What a season we have had! Its years like this when we can really learn a lot about our farming system and what we are trying to do.
So, it went stupidly wet stupidly quickly. We have had some really easy seasons in the past 5 years where we have been able to drill later for blackgrass control. Can we start drilling earlier again with low disturbance drills now we are on top of the problem? I hope so. Should we be growing catch crops in front of winter crops? I think this can really help mitigate some of the issues with heavy rain, catch crops will pump water in the autumn. It is often claimed they do this in the spring however from personal experience this is not true. For the autumn I think it is far more plausible as the plants are generally growing pretty fast.
Soil structure, of course is at the forefront. Better soils infiltrate more water and hold machinery (even big heavy stuff) far better than fluffy cultivated stuff. Good soil structure is at the core of what we are all trying to do and a season like this highlights that even more. There were many horror pictures of soils washing away due to poor soil management on social media. It gets dismissed as the “weathers fault”. Not a good enough excuse for me I’m afraid. Seeing these kinds of pictures and the excuses that went with them were frankly worrying and highlighted the lack of ownership UK farmers have of their problems.
Drainage is something that has come up again with a season like this. With no tilling on hanslope clay soils I think good drainage can be the difference between success and failure. We do a lot of mole draining, often in the spring and the better drained fields look so much better for it in both winter and spring crops. Some of the old drainage systems are starting to really show their age now so we will be looking at ways to either repair or replace them. I have an appointment to view a tractor mounted trencher next week. Afterall, there is loads of free time when you aren’t making dust with cultivators for months on end!
The spring as we all know, was equally ridiculous. There is no way a soil should go from being absolutely sodden to being too dry to germinate a crop in 5 days as some were reporting. Soils just aren’t working properly in many places around the country, including some of my own. These extremes of weather do appear to be becoming more regular. We need more resilient soils in order to deal with them. I discussed with a friend the other day about the regen journey we are both on. He pointed out as farmers we are so used to be able to instantly buy a piece of kit, a chemical or a fertiliser that gets us out of muddle or solves a problem, or it has in the past. What we are doing now is a much longer game. We need to focus on the core principles and not revert in panic if something goes wrong. Over time as we build our soils, gain a better understanding of the soil biology and the intricate ecology we are working with and share knowledge. Our soils will improve and shelter us from these extremes of weather and volatility of the industry.
What is the solution to all this? Keep learning, keep pushing, keep trying. There are no magic bullets!
A quick update on crops. OSR, this looks okay and will be ready for harvest in about 7-10 days (its 28th June today). I don’t expect it to break any records but has been grown very cheaply, it should offer a reasonable margin with minimal capital risked. Wheat looks average to poor. Spring crops are a mixed bag but generally pretty good. Winter barley looks well and will be harvest next week. I am looking forward to getting this years crop out the way, chasing the combine with the muck spreaders and drill planting OSR and cover crops.
UK agriculture is at somewhat of a cross roads. A red blue pill, blue pill moment. Whilst it used to be “conventional vs organic”, the regenerative group has formed. I have started to try and view the way we farm as treating causes not symptoms, conventional farming has always been about treating symptoms. This has worked well for a long time and done its job. However, we are on a treadmill in which we externalize all of our problem solving. This exports a lot of money from farm businesses. Gene editing is now being pushed by many farmers and the farming lobby groups as some kind of saviour to post Brexit farming.
They promise amazing advances such as nitrogen fixing wheat, disease resistant crops, drought tolerant crops (why we need drought tolerant crops in the UK proves how bad our soil management is!), gluten free etc. These are supposed to be provided by small UK companies. This is all well and good, but how will those companies avoid the clutches of bio-tech giants they could theoretically put out of business? It is a lovely thought that small UK seed breeders will provide wonderful traits for the benefit of the population, but I fear they will be bought out very quickly by corporate power of the bio-tech companies. What GE (and GM) are essentially trying to do is fix problems from our reductionist approach to agriculture.
The Green Revolution was touted as a scientific marvel but here we are, with the same problems and awaiting more answers to be provided to us. GE is just a continuation of the treadmill, the treatment of symptoms rather than causes, how long until GE traits get resistance? Not long if you look at what’s happened to chemicals and GM. I will be called a luddite and anti-science for saying all of this, however was it not Albert Einsetin who defined insanity as, “doing the same thing over and over expecting different results”? We are also constantly told we need to ‘feed the world’, this is one of the biggest marketing ploys pushing conventional reductionist agriculture and farmers fall for it day in day out, thus staying on the treadmill. The problem of feeding the world is not one of production, it is of distribution, politics and economics.
On the other side we have regenerative agriculture. I view this as a systems-based approach harnessing nature and understanding soil biology and plant nutrition. We all know farming has been based around the physical and chemical since the green revolution, the biological side of things has been completely forgotten until recently. Great in-roads are now being made by farmers around the world and in the UK. The problem many have with this is the simple trials we are so used to, for example X fungicide works better than Y fungicide on this variety do not work on the highly complicated ecology and biology of the soils we are trying to harness.
If a trial does not say ‘do this’ we don’t do it, its not scientifically proven right? By taking this route we begin to understand how to solve problems. Why does this crop of wheat need five fungicide sprays? Because it is nutritionally unbalanced because the soil biology is not working, because we have pumped it full of ammonium nitrate. Why do we get this weed? Because we have made the growing environment perfect for it because of our agricultural systems. Of course, none of this is quick fix, as said before there are no magic bullets. But an approach to farming that revolves around harnessing the resources we have, soil, air, water and sun in a sensitive manner for me is the only way forward. We need to be using less chemicals.
They are expensive and have unknown side effects, especially to the soil biology and nutrition we are trying to work with. We need to use less soluble fertiliser. Nitrogen use efficiency is very poor on UK farms and it has consequences for the environment. Most importantly for me, as a professional farmer running a business, all this stuff is very expensive. If we can even reduce the amount of bought in inputs by a quarter to half that we use over the next five years imagine how different financial results will look?
Which pill to take? The red pill is a continuation of the treadmill of reductionist 20th century farming where we buy in our solutions which only treat symptoms. Year in year out we do the same thing until resistance or revocation stops us. We then hope we can buy something new to replace the previous failed solution. Great for the people selling the gear, not so much for the farm finances.
The blue pill revolves around finding out the how to solve the causes of problems ourselves. It requires study and knowledge exchange, a degree of bravery and a totally different mindset. It is taking ownership of our production system. It is a mixture of art, science and gut feeling. It is a slow burner and you will not instantly see dramatic results. Over time, as proved by a growing number of farmers in the UK it does work.
The future is incredibly exciting for us. Things like BPS going become trivial when you really start to change your mindset into a regenerative one. If only the industry as a whole spent as much time and money on researching how to harness and improve soil and biology as we do moaning about the loss of neonics and demanding GE, just imagine where we could reach as a collective.
Bring it on, lets make our own luck and reclaim ownership of our agriculture.
Some useful extra reading
‘Chasing the Red Queen’ Andy Dyer
Altered Genes, Twisted Truths’ Steven M Druker