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, 31 May 2011

Its Show time!

As the crops enjoy the light showers that have come to our dust bowl of a farm over the last couple of weeks to dampen it a fraction, elsewhere county shows have allowed the general public and the farming community to come together.
County Shows like the Suffolk Show, Hadleigh Show, Norfolk Show and South Suffolk Show have been or are coming up in the next few weeks. These shows highlight all the great things that the farming and rural communities do throughout the year. Local produce on sale, new machinery polished and on show, champion prized livestock lined up with rosettes to boast. All these shows are organised and run by the farming community; usually farmers scrub up and don the bowler hats, lots of voluntary hours go into these shows which gives them such a unique feel.
 They are great days out for the whole family bar the dog! Dog at Shows is a hot topic currently but in my eyes if I took my dog I would not enjoy the day as much. Flo would be hot, tired, no place to settle and would think everyone there was to see her and I would be on tender hooks as she would become grumpy very quickly. So a great mix of a bit of shopping, networking with businesses and education for the whole family hopefully all enjoyed on a day in the sun.
It not just County Shows at this time of the year, farmers have very specialist shows. The Grassland and Muck Show and Cereals are two events that are very specific to the farming industry. We attend Cereals probably the premier industry organised farming event. Lots of ideas are found, seeds of thoughts planted and free pens for the office gained. Everyone who is anyone in the farming world will be at Cereals and it is a day to carry lots of business cards to save filling out contact details.
If you have never been to these events local or national they are well worth a visit and you will have a great day out as there is something for everyone. BWB

Friday, 20 May 2011

When Farming and Conservation hit head on!

Last week, the odd drop of the wet stuff from the sky has ensured that our herbage grass seed crops have rocketed through their growth stages and have started to set seed and show their seed ears.
The grass seed crops are an important part of our crop rotation as they are left in place for two harvests, so that our soil is not moved in between years.  This allows the soil to rebalance itself and use the high organic matter produced by the grass to increase micro organisms in the soil. It also helps with black grass control because if collections of black grass seed are buried in the soil and left for a year, up to 70% will rot and die.  If left for another year, around another 70% of that 30% left will die as well.
However growing these grass seed crops is not plain sailing.  People say, ‘Well, its just grass! Surely it grows everywhere.’  Yes, this is true, grass does grow in most places but it does all come from a seed in the beginning and we are one of a handful of farmers in the UK growing the first generation grass seed. Growing high purity seed opens many different cans of worms! Seed crops are inspected on a regular basis by specialist grass agronomists for weeds and other rogue grasses. At the end of the year when we dress up the grass for our contracts we have to have it as close to 100% purity as possible. If we drop below 98% purity in a sample, the seed batch will be down-graded and so we lose our price premiums. It only takes 1 or 2 sterile broom or black grass seeds to drop the purity percentage.  With this in mind we have to spot treat any rogue grasses by hand, as there are very limited and expensive chemicals that kill some grasses in other grasses.  Bad areas, if found, have to be mown out so the unwanted rogue grass does not set seed that will contaminate the end sample. Other competitive broad leaf weeds such as docks and ragwort and mayweed are more easily dealt with by more basic chemistry herbicides.
Now is the really tricky time of year for a professional grass seed farm with high wildlife conservation values. With the crops being first generation we have to keep them as pure as possible, so when they start to set ears as ours have done this week, we have reluctantly had to put the mower on the tractor and comply with the DEFRA’s recommendation cross pollination buffer zone. This requires all natural wild grasses to be controlled as best we can around any grass seed crops for a distance of 50m! This wide buffer is required to limit cross pollination of our seed with wild, unwanted, different-strain ryegrasses and reduce the possibility of diseases from wild grasses taking hold in the crop that could reduce the germination of our seeds and affect our plants in the following year. So yesterday, I finished off the mowing around our grass seed crops.  Adjacent road side verges, field verges and conservation grass strips all had to be topped under this very drastic but totally necessary regulation.
At the same time, we have topped all our footpaths for the local residents so they can enjoy the farm but we do ask once again, as this is such an important time of year for nesting birds, that you do keep your dogs under tight control. It only takes one unruly dog to disturb a Grey Partridge on eggs to cause it to abandon that nest.
Mowing at this time of year should only be done if it is required for regulations, as above, or for road safety. Verges have become overgrown and tall with the Cow Parsley and so it is difficult to see oncoming traffic. Real accident hotspots can be mown on request to your local highways officer at the County Council. Grassland at the moment is alive and buzzing with insect life. These insects are the most valuable food source in the year, as so many fledgling birds require insect life as their first meals, brought back to the nest by their parents.
So it was a shame, while driving around our locality, to see ‘recreational’ tractors and mowers topping large areas of rough grassland when it is at its most valuable. It was mind boggling to see this total disregard for grasses, nectar sources, insect life and potentially rare ground nesting birds such as Grey Partridge and Lapwing. I wish everyone would engage their mind and ask, ‘Is it really needed?’, before they engage their blades on the mower. Lawns are the same.  Some like straight lines; we like buttercups, clover, daisies and ground nettles in ours.  Please hold back for a week or two and see the bees and insects enjoy these nectar sources that you have left and you never know what might turn up! We had a pair of Grey Partridges chasing insects on the lawn at Westhorpe last week amongst the buttercups that have been left to bloom! BWB

