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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, 28 February 2012

A Life Time on the Farm

Reg started with horses and ended with 280hp tractors!




Last week Radio Suffolk was out on the farm talking about the populations of farmland birds. This has been a well written about subject in the farming press and some of the national broad sheets. Farmland birds have been in decline since the 1970’s and the BTO and the RSPB have been monitoring this decline. However, some farmers are working hard to slow and reverse the decline. I feel that this can be achieved but we need to look more long term and not expect that the reverse can be done quickly if we want the numbers to return to where they were 30 years ago.
It has taken two generations to lose the large flocks in the countryside, so realistically we should be judging it again in two generations time; however the world we live in has changed dramatically. We expect everything instantly and we get frustrated if things slow us up. The pace of life has ‘snowballed’ out of control and nature has been left behind, some species have adapted, but some, the more specialist species, just haven’t been able to move as quickly as we have.
We had a dear old farm worker called Reg and he retired (for the third time) about six years ago when he was 85. He had worked on this farm all his life for over sixty years. Reg had seen everything through his life and travels. He told stories about shooting crocodiles on the Nile and watching cricketers like Don Bradman and Len Hutton, but he had also seen the ‘snowball’ roll over farming in general. Reg was working on the farm before our family bought it in 1957. Our Grandfather, Eric, bought a very good farm but it was in no way modern for its day and needed improvements to make it productive for a quickly changing industry post war. The natural farmland wildlife must have loved the farm back then, as it was all overgrown, high thick animal-proof hedges to keep the full range of livestock where they should be. Wheat in sheaves was thrashed all through the winter in the yard to be stored in sacks, large field boundary trees, scrubland and loads of grassland for the horses to refuel on before they got worked on the land. Reg worked with hand tools and horses. Then, as our grandfather bought the first tractors, he learnt to use them and by the end of his career, he was driving tractors similar to what we use today. His career spanned everything –  including the infamous farmland bird decline. As I said, Reg loved to tell a good story and I listened as we grew up around the farm but never really put the two together and really thought about our farm and our farmland bird decline. Yet it has happened and it happened everywhere, all over the countryside - bird populations were declining but, why? What were the reasons? What happened through Reg’s life that could so dramatically change the farmland ecosystem to make the specialist bird species dependent upon farmland, nearly disappear?
Below, are a few factors that contributed to the decline in farmland birds. I say contributed - not that one is the cause, but that lots of different decisions made by the Government, the farmer, the industry researchers and the general public have jointly caused the decline that we are working so hard now to reverse.
·         Agri-Chemicals
Not as accurate as today!
This is a big one but the chemicals used to protect and help crops grow have changed the industry. They allow us to control plant diseases and weeds that compete with the crop; we reduce disease and weeds that compete, to make sure yields are maximised. Reg helped to put up our grain store on the farm as the production kept growing year on year. He also applied them using the early sprayers, without protective equipment like we have today. Nowadays, the chemicals go through years of research and development and everything we use is tested for its impact on the ecosystem. This was not the case back in the early days when there was unregulated use, limits could be exceeded and the impact was not known. This had to change and it has. We are governed by many rules and regulations to make sure that the chemicals used today are in no way impacting the wildlife and the consumer adversely but still allow us to maximise the yield potential of our crops.


