Oakley: a month in the life of a wheat plant continued

If you walk along the top of Crackle Hill and then downhill towards Polehanger you will notice a big difference between the wheat crops on view from the top of Crackle Hill, which are more advanced than the crops in the fields between the track and Nuns Wood, together with those ahead and beyond around the farm buildings. The latter are only now showing in rows as I write on 14th November.

This difference is due firstly to the previous crop and secondly to the wet weather in August and September. You may remember that the fields at the western, Crackle Hill end of the farm were in Oil Seed Rape last year and were harvested in late July. This meant that seed beds were prepared in August and ready to be drilled at the optimum time for first wheats ( after a break crop ) in mid to late September.

The second wheats ( wheat after wheat ) were delayed by the later harvest and subsequent wet conditions, only being drilled towards the end of the drilling window in late October. However, the plus side of these conditions was that there was plenty of moisture for immediate germination; and the grass weed seeds, notably Blackgrass, left from the last crop, when conditions last autumn had meant a less than desired control, could be sprayed off, as they had germinated well with the September rain. They will not now be present in the spring to give serious competition to the wheat for space and nutrients. Unless there is 99% control of Blackgrass, it is such a prolific ‘seeder’ that the infestation will get much worse the following year.

Slug traps are set out in order to gauge whether the population is sufficiently large to damage the emerging crop. If it is, then chemical control will be used sparingly to target the problem areas.

The germination process in any seed is a fascinating one. Why do the roots grow down and the shoots grow up, even if the seed is upside down in the soil? My school plant biology is a bit rusty but I seem to remember something about Geotropism where certain parts of the germinating seed and emerging plant react towards or against gravity; and Phototropism where the same happens with light. Amazing!


Interesting Statistic of the Month: Trees in the UK

I was amazed to read a recent synopsis of a UN report stating that Britain is now more covered in trees than at any time since 1750! This counters the common view that trees are disappearing at a great rate. 11.8% of the total land area is wooded compared to less than 5% at the end of WW1. Farmers and investors in woodland have been planting for several decades. Of course not all these trees are anything like mature yet, so although the area of woodland has increased, the visual effect is still developing. However the UK being much more densely populated than much of Europe is still a long way behind the European average of 44%.


Campaign for the Farmed Environment

When Set Aside was no longer a compulsory requirement for farmers to benefit from European payments a couple of years ago, there was a long discussion with interested bodies and government about the loss of habitat for the natural environment that Set Aside had been thought to provide. The Campaign was set up in response, as a voluntary initiative, to encourage farmers to put features into their cropping programme, or take out areas of land from cropping, that would bring those benefits back.

As I think I have mentioned in previous articles, we are 3 years into a 5 year Entry Level Scheme based around biennial hedge cutting and 6 metre grass margins against all our ditches, with some skylark (uncropped) plots dotted around in the bigger wheat fields, and some ‘low input grassland’.

We are in the process of applying to upgrade to the Higher Level Scheme which will involve more features that Natural England, the overseeing body for these schemes, suggest will benefit target species for this area and soil type. These features will include beetle banks; small areas for plants rich in pollen and nectar or seed; areas of stubble left un-cropped, and some areas around the farm reverting to grass and therefore no deep cultivation where there is evidence of archaeological remains.

We now have to wait and see how funding cuts will impact the budget available to this scheme; and whether our application fro September 2011 is successful.


Global Wheat Prices

Wheat prices, along with other farm crop based commodities, have risen in the past few months; as they did two years or so ago before falling back.

This seems to be driven by lower yields of crops harvested worldwide, a prediction of increasing demand, and currency fluctuations.

The market is now much more volatile for farmers who generally have not been used to trading into conditions like these in the past. The peaks and troughs of any market are only known with hindsight and it is rare for anyone to be able to predict, and so buy or sell into these accurately and consistently. Those who do, make fortunes in the financial markets.

These past couple of years, rather than wait to see how the market prices are once we have harvested our grain crops, we have started selling some grain ‘forward’, up to a maximum of 50%, before harvest but for delivery afterwards, if there is a price on offer that meets our budget. This protects us from unforeseen falls but also means that we don’t hit the equally unforseen higher prices that might subsequently come. So if, and when, you have to pay a lot more for your loaf of bread, it doesn’t mean that all of the increase is in our pockets!

We send our best wishes to you for Christmas and 2011

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