For the Christmas edition of Onsite, the editorial team is joined again by EPC-UK’s Assistant Farms & Estates Manager Jack Pile, as he updates us on how the autumn months have fared on both our farms and what jobs he has lined up for the week before Christmas: 

Winter on our farms, which surround the EPC-UK Essex and Derbyshire sites and provide the buffer zone required to perform operations safely, has now started to arrive. As my grandfather used to say: ‘After harvest is when the hard work is done, and the groundwork is laid for the next harvest.’ True to his expression, we have been busy in the fields during the run up to winter, spending October and November turning the land around so the fields are ready to be drilled with the next harvest’s crops. 

You may recall from my previous autumn entry, that we have already planted 2022’s Oilseed Rape (OSR) crops. The planting is looking well and appears to have seen off the worst of any flea beetle damage. As we head further into winter the aerial attacks from pigeons and geese will become our next crop protection challenge. We’ve already applied a fungicide to protect the green leaves from fungal diseases such as phoma and light leaf spot which can have detrimental effects on the crop’s yield. In addition, a herbicide has been used to kill grassweeds in the OSR, such as Blackgrass and Ryegrass. 

Strategic planning

Now is the time for us to determine our cultivation strategies for individual crops. Depending on which crop is destined for which field, its cultivation, crop and weed burden history, we will set out the most appropriate plan. We will try to utilise minimal tillage techniques, moving only small amounts of soil to create a suitable seedbed. The benefits of this method include reduced fuel usage, reduced wear and tear on equipment, increased storage of carbon and soil organic matter, and retained soil moisture. 

In addition – we have been spreading some of the 1,500 tonnes of muck we apply every year on a rotational basis across the fields around the farm. This increases the trace element content in the soil required to enable crops to grow, such as potash and phosphate. 

Knowing the drill

Once the fields are ready, we can start planting or ‘drilling’ our primary wheat crop. We did this at the beginning of October.  Depending on the weather this process can continue up to the end of November.  We use a seed drill to plant the seeds in rows, sowing a very precise number of seeds per hectare. The drill uses a powerful fan to blow the seed down the pipes to the seed coulter to be planted at around 4-6cms soil depth for wheat, 1-2cms for OSR and 10-15cms for beans. The amount or ‘rate’ of seed planted depends on the soil type, previous crop, and weed pressure, with seed rates varying from 150kgs to 250kgs per hectare. Once we start drilling it’s all hands-on deck, as to drill a field five important stages need to take place, one after the other: 

1. We drill the field, often with a light cultivation. 

2. Then we roll the soil to increase ‘soil-to-seed’ contact.

3. The soil is then made level and any lumps or clods squashed. 

4. Next we spray a liquid ‘pre-emergent’ herbicide, which covers the fields with a thin film to help control grassweeds such as blackgrass and ryegrass. 

5. Finally, a granular herbicide called Avadex is applied, which also helps to control grassweeds.

To deliver the best results, these 5 stages will happen within 24-72hrs from the first to the last. Good weather and working machinery are of course vital to the process running smoothly. I’m pleased to report that this drilling season has been better than the autumns of 2019 and 2020, which due to the wet conditions were extremely challenging for farmers trying to get crops drilled in the UK. 

Field work

As part of our Countryside Stewardship, we planted 25 hectares of legume fallow back in September. A mixture of legumes, grasses and flowers, the legume fallow will grow for two years, improving the soils, capturing and storing carbon, and providing feed for pollinators – all with very little physical management from the farming teams. 

Sustainably sweet

In between cultivations and drilling we have also begun our sugar beet harvest. Harvesting sugar beet takes place between September and January. This is when the sugar beet factories are open and start taking farm deliveries. Unlike the cereal harvest, harvesting beet can be done in wetter conditions, as lifting the roots out of softer soil causes less damage, so protects the sugar yields. We use a contractor to harvest the beet, with a very specialist and expensive machine. The beet is heaped up in clamps, before being transported in lorries to the British Sugar Factory at Bury St. Edmunds. Evidence of its onward process can be seen along the A14, where huge volumes of steam are pumped out at this time of year. The beet is then cleaned, sliced and boiled before being cooled to produce sugar crystals. This sugar is sold under the ‘Silver Spoon’ label in most supermarkets and is far more sustainable than imported cane sugar. If conditions allow, we will continue to lift beet through until Christmas, as the roots will continue to grow and add yield, however it is important to strike a balance between adding beet yield and potentially sacrificing the following wheat yield by delaying the drilling date. The early sugar beet we harvested in September had good yields but low sugar content, due to the dull and damp summer, as the plant requires sunshine to convert into sugar through photosynthesis. 

Wheat dispatch

The wheat that was harvested in the summer has been stored in our barns and is slowly being shipped out to various locations such as Ipswich Docks for export to the Mediterranean. The soft wheat has gone to mills in Bishops Stortford and Mistley. Each lorry load of wheat (29 tonnes) carries its own passport, stating where it was grown and by whom. It is also allocated a Red Tractor number to show it’s been grown and stored to crop assurance standards and confirm that all high quality and high food standards regulations associated with the crop have been met. 

Warm wishes for the season

So, with another busy autumn of farming activity under our belts, we can look towards Christmas. There will still be crop protection applications to complete and 25% of our sugar beet is due to be harvested during the week running up to Christmas, so we won’t be relaxing just yet. However, we’re looking forward to the festive season and wish all a happy and safe Christmas and New Year.

Until the spring, all the best,