·         Land Drainage
Not an obvious one but land draining dramatically altered the landscape. By being able to put clay pipes (now plastic) into the soil to allow free draining of water from the soil into ditches, meant that the wet marginal land, which could never be farmed, was brought into the cropping rotation. These areas, before, would have been left as wet boggy corners in paddocks that would have been poached by cattle, making them wetland habitats with sedges and long grass ideal for ground nesting birds like the Lapwing and home to many insects. Reg spent hours working over the whole farm with the old trencher laying these pipes; back breaking work, but the crops soon responded, as the soil was much more workable and the yield increased.
·         Spring to Autumn Cropping
Today, 80% of our land is prepared and sown in the autumn. This is due to plant breeders producing varieties of cereals that could grow for longer and be stronger, due to agri-chemical help through the winter, giving a huge increase in yield. Winter wheat produces average crops of 9-10t/ha whereas spring wheat produces 5-6t/ha crops. This on the back of government pressure to produce more food was a no-brainer for the farmer, especially as the price per ton increased.  
·         Food Safety and a Farming Revolution
Hedges and ditches were removed
The government and the general public after the Second World War did not want the reoccurrence of rationing, so farmers were challenged to be more efficient and maintain higher levels of production. This was helped by Government grant money to remove hedgerows, making the fields larger, to coincide with larger more powerful tractors, as the horse was slowly phased out. The enlargement of fields meant that the landscape was dramatically bulldozed out, losing many miles of hedgerows, ponds and scrub: the entire habitat that was required to maintain a healthy farmland bird population. Farmland landscape is unique, as are the specialist species that inhabit it, so bulldozing out two thirds will have a knock-on effect on those populations dependent upon it. As part of our HLS agreement we planted 4km of hedgerow and Reg laughed when we started planting, as he remembered bulldozing out the hedge that was in the exact same place back in the 60’s, and removing it!
·         Loss of Livestock
Loss of livestock and diversity of livestock has also played its part.  Livestock, with the flies, dung, open food troughs, haystack (home to many small mammals) and huge paddocks of rough grass, gave so much back to wildlife. Reg worked with pigs, sheep, cattle, dairy cows and chickens, all of which were small enterprises at Lodge Farm in his life. Now there is no livestock on the farm and not a dairy herd in Mid Suffolk and only a handful of other pure livestock farms. This means that all the land has been turned over to intensive arable farming using agrichemicals, to create a very sterile monoculture within the countryside. Diversity has been lost in all manner of ways and this is something that is being addressed today with farmers replacing marginal wheat-growing land with rich flowering and seed producing wildlife habitats. 
·         Machinery and Speed of Operations
Machinery developments from the old small vintage tractors that took over from the horse, have happened really quickly. I can remember when our biggest tractor was 120Hp. Now we have our challenger with 280Hp and that is a small tracked tractor in today’s terms! The speed and size of implements that these modern tractors can pull was something that Reg never got his head around. The idea that a combine could harvest 400t of grain in a day was something for him that would have taken all of August to collect with horse and carts. The combines now leave the field and the tractors are straight in behind, turning the soil over, whereas there used to be a month or even a whole winter’s gap which allowed the farmland birds to clear up the spilt seeds and weed seeds. This is now returning with over-wintered stubble options in the environmental schemes but when you’re trying to cover large amounts of land with one tractor, speed is required.  Gone are the days when there were 10 men on the farm, with ten tractors, working on a third of the land we farm today. 
These are only a few decisions, choices, issues and reasons and many others helped. All these factors contributed and their effects sadly went unnoticed by us in regards to farmland biodiversity. The birds, wildflowers, insects and mammals that we took for granted were not adapting as we changed their homes and unique habitats with such speed, all within a lifetime.
Reg was a jack of all trades; he changed as the farm changed: hand tools to horses, to the first tractors, to the modern tractors. He may not have liked it but he adapted to his surroundings and this is what we have found with the bird species on the farm. The jack of all trade birds who can adapt to changes in habitat conditions and climate change have faired better, like the Goldfinch demanding Nyjar seed on all our bird tables now, or the Woodpigeon breeding all year round as we feed it with Oil Seed Rape. (a crop we had to introduce because of our thirst for oil based energy and products). The scavengers like Magpies, Jays, Buzzards and Crows are all pushing their numbers up. Why? Because these are the birds that have a range of nest sites or a varied diet. They have done much better, whereas the specialists, dependent on that mixed farming system, have not adapted and have been left behind as we strive for a quick return in food production or increased efficiency. The Grey Partridge, with its specific diet of insects when it is young, lost the rough grassland provided by the horses and the wet marginal land. The Sparrows and Finches lost the easy access to feed troughs, open grain barns and spilt grain in the fields as machinery became more efficient in collecting the grain. We as consumers wanted our food free of any type of contaminates, as we were scared of possible disease outbreaks, like salmonella. The introduction of tighter regulations meant farmers were inspected to make sure they were living up to the consumers’ demand and we, as farmers, became more aware of the need to be better at business by making every penny count.
It will take a united approach by Farmers, Government, Advisors and the General Public working together and believing that the farmland bird decline can be reversed but it WILL take time. We are already seeing increases on our own farm and I hope that in my life time I will see the huge flocks return. One thing is for sure, I take my hat off to Reg for working so long, changing with the times and adapting to so much change. He definitely deserves to enjoy his third retirement! BWB

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Someone always ruins the fun!

