Farmer Focus – Steve Lear

Mother nature was going to give me a kicking at some point!

Since starting our no till journey, a couple of years ago, I haven’t really had too much to complain about. We have had two easy autumns where we were able to get a decent amount of ground drilled without too much of an issue. Its been two of the driest years that I can remember and that tends to favour no till. Our yields haven’t really been any different from when we were cultivating, in fact if anything we have seen a yield increase on some land and certainly in winter barley. So, I knew at some point mother nature was going to throw us a curve ball. But instead of a curve ball she pitched one up straight into the goonies.

The soils at the end of harvest were in a great condition and I was looking forward to a nice easy autumn of drilling as soon as we got a chit on some blackgrass. Unfortunately, the weather had other plans. When it eventually started to rain it didn’t really stop and this has caused havoc with our drilling plans. The ground has never really dried out enough to get on it in our area. A few farms have mauled crops into cultivated land but we soon learnt after trying to travel on wet soils that we were going to have to call it a day with only 150acres drilled out of 1500 planned. We didn’t want to undo all the great work that we had done in the past couple of years for the sake of a poor winter crop and a 12-ton drill on wet clay is not very clever.

On the plus side, some of our cover crops look great. We established an oat and mustard mix behind whole cropped wheat in July which is now nipple high and has some fantastic roots on it. We have a multi species cover crop over 150ha with mixed results depending on how early we got it established. The idea was to graze all our covers this year with some neighbour’s sheep, unfortunately the persistent wet weather has meant that we didn’t dare let livestock on the fields as small feet on saturated clay would have resulted in a compacted mess.

The weather has however meant that I’ve had the time to go around the farm and do a lot of soil sampling and testing.

The following tests were carried out on a field by field bases: An infiltration test, A worm count, slake test, a photo of the structure is taken and a soil sample is sent off to NRM labs to carry out their soil health suite. This includes tests for: Ph, P, K, mg, Organic matter, Co2 burst and textural classification. This year I have also been testing an area on the farm that has been in a natural cycle for as long as I can remember. It grows chest height grass every year and has zero management. I will use it to bench mark my soils across the rest of the farm to see where the soil has the potential to get too.

The infiltration test on the natural area showed that we have a way to go with our soils in terms of improving them. I couldn’t believe the amount of water I could pour into the pipe on the natural area before it started to back up. We will also be doing all we can to raise organic matter across the farm by using grazing stock, cover crop and manure applications. The other interesting observation from doing these tests was that the natural area had very few worms in compared to the arable land, the few worms that were present were enormous though.

We over seeded a large percentage of our grazing ground again this autumn by grazing the sward tight to the ground and then drilling grass seeds and herbals into it before the rain hit. We drilled the fields with cattle still grazing in them, the cattle were moved on after a couple of weeks to let the new seeds establish. This system works really well for us and means fields aren’t shut up for reseeding for long. It will be interesting in the spring to see how the herbal plants do against the grass. I’m hoping they will keep growing throughout the summer when the grass starts to slow up as they tend to have deeper tap roots.

It’s been a frustrating autumn but we aren’t in as bad a situation as some that I’ve seen in the farming press. It must be heart breaking seeing your farm and livelihood under water and my thought go out to the families affected by the flooding around the isle. Stay strong and keep your fingers crossed for a friendly spring.