David Aglen | Direct Driller Magazine

Farmer Focus – David Aglen

It was so wet, all we could do was wait patiently and relax!

May 2024

Our first outdoor calving for a generation here at Balbirnie is complete. We managed to get the cows off kale and onto grass on the 15th March. The grass was deferred from July last year. Daily moves were planned, and due to the very wet conditions, absolutely necessary. On the worst of the days, we were moving twice daily. Calving, due to start 10th April, started as planned with few problems.

Cows were moved onto fresh grass daily, the freshly calved moved as well if they chose to, otherwise they were left to catch up with the herd a few days later. We started to encounter a few problems towards the end with some heifers from a particular blood line which required vet assistance, and even a few caesarean sections. Not all the efforts were successful, unfortunately. Such outcomes are very disheartening. We spent a while trying to work out why this had happened and concluded that the ample grass they were getting led to some oversize calves. So, it may have been our management that was the main factor in this, rather than the heifers concerned. We should probably consider restricting the grass to heifers that are due to calve in the last 3 weeks of calving to reduce the risk of a repeat in future.

Cows and calves are all thriving now on the ridiculous amount of grass we have, with ‘happy lines’ appearing on the cows.  These horizontal lines along the cows’ body are said to be a sign of good health on animals on a high forage diet.

Some of the youngstock were moved from kale to grass on the 1st March, the aim was to finish them a little earlier, with the majority making the transition in mid-April. Average gains have been 1.3kg/day since then. There are a few stragglers letting the side down, but a good number are gaining over 2kg/day. Poor performing genetics will be taken out of the herd as we continue to improve performance. Hopefully I can report back next year with a higher average daily gain.

Finally, our patience gave out, we made a tentative start to sowing spring crops on the 1st April, for one day only, not unsuccessfully. However, we would have to wait another 3 weeks before conditions improved sufficiently again for round two. We managed to establish everything in conditions varying from ok to excellent in the following fortnight. Thereafter the heavens opened again. We cultivated most of the spring cereal land as we had concerns about a pan 2 to 3 inches down. This felt like the right decision at the time, Ijust hope we have not undone several years of structure building in one fell swoop. We did direct drill a couple of barley fields as a comparison and the combine will tell us if we wasted the money or not.

Since then, we have had some very growthy conditions, with crops catching up almost to where they would be normally for the time of year. The capacity of nature to do this always amazes me. However, we are starting to see the effects of the very wet May now, with yellow patches appearing in fields, adding to the fact that the land was just dry enough when crops were sown.

Winter crops have responded well to the favourable conditions, with the ugly parts disappearing among the lush growth. This makes us feel better, but they will still be ugly at harvest. It should be no surprise to us that the winter oats appear to have relished the wetter season more than anything else. I have high hopes for the output, so long as they remain standing.

We have managed with only one fungicide on the wheat, as per usual, to sort out the yellow rust. Our blend consisting of Istabraq, Revelation, Sundance, Skyscraper and Redwald appears to have been bolstered by the addition of Dawsum. There is a clear improvement in the disease pressure. I apply little science to this mix, simply adding together what grew well on the farm at the start, followed by extra varieties that perform well locally over the years. The only downside I have discovered is that the judges in The Fife Agricultural Association crop competition do not like blends – they do not look pretty enough with the heads all at slightly different heights and varying shades of green. On the bright side, that will save us the £5 entry fee from now on.

I wonder what the future will have in store for us if these wet seasons do become more frequent. Will arable cropping be worthwhile here? I am certain that we need more grass in the rotation, the only questions are how much more and how to make a good margin from it?

We are seeing fields with historically poor structure recover remarkably quickly once put down to grass and grazed appropriately. Our fixed costs are already paired to the bone, so any further reduction in the arable area would need to see a slight redistribution of labour into livestock which is not always a popular request. The move can be eased by judicious investment in infrastructure to ensure dealing with animals is as straight forward as possible. With that in mind, the team are currently building a new livestock handling system. We have outgrown the existing facilities as we run the animals in increasingly large mobs. Most of the construction has taken place in the farm workshop. Our guys, Colin Black and Grant Ross have worked tirelessly to make what will be a very smart looking set up when finished.

Hairy vetch has been a new addition to our cover crop species. We sowed some in a mix with rye last autumn to get a look at it. Having appeared to be rather lack-lustre over the winter, especially when sown after mid-September, I have been very pleasantly surprised how it has grown since the third week of April. ‘A bit of a beast’ would be one description. A few of these fields will be taken to harvest to provide seed for next year. The rest were mown and baled up in the 3rd week of May. These bales were left in the fields, all lined up ready for next winter. The kale will be sown around them, providing the complete diet for the cattle for a portion of next winter.

We are entering the holiday season here soon. From Mid-June onwards we seldom have a full compliment of bodies as there will be someone on holiday virtually every day until early August. With that I would like to wish you all a great summer and hopefully harvest will be a pleasant surprise for us all.