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Talking Arable with Hannah Darby: Our five-year average rainfall has been on the climb, with harvest 2019 and 2020 being the wettest

Well that was an interesting year! Harvest year 2020 seemed to be the most extreme of all the growing years since I returned to work on the farm in 2015.

It is currently compounded by this torrential rain at harvest when crops are almost finally ready to cut. We managed to plant 30% of the winter wheat we intended and therefore have an extra 70 hectares of spring wheat, most of it is still to combine.

 

While there was no opportunity to plant any winter wheat earlier because the rest of the fields were to be planted behind either sugar beet or potatoes, there are things in hindsight I would do differently.

 

Using a press to level some of the land compromised the establishment by compacting the surface and we now know this 20ha was less than ideally drained fen skirt.


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Establishment

 

I was pleased that 195 plants/sq.m counted after establishment in January from the 20ha managed to yield just over eight tonnes/ha, although that average figure does not show the huge variation in the field.

 

One 5ha field was scrapped altogether, which I drilled on the frost into waterlogged soil, while another we started to direct drill in October but completed in January seemed to do a respectable 8.9t/ha.

 

I must return to many fields to combine the headlands replanted in spring wheat. All in all, I don’t think that 2020 is a year that many will forget.

Soil

 

T.E. Darby & Sons is my family farming business, started by my great grandfather. The land farmed has migrated from what is now under Peterborough to land around the city.

 

We farm a range of soil types. Most is on the drained fen soils which range in their level of organic matter up to 50%. While this may sound appealing, it has its own challenges.

 

The drainage systems mean water levels can be manipulated but, on the whole, they are now not moisture retentive. The high organic matter gives rise to high organic nitrogen levels which cause lazy rooting and pH4 subsoil means roots are not that keen to go deep.

 

Historically, our rainfall levels have been low, so this year our fen Skyscraper winter wheat planted in October benefited from the wet winter that didn’t agree with the rest of the farm.

 

I am only really getting my head around the range of extremes of soil types in the UK and how it is difficult to compare your output with others.

 

Financial benchmarking certainly has its place, but overall performance needs to consider soil types, cropping and rainfall to truly understand your potential.

 

For the second year we have been part of Yield Enhancement Network for winter wheat and peas, not that I am worried about winning anything – more to understand the potential our crops have and how we can maximise them.

Weather data

 

This spring we bought two weather stations with the aid of the small grants scheme. One for our home farm and one for the 100ha we farm 20 miles away on the north side of Peterborough.

 

The data produced has been insightful and saved many journeys with the sprayer when there has been rain at one farm and not at the other.

 

I have had a look back for any patterns in our historic data and it is safe to say there are average trends but in a maritime climate you would expect all months to be equal.

 

April and September, on average, appear to be the driest months, annually averaging 30.7mm and 31.6mm respectively, but that hides the fact that April was the wettest month in 2016 and in 2018.

 

The figures confirm my thoughts; the weather and climate are becoming more extreme and unpredictable and, for us, our five-year average rainfall has been on the climb, with harvest 2019 and 2020 being our wettest two harvest seasons.

 

Looking forward to harvest 2021, everything we are trying to do is building resilience into our way of farming, learning from past seasons while trying to anticipate what might happen in the forthcoming years.

Farm facts

A partner in her family’s farm, Hannah Darby moved to farming from her former career as a physiotherapist after completing a masters in arable crop management at Writtle College in 2015.

 

Hannah describes herself as a keen advocate of continual learning and she actively undertakes all aspects of running the farm business with her uncle, Tony.

 

 

Farm facts:

  • T.E. Darby & Sons is a family farming business in Cambridgeshire, farming 360 hectares across three farms.
  • Land is mainly organic fen soil but with wasted peats and clay soils.
  • Cropping includes wheat (winter and spring), sugar beet, peas, oats, beans and spring barley. Land is let for potatoes.
  • Business has a mid-tier agreement and is practicing no-till and cover cropping where appropriate.
  • Diversifications include renovating a large derelict farmhouse into a holiday let.
  • The main farm is around sea level and average rainfall for a harvest season is about 500mm.
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