245 Ha plus 40 Ha Woodland
Arable, Sheep and Diversification
Crops: Wheat OSR Oats Maize Spring Beans Miscanthus
Rainfall: 850-900mm average. Last 3 years 1200mm.
Soils: Sandy Loam, “Hungry” Soil, Low CEC and Low OM
In the time I have been a reader of Direct Driller Magazine, I have learnt a lot from the magazine’s content. While at the fantastic Groundswell event, Chris Fellows persuaded me to write a contribution to the magazine, which I am more than happy to do to give something back, so here is my roller coaster ride so far. I farm in partnership with my brother, Charlie, based in West Somerset. My father had got out of beef in 1999, contractors had been doing the majority of the arable work, and the grassland was rented out to neighbouring livestock farmers while he concentrated his efforts on old farm building renovations.
When I came back to the farm I gradually took operations back in hand and set about trying to improve the farming system. No disrespect to my father, but the soils had been overworked and under loved. The plough was used up until 2000, then a “min till” approach was taken with a tine and disc machine. Stubble was worked soon after harvest to get a chit and again before a contractors Vaderstad Rapid did the drilling, by the time it had been rolled it was like a sandy beach. At the time It all looked lovely and a perfect seed bed, but often the weather that followed was the down fall of the system. The autumn rain came and capped the surface, and the wheelings of the drill were there to be seen all year on the headlands.
We had to change something.
Not having any FYM on the farm, I used sewage sludge from Wessex water for a number of years, but I stopped using it 3 years ago, concerned about the long-term effects of the chemical based cleaning products that go down the kitchen / bathroom waste pipes. I did use green waste compost for a few years, a combination of haulage costs and plastic in the compost put a stop to this. I decided to chop all straw to help put some goodness back into the soil.
Being blackgrass free, I was concerned about balers bringing it onto the farm, it can be found locally. But chopping straw has had a knock-on effect when establishing cover crops and OSR in a direct drill scenario. To help the process I wanted to grow cover crops and go down the direct drilling route. I found a 2nd hand 4m Horsch Sprinter that our 150hp copes with on our hills. The Horsch duetts were removed and 4” Bourgault coulters fitted and ran them for 3/4 years. I now also have a set of 2” Bourgault. The 4” generally do cover crops and forage crops for sheep and the 2” do everything else.
I have been really pleased with both sets of points and their low disturbance. Now all crops are direct drilled. We have also done some targeted subsoiling. Crops are certainly looking a lot more even across the field and right out to the edge of the field since we have reduced cultivations. Cover crops have been grown for a number of years, usually consisting of phacelia, vetch, radish, berseem clover, bought as straights and mixed on farm. Costing around £25/Ha. These were grazed during the winter by a neighbour but now we have more control as our sheep graze the covers.
Catch crops are grown when timing allows. Another trigger for my change in thinking, was taking part in AHDB benchmarking and seeing my chemical costs £40/ Ha higher that the group average, being a lower yielding farm than the group this was a concern (wheat average 8.6T/Ha). I was wanting to implement some changes (that we have now done) but I was not getting the support from my agronomist, so I made the change to an Independent who was on the same line of thought as myself, and this has been a breath of fresh air.
Insecticides have not been used on the farm for about 4 years, we are trying to build up natural predators within and around the field. BYDV has not been anymore of a problem than it used to be when using insecticides, other than one field which had a spring/summer cover crop mix which included oats, the wheat was drilled into this on the green and we had a problem with “green bridge” carryover. I have stopped using all seed dressings and the home saved seed is tested for disease.
In Autumn 2019 we had 2 part fields of OSR and Wheat which we wrote off and used the failure as an opportunity in the spring to put in some small leaved white clover as an understorey in the following wheat crop. This was grazed twice over the summer. Our Sprinter drill wouldn’t cope with drilling into the clover so Horizon Agriculture came with their DSX drilling wheat into 4” tall wet clover after 16mm of rain overnight. This was an impressive machine, did a fantastic job, and the wheat looked the best on the farm right up until late May. Nutrition was used instead of fungicides, no pgr and only 125kg N.
It combined easily leaving a clover understorey for the sheep to graze a few weeks after harvest. The yield was disappointing at 6.2T/Ha, after how good the crop looked. This was mainly due to the low rate of N. We had hoped the clover would nodulate and provide some N to the growing crop but this did not happen due to the cold spring and the clover using the artificial N rather than producing its own. The winter oats following the wheat/clover looked greener all season where the clover had been and yielded higher than the rest of the field, but the clover ended up being sprayed out with a communication error from myself.
The other part field of clover was going into its 2nd year with 2nd wheat, we had to spray the clover off as too many grass weeds were present even after glyphosate and hard grazing before drilling. I see clover being used somewhere in the rotation but it is a challenge to keep grass weeds out with just glyphosate between crops. I need to try it again. I wish I could justify the Horizon DSX as it was a fantastic product, instead I fitted a set of front cutting discs to run in line with each leg onto my Sprinter. This has been great for cutting through trash and reducing soil disturbance from the coulter.
We always used to be a 4 spray fungicide programme whatever the weather, we now react to the crop/season and try to use more nutrition and less fungicides. Nitrogen has always been 220kg for wheat and we have started to reduce this over the last few years. This year we were at 170kg, Last year we tried to reduce N too quickly and by too much in a few fields and it did show up. I feel it needs to be reduced in small increments each year. We moved to liquid fertiliser 2 seasons ago, to help with the accuracy around the headlands on our small fields (average 10 acre), a carbon source of fulvic and humic acids are added to the liquid fertiliser.
In September 2021 we bought our own flock of 500 Exlana breeding ewes onto the farm, forage based, lambing outdoors. Sheep was totally new to us, but it hasn’t been a disaster in our 1st season !! This was to make better use of the grassland that had been rented out and have better control of the sheep when grazing cover crops and winter cereals and to bring livestock and some muck back onto the farm. I get reminded that I said “ I would never be a livestock farmer.” We have survived year one… As a trail – A cover crop was planted in August 2021 after oats, volunteer oats sprayed out, but no glyphosate, Wheat was direct drilled into this in October, with sheep grazing for a week after drilling. Wheat and cover crop continued to grow together with sheep grazing it again in Jan/Feb.
The cover crop was then sprayed out in early March. The wheat yield was a little lower, but this is also the lightest field on the farm so the drought may have contributed. More trials needed. I have always been against renting ground out for maize/ p o t a t o e s and undoing all the soil improvements. But this year I planted strip till maize into cover crop. I am taking the financial risk and growing it for a neighbour so I chose the establishment technique. Currently looking good despite the drought, yet no plough/powerharrow was involved. Fingers crossed for a dry weather when the forager arrives.
I have waffled on for long enough now so In summary… We are learning all the time, got a long way to go, made mistakes and its certainly not all perfect. But we will continue down this route and keep learning. I think my neighbours probably think I’m a bit mad, but you can’t worry what they think, and hopefully I am one step ahead of where we may have to be in the future. My advice would be to get the right people around you to help you with the direction you want to go, if they don’t want to change then replace them. Try things out on a small scale, don’t feel you need to be spending lots of £££ on new DD drills or expensive cover crops mixes. There is no quick fix and there are many parts involved to get it right – It takes time and don’t expect things to change in one season. And finally a lot of it is certainly in the mind – if the mind won’t change it won’t work. Hope you all have a safe and successful harvest and autumn drilling campaign