Friday, 13 May 2011

Now the farm is a movie set!

Over the past couple of days our farm yard and grain store has been taken over by a movie production. A friend from school is Producer for a short feature film and he was looking for a set that looked like a warehouse with enough space to build other temporary scenery in. He came and had a look and within the week we had make up girls, sound crew, lighting, props, runners and extra. Oh and P.H. Moriarty aka 'Hatchet Harry' form 'Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels' standing in the yard.

The film being made is 'The Haunting of Harry Payne' due to be released in the new year.
As you may know we are not camera shy on the farm, however we did all turn down the roll of 'man with throat cut' and 'little Susie'! 

We do some random things on the farm but you never know who may watch it and who may ring you up next time wanting to film here!! BWB

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    

An April of Activity

April has been a fascinating month for the wildlife on the farm with the dry weather giving the whole month a feel of summer. The Oil Seed Rape burst into flower between the 6th and 8th and changed the colour of the whole landscape. Hawthorn and Horse Chestnut have started to blossom as well giving insects and butterflies a plentiful nectar supply.

Hawthorn in flower

A Snakes-Head Fritillary appeared in flower on the village green on the 10th and Lesser Celandine and Marsh Marigolds were flowering about the same time. On the 1st Brimstone Butterflies were spotted at Westhorpe and Great Ashfield and Peacock, Orange Tip and Large White and Small Whites have been about all month. Two Barn Owls were disturbed in the dutch barn on the 1st and evidence suggests that they are regular visitors to and preparing to breed in another one of the boxes on the farm. A Sparrowhawk was hunting through the farmyard on the 3rd and Buzzards were circling over the farm on the 16th and 17th
Marsh Marigolds in Westhorpe
On the 19th I found where the Buzzards are nesting and will keep watching from afar to see if the breed successfully. Little Owls and a Kestrel have occupied the same perch on the wires above the long grass along the farm drive through the month. In the Wheat fields there are very good numbers of Skylarks displaying and singing and Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps have continued to sing through the month. By the 18th the flock of Yellowhammers and Linnet that have been feeding around the lagoon had dispersed to set up their breeding territories and the first Mallard ducklings were at Westhorpe Hall on the 8th. There have been fledgling Blackbirds and Robins seen in the garden and on the bird tables from the 28th.

Passing through this month was a Wheatear (16th), 4 Lapwing (13th) and 2 Greylag Geese (23rd). The most significant bird sightings have been the African migrants arriving and they included Turtle Doves (20th, 21st and 29th), Swallows (6th), Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat and Garden Warbler (20th). A Tawny Owl that I ringed after being accidentally caught in a Laursen trap on 29th Aril 2009 made a surprise reappearance in another trap on 1st May, two years later and was released unharmed. There have been a number of fox sightings about the farm and chicken feathers near the church would indicate they are eating well too. A number of Muntjac have also been spotted regularly. A colony of masonry bees have been excavating their way into our water tower and the first dragonfly of the year, a broad bodied chaser was recorded on the 30th at the Hall. For May we are hoping for a good rain or two to keep the crops growing and plenty of warm weather to maintain the excellent breeding and feeding conditions for many species and keep and eye and ear out for the remaining summer migrants like Spotted Flycatchers, Swifts, House Martins and Hobbys. PJB