the number of deterrents such as kites, gas bangers, rope bangers and scarecrows. If we did not use these deterrents, we come out of winter with either no plants or a crop that has been grazed and is very patchy and not consistent, and the yield would never be gained.
John has been busy going through all our machines giving them a service, so that they are in tip top condition when we need them and will remain in full working order. He has also been busy in the barn cleaning and bagging up all our Grass Seed we harvested this year. The grass is passed over a number of sieves of different sizes and has wind blown through it to remove any weed seeds and bits of grass stalk that would affect the purity. If they were left in there, we would be penalised financially as the contract is for seed that is 98%+ purity to get the top grade.
Nick is showing his full range of skills with our annual building checks and repairs. This year the farm office is being given the once-over, so paint, new cupboards and floors have been fixed and hopefully the dust will settle. He has also been helping Patrick with other projects in the Cottages, as well as wielding the chainsaw on the few days that have been nice enough to be outside, with some scrub clearance and our next stage of pond clearance.
Apart from decoration, the office is busy with paper work and planning for next year, I have been looking at fertiliser plans, analysing yield maps from harvest and keeping up to date with all the crop records from all the passes that have happened since harvest. Patrick has been keeping the accounts all up to date and has been busy looking into possibly installing PV solar panels on a few buildings.
It is amazing that the list of jobs never ends and we are so busy throughout the cold months. This year we are earlier doing these as we had an efficient autumn, so early in the New Year, we may be able to start some more ambitious projects like rain harvesting, a new chemical store, a revamp of the bygones collection and more conservation work.
The crops are all slowing up with the frost and as the nutrients in the soil become less readily available. It has been difficult on the crops with this mild winter as the disease has been high and this is why they have a yellow tinge to them as green leaf has died due to Mildew and some early rust that we would expect in the spring!
All in all, life is never dull and every day is different for us.
We wish you all a Happy Christmas and thanks from us for reading these snippets into our working life that we post, sorry that they have been a little irregular. Enjoy your Festive season. BWB

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Land Of Our Fathers is launched!

Last week we were delighted to be able to invite members of the press, family and friends to the farm to the official launch of the ‘Land of Our Fathers’ DVD programme. This is a project that we have been working on for most of this year having been approached by Alan James who runs a production company called Second Sight Productions in Tiptree. He has been making programmes as Second Sight Productions for over 10 years and has published over 100 titles. He was looking to create a documentary programme about modern farming and wildlife management and we felt that this would give us a terrific platform to show everything that we do on the farm through the course of the working year.

The programme covers the history of Westhorpe with local historian Clive Paine and gives a fascinating insight into the Tudor connections of the village, Westhorpe Hall and how it came to be the home of Henry VIII’s sister, Mary Queen of France. We see how the farm came into the ownership of the Barker family, how farming has changed through the ages and even links in with our late Grandfather’s collection of agricultural and domestic bygones. With some of our old photographs, cinefilm and video footage we track the changes in agricultural machinery and farming practices through the generations and finish off by showing the land operations through the course of a year with modern machinery. At every stage we are able to demonstrate our environmental consideration and different measures in place on the farm including Wild Bird Seed and Nectar Flower mixes, pond restoration, creation of species rich grassland and hedgerows and their management. There is also bird ringing demonstration from one of the ringing sessions on the farm so it is a thorough record of everything that has gone on through the course of the year.
Fiming one of the scenes form a couple of angles

It has been great fun and a great experience making the programme and we hope that everyone really enjoys watching it. To buy a copy visit the website - www.secondsightproductions.co.uk/shop/land-of-our-fathers

A morning walk...

A perfect Tawny Owl lookout
After only catching 1 bird in 2 hours ringing this morning due to the strong wind I gave up and took Indie for a walk through our woods just to see what was about instead. Our woods have no public access near them and they are not disturbed very often so there is aways something interesting to see. As soon as I set foot in the wood I knew it would be an interesting walk as I had a 10 second stare off with a Tawny Owl from a regular roost hole.

