The Month of May

In what has been an extraordinary (although fast becoming our ordinary) month, records were broken for the sunniest month on record, as well as the sunniest Spring by some margin. This was coupled with continuing strong winds and only 1mm total rainfall for the farm in the month of May.

With many new eye-catching bio stimulants in a can on the market, the bio stimulant that would make the biggest difference is rain, who thought that would be the case in March! As a result of the lack of rainfall, the biggest job of the month was keeping newly planted trees and hedges watered. All had been planted into permanent pastures and with the dry conditions, large cracks have been appearing in the fractures created at planting. This is not something I’d expect to see in well-structured soils with good organic matter content but it underlines the extremes we are experiencing. At planting, the saturation of the soil was at such a point that we were seeing the holes dug to accommodate the new trees backfill with water, a stark comparison as I make my way around with the water bowser!

Trying out the Razorback RT500

In April I had the chance to try out the new Razorback RT500 rotary mower, which I used to top off the previous years maize wildlife cover. The 3ha of maize that we drill with the Mzuri Pro-Til provides shelter and food for wildlife on the farm, positioned next to a young wood. It’s a great space that we take pride in providing for our local wildlife and it’s often a thriving hub of activity.

In preparation for this years new crop, we used the Razorback RT500 to top and distribute the remaining maize, returning the crop residue to the surface for incorporation by the worms. This was then sprayed off and with a demonstration Mzuri Pro-Til Xzact drill in the yard, I took the opportunity to sow 1ha on 30th April. As a heavy clay field, that has certainly benefited from the return of crop residues, tilth was the best I’d seen in this field. Coupled with good moisture it makes for an exciting proposition. The remaining balance of the field will be sown using conventional metering at 33cm and 66cm spacing for an interesting comparison later in the season.

Whilst we had the opportunity, I put the RT500 to good use on our field corners ready for sowing next month. We’ve taken to leaving several wildlife plots across the farm and awkward corners provide the perfect opportunity to make the most of the available space.

The new rotary mower ticked all the boxes in terms of ease of use and getting the job done. It was easy to adjust and maneuver in tight headland corners and gave a clean, level cut across both the maize and grass surfaces. Like it’s orange sister, (Mzuri & Razorback are sister companies!) I found the RT500 to be a solid, well built machine. And it’s made in the UK too!

A look at Winter Crops in April

Whilst oilseed rape is seen as an increasingly trying crop to grow, once established it is surprising just how resilient it can be and certainly one that can be deceiving to the eye about its potential yield. By securing excellent establishment we certainly haven’t seen the back of it on this farm.

Fuel for thought: The Chancellor’s Budget

For the agricultural industry, March began with concerns over the Chancellors Budget on the 11th, with speculation surrounding the future of the lower fuel duty on red diesel. In the end, effective lobbying by our industry saw the idea binned, but it acted as a reminder of how exposed growers can be to yet another factor outside of our control.

But how exposed? The Chancellor’s budget also made me appreciate how the Mzuri system has helped reduce our exposure to oil price volatility by significantly lowering our fuel consumption for establishment.

Prior to adopting the Mzuri system, the farm would undergo several passes to achieve a seedbed, even before a drill entered the field. Heavy cultivations including ploughing and power harrowing were not only time consuming but were burning significant amounts of diesel in addition to the associated wearing parts and tractor maintenance. Even on a relatively small farm like Springfield sitting at 450 acres, the diesel soon adds up. I stopped to pause about what effect still being on a draining system like that and having the risk of losing the lower fuel duty would have to us, and it would be simply unimaginable.

As a ring-fenced farm, the majority of our fuel use is in the field working, but for growers who have to travel to get to pockets of land, the effects would be felt even further.  The requirement to travel isn’t something that can be changed for these growers, but the number of trips to the field can be – with the help of a one pass system.

Now using the Mzuri Pro-Til, we consolidate seedbed cultivations, fertilising, seeding and reconsolidating into a single, targeted manner, awarding benefits to both soil health and establishment – and importantly, minimising fuel consumption. Of course, we’ve also achieved significant savings in labour, wearing metal and repairs, something that was so significant even in the first year, our farm accountant pointed out what he believed to be a mistake in the farm office bookkeeping. Fortunately, there was no mistake and in fact, it turned out to be the best change the farm has ever made.

 

Ben Knight

Farm Manager

Spring Sown Cereals

Starting with the Wheat

A crop that had already earnt a place in the rotation following last year’s impressive performance, my attention turned to spring wheat on 27th March with 23ha to put in.

