February 2020 Trip to Australia

February 2020

So the wettest Autumn in my farming lifetime is continuing on into the Winter months! This wet weather continues with the backdrop of the horrific fires in Australia. A country I have just returned from visiting and although fortunately I saw very little first hand evidence of the fires, we heard horrific stories from those affected. Almost the most chilling conversation I had was with a farmer who told me that their bush fire season is normally February and March and we were only in December, with the country ablaze. There can be no doubt that the climate is changing the world over.

We flew to Australia on an Airbus A380. These massive planes carry approximately 500 passengers and use 330,000 litres of fuel for a one way flight to Melbourne. That is over 9 years’ worth of fuel use on our farm, during which time we would produce wheat for 23 million loaves of bread, barley for 152 million pints of beer, peas for 700,000 cans of mushy peas and 500 cattle for prime, grass fed beef. Now I am not for one second saying that farming is perfect or that no one should travel in aeroplanes but within the farming industry there is a feeling that we are being singled out as the bad guys in the whole Climate Change Debate when actually we all need to look at our personal carbon footprint and all make little changes to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels; reduce travel (or swap the car for the train where possible), reduce food waste (as a nation we throw away 1/3 of the food purchased), buy local to cut down food miles, reuse/repair more and recycle more. If we all do a little it will start to add up!

Back at home on the farm, everything is still very wet, so much so that some of our cattle have had to come into the barns, to spare the land from being churned up by the animals’ hooves and to give them a break from the wind and rain. On the arable (crops) side of the business nothing is going to happen until the ground dries up significantly, at which point we will get very busy planting; not only on the land that we planned Spring crops for but also that which missed out in the Autumn due to the weather. There is some extra decision making to do, due to the wet Autumn, there is an expectation that much more Spring Barley will be planted across the countryside this year, which will drive down prices. How much Barley do we plant, and what else do we plan for land not yet planted? One factor which will affect this decision making will be how soon we are able to plant the crops, some like Spring Barley and Beans like to go in early, whereas Linseed, Peas and Lupins still perform well if planted later.

Fingers crossed we get a spell of dry weather and those in Australia get some of the wet weather from us!

Below are a couple of contrasting farms, the dry paddocks of a farm we visited north of Melbourne and a picture of our cattle the mist on our return.


Farm Safety Week

Harvest has just started with the Winter Barley, always our first crop. It has been a good year for the Winter Barley, it had a good start last Autumn and this Spring and early Summer had sun and rain almost exactly when required. The quality seems good and due to the lovely dry weather recently we harvested it in perfect conditions and didn’t need to dry the crop prior to storage. This year, unlike last year, there is now a bit of a gap before anything else will be ready for harvesting, we may be waiting about a fortnight before the next crop, which could be Oilseed Rape or Spring Barley. Therefore, the next few weeks will be a time to try and get ahead with other jobs that get put off during the madness of harvest.

This week has been “Farm Safety Week”, a national campaign to try to improve the safety record of our industry which is sadly languishing near the bottom of many a safety league table. Coincidentally we also had a visit from a Health and Safety advisor. This has been a very interesting process and highlighted a few issues I was completely unaware of and provided solutions for others. Farming accounts for 1% of the national workforce and yet is responsible for 22% of workplace fatalities (Source: HSE). This is a shocking statistic, one that, as an industry we must work hard to put right. Farming has undergone many changes over the last 100 years, not least increasing efficiencies through mechanisation. Tractors have replaced horses and subsequently got bigger and bigger, the workforce has shrunk as margins have tightened. Add to this the variety of jobs undertaken in isolation by many farmworkers around the country working long hours, often under time pressure, or the threat of an impending change in weather and the reasons for the poor safety record begin to reveal themselves. The solutions are not always obvious but some small tweaks can make a huge difference. Touch wood our safety record here is pretty good, but it is very important that we are not complacent and move forwards with safety a high priority, especially at this busy time of harvest.


On a lighter note, I gave an interview this week to BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today about our No-Till System as part of their week focusing on cereal production. It was aired at 0545 on Thursday 18th and 0630 Saturday 20th July for those who may wish to listen back click

Hopefully we will continue to enjoy some warm, sunny and dry weather as we move into August. Harvest should really get going and all the schools will have broken up, ready to enjoy the Summer holidays.

July 2019; Be careful what you wish for!

Be careful what you wish for!
Many farmers and gardeners spent the end of May doing rain dances, now we are in a period of seemingly endless rain days we’ve measured rain on 10 of the last 12 days. Though luckily not on the scale that some further north where they have had three of four months rainfall in a week, leading to serious flooding many fields of crops. The rain has been very welcome, hopefully the sun will now come out to help our crops flower and fill out to fulfil their potential.
One Sunday in the middle of June I had an early morning phone call, our three bulls were found by the police on the Fairmile road at 4 o’clock in the morning. Their field gate had been opened and not shut, this is frustrating and potentially very dangerous, luckily this time no harm was done this time. Our bulls are very docile and were probably minding their own business lying down in the corner of the field, anyone walking in the field probably never saw them and thinking the field was empty left the gate open. The crucial message from this is a plea to always leave all gates as you find them, they could have been left open on purpose by the farmer, but if in doubt please do close them.