I walked round for about 40 minutes and this is what I saw - 5x Brown Hares, a Grey Squirrell, 3x Roe Deer, Buzzard, Kestrel, Pheasants, 3x Red Legged Partridge, Robin, Dunnocks, 4x Treecreeper, Blue, Great, Coal, Long-tailed and Marsh Tits, 20+ Yellowhammers, 50+ Linnet, Skylarks, Great Spotted Woodpecker, 3 Herring Gulls, 100+ Pigeons, Jay, Magpie, Rooks and a Crow, at least that is what I can remember as I forgot my notebook.
Hawthorn - A Buffet for Thrushes
It was great to see Blackbirds, Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush, Redwing and Fiedfare feeding on the Blackthorn and Hawthorn with are laden with berries at the moment. The areas of srcub surrounding the woodland are treated as hedgerows and ony cut ever 3/4 years to prevent encroachment on tracks and fields and this approach pays dividends with the amount of berries that are present.
It just goes to show that what is about if you keep you eyes and ears open. It was interesting to see how dry the woodland floor is and there is very little in the way of fungi growing at the moment. PJB 

Thursday, 24 November 2011

A learning day...

One of the Higher Level Stewardship scheme options that we signed up for is Educational Access and during the 5 years that we have been in the scheme we have hosted over 100 farm visits. These have ranged from WI groups to Guides and Brownies and history groups to Suffolk Wildlife Trust staff. Today was the turn of Otley College’s Conservation students and we have had a very enjoyable day. With farmland conservation one of our main passions and being such a topical issue at the moment we feel it is very important to show all of the positive work that we do when it comes balancing commercial arable production with effective wildlife management, especially to the potential conservation advisors of the future. With a possible ‘Greening of the Common Agricultural policy’ on the horizon, more money being made available for agri-environment schemes and farmers taking more interest and pride it their farmland wildlife, good advice becomes even more important. It was especially heartening to listen to their good ideas and conservation plans when we set them a farmland advice scenario, coming up with good practical ideas that would fit into with farming practices and benefit target species.

We are starting to fill up next year’s diary now so if anyone would like to book a visit for next year or any further information about our educational visits get in contact at events@ejbarker.co.uk.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Fendt 820

Name:  Fendt 820
Driver: Nick Light for the majority of the cultivations; Patrick and I use it during the summer when Nick is on the combine.
Visual Description: This is our largest tractor with the stereotypical four wheels : larger radius wheels at the back and smaller at the front. The wheels have red centres and the majority of the tractor is green with a white roof. The cab sits on top with the exhaust and air intake for the engine running up the corners of the cab.
Size: The Fendt 820 is smaller than the Cat Challenger and it is power rated at 205Hp. It is a good sized tractor for the jobs that we what it to do on the farm as it is flexible, with good weight to power ratio, fuel efficiency, and it is excellent on the road.    

