Farmer Focus – Steve Lear

We didn’t think we would get a wetter autumn than last year……we were wrong.

I definitely remember farmers telling me that last autumns rain was only a freak occurrence and it wouldn’t occur twice in as many years. Well nature had other ideas and it has meant that after 130mm of rain over the first weekend of October we again have very little winter crop in the ground. Once we have that much rainfall on our clay soils its pretty much game over when it comes to drilling a profitable crop. Most of the farm bar a little bit of winter barley and a little winter wheat will again be going into spring crop. This in the past would be rather devastating for us but since changing to zero till we have managed to turn a half decent profit from spring cropping. With little if any pre emergent herbicides needed, plenty of composted manure to reduce our nitrogen use and the ability to put some fields down to whole crop for our cattle has shown that spring cropping can work very well under our new system. It will also be a great benefit in terms of blackgrass control to have fields that have only known a spring crop for the last 3 years.

Having said that I do want to continue growing good winter crops so we have had to look at what we can do to prevent the rainfall from stopping us. We have come up with a four point plan.


The current wet autumn has made us realise that our drainage needs to be better. Ill be the first to admit that in the past our drainage systems have not been adequately maintained. Ditches have been left too silt up and drains have steadily blocked up. All these things are great for the wildlife and biodiversity on the farm but not so great for our bottom line. Under cultivation we probably got away with our badly maintained drains, but since we changed our system we have realised that we need an efficient way of allowing the clay too get excess water away. We are currently partaking in a large amount of ditching and finding tile drains we didn’t even know we had. We purchased a small drain jetter to clear our outfalls and are making great progress. I think we will see the benefits of this for years to come and am sort of kicking myself we didn’t do this work before. The whole process has shown me that the chaps who put these drains in many years ago really knew what they were doing and that we will be maintaining the fantastic system they put in place properly from now on.

Green cover before autumn drilling

Until now I have always thought that there is no point in growing a cover crop in front of winter crops. After speaking to a few other more knowledgeable individuals I’ve come to the conclusion that actually a fast-growing cover can keep the drill rolling in the autumn and prevent soil from sticking to press wheels, openers and every other part of our drills it feels like connecting itself too. On top of this, if we still can’t get it drilled, it can stay in place and reap all the benefits of a cover crop until we return in the spring. 

Continue to increase our infiltration rate

We have already noticed that our infiltration rates are getting better under zero till but we need to get even better. To do this we will keep on growing cover crops, use grazed perennial in the rotation, keep adding carbon back to the soil through manure, and try to keep off the soil when condition aren’t right. The last one of these isn’t always possible, so we have purchased a small low disturbance subsoiler. I don’t intend to use it a huge amount. But if we do cause more compaction than can be taken out through using a cover crop we need a way to get oxygen back into the soil to enable the microbes and worms to repopulate.

Bring our drilling date forward

We have always delayed drilling here until mid October due to blackgrass. We are now getting on top of the dreaded weed and I think its time to gradually bring the drill date earlier. All the seed that comes through now should have germinated at the surface so should get hit pretty hard by our pre ems as well as showing a green leaf earlier than a buried seed. On top of this ive been thinking about bringing OSR back into the rotation. We haven’t grown it for 6 years now due to flea beetle pressure. If we can grow it with very little cost until we actually know we have a viable crop then it will be back for us. It offers an early drill date, different set of chemistry and if it fails we will pretend it’s a cover crop. I think the main down side will be the slugs, I’ve enjoyed not using slug pellets since we last grew it. 

On a more positive note our whole cropped oats (under sown with grazing leys and herbs) are proving a favourite for the cattle. The intakes are up and the silage has analysed really well. The only thing it was lacking in was protein. This year we are planning on companion cropping the oats with either vetch or peas to help increase this. I’m hoping to grow this using only a predrilling dose of round up and an application of FYM, it will be interesting to see whether the oats gets enough nutrient from the manure, legumes and our soil biology.

Stay safe, keep smiling and hopefully we can start meeting each other again in the near future. Im certainly looking forward to the first agricultural show I can get too when this bloody virus gets the message and does one.