Farmer Focus – Steve Lear

What a different a year makes…

Steven Lear fine tunes his arable cropping, and looks to
Aberdeen Angus to produce some low cost beef

After the soul destroying previous two autumns when we managed to drill very little winter grain, this year has been rather refreshing. After cutting all of our spring crops in half decent conditions we have been able to establish all of our winter cropping with relative ease this year. I was planning to drill a little earlier this year and make a start in the last week of September, but a bit of moisture came through which delayed us into October. I’m very thankful for that as it has meant delayed drilling will have helped somewhat with blackgrass control. On some of the worst blackgrass fields control from pre-ems has suffered a little from the lack of rainfall through November, I’m hoping the next week or so we will have a little rain to get them to knock the grass weeds back before the cold really sets in.

Both the Crossslot and the Simtech drill have been out this autumn and, in a few cases, we have run them in the same field to get a comparison. The Simtech crops seem to get going a little faster which is probably due to some mineralised nitrogen from slightly more disturbance but also chits a little more blackgrass (this has probably been made worse due to not being able to roll some areas). It will be interesting to see any differences throughout the season and on the yield mapping at harvest time. We drilled a few fields of OSR this year which is a crop we have stayed away from for the past 7 seasons. We have seen a big difference between the hybrid varieties which seem to have got up and away and the conventional varieties which didn’t really get going and consequently ended up with a huge amount of flea beetle damage. The conventional was also drilled on heavier soil and I wonder if that has been a factor in their demise. I wasn’t prepared to use an insecticide on the osr so as a result I have redrilled 60 acres of brassica with some group1 milling wheat, given the prices at present it may not have been so bad after all.

On the wheat side we have drilled Zyatt, Extase and Nelson on the farm this year, all group 1’s. Extase is new to us, but first impressions is that its very fast out of the blocks. The Extase and Nelson are both being grown due to their fantastic disease profile, maybe going forward I’ll have a go at a group 1 blend if the markets I sell into will accept it. The Zyatt went in late and is probably a variety that we won’t grow on again as it’s become fairly susceptible to fungal disease. Soil conditions at drilling on the heavy clay have been some of the best we have ever seen. Zero till has certainly changed how our soil is behaving. What used to be a smeary mess now has crumb structure and it’s a real joy to see. We still however notice a big difference where we have mole ploughed so that is going to be something we do slightly more of compared to our old tillage regime. When direct drilling clay soils I believe good drainage is key, especially in the first few years.

The big question we have going into this season is how much fertilizer to use. With urea prices well over £700 last time I looked it is just the push we needed to bring nitrogen use down and develop techniques to drive efficiency of the nitrogen we do use. As our soils have historically had a large amount of manure, cover crops, legumes and composts we should be mineralising a fairly chunk of our nitrogen requirement through natural processes. With this in mind we have come up with a bit of a plan.

How we plan to increase nitrogen efficiency and use less

• Use a little and often approach. Smaller doses of N at more regular intervals will hopefully increase NUE.

• A lean towards more foliar applications. Foliar N has a much better NUE than soil applied so we need less of it. (It is however a lot more expensive).

• Back loading our N. We plan to delay applications of N to allow the natural soil nitrogen supply to provide for the crops earlier in the season. This may also reduce our need for fungicides as we won’t have large green biomass crops early on in the spring.

• Our poorer land which tends to need higher nitrogen applications has been allocated to spring beans this year.

• Our spring whole crops will have an application of fym before drilling and will be undersown with a red clover ley. I’m hoping to grow these without any synthetic nitrogen at all (maybe some foliar if needed).

• All nitrogen applications will once again go on with a carbon source.

I’ll let you know if our plan pays off or is a dismal failure after

On the livestock side we have seen some very good prices in the trade for beef. But at the same time the costs for feeding and looking after cattle have gone through the roof. I’d hate to be having to buy in large amounts of concentrate at current prices. As I write this (in December) the majority of our Limousin herd is still out at pasture which is fairly unheard of on our soils. Grass growth has continued, all be it at a slow pace, through November and the animals look happy and healthy for it. Going forward we will be trying to develop techniques to grow more low input forage crops for our cattle by using more legumes and diversity within the swards. On top of this we have also started a small (but growing fast) Aberdeen Angus herd along side our Limousins. It will be interesting to see what the native breed brings to the farm in terms of fattening on pasture and using less concentrates

I’m very much looking forward to events happening again this year around the country and can’t wait to have a catch up with some of you to discuss what your doing on farm. Keep safe and look after yourselves. It been a tough few years, and I know many farmers who have felt isolated through the pandemic. Please reach out and get help if your struggling. ‘Depression is an illness not a weakness’ are there to help, give them a call.