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Talking arable with Sophie Alexander: Herbal leys have cut weeds and boosted lambing percentage

Organic farmer, Sophie Alexander welcomes a new piece of kit on her farm, which cuts out an entire field operation.

Hooray! Everything is drilled except a couple of fields of spring oats. The first field of wheat went in on February 28 and after three and a half weeks of catchy weather – with about 47mm of rain – the final wheat field was drilled on March 23.

 

Feet-up

 

The North Farm Contracting team have come up with a new ensemble; a front mounted Guttler press cultivating ahead of the Vaderstad Rapid or the Kverneland drills.

 

I like the arrangement as it cuts out an entire field operation, saving time and fuel and reducing traffic. The concept of doing as few field passes as possible appeals to me. With this in mind, I cut out another field operation by deciding not to Einbock the winter oats as they have grown and tillered very convincingly over the winter. This means the oat fields are spared traffic for 10 months of the year, from October to harvest.

 

I remember someone describing it as ’closing the gate and putting your feet up’. In other words, armchair farming. I wouldn’t go quite as far as admitting to that but, with relatively few field operations to schedule, it does allow time to focus on other priorities.


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Improvements

It has been rewarding to see the improvement in colour and structure of Straight Furlong field which went into a soil improvement ley four years ago with a mixture of red clover, chicory and cocksfoot. This year will be the first organic cereal crop we have taken off it. I made the decision to leave it in a deep rooting mixture for four years instead of three because the soil structure had slumped and there was a severe slug problem when it was first put in to conversion.

 

Lambing

 

The new herbal leys have been slow to establish. But the sheep have done a great job encouraging tillering and tidying up the charlock and speedwell. The stripes from flat rolling now make the leys resemble a well-maintained lawn and it is reassuring to be reminded how a few warmer days can rapidly improve growth. Loren Millard, who owns the sheep, has been electrified by the unusually high in lamb scan results of 220% for the flock of Lleyn, Bluefaced Leicester and Dorsets. This compares to 170% or 190% in Loren’s 20 other flocks.

 

The success rate is being attributed to their diet of diverse, legume-rich cover crops and leys. I hope they will still lamb easily and have a high survival rate.

 

Compost

 

The controlled microbial composting (CMC) operation continues to grow. Einstein Stuart worked out that by extending the turning forks by just 20cm he can manage to turn heaps twice the size. This means we can make of 160 cubic metres of compost every eight to 10 weeks.

 

Low potassium levels are one of our challenges, often an occupational hazard of light soils with high PH. It is notable that on the zoned soil maps the lowest indices do correspond to the areas of highest PH. There are no cost-effective commercially available potassium salts permissible under organic standards, so we are dependent on slow improvement methods.

 

All our usual practices of fertility building leys, cover crops and urinating livestock and CMC help address the situation.

Winner

 

Against all expectations, Hemsworth won two awards at the Holt Agricultural Discussion Group annual knees-up: third for spring barely and second for oats. I mention it, not to boast (well, perhaps a bit), but because they were the only organic entries among a hefty line-up of expert non-organic arable neighbours.

 

I was interested to learn the rationale of the judges.

One said that a) he had been impressed by the appearance and how clean the crops were and

b) he had taken into consideration the likely yield and return I would make without the application of chemical inputs.

 

I found his outlook refreshing as it did not rest on potential yield alone.

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