Weight:  This tractor only weighs seven and a half tons but we have to add weight to the front to increase its efficiency when it is working with an implement that it has to lift out of the ground. All tractors need to be balanced when in work, so that every bit of power is transferred through all four wheels when working in four-wheel drive, so that the tractor pulls the implement forward equally. To balance the Fendt when it is ploughing we must have a large one and half ton weight block on the front to counter balance the heavy weight of the plough that stretches a long way out from the back of the tractor. If we did not have the right weight on the front, the front wheels would not touch the floor and we would not have any steering or grip.
Controls: The Fendt has a very sophisticated cab to improve the driving experience and gives the operator lots of flexibility to improve work rate and reduce fuel consumption through its on-board computer. The tractor does not have a gear stick but has a hydrostatic joystick, which means if you push it forward it moves forward and pull it back it slows and then goes into reverse; the more you hold it the faster you go. This means that the drive can range in a step-less or gearless manner from 0km/h to 55km/h. There are lots of dials in the cab that change flows of oil to the implements but what makes this tractor clever is that you can programme the computer to memorise a sequence of jobs; press one button and the tractor will then carry out this set list of jobs: e.g. lift plough up to a set height at a set speed, turn plough over at a set speed and then drop plough into the ground at a set speed, all the while the driver is just turning the tractor around. It also has cruise control, which can be set to the correct speed and the tractor gets to that speed as quickly as possible and then drops off the engine revs so the engine, through its unique design, maintains speed, therefore reducing unnecessary fuel being burnt.   
Cost: This tractor was the first tractor I chose on the farm. I was looking for a tractor that would replace two old ones and do all the jobs of those two it replaced, plus some more. This meant that when we traded them in with the local dealer they took a value for the other two off the asking price. The two old tractors only came to just less than half the value of the new one, due to their age and hours, so to change we had to finance £50,000. It was more expensive than other similar sized tractors of a different brand name but, with the fuel savings, we have seen this extra outlay returned by reduced litre per hours worked.    
Jobs it does on the farm:
This tractor is also doing 500hrs a year and its main work is all the ploughing needed over the farm after harvest. Once this is completed, we have it cultivating the fields in front of the Cat which is pulling the 6m Drill. Once this is completed, it does the snowploughing, if we are called out by the Council, and any trailer work that we do through the spring. Once spring comes, it is used in the cultivations of the spring Oats, Grass and Beans. Then, once harvest arrives, it pulls a large trailer carrying 14 Tons of grain back to the farm from the combine.   BWB

Monday, 21 November 2011

Short Eared Owl Alert!!!

Dear All Westhorpe Residents,

Over the weekend we have had a couple of sightings of a Short Eared Owl around the fields to the north of the village around our grassland. We have been trying to track it down for a photo record (Picture above raided from Google I'm afraid) if you see it please can you let us know, it may have moved on as it will be on migration but hopefully it will be about for a few days. They are a large sized owl in flight and can be seen hunting over rough grass in daylight.

Eyes peeled please!!

Monday, 14 November 2011

Claas Challenger 55

I had a bit of a ticking off from my dear grandmother when I popped in to see her a week or two back. The first ticking off I got was why I hadn’t I seen her for so long and, without giving me a chance to say sorry, I got the second which was that she did not understand some parts of my last story about what had been going down on the farm. My Nana is an avid listener as, without direct access to a computer, my mother or aunt are requested to keep her updated with what has been written about on our Blog.  I do apologise to all and especially Nana for any jargon that I used, if I did not explain some things very well and that the length was a bit long - once I start, I find it hard to find a sensible end point.
So I thought, how could I help everyone understand what each bit of machinery does on the farm, why we use it and how it works?
From time to time on this blog, we add a different bird species as a post, which gives a general profile of what they are all about, so I thought I would do the same for the different machines we use on the farm. Hopefully this will help with the blog updates and also help everyone to understand what the different machines do that you see out of your kitchen or car windows.
I begin with the 3 different work horses on the farm, our tractors, and initially with our big beast:
The Claas CAT pulling the drill

Name:  Claas Challenger 55
Driver: John Leggett and very occasionally myself but it is hard to get John off the seat!

Cat pulling the Subsoiler

Visual Description: Green and White in colour but not a typical-looking tractor as it does not have 4 wheels but two rubber belts known as caterpillar tracks. These increase its so-called footprint, which spreads its considerable weight over more of an area, so it is better for the soil in most conditions as this reduces the chance of soil compaction that leads to reduced crop yield.
Size: Our model is only a little one in today’s sizes, with 280 horses powering the tractor and implement forward – normally referred to as ‘hp’: horse power. Some top of the market tracked tractors have 600+ hp under the bonnet! The engine is very large, loud and thirsty! During a working day, depending on what it is doing, it can burn over 400L of fuel in 10 hours.  

