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Issue 126 November 2018
News from the Farm
your regular update from Nicholas
TheWeather
‘The change in temperature reminds us that we need to start stocking up for winter. Birds will soon be returning to gardens to feed.’Nicholas Watts

October has been a month of warm and cold, finishing with the coldest October day I have recorded with only a maximum temperature of 5ºC. There have been two other October days, in 1974 and 1996, when the temperature only rose to 6ºC and both were associated with strong winds and rain. Rainfall and temperature were both a bit above average.

What's HappeningOn the farm
Lifting Potatoes

So far, it has been a kind Autumn for farmers in the East Midlands. We needed rain and it came on October 14th and moistened the ground, making conditions ideal for sowing wheat and for lifting potatoes. If the soil is dry when we lift potatoes, the soil just falls through the lifting webs and without it the potatoes go through the picker with stones. When the soil is moist, it doesn’t fall through the webs, cushioning the potatoes and therefore there is less damage to the potatoes. Damaged potatoes are worth less money.

We have had several breakdowns with the picker, and with the tractor pulling the picker, so it is now time to update equipment as it is now nine years old. A breakdown when we are lifting potatoes costs us at least £500/hour as there will be several tractors and people stood around while the repair takes place. These are not mass produced machines - there are probably less than 100 made each year so breakdowns will happen.

Not sure of what picker to go for next so we have had a demonstration of a four-row self propelled picker and a three-row trailed picker. The four-row picker has a holding tank, so would not need a tractor and trailer running along side it and the potatoes would be emptied into the trailer at the end of the field. Self-propelled means that the picker has its own engine and the driver sits in the middle of it. It does of course come with a hefty price tag but it will do away with the addtional tractor, trailer and man power.

The rain we had on October 14th also made it possible to lift the sugar beet whole. In a dry time, the tap root tends to break off and stay in the ground. Sugar beet is not a good crop this year as the drought has restricted its growth. It is grown at a contracted price connected to the world price of sugar which is very low this year. Next year’s price for sugar beet is even lower, so we will be growing a reduced area.

Aside from all the problems with potatoes and sugar beet, the sunflowers were the best crop we have ever had due to our glorious summer. They were all safely gathered in during the first week in October and the wheat crop was drilled into the fields without needing to work the soil. We have also direct drilled wheat after the pea crops and we now have up to 1000 Lapwings on these fields. If direct drilling is so good for wildlife, why have we only just started direct drilling?

It is only in the past 10 years that grain drills have been developed to be able to cope with the trash from the previous crop. Direct drilling has been developed because it saved the farmer money and now that farmers are direct drilling, it has been found to be beneficial to the soil. A farmer near Bourne, Lincolnshire, has been pioneering direct drilling for about 15 years and he has been saying that he has more wildlife but, as his crops have not been looking very special, farmers have not been following him. Now that better drills have come along his crops are also looking better.

Lapwing

The Lapwings are on the fields because the stalks from the previous pea crop are still on the surface. The invertebrates come up through the soil to eat the trash, mainly at night and so become available to the Lapwings. When we cultivate our fields by ploughing, we are killing some of the insects, turning their homes upside down and burying the trash from the previous crop. Therefore, the only downside of direct drilling, as far as the invertebrates are concerned, is that they will have to come on top to feed. The upside, as far as I am concerned, is that we will have more wildlife on the farm. As the young Lapwings are having to move about more to find their food, due to there being less invertebrates in the soil than previously, this extra movement attracts the predators - Crows, Buzzards and Foxes eat the Lapwing chicks. Quite simply, if there were no soil invertebrates, there would be no Lapwings.

In the past we needed to plough the soil to bury the previous crop residue to make a trash free seed bed in order to sow and cover the seeds. The modern drills cut through the trash with discs and have more space around the coulters for the trash to pass through the drill. It has been all about saving costs and by saving costs it has been found that the soil is benefitting and that means the wildlife is also benefitting. In the past we have been thrashing the soil to make a seed bed and killing the invertebrates in the process. Agricultural machines are developed or modified to make more profit for the farmer, it is rare to find that a new concept is better for wildlife.

I have previously said that birds need the insects that live on the weeds to feed their young, but I am now realising that those insects would only make up maybe half of their diet, the other half would be from the invertebrates that live in the soil, feeding on its organic matter.

Elsewhere on the farm, the bird of the month has been the Fieldfare. I saw Fieldfares and a Redwing on October 7th - the earliest I have seen them since 1998 and 1999, when I saw them a day earlier according to my diaries. I have been seeing them all through October, although not in big numbers, but a party of 20 or 30 once or twice a week. Have you seen Fieldfares earlier than usual?

I do remember in the late seventies, I could set nets up amongst mature hawthorn bushes, near Spalding, in the middle of October and always catch Redwings and Fieldfares. Looking back in my diaries made me realise how much wildlife has disappeared. Thirty years ago Swallows were still about when the Fieldfares arrived, now Swallows usually disappear a month before the Fieldfares arrive.

I have seen three small parties of Whooper Swans resting on fields this month, presumably on their way to Welney, one of Peter Scott’s refuges for wildfowl.

A juvenile Gannet passed though the farm at Baston Fen on the morning of Sunday October 28th, and was being harassed by four or five crows. It must have been pushed inland by the strong northerly winds. I can’t remember ever seeing a Gannet on the farm before.

Winter Bird Watch 2019

Join Nicholas and visit Vine House Farm’s hides
Saturday 19th January 2019
Saturday 2nd February 2019