We’ve found there is two important elements to achieving good spring wheat performance:

Firstly, the varieties we now have at our disposal that can deliver on both yield and quality whilst doing so at a significantly lower input regime than its winter counterparts.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, establishment. The ability of our Pro-Til to create the perfect spring seedbed whilst placing a significant amount of the crops nutrition, targeted beneath the seed is crucial for a crop that has such a relatively short amount of time in the ground.

Bringing this perfect recipe of variety and establishment together, we opted again for Cochise, a variety with bread making potential. At a seed rate of 210kg/ha which gave 400 seeds/m2 we band placed 150kg/ha of DAP below the seed via the Mzuri’s front leg for nutrition where it needs it.

What was striking as I knocked off the acres drilling this year’s spring wheat was just how quickly the conditions were changing. With the wind still blowing strongly and the sun having noticeable strength, sowing conditions were all but ideal – a striking difference in the space of a fortnight. The crop was rolled the following morning, although had the forecast contained rain, we could have been back across the drilling a few hours later with how quickly the wind was hazing off the seedbed.

As we have trialled with encouraging results on winter wheat, we have sown a 4ha field of spring wheat on wide row spacing (66cm coulter centres). It will be interesting to see how a spring wheat responds, both agronomically and also in terms of yield. We will also be inter row sowing a portion of the field as a mixture of legumes as an understory at a later date.

Spring Barley

Like many growers across the country, barley is a crop that has not been seen on the farm in a number of years but is seeing a comeback this spring. To keep our rotation on track we have selected Planet as our variety of choice as an entry for oilseed rape. I have to say, from my positive experiences so far with the Mzuri system I am looking forward to adding another crop into our arsenal and watching the progress.

Weather apps remained a staple throughout the spring barley drilling although unbelievably, the weather looked to remain dry and settled. With this in mind and the clay component of ours soils starting to show it character with the very sudden switch in conditions, emphasis was put on moisture preservation. Thankfully, moisture preservation is an undoubted strength of the Pro -Til drill, which is especially emphasised in a spring situation where all too frequently, late rainfall is often a hit and miss affair.

Keen not to miss an opportunity to learn more about the agronomics and how we can push received wisdom on growing spring barley we have tried several different approaches:

Firstly, the trialling of different coulter widths, testing a standard 5 inch double shoot coulter and also Mzuri’s new 3 inch double shoot coulter. Whilst the crop progresses, observations will be taken on straw strength, disease pressure, brackling and of course yield.

Secondly, we’re trialling row spacing with both a more conventional crop drilled at 33cm centres and also at 66cm centres.  Perhaps this will be too extreme, but I’m interested to see how the spring barley responds to the wider row spacings, given its yield is predominantly linked to the number of tillers produced and retained. It’ll be interesting to watch these trials develop and we will be updating you in due course.

 

In with the Beans

The weekend previous saw winds switch to the East which was ideal for drying the topsoil enabling great travelling conditions. Using the Mzuri Pro-Til’s double shoot coulters at 33cm centres, we struck a  good balance between good seed depth and the tilth necessary for excellent seed to soil contact. Bare a brief stint at the beginning February, I have to say it felt good to back drilling with the sun shining!

The beans were sown in the last week of March at 310kg/ha to give an established stand of 50 plants/m2.  Whilst the seed rate is reasonably high, we definitely found this to be an advantage last season, both in achieving the target establishment, but also ensuring the stand created such a canopy that closes out any later flush of weeds that the herbicide was too late to catch. I also feel the higher end of this population has the effect of plants competing to a degree with each other for light, lending itself to improved podding from top to bottom of a taller plant.

Lending itself to seedbed fertiliser, 0-24-24 was applied with the Pro-Til at 100kg/ha. A relatively small application but enough to meet the crops needs especially as its band placed and made readily available. In reality, the beans bring many more benefits to the soil than they require nutritionally, altogether making them a satisfying break crop to have in the rotation.

The majority of our spring bean crop was sown into cover crops that had been grazed and then sprayed off ahead of sowing. I was keen to try something different this year and with the cover crop beginning to grow away thanks to the rising soil temperatures, I held back from spraying a field and went in with the drill on the green. With the living roots binding the soil, soil disturbance was further minimised, proving it to be an interesting experiment.