Inside the cab

Controls: In the cab, it has the normal controls of a steering wheel, hydraulic leavers that control the oil flow to the implements attached to the tractor and a gear stick. The gear stick is not a standard ‘H’ as in your manual car but a shuttle shift gear box which means you have a range of 30 gears and to go up or down you just push the stick forward once or back once to change gear. Also in the cab are the electronic controls of the different implements that the tractor pulls.
Cat pulling the Unipress

Cost: We bought this machine a few years back, second hand, and I think it was close to £140,000. This is now half of what a new one would cost. Obviously, it is an important tractor to keep going as it is used at the really busy times of year. We have an agreement with the local dealer to keep it serviced on a contract, so it gets all the care that is needed to make it very reliable.
Cat pulling the SL400
Jobs it does on the farm: Due to its special tracks, it is used to do most of the early primary cultivations like Sub Soiling and pulling the SL400. All the secondary Cultivations, the Unipress and the Toptilth are done with this tractor, as well as all the planting of the different crops using the Vaderstad 6m seed drill. Once the crops are up and growing, this tractor becomes obsolete and has to sit back in the workshop. Over a year, it will normally do about 600hrs of work.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Tree Sparrow

Passer montanus
Smaller than a House Sparrow and more active, with its tail almost permanently cocked. It has a chestnut brown head and nape (rather than grey), and white cheeks and collar with a contrasting black cheek-spot.
Farmland, parks, and the edges of suburbs where there are large gardens.
Nests are constructed from leaves, stems and roots and lined with moss, hair and feathers. The same nests maybe used for a number of years.
1-3 clutches of 2-7 pale grey eggs with brown marks in April-July.
Plant and animal food, especially seeds. Insects are important during the breeding season.
Basic tchurp note.
The Tree Sparrow is scarcer in the uplands, and the far north and west of the UK. The main populations are now found across the Midlands, southern and eastern England. It is almost absent from the south west, Wales and the north west.
BTO Statistics
Changes in agriculture have greatly reduced the population of Tree Sparrows across much of Britain and as such their status is red. It is thought that the current UK population is just 3% of that if the 1970's.
The female incubates the eggs for 11-14 days and fledging occurs 15-20 days after hatching.
Tree Sparrows mainly forage on the ground or in low bushes. They eat a range of plants, seeds and will feed their young insects in the breeding season.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

As Winter draws in keep your feeders full but remember.......

We all enjoy feeding the wild birds in our gardens, but it is important to follow a few simple hygiene procedures to ensure that your garden is a safe place for them.
Outbreaks of diseases such as Salmonella and E.coli are a constant threat and can quickly spread from infected birds to healthy birds sharing the same feeding areas.
These guidelines should ensure that your garden visitors remain both happy and healthy.

  • Feeders, bird tables and particularly seed trays should be thoroughly cleaned on a regular basis as most diseases are transmitted via infected droppings or saliva. If an infection occurs, disinfect regularly.
  • Regularly clean up areas underneath feeders, particularly when black sunflower seeds are being fed as the husks can pile up. Update Hi-Energy No Mess or Sunflower Hearts will significantly reduce this build up.
  • Clean up any uneaten or mouldy food and dispose of it. Always use high quality foods to minimise waste.
  • Make sure that food is not left out on the ground at night as rats and mice can be attracted. Rats will generally live under compost heaps, garden sheds or in areas where rubbish has been allowed to build up. If you have rats, clearing away any rubbish, (thus removing their source of food) often solves the problem.
  • Move bird tables and feeders around the garden or, if possible, have several different feeding sites within the garden and keep them spread out to avoid having large numbers of birds in one location at the same time.
  • Keep surfaces on which birds feed clean. Sweep bird tables daily and regularly provide ground-fed foods in a different place.
  • Observe strict personal hygiene when handling bird feeders and tables, particularly if infection has occurred. Some bird diseases can be transmitted to humans so we recommend you wear gloves when cleaning and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards. Feeders should not be cleaned indoors or near food preparation areas.
  • If water is provided in birdbaths or other drinking devices, change it regularly. Disinfect and rinse these containers on a regular basis and de-ice during cold weather. Don't be tempted to use anti-freeze, salt or glycerine as it can be harmful to the birds.
This winter could be a harsh one so keep the feeders full and keep us informed especially if you see any unusually behaviour or important new species like Tree Sparrows in our postcode!!! BWB

