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Talking Arable with Jim Bullock: No tractors, just spades

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The grass-weeds produce root exudates which stunt the growth of anything drilled into their residue
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It has been two months since a tractor has been near any of our land. The only two items of machinery to come out have been a spade to let-off surface water and a chain saw to cut up fallen trees.

 

We have our ‘winter hedges’ which we leave to trim until the last minute and last year we struggled to get them cut without making a mess and this year looks like being even worse; so much for spring cropping and accessing the land during the quiet period.

 

Still it could be worse. At least we do not farm on the Somerset Levels or have any livestock.

 

As ever, January was the season for conferences and meetings, but I feel these have been a bit thin on the ground of late, maybe because after the last two years, our expenditure on inputs has been down by up to 50%, so we may have fallen off the invitation lists.
Lamma was an obvious success at its new site judging by the number of visitors. I was there as a farmer and as an exhibitor and despite the atrocious conditions the organisers did a good job in keeping everything running smoothly. After the intense cold of last year and the exceptional rainfall leading up to Lamma 2014, I think we are due for perfect weather in 2015.

 

The statement made by Professor Simon Blackmore, of Harper Adams, at the Oxford Farming Conference that “90% of the energy going into cultivations is to repair the damage made by machines in the first place”, sprang to mind looking at some of the latest offerings at Lamma. I would have thought we have reached a point with some of the cultivation combinations where the amount steel required to make them function outweighs the job they can do, especially if we are going to continue to get these extended wet periods.

 

Some of the machinery manufacturers seem to ignore the fact the average sized arable farm in the UK is still fewer than 160ha (400 acres) and not everybody wants to use a contractor or go into machinery co-operation, so there is a market for smaller, more affordable machinery which just might not do quite so much damage to our soils. I think we will see more of the larger operators going down the Controlled Traffic Farming (CTF) route which makes a lot of sense with heavy kit, but I have heard it said CTF means direct-drilling, which might not appeal to everybody. However there are those operating very successful min-till CTF systems.

Earthworms

While on the subject of soils and cultivations, we are noticing our earthworm numbers are dropping. Not that I expect to see lots of worm activity in late winter, but I do just wonder if the recent bouts of prolonged waterlogging and the reduction in residue (due to spring cropping) are having an effect. I doubt if it is due to any toxic effect from agro-chemicals or fertilisers as we have used very few in the last 18 months. As a direct-driller who relies upon nature’s cultivators it is a worrying trend.

 

Based on last year’s experiences trying to establish spring crops, we learned where we had areas with high levels, of mature over-wintered grass-weeds, it is no good spraying them off and then expect to direct drill a crop into the dying material. It just does not work;

I was ready to blame glyphosate residues but I have since learned the grass-weeds produce root exudes which stunt the growth of anything drilled into their residue. So either you have to go early with a burn-down spray, probably not an option in 2014, or you have to do some form of shallow cultivation to dilute this effect.

 

  • Jim Bullock farms in a family partnership at Guarlford, near Malvern, Worcestershire. He is a keen proponent of conservation tillage techniques and is a founder member of the recently-formed conservation agriculture group BASE-UK.
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