Mon, 04 Jan 2021
Eleanor Gilbert is on a mission – she wants to educate people about farming in the 21st century. Currently in her first year at Harper Adams Agricultural University in Shropshire, Eleanor regularly goes home to Rookery Farm, Newbury, to help out. Here she explains how the farm readies itself for the winter months.
2020 was a year most people want to forget – including farmers.
The wet winter and dry spring resulted in a very poor harvest. This may cause prices to rise for your loaf of bread or bag of flour, as the UK will need to import more grain to feed the nation. This in itself will be interesting when we as a nation start to negotiate trade deals with countries from all over the world following Brexit.
The UK wheat production is expected to be less than 10 million tonnes in 2020, much lower than the average of 15 million tonnes and significantly less than the 16 million tonnes we harvested in 2019.
There was also a shortage of hay and straw in 2020 as the crops did just not grow as we had hoped. Straw merchants from across the country were scrambling to buy straw the moment it was baled and were going direct to fields and loading their lorrys there to ensure their supply.
Power stations normally purchase hundreds of thousands of tonnes of straw to burn, but livestock farmers will also need to access this product to feed and bed animals, so you may see farmers finding alternative feed and bedding solutions as they just don’t have the profit margin to pay higher prices for a resource that may become expensive because it is in short supply.
So, what’s been happening on the farm?
As soon as the linseed, winter barley, oil seed rape, winter wheat etc were in the shed, farmers across the country were busy preparing their land ready for drilling – sowing/planting – to give the crops the best start.
I went out soil testing the fields with agronomist Andrew Stilwell, who advises on crop nutrition. We walked in a W shape across the fields we were testing – in order to get the best samples – collecting soil to send off to the labs.
We are testing for major and minor nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, iron, boron, copper, manganese and magnesium.
The results will then be sent back to the farm so we can see what the soil is lacking andoverlay them with the GPS yield data from the combine harvester – sharing the data from two different sources to find the best and worst-performing areas of the field – this will help us target the inputs more precisely.
We test each field every three years to give us an indication of what it needs and what has been taken or put into the soil from the previous crops over the years.
I have been using a spring tine cultivator, running it very shallow across the stubble to encourage the weeds to germinate. This decreases the reliance on chemical measures used after the seed has been planted and helps to create a stale seed bed.
Drilling – sowing the seed
To conserve moisture and to reduce costs such as diesel, we use a Sumo DTS strip till drill for sowing the seed that only cultivates where the seed is planted.
A cultivator will work on the whole area of the field, which in the long run can cause compaction to the soil, erosion and loss of moisture. This is not something I have learnt to do yet and is left to experienced staff.
When you do the drilling, it is evident if you do it wrong and farmers will always notice if your rows of crops are not exact or if you have had a drill miss (maybe caused by a blocked seed nozzle).
Occasionally we may plough as a full inversion technique – a cultural method of weed control used in severe situations – however, this can bring more weed seed back up to the surface, especially grass weed, which causes more of a problem for the growing crop. It is also time-consuming and costly.
We drilled oil seed rape (OSR) on August 7, 2020, while we were still combining the winter wheat.
For those farmers still growing OSR it was a strategic decision to drill it early in order to make use of the moisture during the wet August. This was to try to combat the cabbage stem flea beetle, which is a major pest.
Since 2013 neonicotinoid-treated seed dressing has been banned from use by the EU. This has caused a big issue for UK farmers growing OSR because there is nothing to control the pests that destroy the living plants, causing major losses and in severe cases crop failure, which is fairly common.
As you drive around the countryside this winter you will still see precise rows of green shoots emerging and this is the start of the whole process again.
Farmers will be watching the weather every day, to see how their crops are performing and hoping for a better harvest in 2021.
Thank you for your interest and don’t forget to see if you can identify what crops are growing around Berkshire.
Follow Eleanor on Twitter @LittleBigFarm and Instagram berkshirefarmgirl