The Chaffinch

Fringilla coelebs
The Chaffinch is among the most popular spring songsters in the UK. It is the second commonest breeding bird, and is arguably the most colourful of the UK's finches. Its patterned overcoat helps it to blend in when feeding on the ground and it becomes most obvious when it flies, revealing a flash of white on the wings and white outer tail feathers.
Hedgerows, gardens and farmland.
In bush or low tree, of grasses decorated with lichen.
4-5, dark spotted greenish.
Varied, insects and seeds.
Spink call; rattling song ends with flourish; choop in flight.
There are seven million pairs distributed throughout Britain and Ireland. Chaffinches rarely move more than five km from home.
BTO Statistics
The Chaffinch's current status is green.
Anywhere with trees, bushes, farmland hedgerows parks and rural and suburban gardens.
Although normally thought of as a ground feeders it is not uncommon for Chaffinches to feed from feeders, especially those with our perching rings.
You'll usually hear Chaffinches before you see them, with their loud song and varied calls.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Summer – Autumn – Indian Summer – and now Winter!

Primary Cultivation by the SL400

Summer – Autumn – Indian Summer – and now Winter!
Life down on the farm has been a series of whirlwinds. July through to October is a hectic and very busy time of year for all at Lodge Farm.

The first whirlwind that arrived kicked up a dust storm back in August.  The source of this dust storm was the combine harvester. The wheat harvest was quick and efficient, with yields being, as expected, slightly down on our aim but the weather was kind to us and we filled the barn with dry, bold grains of good quality. Nick and I gathered the majority in. I was chasing the flashing light of the combine that Nick drives and Roy, Patrick or David would help out if we needed an extra pair of hands driving the other trailer or pushing up the grain in the barn.
Pretty much as soon as we started the wheat harvest, after gathering the grass and the oil seed rape crops, land was ready to be cultivated and this allowed John to roll out the big tractor. John has worked on our farm since he was eighteen years old and he has seen the transformation in machinery first hand. Today he drives our Claas Crawler which is 250Hp and is an invaluable tool which has the ability to cover the ground quickly. On the crawler tractors, the footprint of the tracks are much larger than those of a wheeled tractor; this allows the weight of the machine to be spread over the enlarged footprint, which also gives greater contact with the ground to help with the efficiency of transferring all that power into driving the machine forward.
The land work, known as cultivations, happens in four phases; Rotational, Primary, Secondary and Seeding. Many different machines are used and we have invested in some very expensive equipment to allow us to cover the farm as quickly and as efficiently as possible, so that the land is prepared in tip top condition and so that we maintain it in a very healthy state. Without good soil structure we would compromise the quality crops we strive for right from the start, so our aim is to keep the soil with a good healthy structure. On the clay based soil, we need to think ‘deep structure’. Compaction is the source of many problems. Compaction comes from farm traffic throughout the year on the fields, but rain hitting the surface also causes a degree of compaction - and other problems in some conditions. 
Before any cultivations start we would already have a plan on paper of what each field requires. This is determined by what it has had in the past, what the past cropping was and what the field looked like throughout the previous growing year. Plants can’t talk but they still tell you when they don’t feel well or do not like where they are growing by going yellow, dying, falling over, or by sending roots out in all directions bar down! I keep notes on each field throughout the year, of anything I see as a problem and then build a plan to combat snags that I find.
The first machines to be pulled through a field are the rotational or fixers. These are the Mole Drainer and Deep Subsoiler. The mole drainer is a single blade that has a foot which pulls a ceramic expander behind it. The foot and the expander work at depths of 50-60cm deep in the clay sub soil. They create a hollow channel (like a mole tunnel in your lawn) that will aid the soil in removing water. The ‘mole’ is pulled every 3 metres over the whole field at 90 degrees to the land drains, which are permanent pipes set in the field at around 1m deep. This creates a lattice work of drainage channels deep in the clay to allow the winter rain to move quickly into the ditches, so that the soil does not become water logged. Plants don’t like sitting through winter with the roots in cold, wet soil, especially if the land freezes a number of times. You will soon see yellowing as the roots start to rot. The mole drainer is one of the most expensive processes we have to do on a 5 year rotation. It takes every 250Hp of the crawler to pull the single ceramic expander through the deep, tight, clay sub soil.
After any mole draining has been carried out, John moves on to the next deepest cultivator, the Subsoiler.  This is a mounted machine that is attached to the tractor by the three point linkage. It has a strong frame with 5 winged legs attached to it; the legs are set about 50cm apart and are positioned to work just below the cultivation pan or compaction zone. The part of the soil structure that becomes compact is the top 30cm. This fine particle soil gets condensed and sometimes, if cultivations are carried out when the soil was not in perfect condition, it creates a ‘pan’ which is a smeared layer that holds up water and is hard for roots to break through if it becomes dry. The subsoiler legs have a wing on the bottom of them that is at an angle to the surface. As the cultivator is pulled through the soil, the soil is lifted up by the angled wing, shattering the condensed top soil. This relieves the compacted zone and breaks up the smear pan to allow water and roots to drive straight down deep into the soil. Again, this is an expensive operation and is relatively slow, so only parts of fields are done when they require it. Normally this would be areas close to the edges of fields where the large tractors turn and corkscrew the land tight with repeated passes over the surface. The general rules for cultivations are that as depth increases so does the cost and the work rates become less. Shallower soil movements are quicker and cheaper as machinery becomes wider and speeds higher. 
The next passes for all fields are the Primary cultivations, these being the traditional Plough and the new modern Multi-Cultivators, ours being the Simba SL400. The plough is the traditional starting point for any seed crop. It turns the soil over, burying the leftover plant residue and leaving the bare earth to be broken up ready for replanting. It has its plus points such as no surface trash, weed seeds buried to rot, and allows the weather to start break down. It also its negatives such as unknown weeds brought up, expensive, potential creation of a smear pan and lots of wearing metal parts. We use it as a cultural barrier for black grass control and it spreads the work load and gives us the opportunity to cultivate at different depths, as we would be ploughing to about 25cm. The new modern multi cultivators use discs, tines and rollers to prepare a seed bed in one pass, something that is not possible with the plough, so saving money in the long run. The SL400 cuts and mixes the trash with a set of discs then large sprung-loaded tines pull the soil around at different depths, set by the driver depending on what the crop was -  and is to be. Then another set of discs levels and creates some small soil particles know as tilth and a roller on the back consolidates it ready for the drill or a light cultivator before drilling.
Secondary  Cultivation by the Unipress