The limited amount of surface tilth was no issue for the bean seed which was placed consistently at two inches into moisture and then sealed in place, within tilth with the Mzuri’s press wheel. The only hiccup to occur was my timing to go Cambridge rolling the field. As early evening turned to dusk my eyes strained to find my mark in the sea of green, and as much as I enjoy driving a simple tractor, GPS was sorely missed that evening.

Topping up nutrients in March

Oilseed Rape

In many ways this has been a month for wrapping up for the OSR. I applied the final dose of nitrogen being at green bud stage at the beginning of month, bringing our total nitrogen to 200kg/ha for the crop. Being keen not to neglect the micronutrients, Bassitrel and straight Boron were added to the fungicide application during the first week. The fungicide, a generic containing prothioconazole and tebuconazole, gives us a good spectrum of disease control for spring, with only a potential mid-flowering spray left to apply to the crop.

Flowering began in mid-March with our crop of DK Expedient, living up to its major trait of being very quick out of the blocks. Other varieties in trial on the farm, were on average 5-10 days later to flower. Despite very few OSR crops in the area, pollen beetle levels remained below the threshold for a targeted spray and soon themselves turned into beneficial insects.

Flowering itself during March was a dry affair, hopefully lending itself to good pollination. Due to these conditions the decision was taken not to apply a mid-flowering spray to the DK Expedient for sclerotinia as the risk remained very low and the variety making up 75% of our cropping, it will make a useful saving too.

Winter Wheat

Starting with what has been our latest seeding, the field of Gleam drilled on the 5th Feb has had an atrocious first month to be emerging. With a robust seed rate, I have been pleased to see the crop emerged evenly through the ground. As I mentioned in the previous entry, I was concerned that vernalisation or the lack of it could be an issue, however after swatting up I’ve been given some reassurance that it can occur up to 15°c, albeit slowly. I needn’t have worried though as March gave us almost as many frosts (10 in total) as we’ve seen over the whole winter, that combined with a biting Easterly wind which have kept temperatures down.

The Easterly winds in the second half of the month did have a noticeable effect of steadying up growth, especially the newly the emerged crop, but also in an autumn sown crops. Keen to bolster growth and ensure tiller survival, I applied Sulfan to our wheats at 200kg/ha on 2nd March, followed on the 13th with 240kg/ha of 0-24-24. That along with 3l/ha of manganese. With excellent establishment, and a good network of roots anchored into a well structured soil, I’m confident that all of our crops will be in good stead and won’t hesitate to motor on when the weather picks up.

Sowing Date & Grass weeds

Starting with what has been our latest seeding, the field of Gleam drilled on the 5th Feb has had an atrocious first month to be emerging. With a robust seed rate, I have been pleased to see the crop emerged evenly through the ground. As I mentioned in the previous entry, I was concerned that vernalisation or the lack of it could be an issue, however after swatting up I’ve been given some reassurance that it can occur up to 15°c, albeit slowly. I needn’t have worried though as March gave us almost as many frosts (10 in total) as we’ve seen over the whole winter, that combined with a biting Easterly wind which have kept temperatures down.

The Easterly winds in the second half of the month did have a noticeable effect of steadying up growth, especially the newly the emerged crop, but also in an autumn sown crops. Keen to bolster growth and ensure tiller survival, I applied Sulfan to our wheats at 200kg/ha on 2nd March, followed on the 13th with 240kg/ha of 0-24-24. That along with 3l/ha of manganese. With excellent establishment, and a good network of roots anchored into a well structured soil, I’m confident that all of our crops will be in good stead and won’t hesitate to motor on when the weather picks up.

 

Ben Knight

Farm Manager

The same field at the same angle 14 days earlier

Graham Winter Wheat drilled with the dual band coulter

Winter crops move forward throughout February

February turned out to be an eventful month. Having been reminded at Lamma of the saying ‘February fill dyke’, surely I thought this year will be an exception… But two named storms later and with significant areas of the county flooded, it turns out five consecutive months of above average rainfall was indeed perfectly possible.

 

Oilseed Rape got away well and continued to move

The beginning of the month saw our crop starting to move, in particular the variety DK Expedient  which also proved its ability to get out of the blocks quickly and grow away during last years Spring. A good starting pace has to be a key attribute I feel, because as we’ve seen this year, CSFB larvae can be found without too much effort, so it’s important that the crop responds early so as to not risk being overwhelmed.