Walking the bulls back to their field in the daylight!

June tends to be a relatively quiet month on the farm as the crops approach harvest time and the cattle are moving quietly around the farm grazing and growing. This has become the time for meetings and conferences in the farming calendar, I was invited to Westminster to a “Celebration of Rural Business” this is an event organised by the Country Land and Business Association to get rural business people together with MPs to discuss our needs. There was a lot of talk of 4G and broadband connectivity as well as a lot of farming talk on how best to move agricultural policies forward after Brexit and in view of climate change. The day was really interesting and enjoyable. The Palace of Westminster is an incredible place (even covered in scaffolding) and to walk through the central lobby at 6pm filled with journalists filing their reports on the Tory leadership battle, which was in full swing, was interesting!
My visit to Parliament was followed a week later by a trip to
Groundswell which is an agricultural show based around promoting soil health through the use of Conservation Agriculture. There were some inspiring speakers and thought provoking discussions throughout the two day event, my only disappointment was that I was only able to go for one day this year.
All the farms in the parish are looking to join together with many more between here and Hungerford to create a “Farmer Cluster” group to work together and provide wildlife and environmental benefits on a landscape scale rather than just doing our own thing on our patch. This is something which has been done extremely successfully locally on the Marlborough downs over the last few years. Hopefully we can have a similar impact here within our community, I will try to keep you informed as this develops over time.

May 2019

As I sit here writing this the sun is shining, the birds are singing, I heard the cuckoo calling this morning and the swifts have returned from their Winter away. Summer seems just around the corner.

We go into the Summer with all of our crops looking well. Last Autumn was kind to the crops with mild weather and not too wet. This Spring has been a complete turn around from last year, with March last year very wet and the “Beast from the East”, which meant that planting was delayed by nearly 6 weeks. This year has seen much kinder weather and so our crops, Spring Barley and Peas have been planted in good time and in perfect conditions, we have also been lucky to get just enough rainfall when the crops have needed it. This is definitely unusual to find a farmer who is not complaining about the weather… it won’t last I am sure!

Our cows have finished calving and are out grazing and moving their way around the farm. We keep them in one big group and split our fields up into small paddocks which will provide them enough food for two days. We then move them on every two days. The cows do not return to graze the same grass for around 60 days allowing plenty of recovery time, for the grasses.

Our sheep have moved on to pastures new, so that I can focus more time and effort into the cows, growing the herd over the next couple of years.

A new addition on the farm are some bee hives which a local beekeeper has introduced to help pollinate our flowering crops and produce some honey.

We have many areas across the farm which are managed to encourage wildlife to thrive. One of these is an area of bare ground which is managed to encourage waders, such as lapwing and stone curlew, this is being monitored by the RSPB and they have already seen evidence of successful nesting of both target species this year.

Farmers enjoy seeing people out walking, running and riding on their farms. Please help us by keeping to marked footpaths and by keeping dogs under close control, better still on a lead. Young animals, both livestock (especially lambs) and wildlife (particularly ground nesting birds like the lapwing and stone curlew) are very vulnerable to overzealous dogs.

Soil Health day

On Thursday 19th January Catchment Sensitive Farming (CSF), Innovation for Agriculture and Action for the River Kennet (ARK) help a farmer meeting here on the farm to discuss cover crops and soil health. The day started with a quick trip around the farm to look at some of our cover crops growing in the field and to discuss our move over the last three years to a No-Till system incorporating cover crops and crop rotation changes. Seeing how soil health is starting to change and improve, with signs like worm casts increasingly obvious.
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We then moved inside, to hear about some research work being carried out by CSF into the effects of cover crops on nutrient leaching and river pollution, which is showing some expected but pleasing results. This was then followed by the main event. Stephen Briggs and Georgia Eclair-Heath from Innovation for Agriculture talking about soil health. IMG_0512
Concentrating mainly on the link between healthy soil biology, its interaction with plants and how to improve the link. Stephen who is an organic farmer and soil scientist spoke with enthusiasm and knowledge which kept 47 farmers and land managers interested and we all away with a far greater understanding of what goes on below ground in our fields, but well aware that there is so much that we do not yet know and how much more there is to understand about the world below our feet. Learning the importance of the whole “soil food web” and the likes of Mycorrhizal fungi.
Meanwhile the sheep are still grazing cover crops, while the spring calving cows have come into the sheds ready for calving to start within the next couple of weeks.