The secondary cultivators go over the fields once they have either been ploughed or pulled up by the SL400. The secondary cultivators are lighter and use tines and rollers, so break up the drying clods to create lots of small particles. Then, when the seeds are placed in the soil, there is lots of soil-to-seed contact in a warm, moist and level seed bed. We use a Simba Unipress and a Toptilth in really dry conditions, both with levelling boards to drag soil along making it level, tines to knock the topsoil around and then rollers to consolidate and firm up the top few inches to be ready for planting. These machines are over 6m wide, therefore you can cover 45+ hectares a day easily with them. Again, timings are important, as we don’t want all the moisture dried out of the soil by the sun and wind, otherwise we are just stirring rock-hard boulders around. 
The last phase is the planting and rolling. Our Drill that places the seed in the soil at the correct depth has a series of discs and a levelling board built into it to make sure that the seed is placed into fresh, moist soil. The larger seed, like beans, are placed deeper in the soil by the drill and the smallest, like oil seed rape or grass, are kept very close to the surface. Then we need to make sure the seed is touching lots of moist soil, so the drill has a roller on the back and we also roll everything with a set of 12m rolls to make sure soil and seeds have good contact. The rolling conserves moisture by not allowing the sun and wind into the top and it also helps to protect the seed from one of our main pests, the slug, as those slimy creatures do not like squeezing up through consolidated soil.
This all happens very quickly. John, Nick and I cover the farm in an organised circus one after the other. John does all the early cultivations, which require the big tractor. Nick does all the ploughing, followed by the secondary cultivations that John has not done because his tractor is by then needed to pull the drill, planting the seed at the set rate. I follow up behind with the rolls and chase John with the large bags of seed to keep him moving, so we don’t waste time. About 10 days after the drill has placed the seed in the soil, the green shoots start to appear and the farm changes from brown to green; the yearly cycle has begun again.   BWB 