We’ve always been quite lucky at Springfield Farm, in that the combination of a fast-moving variety, and a good nursery seedbed with accurate drilling depth and reconsolidation allows our OSR to establish consistently year on year. This helps to mitigate a lot of the risks associated with growing rape which are causing the crop to lose favour with a lot of growers.

After such a wet winter resulting in low soil nitrogen levels, I applied 25kg/ha of nitrogen during the first week of February. This was just enough to give the crop a kickstart and an amount that is quickly washed in, rather than away!

 

Last field of Winter Wheat drilled in early Feb

Among the relentless deluge, there was the slightest of weather windows which allowed me to roll out the Mzuri Pro-Til to drill a field of Gleam (450 seeds/ m2) on 5th February. This is the latest I’ve ever sown a winter variety, so I’m interested in monitoring its progress, with the last time being January 2013 on hard frosts.

The variety Gleam has a latest safe sowing date of mid-February; I just hope after what has been a mild winter that the crop has enough cool weather for its vernalisation.  I was impressed with how the Pro-Til made a decent seedbed in what were marginal conditions, which was put to the test three days later with the arrival of Storm Ciara. The improvements to our soil structure over the years have certainly been proving their worth this year.

 

Preparations for Spring cropping underway

Preparations for spring cropping began in earnest in February, starting with the cover crops that didn’t see sheep which I sprayed off between showers. The covers were visually very sluggish to die off, symptomatic of the cold, wet soil conditions. Interestingly, large parts of one field turned red as opposed to the usual orange as did the field over the hedge containing the same mixture. This was suggested by our agronomist to be a sign of BYDV infection in the oat element of the mixture, a reminder of what may lie ahead with the loss of deter.

After last year’s hefty cost for Lynx spring bean seed, this year’s decision was decisively easier. We decided to farm save 12 tonnes and with a sample sent to PGRO for assessment coming back with a clean bill of health we were good to go. The rain delayed our first attempt to have it cleaned, but when the sun finally did shine, Goldingham Contracts had processed the seed for us within a couple of hours – achieving a good sample ready for drilling.

 

Ben Knight

Farm Manager

Moody skies have been a permanent feature over our OSR this month

12 tonnes of beans have been farm saved for spring drilling

Strip Till cover crops provide soil benefits over wet winter

Our cover crops which are sown straight behind the combine into chopped wheat residue, once again hit the ground running, with strong plants producing significant biomass and importantly ground cover. Cover crops are an important part of our cropping system, bringing a multitude of benefits both long term and short term. Particularly in a wet season such as we’ve had, the ability to maintain the superb condition of our topsoil is a priority. The growing cover acts as an umbrella, slowing the impact of rainfall, along with maintaining soil structure and stability through living roots – mitigating erosion and leaching.

One of the key elements of managing cover crops is their termination, so as not to be detrimental to the subsequent spring crop. With large biomass covers, they offer shading to target weeds, often requiring to two passes of glyphosate to achieve the clean start required. Keen to maintain the efficacy of glyphosate, we’ve experimented with different methods of reducing this biomass.

Last year, hard frosts enabled us to cambridge roll a third of the covers, providing a shattering effect whilst laying the material back to the ground for our worms to take care of. Unfortunately, with no hard frosts this year, two thirds of cover crops have instead been grazed by sheep.

The mild and sunny Christmas through to the New Year period saw our cover crops make noticeable growth, not something we would normally expect to see at this stage of winter. But, our winter woolly visitors certainly weren’t complaining with a fresh bite to eat. The sheep have carried remarkably well given the rainfall seen during the previous four months which is testament to the excellent soil structure our heavy clays have developed after 10 years of Mzuri strip tillage. I’m keen they don’t graze any one area for too long so ensure that over half of the cover are naturally trampled with the remainder processed and returned to the soil, making the nutrients readily available to the following crop. With only a single pass of glyphosate required ahead of the drill.

As a farm centered around trialing different methods, it’s important to be able draw comparisons between approaches, so the remaining third of our cover crops were sprayed off during the middle of the month. The mild winter has meant the sprayer hasn’t required its normal winter break – tucked up, with a splash of anti-freeze – Something I can honestly say, I can’t remember the last time that this has been the case.

 

Ben Knight

Farm Manager

In the absence of frost, needed for frost rolling, two thirds of our cover crops have been grazed

A third of our cover crops have been sprayed off in mid January to compare against their grazed counterparts come spring drilling

Keep up-to-date with our latest news

Keep up-to-date with our latest news