Whilst the remote camera has been out taking videos of the Buzzards feeding and everything else that has been wandering about the food supply has been going down far quicker than 2 Buzzards can possibly manage. Now I have found the culprit...


video

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Valentines Dinner for 2

The remote camera has been out for the last week or so and has delivered some great footage of what is going on when there is no one about. Here, I left out some roadkill and a shot pigeon to see what would fancy it for a meal.
video

The buzzards have been residents of Westhorpe since the Autumn of 2008 and in that time have fledged 3 chicks. They can be seen most days and I have been able to keep a tab on their diet as time has gone on. They are scavengers and eat carrion wherever possible. They have been seen regularly on the occasions where there has been dead Muntjac and Hares on the land. One Muntjac which was found dead on the farm after running into a fence lasted 3 months until they had stripped the carcass completely clean of meat and we were able to watch them feeding every day. Around the nest in the summer there was evidence of Blackbirds, Moorhens, Rabbit, and a Cock Pheasant. Hopefully as we get into the spring the pair will be seen displaying as they start to think about breeding for the 3rd time on the farm but for now keep looking up!


Deals on Wheels in Westhorpe

This week started with BBC Radio Suffolk's roving reporter Luke Deal visiting the farm to do a live report on the state of farmland birds in response to a story that was run on BBC 1 on Inside Out. Luke was on the farm to see whether farmers should be forgetting about conservation management in favour or maximising food production. Whilst we were waiting there was hundreds of birds feeding and the whole are was alive with activity. This shows the benefit of supplement feeding especially as when the snow was on the ground.





http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p00nqvv0/Terry_Baxter_13_02_2012/
Go to 1 hr 25 to hear the full piece.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

All Things That Start With ‘B’

Painted Lady Butterfly & White-tailed Bumblebee
enjoy one of our free nectar sources given by a Thistle!

