Winter Wheat in Elwell in Eight Steps part 2

tractor applying phosphate potash fertiliserIn order to get Elwell ready for winter wheat it has already had one dose of herbicides, two lots of cultivation, and one dose of organic (in the scientific, not Soil Association sense) manure.  We are now halfway through.

tractor applying fertiliserThe next step is to boost nutrient levels in the soil further with a fertiliser containing phosphate and potash.  This will give the seedling wheat a strong headstart so it can better fight off attack by pests such as slugs.  Both phosphate and potash are found in naturally occurring rock deposits which are mined and then purified to produce agricultural fertilisers.

This was then mixed into the soil by lightly cultivating it with a ‘cultivator and press’.  This implement consists of two parts – a spring tine harrow, which breaks up larger lumps, and a flexicoil roller, which is a sort of spring-shaped roller which gently presses the soil to squash the smaller lumps.

Having now carried out SIX separate processes, the field can finally be planted.  Elwell tractor using a seed drill to plant seedwas ‘drilled’, which means that the seed is poked into the soil rather than just being dropped on top of the ground.  This gives it a better start and protects it against animals such as birds and mice that might eat the grain.  You can learn more here.  Seed was planted at 60kg/acre.

But that isn’t the end of it!  The final stage uses a ‘heavy roller (‘flat roller’) to compact the soil.  By the end the surface was really quite smooth.

This serves three purposes.  It

a roller is used to firm the ground after drilling seed

  1. ensures that all the seeds are fully in contact with the soil so that they are able to absorb moisture and germinate.
  2. retains moisture by reducing the surface area of soil exposed to the air.
  3. deters slugs as the air spaces they would crawl about in are eliminated.  This protects the sprouting seeds:  otherwise slugs may eat them before the shoot even emerges from the soil.

Winter Wheat in Elwell in Eight Steps part 1

Growing crops is a race against time to beat the autumn equinox at the end of September.  Farmers have been working round the clock through August to get the harvest in:  if there are few windows of dry weather a farmer may literally work around the crop as a wet crop is a lost crop.

a field of newly emerged winter wheatBucolic scenes of rustics enjoying a well-earned rest after the harvest home are visions of a world which vanished decades ago (if it ever existed!).  Even before the harvest was finished in September the ground of those fields whose productivity was finished for this season was being prepared for their 2016 crops.

Elwell is a field nestled between the Hill and the water meadows around the River.  It’s soil has become deep and clayey through the gradual erosion of the Hill over dozens of millennia.  In the 2015 season it was a grass ‘ley’ – a field of grass which has been planted with a special mix of grasses and clover.  Planting a grass ley is a way for a farmer to practice rotation to preserve the fertility of the soil whilst at the same time using it productively (in this case grass for the dairy and beef herd).

In September the ley was ‘sprayed off’ with glyphosate (which gardeners call Roundup).  This means that when the new crop is planted there are no persistent weeds whose roots will simply resprout after the field has been ploughed and planted.  Roundup is a chemical which is indispensable to modern farming.  Maybe this is why it has a habit of being in the news.  Here is a link to a recent article about its possible role in causing cancer.

After about 5 days the ley, together with the weeds that have grown the previous year, has died back.  The next step is to add rotted farmyard manure – the straw bedding accumulated over the previous winter when cows were being kept in the barns.  This post explains a bit of the hows and whys of this.

The third stage is to plough the field.tractor ploughing
As the soil in Elwell is so clayey it needed extra cultivation because it sticks together in large lumps.  So when the soil had dried out a bit the whole field was cultivated with a disk harrow.  Each disc is a bit like a pizza slicer – it cuts as it rotates.tractor and disc harrow

Well, now the work is about halfway done.  Someone still needs to drive a tractor back and forth across the whole field FOUR more times before they can pause a while.  Even then they cannot rest:  the field will have to be monitored for pests including slugs.

News from Minterne

from the Hon Henry Digby


The world-wide collapse in oil price and commodity prices generally has led to very weak prices in agricultural commodities, giving farmers a particular challenge at this time. However, this year has proved to a be a relatively good year for growing and yields, despite a very wet August. Whilst China may seem a long way from Dorset valleys, the slow-down in their economy has had a major impact on farming. We are all cracking on with preparing the land and sowing for next year in the hope that prices may recover.



The autumn colours are proving to be spectacular this year as we have not had too much rain and wind. The colours change when trees and shrubs experience cold temperatures at night followed by sunshine in the morning. This acts on the sugars in the leaves to create a stunning variety of yellows, ochres, reds and purples throughout our countryside.

A Millennium of Managing Deer

The village of Cerne Abbas is so-called because of the monastery on its north side.  The ‘abbas’ were the monks.  The monastery was founded in 987 and was probably more or less self-sufficient in many ways.  The old Abbey Deerpark to the west of Cerne Abbas, opposite the Giant, was part of this as it provided meat.

