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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.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Missing in Action: A Spring’s Worth of Rain!

 Video showing 2ft deep cracks in the tramline of one of our fields!
Missing in Action: A Spring’s Worth of Rain!
Well, it is starting to become a little worrying.  Dad said that the new moon came in today, meaning today’s weather has set the tone for the next 30 days!! This spring is becoming the driest on record with no worthwhile rain being recorded in the past 3 months. On our farm at Westhorpe, we have only had 11mm of rain evaporate out of our rain gauge in that time and even less has been recorded at the Great Ashfield farm.
So what does this drought mean for the farm? Well, all the crops are under stress. They want to be growing and do what plants do best in the lovely sun – photosynthesising.  However, the lack of moisture in the soil has meant that they have reduced their growing activity and have become weak and vulnerable to pest and disease attacks.  The crops on what we call ‘heavy land’, which is soil that has a predominately clay structure, are faring better than the sand based ‘lighter soils’ you find in  some areas of our farm but even more over on the coast of Suffolk. The clay has the ability to lock in moisture and hold it for longer periods of time. We can dig down about 15cm and see some moisture but not anything of real substance, whereas on the lighter soil you would find no moisture at all until you got bored of digging! This is why the irrigators are pumping vast amounts of water onto the high value crops such as onions and potatoes just to keep them alive. I have even heard down the wilting grape vine that some farmers have been irrigating wheat and barley crops to keep them going; desperate times call for desperate measures. I joke with my mates in more normal times about not having the problem of irrigation: pumps breaking down, burst pipes, moving lines etc. but at times like these, at least they have the ability to put water on some of their land and make a crop look better,  where we are truly at the mercy of the rain gods!

Weaker late drilled wheat crop

Stronger early drilled wheat crop

 The winter wheat crops that were planted early have got a well established root system that is finding any available water; whereas the crops planted later look decidedly worse off, as the roots would not have had the chance to penetrate deep down into the topsoil.  Soil conditions at planting may have held root development back as well. All in all the damage has already been done and the only saving grace is if we get rain at the next most important time which is when the grains are forming in the ear and take up moisture to swell and fill out. If we have available moisture then the grains will be full, round and bold, making for good quality. The current yield potential is reducing day on day without rain. The plants will keep alive as long as possible into a drought but as time goes on the plant will shut down yield-producing parts of itself, to put all of its effort into one or two main stems which are known as tillers. A winter wheat plant is able to produce lots of tillers that each produce an ear, which holds the grain, but in really bad years, it can stop or abort all of the tillers just to leave one emergency tiller that sets thin seed early if the lack of water continues throughout the whole growing season.
We also have the added headache of getting the necessary Nitrogen plant food into the soil for uptake by the roots. This Nitrogen fertiliser is spread in granular form and sits on the soil surface to be taken into the soil when it rains. If we apply it and there is no moisture the expensive nitrogen is left in the open and it breaks down slowly and evaporates, with only a reduced amount actually working its way into the soil and plant when it is needed. However, one plus point for lack of rain is that the disease pressure is reduced. Diseases like Mildews, Rusts and the main disease in the UK, Septoria, prefer damp, moist conditions in order to take hold in the crop on the leaves. Rain droplets act as the transporters of  disease when the water hits the leaf and splashes the disease spores from leaf to leaf. No rain means no disease spread and so a robust fungicide program will combat any possible outbreaks quickly before they get out of control.    

Tramline cracks

The Oil Seed Rape crops look in good condition. The stems are strong and the large tap roots have worked their way down the cracks in the soil and are pulling moisture from deep down.  The Oil Seed Rape crop has just flowered and is soon to set pods and seed, so a rain would give it a kick start.  If the drought persists, however, we may find that some of the plants start to abort setting pods and we will have a reduced yield. The majority of the fertiliser was applied early on, so this will have been used by the plant and again the disease pressure is low. Pollination will have been good due to the wind and insect-friendly conditions. Another sign of the dry conditions is evident along the tramlines and now across most of the topsoil. Cracks are appearing in the surface as the clay contracts as it dries, these cracks open and fracture the soil deep down. This is a small bonus because it means that, after harvest, if the cracks are still deep, we will not need to break up the soil deep down in our cultivations ready for the following crops, as the sun would have done this job for us. The flip side is that it indicates the soil is very hard, which will mean that the parts of the cultivator being dragged through the soil will wear away very quickly as they are pulled through the baked hard topsoil. So we win in one element of reduced depth of tillage therefore reducing our fuel bill but lose through the increased replacement costs because of abrasion on the shallower cultivator tines that we will be using instead.

Cracks within the crop not just in tramlines

The grass is OK depending on which field you look at.  The winter snow and herbicide has really hit the plants hard on the second year grasses and they are looking weak. This will mean reduced yield and also that hay again will be short across the county.  Even the meadow hay is not filling out, which shows how dry it is.

The spring crops have surprised me with their development.  The oats have geminated and kicked on with the early Nitrogen applied. The young grass is sitting underneath with one or two very thin leaves, trying to keep alive  for as long as possible - fingers crossed they will be OK. The Spring Beans are being attacked by Bean Weevil as these insects enjoy the sun and are active for long periods.  We have had to combat them with an insecticide but still they come back. They are a pest that eats the leaves then lays an egg in the soil that hatches and the larva then attacks one of the most important parts of a bean plant: the Nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the root system. This means that the plant does not naturally replenish nitrogen in the soil for next year’s crop and we will have to top up with more high cost oil-based man-made fertiliser next year. 
It’s not just the crops that are finding it tricky, the wildlife is thirsty too, pond levels are low and ditches dry. So this week we are putting out drinking stations in the shade of the hedgerows so that there is fresh water available for fledgling birds to drink and adults to clean their feathers in. Put a bird bath out in your garden and you will be really surprised what may turn up for a splash! In our back garden under the little fountain, we have had Thrushes, Black Caps and Garden Warblers, all enjoying a shower!

Weather worrying is one of the most essential skills of a farmer.  Weather is normally never right: too wet, too dry, too windy, too cold and too hot (this usually because the air conditioning in the combine has broken!) We do forget that it is the only variable that we have no way of controlling. What we get, is what we get and that is what makes farming such an interesting environment to work within.  No day is the same and every year is different! The weather will always keep us on our toes because farmers and gardeners are competitive creatures who always want to better ourselves from year to year, come rain or shine!              BWB    

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