As I sit in my office all I can think of that begins with ‘B’ is ‘Brrrr’!  Yes, the snow has been on the ground now for a week and it is starting to get a bit boring! On nights of minus six and wind chill of even more, the best place has got to be in front of a log fire that’s kicking out loads of heat, either down the pub with a beer, or at home dreaming of warmer times to come.  I did have one evening flicking through the TV channels and came across a programme on BBC2 called ‘Bees, Butterflies and Blooms’ it was the first of a 3 part series, this really got me thinking about our farm and everyone’s approach to wild flowers and all things beginning with ‘B’!
Bees, Bugs, Butterflies, Blooms and…...Breakfast ingredients? This last ‘B’ is an interesting one as without all the ‘B’s’ listed in front of it we would not have half the food to choose from on our supermarket shelves. The importance of flying pollinators is so misunderstood that we have to start thinking about how we can really give them a helping hand and look after them. It has been stated that every third mouthful of food we eat every day has been created by pollination, by one of our B’s or a B further afield in another country!
Honey Bee enjoying early nectar from a Goat Willow
Widely discussed is the plight of the Honey Bee as the Varroa Mite attacks hives but there are hundreds and hundreds of other pollinators that are in decline and need a helping hand. Different from the Honey bee is the humble Bumblebee, which is another that has been having a really hard time of it. We see them scavenging far and wide over lawns, shrubs and flowering plants but do we know the full life cycle so we can help? To know the ins and outs of a life cycle of all the insects would be pretty impossible but we need to understand and take an interest to help preserve them.
Yes, we as farmers have to stand up and say we need to do more. We have been pushed to become more efficient, make cheaper food and deliver huge amounts of grain to satisfy the demands of government, the general public and the growing world population. All this has been done, we are producing more and more food and we strive to keep the cost down so that food prices don’t become too high but all this cannot happen without something giving. Unfortunately, over the past 50 years, wildlife has suffered but we are working hard to reverse this decline in our country’s biodiversity and a happy medium can be found while maintaining high quality, high yielding crops, as well as benefitting our precious wildlife.  This is something that we on our farm are really passionate about and we know many other farmers are as well, but some have not yet grasped the concept that ‘wall to wall, production, production, production of wheat’ is not the ‘Buzz’ term in Agriculture any more. The ‘Buzz’ in the countryside is returning in the forms of insects. Farmers are starting to do their bit but anyone and everyone can get involved. We all have our part to play, on any scale, small or large.   
One of our areas of Pollen & Nectar Mix
This is the time of year that Patrick and I start to think about our work in the spring with regards to our environmental stewardship. The spring is the time when we plant our giant growing bird tables in the form of Wild Seed Mixes and our larders for insects in the form of Pollen and Nectar producing plants in blocks, which we establish around the farm. All these areas are grown as a crop to make sure that they deliver huge amounts of food for farmland birds, insects and everything that makes our farm its home.
We plant a huge range of plants that all either produce viable seed in the winter or bloom brightly in the summer for long periods, producing huge amounts of sweet sugary nectar for our insects. Things like Phacelia, Mustard, Sunflowers, Clover, Vetches are all found in our mixes and when they are in full bloom the surface is literally moving with insect life: Bumblebees, Solitary Bees, Honey bees, Butterflies, Hover flies, Aphids and then Predatory bugs following along behind.
So what can everyone do on their own patch? As you sit in front of the fire thinking of warm spring days, planning your allotment or vegetable patch or your new flowering border in the garden, spare a thought for the insects that move all the pollen around the countryside. Give them an area in your garden that is purely for them, bursting with flowers delivering loads of nectar, so that they keep doing what they do best!
A Red-tailed Bumblebee
Planning a Bumble Bee buffet does take some thought. They emerge with the warming early rays of spring from their underground layers looking for that first sugar fix around March and keep buzzing all the way through till the cold weather and lack of food forces them back to the safety of their hole. They are a fascinating and unappreciated work force that we as farmers, gardeners and lovers of sweet jam-filled cakes need to know more about. In the office we have a book that I would recommend if you want to know anything about the Humble Bumble, A ‘Field guide to the Bumblebee’ written by Mike Edwards and Martin Jenner is packed full of info and is well worth the £5 to £9 price tag. Natural England also has some great online resources that give some great tips to increase wildlife in your garden, they can be found at http://www.naturalengland.org.uk/advice/wildlifegardening/booklets.aspx .  Do also involve any children in your family in getting to know what they can do to help.  Let them design Bug Hotels – the more weird and wonderful, the better!  They can be made without cost from recycled materials, are fun to make for all ages and mean our insect workforce will have somewhere to hide and rest during next winter.  http://apps.rhs.org.uk/schoolgardening/uploads/documents/making_a_bug_hotel_770.pdf
A change in mind-set needs to be adopted; farmers need to respect and protect wildlife by changing practice; our obsession with keeping every part of our lawns and village greens mown needs to be broken to allow our natural wild flowers to burst back into existence; and the culture of expecting all year round, cheap, out of season food needs to be considered, especially because so much fresh produce is wasted by consumers because it is turns to mush in the bottom of our fridges. Have a thought for the Honey or Bumblebee that pollinated the tomato flower as you throw out the squidgy one left in the fridge, or the leathery apple left in the fruit bowl!              BWB       