Monday, 10 October 2011

Common Darters

One of the benefits of well managed ponds was in evidence last week next to Westhorpe Hall as I sat and watched at least 20 Common Darters flying in the bright sunshine, just above the water. It was also especially pleasing to see the process of egg laying at regular intervals. Eggs are not actually laid, but broadcast from the air. The male holds the female and swings around over the water. At the closest point to the water, the female releases some of her eggs to fall into the water from the tip of her abdomen. The eggs will hatch within a few weeks or if laid late in the season will emerge the following year.
 For more information go to -

This is a video of what I saw


Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Winter jobs

We are in the fortunate position of being completely up to date with our autumn land work and the fields are starting to cover with green as next years crops emerge. Our attention now shifts to a very long list of winter jobs and whilst the weather is so good we are getting on with our programme of pond restorations. The ponds that require the most urgent work are the ones that are almost completely dried out.

All ready for the digger...
The lack of rain, 2 feet of mud and leaf litter and big, thirsty trees all combine to create very dry ponds. The ponds on our clay based land were designed to hold water all year round and benefit from de-silting when required. The HLS scheme has enabled us to put together a programme of pond restorations and we are doing a couple each year which gives the farm a covering of ponds at different stages of growth, providing good habitat for many different species. Our aim is over the 10 years of our HLS scheme is to clean out most of the ponds on the farm and have visibly clear water in all of them.

videoToday we have cleared the pond in the front of our farmyard. There was 5 Lombardy Poplars, planted in the 70s for matchsticks and 3 huge willows shading out the ponds and dropping vast amounts of leaves every autumn. The single most important thing we want is plenty of light getting to the water which allows the broad leaved aquatic vegetation to flourish, providing the base of the aquatic ecosystem. With this in mind the poplars have been removed and the willows pollarded. The willows will get the little and often treatment from now on and we will never plant any Lombardy Poplar on the farm again, however as always we will replace every tree removed with a nicer more native tree with plenty of conservation value! PJB

Friday, 30 September 2011

Barn Owls down the road.

One of the success stories for me this summer has been at West Hall Farm, Rickinghall. The farmer, David Pettitt is very keen on his wildlife and shares the same view as us that modern, intensive, profitable farming and nature conservation can go hand in hand. David has 4 Barn Owl boxes up around his farm and in previous years has had the disappointment that I have with plenty of Stock Doves and being able to watch Barn Owls all winter to find that they have gone elsewhere to breed. This year however there has been success!

David had a good feeling that the Owls were present as he had seen a pair hunting throughout the hay making over his meadows and on the first visit to the boxes this year, on the 6th June this is what I saw:

By my rough guestimations there was at least 3 chicks and they were between 1 and 2 weeks old. David continued watching the adults hunting morning and night until 12 July when I felt the chicks should be about the ideal age for ringing.

I revisited the box on the 12th July full of anticipation and it was a pleasant surprise to find that there was actually 4 healthy baby Barn Owls present. They all felt well fed and well looked after by the adult both of which were making the most of the good weather by hunting as much as they could. I was able to ring these chicks so we will know what happens to them after they fledge the nest if they are found or caught again.


