Jack’s Farming Diary – Spring 2024

Jun 5, 2024

Despite the recent weather suggesting otherwise, summer is here! With more on how the ongoing wet conditions have continued to create challenges for our EPC-UK farming team, Assistant Farms & Estates Manager, Jack Pile gives the latest report from our working farms in Essex and Derbyshire:

And still it falls…

There’s been little change to our farming weather theme this year, rain, rain, and a bit more rain!

Weather volatility is just one of the day-to-day hurdles that farmers in the UK are increasingly having to adapt to. Whilst 2022 was one of our driest years on record, the last 18 months out of 20 have been wetter than average. 

The consequential effect on our crops has meant that the spring barley at both farms has been planted much later than usual, requiring adjustment for the expected yield; that said, the continuing rain has meant the crops have been progressing rapidly through their growth stages. 

Familiar foes

This year’s sugar beet crop has also established well, and we’re readying ourselves for the approaching aphid migration season by timing crop pesticide applications effectively to control the spread of the ‘yield robbing’ virus yellows. 

SFI update

Our farms’ application to the new SFI (sustainable farming incentive) is expected to go live in the next month or so. This will provide us with a new government tranche of payments to encourage better soil management practices, environmental husbandry and boost non-chemical methods of controlling weeds, pests and diseases.

The SFI includes a payment for soil testing: checking soil pH, nitrogen, potash, phosphorus and sodium content, so in readiness we’ve started the process by taking soil samples from each field to be sent away, tested and analysed. The results we receive back will provide us with detailed analysis for each field, covering pH and nutrients against an ideal figure, together with a recommended course of treatment for any areas that need addressing. To give an example of the type of actions we take, our soil type in Essex requires regular applications of chalk to keep pH levels optimum, with 6.5 pH proving to be the ideal figure for growing cereals. 

This image shows the pH results of one such field at Great Oakley Hall. On the left, the orange and green areas indicate that the soil pH is near to 6.5, with just a small dosage of chalk needed to reach the 6.5 optimum. The red areas require treatment, and the table on the left indicates the tonnage of chalk needed to reach field pH optimum. An accurate application of chalk at the required rate is likely to have a positive effect on our soil pH for five years or more. For this reason, we rotate our chalk applications around the fields to spread the treatment cost. As spring cereals and sugar beet are most prone to the yield reducing effects of acidic soils, we ensure we treat these fields, which are destined for spring cropping, as a priority job during the previous September. 

Seeds of nature

The environmental seed mixes we’ve planted at both farms are coping well despite our wet winter and cold damp spring. I’m pleased to say that some areas have been re-established and will produce pollen and nectar sources in the late summer, replacing the established areas that will begin to die away. 

Eggcellent news

Staying on a positive note, we spotted a number of wild birds nesting on our Essex estate, with oyster catchers and lapwings currently sitting tight on eggs around the marshlands. In English partridge news, only the males have been seen out and about at the moment, indicating that the hens are likely sitting on nests. These three red-listed species are clearly benefiting from our tight predator control which gives us a real sense of satisfaction in doing good. Ducklings and young little owls appear to love finding their way into buildings across the estate and require endless rescuing, which keeps us on our toes. Our rotation hedge management is working well for the wild songbirds too, with each species having a preferred height to site their nests. Having perfectly manicured hedges may offer a particular aesthetic, however there’s wider benefit to be had for nature in growing hedges with a wilder look. 

At the time of writing, the first high pressure of summer is building following a wet and cold spring. The crops at both farms have had plenty of rain and now require some strong June sunshine to fill the grains as the ears emerge from their stems. 

My next farm diary will detail the forthcoming harvest, from which I hope to be reporting decent yields, however no doubt the wettest winter on record will have had its impact on our final results. 

So until then, stay safe and go well,

Jack

(Description of images – Image 1: Pre sunrise application of manganese on spring barley. Image 2: Crimson clover in mid flower.) 

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