Monday, 6 February 2012

The Kverneland Plough


Name:  6 Furrow Kverneland Plough
Operator: Nick Light
Visual Description: A fully mounted bit of equipment that attaches to the back of the tractor. It has a long beam extending away from the tractor, which has 12 (6 on the top and 6 on the bottom) moulded furrows which are large curved bits of metal held by a metal leg. There is a land wheel at the back which is used when in transport on the road, as well as in work. The plough is pulled through the surface of the field and the moulded metal breaks and rolls over the soil, totally inverting it so anything on the surface is buried below the surface left behind.
The Mould board
and smaller Skimmer
on the beam
Size: The length of the beam is about 12m but the beam is offset at an angle from the tractor, so that each of the 6 furrows pulled in the ground during work actually turns over the exactly the same amount of soil as its neighbour, therefore the working width is about 7ft wide. It has two rows of 6 furrows top and bottom to increase work rates because at the end of a pull up the field the tractor turns the plough over which reverses the plough 180 degrees and the furrows keep turning the soil in the same direction as the operation moves across the field. The furrow depth is set by the operator, depending on the soil conditions and the amount of unwanted, post harvest material that is left on the surface.   
Work rate: Ploughing is traditionally very slow but as the size of tractors has increased, the ploughs have followed suit with extra furrows being added, making them larger and larger. Some of the largest ploughs now have 20+ furrows but you need a huge tractor and a huge area to turn around in – and a huge area for it to cover each year. Our plough pulled by our Fendt 820 will cover on average 12-15ha a day depending on headlands and field size. 
Controls: The art is in setting the plough up correctly. Once this is done and the beam is level, the furrows are all level and being pulled at the correct depth, there is not much to alter or which can be altered from the seat of the tractor. The skimmers are a set of mini furrows that just scrap the soil surface before the main furrow, helping to turn over the stubble, so that it is buried deep down in the bottom of the main furrow following it. The trusted spanner is the chief way that this item is controlled or adjusted. Only one hydraulic spool valve is used to rotate the plough over to keep all the soil being moved in one direction. 
Cost: The costs for this machine are varied. We have the main outlay of about £15,000 for a new 6 furrow model but the real costs are in the wearing parts. Wearing parts are all the parts of any machine that are in contact with the soil as it is pulled through the ground. There is a lot of friction caused and this makes the metal wear away as the pressure builds up. The plough has been designed with replaceable points, shins and mould boards so that you have to replace minimal amounts of parts but the high pressure parts get replaced more frequently. Diesel and time are high costs as well; the fuel usage is expensive as you are moving all the soil on the field to a depth of 8-10inches, so the engine of the tractor burns a lot of diesel in this process. It is also a slow process, due to the speed you can pull and the width of the machine. The old saying of ‘the shallower you move the soil, the quicker and cheaper it is,’ comes to mind!
Jobs it does on the farm:  So what does it actually do and why has it been the farmer’s traditional implement to use straight after harvest for generations? It does two things really well. Firstly, it buries all the old stubble waste material left after harvest. This is what we call ‘trash’: unwanted plant material left by the combine. If left, it will allow pests like aphids and slugs to survive, which will attack the new crop to be grown. It also becomes damp and difficult to work in wet winters, of which we have not had one for a while but we are due one! So, by burying it, we turn over new soil which is easier to work in preparing a seed bed. Also, mixed in this plant material there maybe some weed seeds shed throughout the previous year. Grass weeds like Black Grass can shed 100 seeds from each of its 8-9 heads, so you could have 900 small unwanted seeds from each plant. Some may germinate before the plough turns them over, so will die covered in the depth of soil but if they have not germinated they get buried. The seed then sits deep down in the soil and will not have a chance to germinate, lying dormant, but as they do, the soil moisture starts to rot them and kills them before they ever have a chance to be brought up to the light by subsequent cultivations. Research shows that 60% of seed buried by the plough does not survive, so if 10% germinates before ploughing and another 60% dies in the soil we are starting to manage our 900 seeds quite well, as we only have 30% left. This is why it has been used for generations. It was the only cultural control for farmers against weeds before the development of agri chemicals such as our vast array of herbicides. So secondly, we use the plough for that reason today, giving us a cultural natural kill on unwanted weed seed. Because of new machinery, like the SL400 Cultivator, we do not have to keep turning the soil over each year and so the killing or rotting of seed is extended to two, three or even four years, reducing the pressure of needed success from herbicides. Some farmers love, and some farmers have discarded, the plough; we like a flexible approach between the plough and minimal soil movement techniques, so we are not relying on one system too much, in what might turn out to be the wrong year.