The devastating floods of 2013 saw Somerset farmers having to evacuate thousands of animals and abandon almost 7,000 hectares of land. One year on, Jane Brown visits one beef farmer to find out how the recovery is going.
It is hard to picture the aftermath of last year’s floods on the Somerset Levels. Swathes of farmland lay under water for more than a month, houses were destroyed and buildings laid to waste.
Once the waters receded, there was the contamination from diesel, oil and slurry stores to deal with, as well as the plethora of debris which lay for miles around, ranging from baler twine and silage wrap to dead wildlife and building rubble.
James Winslade, who farms 2,075 hectares (840 acres) of arable land and pasture at Newhouse Farm in Moorland, Somerset, was among those worst affected. With the entire farm under water between December 2012 and March 2013, he eventually had to evacuate his 550 cattle on February 4, as floodwater rose by about 0.9 metres (three feet) in just 18 hours.
Although the stock returned to the farm on March 27, Mr Winslade and his family did not get back into their house until October 17, as 0.9m (3ft) waves had smashed a tree into the side of the old farmhouse, destroying part of the wall.
He says: “There was an awful lot of clearing up to do. Volunteers turned up from all over the country to help clear the fields of rubbish.
“There were miles of string and bale wrap in the hedgerows, as well as electric fencing, bales, bricks, batteries and so on. When we went silaging, the metal detector was going off all the time.”
But it is not just the visible damage which caused problems. With the land under water for so long, it became anaerobic and compacted, with considerable damage to worm and other invertebrate populations.
“My agronomist worked out we had more than 10,000 tonnes/acre of water on the land,” says Mr Winslade. “All the nutrients were washed out of the soil, and some fields became very acidic.”
To alleviate compaction following the floods of 2012, Mr Winslade had already invested in a sward lifter (for deep compaction) and aerator (for shallower compaction), and saw a considerable improvement as a result.
He says: “We sward-lifted all of the arable land, and did half of one field to see what a difference it made.
“One month later, we ploughed it, and where we had lifted it, the soil came over dry and well-broken, while the rest came over in slimy clay slabs. It was incredible.”
A similar trial on a maize field saw the crop grow 457mm (18in) higher on the treated area.
Following last year’s floods, Mr Winslade replaced his 3m aerator with a 5m version, and worked most of the farm down last spring.
“We got permission to aerate some Higher Level Stewardship ground, as even some of the peat became compacted,” he says.
Maize and arable stubbles were lifted again after harvest in the autumn. “We went across the tramlines and there is no water left standing in the wheelings now.”
Alleviating compaction and rebuilding organic matter has helped boost worm populations and the application of beneficial bacteria also helped restore soil health. “It already smells so much better.”
An additional problem on Salt Moor was floodwater left salt crystals across the top of the soil, creating an inhospitable environment for crops.
Mr Winslade says: “We have sward-lifted it so subsequent rainwater will wash the salt down into the substructure again.”
To replace lost nutrients, particularly manganese, Mr Winslade has been spreading river silt (from this year’s dredging) and farmyard manure on the land, but also had to resort to inorganic fertiliser to start with.
He says: “All of our dung was washed away, so we are having to rebuild our stocks. We are importing some chicken muck, which we will have analysed and mix with our own muck, and we have applied a lot of lime to bring the acidity back up.”
As a result, the fertiliser bill last year topped £7,500, compared to £2,000 in a normal season. He has also had to reseed a lot of the farm using a direct drill to minimise further damage to the soil and its fauna.
“We reseeded 250 acres in spring, which was not an ideal time, but we needed the forage. We also put in maize and spring cereal crops – thankfully we had a very good summer.”
Reseeding costs ran to £14,000 on grass seed, £2,500 on a direct drilling contractor, and £9,000 on sprays, compared to £4,000 in a normal year.
“We left some land to regenerate naturally, as I did not want to buy any more seed, and have over-seeded bare patches,” says Mr Winslade. “We will probably do some sward samples to see what the quality is like this year.”
However, he had a huge problem with rushes and creeping buttercup, which were smothering regrowth and had to be sprayed off.
“We also had a massive problem with wild oats, which love acidic soil. I ended up mowing the grass leys to prevent it going to seed, but it had a huge impact on silage yields.”
Mr Winslade chose mostly four-year grass mixes with perennial rye-grass, white clover and Timothy, as well as some fast-growing two-year mixes with Italian rye-grass.
He says: “Before we had 120 suckler cows, but we culled hard after floods as we had a lot of abortions when we evacuated.
“We sold off 140 cattle in total, but now have 96 suckler cows and are looking to return to the 120 mark again, so need the forage to feed them.
“We buy-in 100 weaned calves from Cutcombe market each year, so finish at about 200 head a year.”
As one of the founder members of what has now become Forage Aid, Mr Winslade helped co-ordinate the initial pledges and distribution of forage to flood-affected farmers. Thanks to the generosity of producers across the country, he and other Somerset farmers managed to keep their stock fed while waiting to rebuild their own forage stocks.
He says: “We salvaged some of our maize silage, but it turned out to be full of diesel and other toxins, so we could not feed it.
“After the water receded in March, we cleared the most productive fields first, direct drilled and harrowed them, and then replaced the fencing as we turned cattle out. We actually managed to get a first cut of silage in August, and thankfully the maize quality was pretty good.”
Mr Winslade calves his Hereford, British Blue and Limousin cows all year round, putting them to Charolais, Simmental and Limousin bulls. He aims to finish most stock to sell at Sedgemoor market at 28 months old, with heifers at 550-600kg and steers at 650-800kg.
“We buy-in spring-born calves in autumn, so finish a lot for the Christmas market. All animals are tagged with their target sale date and managed in groups to feed and house accordingly.
“Everything gets a copper bolus as the soil is copper deficient, and we feed barley and hay all year round.”
Typically, cows are turned out in April, with the rest going out in May, either before or after silaging, depending on weather. They are then housed again on wheat and barley straw in October or November and fed 1kg/day of barley, ad-lib hay in feeders, with grass and maize silage in a ratio of 3:1.
“We cut 250 acres of first cut silage, with 150 acres of hay to sell, and 60 acres of round bale silage. We usually make two cuts and graze the aftermath.”
This year, Mr Winslade has increased his maize acreage to 20ha (50 acres), to sell some to neighbouring dairy farmers, with 40ha (100 acres) of spring barley and the remainder down to winter wheat for straw and sales of grain.
He says: “We aim to be self-sufficient to keep costs down. I do not want to buy-in any forage.”
Restoring land to good heart is therefore absolutely vital. “It will be another two years before it is back to its full health. If money was no object, we could halve this by applying lime and inorganic fertiliser, but we cannot afford it. Nature is a wonderful thing – it is surprising how land can correct itself.”
So what does the future hold? Now the rivers are being dredged, Mr Winslade is confident the buildings will not flood again any time soon. And having lost £100,000 of machinery and tools which were not insured against flood damage, as well as farm buildings and stores of barley, wheat, oats, straw and silage, he has a lot of investment to recoup.
He says: “I had aimed to pay off my mortgages by 55, but now I will be nearly 70. We will keep doing what we are doing, and improving the soil. It is getting harder to buy weaned calves, so I think we will increase suckler numbers and see what happens.”
CONSISTS of 339 hectares (840 acres), 260ha (640 acres) of which is owned, comprising: