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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 July 2012

Make hay while the sun shines!

A full week of work in the herbage grass fields for everyone on the farm has just finished. The hot sunshine made it a very busy week with harvesting, hay making and a wildlife surprise!

The special fingers on our Stripper Header
We started harvesting the grass seed using our combine with its specialist header called a 'stripper' header. This is designed not to cut the plant stalks but to use specially designed fingers to lift the stalks and strip the seed off each stem as the header passes over it. It has revolutionised the grass seed harvest that used to be a struggle cutting the crops directly with a conventional header table. Now, with the new header, what took us 8 days with two smaller combines, takes just over 3 days with one! The seed is then taken quickly to the farm where it is put on a special floor that blows lots of air through it to reduce the temperature of it and dry out the remaining moisture. We level it out so that the crop dries evenly and we are not left with any wet spots or hot spots. The crop yielded really well but considering the wet spring it was a perfect year to grow grass as your lawn cutting regime will testify!

The side mounted mower
Once the combine gets started the hay making process begins. The grass stalks are mown with a disc mower; this is 2.8m wide and is mounted to one side of the tractor so you don't run the grass flat on the floor as you do it, making it difficult to cut low down. This is then spread out over the field by another machine called a 'tedder'. It has rotating sections which pick up the cut grass and throw it about. It is 7.7m wide, so we can cover a large area quickly. This teddering is done 2-3 times over a period of two or three days, allowing the heat of the sunshine and wind to dry all the moisture out of the hay. 

The Rake
Once the hay crop on the ground is dry, the decision to row it up and bale it is made. This involves another machine called a 'rake', which scrapes the hay up into a row by using a number of tined arms that pull the hay to one side against a partition. Once in rows it is ready to be baled. The baler picks up the row and compacts it inside a chamber within the machine that packs it tightly before two strands of string are looped around the whole cuboid and tied up by a mechanical knotter. 
The baler and sledge

The bales are then pushed out by the next bale being made and they fall out of the back onto a mechanical sledge pulled behind the baler, this arranges the bales into eights by a continuously moving belt floor that drags them quickly off the baler down different passages. This triggers levers to open other passages for the next bale. It lines them up in two rows of four and then the last lever triggered by the eighth bale releases the back gate and the eight bales drop out on to the floor. We put them into eights as they are much easier to handle in vast numbers. The two loaders on the farm have an attachment that picks up the eights by a set of claws that grab the bales and so we can pick up and load trailers with these eights or make stacks in the field. Most of the hay bales are sold to local horse owners and pet owners that feed it to their animals throughout the year. As the old saying goes, 'Make hay while the sun shines', as this is so important and the sun makes the whole process much easier and the quality of the final product really good for safe storage in lots of different stable blocks. If it is too damp the hay can start to warm and cook itself. This can ruin the quality and in really bad cases can actually catch fire if left undiscovered!  

All the different activities took place on the farm over the past week then, on Friday, the sun never came out and so hay making was stopped. This gave me a chance to go and check the other variety of grass we have left to combine. The grass is not ready to harvest but it is proving a great hunting ground for this Short Eared Owl that I finally caught up to with my camera! BWB

Thursday, 19 July 2012

The Perils of a WET Harvest!

Well, it is the second half of July, normally a time of sun, heat hazes, cricket and the anticipation of the dust monster rolling out into the crops to start harvest; however, this year, it is more like rain, central heating on, ducks - and the anticipation of a mud monster once we get in the fields!
Harvest is such a great time of year, reaping the fruit of a full year’s work but the weather plays such an important part in a happy and smooth harvest. The sun is the key. Without this, the crops stand or lay wet in the fields, making it almost impossible for the combine to do its job of separating the seed from the stalk. We have to harvest the crops when they are dry, so that they store safely in the sheds on the farm. If they come in wet, then we have to spend money on drying them by burning diesel or LPG gas in giant hot air burners that heat up the grains on special floors. This is an extra expense that farmers don’t want - and our carbon footprint does not need! The sun is the best dryer; it is free and does it far quicker than we ever could, with the help of the gentle summer breezes.  If the crop is not dry then we have problems like mould and pest infestations as the heaps of grain warm up and the mountains of corn can be deemed totally useless for their intended market.

So, apart from wet grain and the headaches of keeping it in best conditions in store, what are the other perils of a wet harvest?

I have mentioned the problem of the grain sample quality going into the combine, being wet, but there are other problems associated with crops staying wet in the field before the combine gets to them. Mould on the ear and a build up of micro toxins in the grains are very real and unavoidable problems. This means that any grain destined for a feed market, both animal and human, will need to be tested for the levels of these micro toxins caused by mould growth. We cannot stop this toxin build-up; only the sun can.
Once the grain is dry enough to combine, we start having problems with this operation. The top of the plant and the grain dries quicker, so the stalk is damper as the moisture moves up out of the top soil. The combine driver has to keep checking all the settings of the combine, making sure good grain is not wasted and thrown out of the back, either still on the stalk or off the back of the sieves within the combine.  We also have to consider the straw left by the combine. If it is a wet year, most farmers will just chop the straw coming out of the combine, so instead of leaving it in a raised row to be baled for use in the livestock sector, it is smashed up and spread over the field like a carpet. This is then known as ‘trash’ on the field and that brings another problem in wet years as one of our main pests, the slug, loves to live in this wet mulch of ‘trash’, causing problems in establishment of next year’s crop later on in the autumn. Slugs have a population boom in these favourable conditions for their life cycle. The ’trash,’ if wet, also makes any early cultivation very hard, as it does not flow through the machinery very well and does not mix into the soil properly. This then alters our soil management for the preceding crop, making it more time consuming to prepare stale seed beds which is our main weapon against grass weeds.
Disposal of the stalks and stubble can be difficult

Soil management is not just ‘trash-’, pest- and weed- control. Wet soil is much more prone to structural damage. Rutting and compaction will be a serious problem this year, due to the wet soil on the surface. A combine tank holds 10t of grain, which, added to the 25t weight of the machine, means we have somewhere around 35t of weight driving over every field at a spacing of 9m! Our combine has huge tyres on it to try and spread the weight out over the surface, to reduce the chance of compaction, but it can be unavoidable. This is why some combines are now built with rubber caterpillar belts to create an even bigger footprint to spread out the weight.  The tractors and trailers will cause similar problems, pushing the soil down under their weight, especially when full of grain. This leaves deep structural problems under the surface, which, if it is not rectified by deep cultivation, will mean that the roots of the next year’s crop won’t break through this compacted layer of soil. The roots will then grow sideways and not down, making for weaker plants, as they fight for root moisture, nutrients and space throughout next year. This means expense to the farmer because, as a general rule of thumb, the deeper the cultivation the more horsepower required and the more money it costs to do it.
Some times waterlogged soil can give way totally! 

Mud on roads could also be an extra problem this harvest. Dragging mud onto the road is a danger to us and you the general public, so we have to prevent mud build-up off the fields. All our tractors will have a spade on them to scrape the worst of it off the road but still please be careful when driving during harvest, if the soil is wet. Please keep an eye out for mud and slow moving vehicles, we don’t do it on purpose and are only trying to do our job, so a bit of patience would be much appreciated.

Our own patience is another thing we have to consider. Hanging on to let the sun work is better sometimes than racing in and cutting too early, but this means that when it is fit to combine it will be ‘all hands to the pump’. Long hours on the seat can mean tired minds and body. Stress of harvest is guaranteed in the best of years but even more in wet ones.  Weather watching and forecast predicting becomes a full time science and this also makes farmers first class moaners when the weather doesn’t do what it was predicted to do.
Farmers are renowned for moaning about the weather and the price of the crops; however, this is one thing that a wet harvest does help with! On the back of wet weather here, droughts in Australia, floods in Russia, frosts in Canada earlier this year and now the USA being hit with climate problems too, it has driven prices up and commodity investors see a possible short fall in supply. Our final load of wheat left from last year was sold at an all-time farm record of £208/t. David has only seen wheat prices hit over £200, 5 times in his life - all in the past 7 years. World food demand is huge as our world population spirals out of control. Unfortunately, this will be passed to the consumers as higher food prices and we will be hit by crop input rises, as manufacturers jump on the back of these prices.

Sadly, soon your breakfast cereal will be too expensive to buy - but your milk will be cheaper than what it costs to produce, as the supermarkets have hit the UK dairy industry with another 2p/pint cut, but that is another story that will - and has - pushed my grumpy stress levels through the roof!
Fingers crossed for the Gulf Stream to move north and fill our skies with high pressure and sunshine to make it a slightly easier harvest. It is going to be difficult but we can only do what we can, when the conditions are right. Make sure you give us a wave or a toot while we are in the fields to make certain we are awake!      BWB

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Crop Sprayer

This year has been a tricky mix of disease and weeds. The high pressure has meant that the use of pesticides has been unavoidable to maintain potentially high yields into harvest.
Protected operator adding high concentration
chemical to the water in tank.
The machine that is used to apply these expensive products is called a crop sprayer (pictured). It is a very detailed piece of machinery that accurately applies the right amount of chemical to the target part of the plant towards which the operator is aiming. Ours is a self propelled sprayer so has its own engine to move it, but you can get different ones that are pulled or mounted on the back of tractors depending on your needs, crops grown and your budget!

