Farmer Focus – Steve Lear

The Jet stream has kicked our arse, but we are still smiling….

With little winter crop in the ground and spring still feeling like a long way off our attention has turned to the cattle. I’m glad we baled every last bit of straw in the summer as we are going to need it going into next year. What seemed like a huge quantity of bedding is fast depleting. We may have to resort to baling bean straw this year to keep us going through next winter. I had planned to graze the cover crops off with sheep. Unfortunately, we had to change our plan as I didn’t think the tender arable soils would take to much trampling this winter. It has left us with some great covers that are just coming into flower now. The very few sunny days that we have had have brought the pollinators out from their winter homes and have given them some early feed, as well as providing some grazing for the three species of deer that now call our farm home. The cover crops have also shown up beautifully the soil that we are doing a good job on and the soils that need improving.

The ex-oat land was meant to get drilled with winter wheat but again the weather has stopped our plans dead. We have a good covering in these fields of volunteer oats after some heavy wind just before harvest shook a fair amount out to the floor. I’m debating whether to keep these growing and forage them for the cattle just before the black grass sheds. Let see what April brings. I have started doing some research into alternative forage mixes. We have already moved over to using whole crop cereals from maize for the fattening cattle. The plan is to develop a multi species forage crop that will give the pre calving cows everything they need without having to add any protein afterwards. I think using multi species mixes should also help improve soil health and reduce chemical inputs.

At present our pre calving cows are fed a mixture of grass silage, straw and field beans to up the protein levels in the ration. I’m hoping to find a forage that can mean we don’t need to mix anything up. I think we will try some oats companioned with either peas or beans to increase the protein in the forage to start us off. I have just got to work out the percentages of each species to get us the ideal mix of nutrition for the cows. Growing this forage mix will also give us a good early opportunity to stitch a multi species cover crop in before winter drilling. 

After such a wet autumn and winter with little in the ground its easy to get a bit down about things. When I look around the county, I see many fields that have had a crop mauled into them and are sat very wet with serious soil structural issues, nutrient leaching and run off. I’m glad we stopped drilling when we did. Even though we have little cash crop in the ground most of our fields have a good green cover on them, which is keeping the nutrients where they belong, stopping the soil from slumping, keeping the microbial communities alive and increasing organic matter. So there is still something to smile about.

We also haven’t spent any money cultivating land, which has been a waste of money for many farms across the country this winter. I’m hoping going into April we will be able to get on and drill our spring crops. I’ve seen a number of farmers saying in the press that they are going to fallow land if its not drilled by mid-march. It’s rare to see much spring cropping done on our clay soils before mid-march in a normal year let alone a wet one, and in any case, I need the straw.

I have purchased a second drill for this spring to help us out a bit. I’ve gone for a Simtech to give us a bit more flexibility. The Cross-slot is a fantastic drill but when the soils are wet the last thing you want is a 12ton drill travelling over them. I’m hoping the Simtech will give us a wider drilling window at the end of autumn and the beginning of spring. It will also be used to establish beans a little earlier than we could do previously as the Cross-slot is always busy on cereals. We were helped out with the purchase of the SimTeth through the ‘Small Farm Productivity Grant’. Its well worth getting if you are looking at new equipment and is very easy to apply for, hopefully it will be funded going forward.

A trip up to York for the BASE UK agm gave me the opportunity to listen to some fantastic speakers once again, from the history of wheat breeding to a great talk on mob grazing there was plenty to inspire a hungry mind. I came away from the conference this year thinking about how farmers should be aiming to sell food to consumers rather than commodities to big cooperation’s. Maybe in the future we could see more flour mills, butchery shops and veg stalls owned by small groups of farmers selling their unique produce to the great British public, wouldn’t that be something.

Keep smiling and remember even a bad day on a farm is better than a good day in an office.