Insect adventures, a tricky harvest and sustainable farming

Date:

Dorset farmer and BV Magazine columnist George Hosford gives to show visitors an insight into modern farming with his July farm diary

After three years, George has successfully established herbal plants into an aged and worn-out permanent pasture – it’s had very little grazing while it has slowly rooted.

Grasshopper:
long word – short antennae
Cricket:
short word – long antennae
Katydid:
odd word, also known as a bush cricket, definitely confusing the issue

It’s a Meadow Grasshopper on the thumb and a long winged meadow Katydid in the image below – and they’re on the hand of the teacher who brought a class from Durweston to the farm at the beginning of July.
That’s what the ‘Picture Insect’ app tells me at least – and yes, a proper student of wildlife would cross-check in a book, but life is too short to be buried in reference books. Apps like this one, the ‘Merlin bird song app’, and ‘Picture This’ for plants and trees, have revolutionised my life … and increased my screen time and shortened my phone battery life alarmingly!
It was a lovely sunny day for this particular school visit. We had great fun looking at crops approaching harvest and wild flowers on chalk downland, and spent ages catching (mostly) grasshoppers plus quite a few other mini beasts. A sunny day in July is perfect for crawling about on hands and knees trying to catch insects for identification, and for learning new plants.
After that it was time to pull on the rubber gloves and find a suitable cowpat for excavation. We needed one not too old, not too fresh … as Goldilocks said, it needs to be just right. Covered in holes on the surface, firm enough to be a little crusty, but still soft enough inside to be populated with a variety of insect life, hopefully including some dung beetles.
If we don’t dose our animals with wormers then there will be a better chance of dung beetle presence – they are an indicator of, and contributor towards, soil health, carrying dung deep into the soil with their burrowing activity. On this occasion we found a couple of beetles who rapidly tried to burrow away from daylight, numerous small unidentifiable flies and one mealworm from another beetle species. At least a bird not worried about a dirty beak would be very pleased to find it!

It’s always the weather
We have been pushing on with harvest when the weather has given us a chance. We nibbled at the Wildfarmed* winter wheat, which has ripened earlier than the other wheats, but it wasn’t quite ready so we moved on to the spring barley, which is equally weather-sensitive.
Once milling wheat or malting barley is properly ripe, it is important to gather it swiftly, before the weather breaks and essential quality levels deteriorate. We also try to keep one eye on the straw, so that our long-suffering straw contractor stands a chance of baling the straw before it gets soaked.
If it looks as though rain is imminent, it’s a bit unfair to race through a damp crop with the combine leaving line after line of soaking straw. This will only delay our return to the field to sow the next crop, so usually it pays to be patient.
The baler running right behind the combine on a sunny day, dust flying, is the best of all.
Once the harvest is in, some decent damp weather means the oilseed rape or cover crops – which will be sown as soon as possible afterwards – have a greater chance of swift emergence and growing away while the sun is still high in the sky. Every week’s delay in sowing reduces the sunshine hours available for important early growth before winter.
By the end of July we had cut all of the winter barley and the oilseed rape, the early-sown spring barleys, and the Wildfarmed winter wheat – and in all cases the heaps in the shed are sadly rather smaller than we had hoped.

Not quite ready – ‘having a nibble’ at the Wildfarmed wheat

We are still debating why this is; the usual suspect is the weather, and it’s no different this year. A wet and cold winter, late cool spring and a boiling hot June have conspired to depress yield prospects. Once again we have been experimenting with fertiliser and spray inputs. So we have yet to discover what the main wheat crop has in store.

Grow Your Own for next year
We have sown a selection of crops in one field, in order to save the seed and use it to sow our over-wintering cover crops. This will be the third year we have done so and it is amazing how well the combine copes with such variation (admittedly it is possibly something to do with the operator?!).
The seeds are very different from our other crops, and the straw is variable in texture and quantity, yet we have ended up with usable samples.
Some of this year’s crops won’t be cut until after their seeds would need to have been sown, so we will dry and store those until next year. The turnips on the far left of the image have already been cut and cleaned with our ancient Rutherford cleaner, and are ready to sow again soon.

Farming or marketing?
This summer we became the
proud parents of another graduate in the family. In the ceremony lists of graduates I found it a little odd that there were twice as many students of consumer behaviour and marketing than there were of agriculture. I can’t help feeling that this could reflect the reducing numbers of people occupied in grass-roots food production across the world.

Technological advances and the relentless drive to reduce the cost of food inevitably drives people out of the industry, thus making it ever more dependent on chemicals and fertilisers applied in textbook fashion across vast areas which cannot possibly be managed in a way that can produce food while simultaneously preserving (let alone improving) soil health and protecting environmental diversity. In order to compete in a cut-throat world driven by the retailers and cost-conscious consumers, farming has become hugely competitive. Arable farmers have long been paying silly money for rented or contracted land, and to cover it all they need hugely expensive machines. Once committed to this capital expenditure, along with often unsustainable rent levels, the last thing they can risk is losing yield. So every avenue is followed to optimise production. This is very expensive – in many cases, farmers are over-applying inputs because they can’t risk what they see as failure.
In our own case, we have achieved 11 tons per ha of wheat in four out of the last ten years.
That for us is amazing, but we would be fools to think we can do that every year – the rainfall makes sure of that. Rainfall and sunshine distribution will always have more influence than fertiliser and chemicals. Should we stick to the high input policy of those good years – thereby implying that in the other six years we over-applied fert and chem?
Or should we settle for a bit less yield in the best years, instead matching our chemical input levels to the average output we might expect?
Paying close attention to the financial margins of different levels of input and output, while weathering the vagaries of international markets for grain and gas (fertiliser), is of course essential bedtime reading.

Chemical cons
Along the way we are learning about the damage that chemical fertiliser does to the soil. We know now that it destroys organic matter and soil health.
And are the fungicides we use to keep disease at bay on the plants above ground actually destroying the mycorrhizal fungi within the soil that are so important for healthy plant/soil interaction?
If we are to be serious about global temperature and the human effect on the planet’s ecosystems, we really do need to address these issues.

  • George Hosford farms near Blandford, and writes a regular monthly farm diary on his blog
    View From The Hill
  • Wildfarmed works with farmers, believing that affordable, nutritious food must be grown in ways that mimic natural systems, restoring soil and with far fewer inputs.

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