The design in theory is very simple. Firstly, a large water tank in the middle that the chemical is added to via an induction bowl at the back. This tank has a pump that circulates the fluid to make a consistent solution. The sprayer has a set of folding booms: ours are 24m wide but some new models have booms of 36m or more. Along the booms, run pipes from the tank that have outlets regularly spaced along them. These outlets have specialist controls and nozzles which do a particular job in releasing the fluid, under the control of the operator on the seat.
The 24m booms open out horizontally for safety so power
lines are not touched by them.
The operator can open the outlets as he drives along, we have 7 sections on our boom so we can shut or open 3.5m at a time. This reduces any over-lapping or under-dosing of the crop. The operator has a computer on board which measures pressure, forward speed, tank level, area covered etc. The computer adjusts the water flow out of the nozzles to make sure that the application of the chemical and water mix is constant over the whole area. We normally apply between 100 and 200 litres of water, mixed with chemical, to each hectare of the individual crops. The chemicals used in the cans are of very high concentration, therefore the operator needs to be trained and protected when handling them out of the special secure store on the farm. Once they are added to the 3000L of water in the tank they become diluted to the desired concentration as determined by the chemical company to do the best job of controlling the weed, pest or disease.

Each chemical that makes it to general sale on farms has had millions of pounds and years of detailed research done on it to make sure it is safe to be used on crops, around humans and has no adverse effect on the environment.  The chemicals under most people’s kitchen sinks are of higher concentrations and more dangerous to the environment than anything we store on the farm - and we have to be trained to use ours!

The sprayer must be maintained to high standards and is the only piece of farm machinery that needs to be tested each year by law. It has an MOT for road worthiness and application of chemicals each year; if it fails, it cannot be used on the farm until it is re-inspected following repairs.

The sprayer applies the chemical solution by producing a line of water droplets out of the nozzles that hit the plant or soil, the nozzles are designed to produce different size droplets of solution so that the farmer gets best use of the chemical. The problem is, that the small droplets can get blown by wind. This is call spray drift and is a problem to the industry. As farms become bigger and labour becomes less on farms, operators are increasingly asked to spray larger areas and they physically cannot cover the areas needed, so they start to compromise on what weather conditions in which they can spray, to make sure they cover all the crops. This means that incidents of drift have become a real problem, so the chemical manufactures have invested in new technology to help reduce drift. The nozzles used to be fairly simple and as the solution was forced through it, it would produce a flat fan of droplets going straight down into the crop. These were ok but the droplet sizes were small and irregular, so the smaller ones drifted off. Now, on our sprayer, we have special nozzles called air induction or bubble jets. These nozzles, at point of release, fill each droplet with air to create a larger heavier droplet. This reduces drift by being heavier but, on impact with the crop, the bubble pops and the chemical solution sprays out to cover the target area of the plant. So one large droplet becomes lots of smaller ones on impact in the safety of the crop canopy and not on anyone’s prize winning roses in a neighbouring garden!
Our Sprayer has three different Nozzles that can be chosen
depending on the target droplet required.
With every application of a chemical, a full traceability record is kept on the farm. Each field has a full record of what has been applied and when. This is done by a work sheet being produced by the farmer and his crop doctor advisor who guides him on how to keep the crops clean of unwanted weeds, pests and disease. The work sheet is then given to the operator who picks the best weather conditions to go and apply the right chemical to the right field. On completion of the job, the operator fills in the date, time, soil conditions; weather conditions; temperature and area covered for the job and then signs it, so that if any problems occur we can trace back a problem to an operation. On the farm we also have a weather station that takes and records all weather conditions on the farm, this helps the operator to predict the current and short term weather as well as backing up the climate conditions of each day, to help with any traceability of problems that could have been caused chemical drift.  Drift is something we and all farmers take very seriously, as it can not only cause damage to sensitive habitats but it is also our pound coins drifting off out of the field which is the target area for which it was bought.  In the last 12 months, we have bought over £100,000 pounds worth of chemicals that have all been applied by the crop sprayer.  It’s an expensive bill and that is why we want to apply it in the optimum conditions by a well maintained, highly advanced machine and secondly we need to keep it in the field where it benefits us and our business. 

The crop sprayer is an important and well used machine on our farm and all farms but chemical control of pests, weeds and disease is not sustainable and that is why it needs to be viewed as the last resort. Cultural controls like different cultivations to kill weeds, crop rotations and choice of which varieties of crop to grow, all play their part in reducing that expensive bill. This year has been a difficult one but who knows what climate change has in store for us next year and beyond!  One thing is for sure, crop sprayers play a massive part in making sure we all are fed each day.        BWB

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Giant Bird Tables

Every spring areas of our farm is sown with a seed mix totally devoted to farmland birds. These area Patrick and myself call giant bird tables, they do what the name suggests produce huge amounts of seed throughout the hungry gap in winter when natural seed sources in the hedgerows and around the fields have been exhausted. We sow a mix of seed in plots of about 2-3 football pitches located close to natural habitats like hedgerows and woods to give the farmland birds some protection while they forage for the seed. This short video is of Richard Barnes from King Conservation Seed Company explaining the different plants that get sown in the mixes.


We think that these mixes are and will deliver huge amounts of seed for the birds and help to reverse the decline in populations we have seen in Farmland birds since the 1970's as explained in this film.