Farmer Focus – Tom Sewell

As I sit down to write my latest article, I’m reminded that 8 years ago today I was awarded a Nuffield Scholarship. I was selected as part of the #Nuffield13 year group to study “The long-term benefits of no-till farming”. I remember walking onto the stage at the Nuffield conference to be presented with my tie by two very high-profile farming personalities, one of whom said, “It won’t work in a wet year”!

Interestingly, that was in November 2012 at a hotel in Stratford, surrounded by very wet and soggy fields! 

Looking back over the past 8 years its incredible to think how much I have seen, heard and learnt in that time. We continue to make mistakes and frustratingly, we continue to make some of the same mistakes. These are usually cultivating lightly/shallow or subsoiling. We do these cultivations for very good reason, but I almost always regret doing so! 

This year has been no exception!

I have a quote on my workshop wall that says, “in the midst of difficulty lies opportunity”. Well this year has certainly been a challenge, but we have also had many opportunities to take on extra land both to rent and contract. These new pieces of land come in various shapes and sizes (normally small, rocky and with lots of corners!) and having been farmed in different ways by different people. Some of the new land is ex orchard so has needed to be levelled and subsoiled. Some bore the brunt of a horrific 2019 autumn and needed some care and attention, but other fields just needed the rocks picking up then straight in with the drill.

This autumn we have planted 900 acres of wheat in 55 fields between me and Dad using our 4.8m cross-slot and a 4m Horsch Sprinter. The option of a tine and hybriddisc drill has enabled us to drill wheat into a number of previous stubbles/crops. These include: wheat, barley, oilseed rape, lavender, pear & apple orchard, beans, grass, fallow, spring oats, grain maize and cover crops. To be fair most of the wheat ranges from “pretty good” to “ok”. The bits that are struggling are where we had to level some lavender beds and the seedbed was very fine, and a late grubbed apple orchard that was then cultivated and drilled in less than ideal conditions. Having said that, the purchase of a second-hand 4m Horsch sprinter in the spring allowed us to get some crops in where otherwise we would have struggled.

We took the opportunity to try out a number of different drill points on the Sprinter to assess their suitability on our ground. The drill planted 100ha of beans in November direct into spring barley stubbles. The drill was fitted with 1” Dutch points, 2 legs with Bourgault VOS 19mm points and 2 legs with Metcalfe 12mm points. The difference in performance and wear rates was staggering and the conclusion was that the drill will be fitted with 19mm VOS points from now on! For the first time in 2 years we can now say that we have everything planted that we had planned! The drills are washed, oiled and away and thoughts turn to winter jobs.

We are bringing in compost from a neighbouring soft fruit grower (strawberry & raspberry plants), grubbing another orchard and working on logistics for next harvest given that we are now farming for 14 separate landowners!! It’s odd to think that there are no meetings, shows or farm walks to look forward to this winter. There’s not much spare cash floating about after one of the worst harvests on record either so a “make-do and mend” approach will see us spend plenty of time in the workshop this winter. Thankfully, it has a kettle and a wood burner!

When I think back to the couple of years of my Nuffield Scholarship travels and all that entailed the main four findings still ring true. These were……

1) Embrace low disturbance no-till seeding

2) Retain residues on stubbles after harvest (or muck for straw)

3) Use diverse rotations including spring breaks and legumes 4) Grow cover crops between cash crops and keep a growing root in the soil

Looking back at these simple 4 principles I honestly think that they still ring true for us on our farm in South East England. It’s so easy to think that things must change and evolve but this year the main conclusion for me is “Less is more”!!

Our best emerging wheats are where we have drilled direct into stubbles with the cross-slot. Anything cultivated, scratched, subsoiled or ploughed looks a very distant second to the No-till crops. Yes, we do have 2 fields that are following the plough! They are ex pear orchards and were offered to us by a new landlord at 24hrs notice!! They had already been ploughed so we just levelled them with a Heva discroller and drilled with the Sprinter. The consistency in emergence of crops where the field has been in a no-till system for over 5 years is really impressive with even crops right up to the hedge. The number of undisturbed worm channels and root fissures within the soil profile help drainage, aeration, root development and really don’t want tampering with!

Without a busy winter of meetings ahead it’s easy to lose contact with other farmers and miss out on those chats and catch ups at shows we always look forward to. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been able to chat to a number of farmer friends and it’s always good to hear what everyone’s up to! Do give a friend a call over the winter just to see how they are doing and catch up on what’s going on.

I’m very fortunate to not only have completed a Nuffield Scholarship but also the Worshipful Company of Farmers ABM course and am currently on the Leadership Programme run by the Institute of Agricultural Management. The friends made on these courses have, in many cases, become friends for life and it’s great to catch up with them. I do love to hear which farmer is buying what drill and how many horsepower they think they will need to pull it! From a number of conversations, it seems as though production lines will be very busy building drills for the UK market and that all the ‘Cool-kids’ will have red 12m drills to play with next year! I look forward to watching with interest, whilst not forgetting that other favourite quote of mine “comparison is the thief of joy”!!!

Lastly can I wish you all a well-deserved rest over Christmas and the New Year. If 2020 has taught us anything it is to value those around us and get our priorities in order.

May 2021 be a normal year! Whatever that is?!