October 2017

In the past it has been commented on that the Farm News tends to subject primarily on the weather. Not being one to disappoint, yet again, I will take this opportunity to comment (or moan) about the weather. Generally, the weather for farmers in 2017 has been somewhat dire.  It all started off well in the autumn of 2016. Crops were planted in good conditions and establishment was pleasing. Winter followed and was generally dry with some good hard frosts which helped control diseases and reduced the population of insects such as aphids which transmit virus infections to the crops.

From March onwards, the weather really did turn against farmers. March was mild and wet. Crops grew away strongly and produced a large amount of vegetative growth. The land lay wet, which hampered field work, especially cultivating the fields ready for spring planting. April turned out to be dry which enabled the spring oats and spring linseed to be sown, but the dry spell continued for about six weeks and the crops were slow to germinate and establish. The spring linseed suffered the most. When rain finally arrived in May, the linseed germinated and then bolted which meant that we had a very short crop which made it difficult to harvest as the seed bolls were very close to the ground. (Linseed seed pods are called bolls!) Late frosts in May damaged both the barley and oats as the ears were staring to emerge, resulting in aborted grain sites and reduced yield.

June turned out to be dull with little solar radiation to help photosynthesis, fill the grain and build a good yield. Then the end of June and early July saw scorching temperatures, all crops suffered. The winter wheat started to die in places and much of the grain became pinched and distorted. Winter beans also suffered as the heat withered the newly developing pods.

Harvest started fourteen days earlier than usual, mainly due to the hot weather in July, and there was much talk of it all being over and done with by mid-August, but yet again the weather threw a spanner in the works which resulted in the combine standing idle for five days during the second week of the August. The rain not only slowed the harvest, it also ruined the quality of the wheat destined for milling. We did manage to harvest three hundred and sixty tonnes of milling wheat before the weather broke, but the remaining thousand tonnes of wheat had poor hagberg (the measurement used to determine the elasticity of the dough) and is destined for animal feed.

So harvest became a stop, start affair. Hopes of it all being completed in record time soon disappeared and by the time the spring linseed was harvested it had taken nine weeks to bring the harvest home, three weeks longer than usual. The barley, wheat and oilseed rape all produced an acceptable yield, the beans, oats and linseed were poor and to sum it all up it is fair to say that it could have been better, but we’re glad that it wasn’t much worse especially when considering that some farmers in the north and west of the country ended up abandoning some of their harvest due to the wet conditions.

As ever the farming cycle repeats itself and we have recently been busy planting the crops ready for next harvest. Oilseed rape was sown at the end of August and it has established well. Like many farmers we have had to spray it for cabbage stem flea beetle which eat the newly emerging plants and can cause the entire crop to fail if not controlled. Yet again the weather has turned the planting season into a stop, start, grab it when you can affair. All of the barley and most of our wheat is now planted, with just sixty acres of second wheat to plant and eighty acres of beans, but the ground it now wet and good drying days seem few and far between.

As per usual, the Farm employed two workers for harvest. A student from Sparsholt College helped out during harvest primarily tasked with carting corn from the combine back to the farm and Harry H drove the combine and has stayed on to help with the autumn work. Harry also competed in the local ploughing match, came third in his class and won the “John Wall Memorial Challenge Cup” for a junior ploughman.

On a lighter note, the Farm hosted a farm walk back in June. Approximately one hundred people including LWC staff, locals from the village, parents and members of Binsted Growmore Club attended the walk. Those who attended were treated (or subjected) to a guided tractor and trailer ride around the Farm and Ian Kerr gave an informative tour of the College campus. The evening was rounded off with a hog roast back at the farm and feedback for the evening was very positive. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Ian for his help especially as he had to give up his only free evening between trips to help me out and also to thank everyone else who helped make the evening a success.

Lastly, we took the decision this year to replace the Farm’s main tractor. The outgoing machine had proved to be very troublesome during the three years that we owned it and the amount of time lost due to breakdowns was not acceptable. The replacement tractor came just in time for the farm walk and it has fully automated steering which means that the tractor steers itself across the field using GPS technology. The GPS receiver is compatible with the Farm’s other tractor which means that we can use the unit on both tractors (unfortunately, not at the same time!) Using automated steering not only means that we have perfectly straight lines across the fields, it also reduces the amount of time, fuel, labour and general wear and tear needed to complete a task since the amount of overlapping between passes is reduced to the bare minimum. The great advantage of the system is when sowing crops now it doesn’t matter if the tractor driver can see the drill mark or not as the tractor steers itself across the field and drilling in the dark no longer results in wonky tramlines. Since the drilling is now more accurate all following operations, such as spraying and fertilising, also gain from the technology and we will be making better use of our inputs.

Using GPS has improved the way we work our fields and the skill of the tractor driver is no longer needed to drive the machine in an accurate line across the field, so do we still need a driver in the tractor cab? The system that we have means that there must still be a bum on the seat, and obstacles need manoeuvring around, but most of the major tractor manufacturers now have the technology to make driverless tractors and slave tractors where one driver can control two tractors working in the same field. The technology is here but legislation and safety concerns will have to be overcome before driverless tractors become a common sight in farmers’ fields.

Paul Sigley

Farm Manager, Stern Farms Ltd