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From farm to feeder
Issue 121 June 2018
News from the Farm
your regular update from Nicholas
TheWeather
‘Live mealworms are the best food to help breeding birds, as they enable moisture to be taken back to the nestlings. Keep bird baths topped up too’Nicholas Watts

May has been a pleasant month, above average temperatures and slightly below average rainfall, 40mm or 1.6ins. We have had the threat of heavy thunderstorms but they have been keeping to the south of us. Meanwhile the north west are asking for some rain.

What's HappeningOn the farm
Drilling sunflowers

The good weather during May has allowed us to get all our potatoes planted and the bird seed sown. Every year we have a real problem protecting our sunflowers from birds as they emerge through the soil. As they were drilled later than usual and during one of the warmer spells of weather, they came up quicker than usual.

When planted a wheat seed, or a pea seed, puts a root down and a shoot up. If that shoot gets eaten off, it will put another shoot up. The sunflower seed puts a root down, then the seed is pushed up which breaks into two, to form the first two leaves of the plant. If the shoot or seed is eaten as it comes through the ground that is the end of it.

We drill them seven inches apart and in 18 inch wide rows, which is about 10% of the usual seed numbers that we would drill peas. It only takes one pigeon to clear an acre of sunflower shoots in a few days. Once the cotyledon leaves - the first leaves to appear from a germinating seed - have opened out the pigeons will leave them alone. The timing is very critical, as it is only as they are emerging that the pigeons find them irresistible

As you know sunflower seed is the tastiest bird seed there is and so once birds get a taste of what is emerging from the soil, they home in on it. Bangers are useless, so we have to have a man on the field waving a flag if we are to keep the birds off. The external edges of the fields get eaten the most, so this year we covered the outside 12 metres with fleece and we now have the best plants we have had for many years. This is our 20th year of growing sunflowers.

We still have more than 1,000 tons of potatoes in store. Because of all the wet weather there is not and will not be so many early potatoes coming on to the market as usual so the supply of old potatoes will have to last an extra week or two. Because of this I would have expected the price of old potatoes to have increased but on the whole they haven’t. All the potatoes that have a good skin finish will get sold and by that I mean the ones that look nice, but those that are unattractive to look at will have to go for cattle food.

When we are growing potatoes for chipping or crisping, the factories are not really interested in how they look, as they are more interested in what is inside the potato. They require a fairly dry potato, so that when it is being fried not too much oil is used, as cooking oil is far more expensive than potatoes. They will also want the chips, and crisps, to be a creamy or yellow colour after being cooked. In fact when the lorry arrives at the factory they cook a sample of the potatoes on the lorry, before the load is accepted.

The price on acceptance could be anywhere between £150 to £200/tonne but if it is rejected, it will most likely have to go as stock feed and that price will be about £10/ton. If we have a good potato store with good insulation and good airflow through it, this allows the potatoes to be stored at the correct temperature and that will minimise rejections.

If the temperature of the potatoes drops below 6°C for a week in store, they will fry a dark colour and that means a rejection. We know their rules and it is up to us to look after the potatoes properly.

The highlight this spring has been the Oil Radish. Last autumn we drilled three fields with Oil Radish to be a catch crop over winter. This spring those three fields have 10 pairs Lapwings nesting on them and I can never remember Lapwings nesting on those fields before.

This is the third year we have drilled Oil Radish and followed it by Spring Barley. Lapwings have nested in these fields every year and there are now also twice as many Skylarks. I have seen several hares on each field and Corn Buntings have been on two of the fields, mostly females. These fields are about one mile away from where they normally breed. The males have been proclaiming their territories where they had territories last year. As egg laying does not start until mid June, the females are able to wander, in search of the best food sources. Males - I suspect young ones - have taken up territory on each of the two fields and are singing, but I suspect that all will return to where they were bred or were breeding last year. When they do return, they will see I have been putting out feeders of wheat for some of them.

Now is the time to be feeding live mealworms. Studies have shown that by feeding live mealworms you will increase the numbers of birds fledging in and around your garden by up 60%. If we want to see a lot of birds, we have to breed a lot of birds.

Feeding seed out of bags will help the adults and the young birds after they have fledged, but it is when the young birds are in the nest that they need that moist food as the parents cannot take them water. I get far more pleasure out of feeding live mealworms in a cage than any other bird food. All sorts of action goes on as Starlings wait outside the feeder trying to mug those that go in to collect mealworms. I don’t ignore the Starlings either, I soak sultanas for them to feed their young.

I have finished all my surveys now, birds will soon start to sing less as they will not need, or not have time, to hold a territory. The exception to that rule are members of the Bunting family. Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings will be singing right up to early August. If you know where one is singing, it would help them if you were to sprinkle some wheat on bare ground nearby as food is still in short supply out there in June.

Preliminary results from my surveys are that we have a lot less Reed Buntings breeding in Deeping Fen. The previous two years have shown increases in territories so I will be trying to find out why we have less Reed Buntings nesting.

I am seeing several young Lapwings around, especially on our wetland area in Baston Fen, where I have also seen young Redshank. On this area we also have four pairs of Shoveler, three pairs of Gadwall, six pairs of Tufted and two pairs of Oystercatchers. All in all very pleasing.

Farm Walks & Events

  • Sat 16th June - Farm Walk
  • Sat 4th August - Sunflower Walk
  • Sat 11th August - Sunflower Walk
  • Sun 12th August - Sunflower Walk

Tickets are £10 & available to buy online or by calling 01775 630208