Sika Deer

Sika Deer

There are three species of deer in the Upcerne and Minterne valleys. These valleys currently combine to harbour as many as 150 Roe Deer, about 100 Fallow Deer and a significantly fewer number of Sika Deer.

You can find out more about each species and its management by clicking the photograph.  This takes you to an information sheet produced by The Deer Initiative which is about that species.

Roe Deer

Roe Deer

Each type of deer must be carefully protected and managed in order to keep the herd healthy and the numbers stable.  If the numbers grow too large then there is a scarcity of food which is detrimental to the deer, and the deer damage young trees and the surrounding crops especially cereals.

Fallow Deer

Fallow Deer

Each year, during specific periods which avoid the breeding season, expert marksmen cull the older females and the oldest males.  This keeps the breeding population of the deer young and vigorous so that they produce healthier fawns, and are able to care for them better.

Deer are a valuable crop of the valley for their delicious rich meat and also for stalkers, especially from overseas, who value the opportunity at appropriate times of the year to stalk and shoot bucks and stags. Sadly they are also prey to poachers with dogs who come to kill by night and are difficult to prevent.

If you are interested in the history of the Deer Park there are some interesting resources here.

Beekeeping in Godmanstone in the Cerne Valley in 2015

from a local beekeeper –

The year started well, if slightly late. The flowers and the bees were about 3 weeks behind last year, but the rape flowered well and the bees collected some honey, though not a lot, as it was too cold to fly too far. I removed about 120lbs of rape honey, but then things went downhill.

All but 2 of my 13 colonies attempted to swarm and although I prevented the loss of a lot of bees, it resulted in over 17 colonies of some size or other. Then things deteriorated; the weather in May, June and early July might have been sunny, but it was dry and quite cold at times, so the flowers had little nectar and when the main forage plants came out, Bramble and Clover in July, there was precious little nectar. The result was that I only extracted 40 lbs of summer honey. This might also have been a result of my mismanagement, as I should have united some of the 17 hives using the new queens to produce large colonies capable of collecting lots of nectar. It requires removing the older weaker queens before putting the 2 boxes together. Owing to my lack of mobility this summer I wasn’t able to go through all the colonies in enough detail to do this, so I have learnt from my mistakes.

It also meant the colonies were starving, so when I opened them up in early September, I found one had died of starvation and most of the rest had precious few stores. Since then I have fed them 140kgs of sugar syrup which I hope will see them through the winter;  now that the Ivy is flowering and we have settled weather, they are out collecting pollen and nectar to top up their stores. Some are also visiting the Charlock which is a weed in the brassica family that looks like rape, with yellow flowers and grows on the organic arable fields near the apiary. This gives lots of yellow pollen seen on the bees back legs and nectar much like rape. So I’m hoping the fine Indian summer will carry on for a while yet, to guarantee my remaining 13 colonies survive through the winter and thankful that last year’s bumper harvest will store forever and provide honey till the next harvest.

I have also treated them for Varroa, as I always do in September with an organic thymol based product that reduces their number to a minimum. I don’t think any beekeeper can entirely eradicate this nasty pest, but keeping their numbers in check reduces the chances of the bees succumbing to other viruses, notably DWV or deformed wing virus which always seems to appear in weak colonies with high levels of Varroa.

Apart from removing the sugar feeders in the next few days, I won’t open up the colonies now till next Spring when the first warm days in March/April arrive. If the winter is mild, then they will pop out to visit the Mahonia in my garden to collect pollen, or on cleansing flights, as a  bee rarely defecates in the hive, they can hold it in for up to 6 weeks. Often they target my washing to suck up water and relieve themselves at the same time! (Brown spots on the sheets). Water is essential to dilute their honey stores to eat, they consume sugar/water in a ratio of 50:50, but honey is 80:20 sugars to water, so they need water in late winter and early spring.  A cold winter is actually better as they go into a cluster and move very little, just pumping their wing muscles gently to generate enough heat to keep the queen and the cluster warm enough. If the queen is laying in the centre of the cluster then inside the temperature must be 30’C +, otherwise 18-20’C is fine no matter how cold the external temperature drops.

Next year for the bees, I hope for a wet winter, warm spring and a summer of mixed rain and heat.

Threshing Straw for Thatching Houses

Straw for thatching needs to be well-dried.  Stooks and ricks were a two-stage process which enabled straw to be cured so it was in the right condition for thatching.  However, problems arise if there is a wet autumn because the straw is unable to dry out correctly.  As mentioned in the last post (Putting the Lids), 21st C technology has come to the rescue in the form of loaders which can shift sheaves to barns.