On 2nd September I returned to the farm to see whether the chicks had fledged and to check for any evidence of second broods. There was nothing in the box, so all 4 made it out into the world and just to top off a fantastic breeding season at the farm, the box on the adjoining meadow contained two adult birds which is fair to assume were the parents and maybe were thinking about breeding again. I have booked in a visit in early October to check but for now we know that one live and well pair raised 4 healthy chicks, all 6 now with rings on so any movement, dispersal and longevity data will all add to the database and ultimately add to the pool of knowledge we have about Barn Owls. With the success of the Barn Owl project we are getting to a stage where many of the Barn Owls in Suffolk are ringed so the dataset that is being built up is enormous. Using this data in the future we will learn so much about the movement, size and weight changes through their lives, distribution and longevity of this species and the more we know about them the more we are able to do help them.

The success of the Barn Owls at this farm is testament to the hard work that David Pettitt puts into his conservation. Species like Barn Owls can only thrive if there is a good population of voles, mice and shrews which are only present through good management of his grassland. Only taking a hay cut, no unnecessary topping and not over-grazing all allow the meadows to benefit both his business and his wildlife. PJB

Friday, 23 September 2011

Barn Owl Boxes

One of the most interesting projects that we as a farm are involved with is the Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Suffolk Community Barn Owl Project http://www.suffolkwildlifetrust.org/. The project covers the whole county with over 1200 boxes or natural nest sites monitored by over 100 people throughout the breeding season and is administered by the trust.

On our farms we started with 5 boxes in 2006 and now have 12 spread over the farms in areas that we feel have the best natural habitat to sustain our target species, Barn Owls. Since 2006 I have been through the schedule 1 species disturbance course, ladder training and my ringing training to allow me to inspect the boxes safely and with as little disturbance to any breeding birds as possible. When visiting boxes we are very careful to minimise any disturbance and take all measures to avoid upsetting any birds which can cause abandonment of eggs.
Tawny Owls 2010
Once chicks are hatched it is incredibly rare for a pair to abandon and in fact, the male is not allowed to roost in the box by the female as we believe she does not trust him not to eat them. This process of checking boxes includes blocking the hole before approaching with a ladder or telehandler and when done properly, after looking in a box the birds remain in situ quickly forgetting that they have just someone peering in at them.
This year's adult female at Kiln Farm

In previous years we have had Kestrels, Tawny Owls, Stock Doves and Jackdaws breeding, as well as Barn Owls roosting during the winter but until this year the Barn Owls have gone elsewhere to find a mate or to breed. This year I first inspected the two boxes at Kiln Farm in early June and found 2 adult Barn Owls in one of the boxes there. The female was already proudly wearing a ring and had been ringed as a chick in a nest box by John Walshe in Wetherden in June 2008, making her 3 years old.  The male was not ringed so I did the honours and we will know if he appears anywhere else. I had high hopes for this pair breeding but was disappointed to find an empty box when I re-visited in mid July.

At Westhorpe I was aware of Barn Owls in residence in one of the barns and was hoping they would stay to breed. The barn was out of bounds to everyone from March and I did not check the box until early June to avoid any unnecessary disturbance.
The view inside the box
On my first visit there was one adult, at least a couple of young chicks and two unhatched eggs which I was very pleased with. My second visit was on 12th July and revealed only one chick with 2 dead ones in the box and having watched the barn for a while, only one adult which I have later found to be a female. I am confident that the chick fledged successfully but believe that either the male left or was killed whilst the chicks were young, leaving the female to try to hunt for 3 and herself.

The Westhorpe Female
I am a little disappointed to go from great optimism early in the season to only one chick fledging but it is one more Barn Owl chick than we have had in previous years so fingers are already crossed for next year! In the other boxes around Lodge Farm, Westhorpe, Stock Doves have been breeding in at least 4 of the boxes almost continuously from April and are still going and one of the boxes is about to fledge it’s 5th pair of chicks for the year! In the other boxes there was a brood of 3 Jackdaws at Westhorpe Hall, a pair of Tawny Owl chicks near the church. The box on Kiln Lane contained a family of Kestrels, one adult female and 4 chicks. The adult was already ringed and was one that I had ringed at the same stage a year earlier. Last year she raised 3 chicks at Westhorpe Hall and went one better this year.

The round of late visits looking for any second or late broods to all of these boxes have showed that all the chicks fledged successfully.