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.
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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.
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Starting 2017, some rebuilding to be done!

The last half of 2016 much of our non farming time was spent repairing an old barn, initially for a private party in December, but with a potential long term view of having a venue to let out for events, parties and weddings.

The work went very well, with David who has worked on the farm since 1976 doing most of the work. By 10th December the barn looked a picture, all lit up and a wonderful party was had by all until during the last song was playing at 2am when one of the heaters which had been keeping the barn brilliantly warm all night somehow caused a fire to start, everyone was quickly evacuated as the fire took hold. The fire brigade arrived in force with six engines on farm within half an hour, the fire was extinguished by 03:30, but not before all the hard work of the previous six months had be terminally undone. So 2017 has started with insurance companies visiting to sort out the aftermath, and hopefully very soon we will start the process of removing the sad remains and then the job of rebuilding can begin.
From THIS
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To THIS

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Then to THIS
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The anticipation of the next picture in this timeline is our big hope and excitement for the year ahead.

Harvest review 2016

Harvest 2016 review

With radical change (see Time for a change?) comes challenges. This our first full season of No-till farming has been a challenge. The weather through the growing season has not been ideal for much except slugs through last autumn, winter and early spring. We had problems with slugs reducing plant populations in some crops, most notably our later drilled (planted) Spring barley on heavy clay ground and Winter Wheat following Oilseed rape.
That said we have had some successes our best yielding Winter Wheat was also our cheapest to grow, this was in a field which has now been No-till for 3 years. Due to not moving any soil we have not germinated the weed seeds so very little herbicide was needed, the slugs did not cause too much trouble in this field either.
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We have been trailing a different header on the combine, called a stripper header. This as the name suggests strips the grains out of the ear, leaving the straw standing,instead of baling and removing the straw and with it many nutrients or chopping it and leaving a mulch which attracts slugs. This Stripper header has been a real success and our Cross Slot drill has worked really well in behind the combine, the real test will be whether the slugs are better or worse this next winter where we have used the stripper header or where we have used our normal header and chopped the straw. The hope and reasonable theory is that by leaving the straw standing the slugs will have less of a wet mulch in which to live and breed, which the chopped straw provides.
Our cover crops (crops grown to protect and feed the soil over winter) have been planted close behind the combine to allow them to capture as much sunlight as possible, we often had the drill in the same field as the combine, trying to achieve a 5 minute fallow!
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The Spring Barley yields have been a little disappointing this year, which has pointed to some errors in the early stages of our tradition to no-till; in March we had perfect ground conditions to plant, but held off as the soil was not warm enough (the little that we drilled then yielded best) the weather then turned wet and we ended up “muddling” some barley in later in April in wetter conditions. We also are very keen to plant into live cover crops and terminate them at the same time, this year that had the effect of the decaying plants locking up nutrients that the germinating barley needed.
The weather this harvest has been generally helpful with a good dry August allowing us to get a lot of the harvest done without spending too much on drying the grain, though the last few fields got delayed by some frustrating weather in early September.
This brings us to our next new thing, this year we have modified our grain handling systems, the old grain dryer, elevators and conveyors were approaching 40 years of age and it was all getting a little tired! So the decision was taken last winter to upgrade our set up. Designed and built by Trevor Nash of Nash Grain Systems, with an Alvan Blanch “Continuous double flow” grain dryer lowered into an old grain store (which got a new roof). All went pretty much to plan with the plant commissioned the day we started the Winter Wheat harvest!

Whilst we have been planting the cover crops this summer it has been noticeable that the drill is going into the ground more easily, the soil is more friable and there are many more worm casts! All of which points towards the soil improvements that we are looking for in changing the system.
So what has in some ways been an uninspiring harvest for many this year, with some average to disappointing yields and low commodity prices close to the cost of production, for us it has been a busy, interesting harvest with lots of things going on and lots to learn! We had a great harvest team who worked tirelessly to get things done, Thanks to them all Robin, David, Mark and Lotte!
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The drier being lowered into the barn easier this year.

Time for a change

The Hosier family have been farming at Wexcombe (near Burbage) for nearly 95 years, in that time the farming practices have been continually evolving.  This process continues with a new evolution: whilst researching a replacement seed drill, I discovered that there was an increasing number of British farmers experimenting with “No-Till or Zero-Till” farming and “Cover Cropping”.  This involves no ploughing or cultivating to prepare the soil for planting.
The main driving force behind the changes I am making revolve around improving the soils across our farm.  Over the last 50 years of increasingly intensive agriculture, the soil has been seen as a less important asset, as any deficiency could easily be replaced with the addition of artificial inputs.  I feel that if we can improve or ‘Regenerate’ our soils we will see a reduction in artificial inputs (one of our largest costs), and an increase in productivity.
 Sadly this is not just as simple as going out and buying a new drill that will plant direct into the previous crops’ stubble, there has to be a whole system change.  This system change involves four pillars:
 
1.    Do not move the soil
We will therefore not till the ground (plough or cultivate) and not disturb the soil, so that the worms and microbiology soil can thrive.  The worms help improve the structure and drainage of the soil.  Previously lost soil organic matter (carbon) can now build up over time and not be lost to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.
2.    Change our cropping rotation
Increasing the amount of spring sown crops and lengthening the gap between crops will help to reduce the risk of diseases and weeds.  It will improve the diversity of roots in the soil, which helps increase soil biology, as well as attracting a more varied wildlife to the farm.
3.    Keeping a live root growing in the soil at all times
This will feed the worms and microbiology in the soil.  We will achieve this by growing “Cover (or catch) crops”, whenever we don’t have a cash crop growing.  These cover crops will be mixes of different species of plant to increase soil biodiversity.  They will also carry out some of the ‘cultivations’ for us with the roots breaking up compacted soils.  The cover crops help to reduce soil erosion by slowing down the rain drops as they fall to the ground.  They also have the effect of adding organic matter to the soil.
4.    Integrate livestock back into the arable system
Grazing our cover crops with cattle and sheep will bring livestock back onto fields which have not been grazed for over 30 years.  They will help to break down plant material and excrete readily available nutrients for the next cash crop.
We have bought a new seed drill.  It is a New Zealand designed system called “Cross Slot” and it is being built here in England.  The drill has a disc which cuts through any crop residue on the surface and places the seed in an air pocket below the surface at a predetermined depth.  It is all done in one tractor “pass” - saving a lot of fuel and time.  Under our old system to prepare and plant a field would have taken four tractor “passes”.
Earlier this month I went to a meeting of like-minded farmers, hosted by Primewest, the importers of Cross Slot drills and manufacturer of our drill.  We had some very good discussions about No-till, crop rotations and cover crops.  We then visited an empty grain store where our drill is being built.  We should take delivery early February, ready for spring planting in March.