Manor Farm straw is threshed by Dorset-based Symonds’ Thatchers.  These photos were taken this year, on the 10th October.

overall scene

overall scene

dropping sheaf bale

dropping sheaf bale

Pete clipping reed

Pete clipping reed

Not Just Any Old Grass

Now that the spring barley has been cut, you can see the grass coming through.  This was ‘undersown’ when the barley was planted in the spring.  A specially bred variety is used:  it is called Festulolium because it is actually a hybrid of Festuca (fescue) and Lolium (ryegrass).  There is more about selective breeding of grasses here and more about the particular uses of the many varieties of ryegrass here.

festulolium growing up through spring barley

festulolium growing up through spring barley

The process of crossing two grasses which are not closely related means that the hybrids are tetraploid.  ‘Tetraploid’ means that the cells contain 4 of each type of chromosome:  normally in both plants and animals there are only 2 of each type of chromosome.  Having twice as many chromosomes means that each cell is much larger:  this in turn means that the leaves are larger.  (Modern wheat is ‘octoploid’, ie it has 8 of each type of chromosome.  This happened as a natural mutation thousands of years ago, but partly explains why a grain of wheat is so much larger than a grass seed.)

The reason that these two are hybridised is that each parent species bring a particular set of desirable characteristics.

The fescue (Festuca) brings high yield and durability:

  • high dry matter yield
  • resistance to cold
  • drought tolerance
  • persistence

The ryegrass (Lolium) brings rapid growth and tastiness!

  • rapid establishment
  • good spring growth
  • good digestibility
  • high sugar content
  • good palatibility

There are many varieties of this same hybrid, and each has slightly different traits so farmers can be very specific about the qualities of the grass they grow for a particular purpose.  The various varieties are created by ‘backcrossing’ the hybrids with either the ryegrass or fescue parent species.

This spring barley was undersown so that there would be a grass ley in place when the barley was harvested.  It will be grazed over the autumn and winter, and so the fescue’s resistance to cold will complement the ryegrass’s palatibility and digestibility well for this purpose.

Putting the Lids on Thatched Dorset Cottages

from Will Best in Godmanstone…. is the time of year at Manor Farm  for the visit of the threshing machine. When I was a small boy this was a commonplace on most of the farms in Dorset, but now I only know of 3 or 4 where it happens.

It is not that we dislike combine harvesters, but that we are making combed wheat reed from the straw. There are 3 materials used for thatching roofs: water reed, long straw and combed wheat reed.

Traditionally water reed was used for roofing  in areas where it was grown such as Abbotsbury, longstraw was used up country, but over most of Dorset it was combed wheat reed. Reed combing, which extracts all the long straight straw from a sheaf of wheat, used to be a winter manual job (Tess had to do it at Flintcombe Ash in Hardy’s novel) but in the early 20th century the mechanical reed comber was developed to put on top of a threshing machine; and, 100 years later, no one has successfully found any better way to do it.

A Stooked Field at Manor Farm

A Stooked Field at Manor Farm

So at harvest time we cut the wheat, while it is still a bit green, with a binder and stand up all the resulting sheaves in stooks, otherwise known as hiles, shocks or stitches, 8 sheaves to a stook like tiny houses: the result is rather beautiful. Once the crop is ripe and dry, the sheaves must all be carried into the dry. In the past this meant carting with wagons and trailers, building ricks the size of small houses, and covering them with thatch or tarpaulins. Rick building is a specialised craft and must be done correctly or the wheat can spoil, or be very hard to pull out when the time comes.

Building the Rick

Now we have mechanised this by making big string tied bundles of up to 100 sheaves and using a loader to stack them in a barn, and later, to take them from the barn onto a platform beside the tractor powered thresher/ reed comber which separates out the reed, grain and rest of the straw.

This is the process, but the vital bit is the growing of the wheat. Modern varieties are too short; so old, longstrawed ones must be sown. Nitrogen fertiliser and other agrochemicals weaken the straw, so the crop must be grown organically, or with very few inputs.  This means that in order to grow a good tall clean crop which will stand up well until harvest, you must have good natural fertility in the soil: we only grow ours after a grass/clover ley and an application of composted manure. The whole process is quite complex compared to modern cereal growing, but it must be done if we are to continue to cover our historic buildings with the correct material, and it helps keep alive crafts and methods which go back for millennia.

Local Farmers are Nearing the Completion of the Harvest

from Edward Gallia, Nether Cerne Farms, and Advice on Farming and the Rural Environment

At last harvest has been completed.  We completed the final field yesterday – one of beans destined (we hope) for north Africa, the near and middle east, where they soak them, grind them up, and make into a paste / dahl called “ful madammas”.  As far as I can make out, it is what Egyptian and Sudanese folk really miss when out of their countries.

For us, harvest started with the rapeseed and progressed through barley and into wheat.  The rapeseed harvest started on 23rd July so it has stretched for a period of 7 weeks.  There have been quiet gaps within this period, usually enforced by rain but sometimes waiting for crops to ripen. But when it has been busy, it has been very busy.  To give an indication, one person chalked up 280 hours worked in a four week period.

There are broadly 3 roles for the harvesting:

  • Driving the combine to harvest the crop and separate the grain from the plant.  This requires huge concentration for long periods.
  • Driving the tractor and trailer full of grain from the field with the combine back to the farmyard.  This is the stop-start job and involves a fair bit of bumping about on farm tracks.  To give an idea, a trailer of grain is worth in the order of £1300.
  • Operating the grain store and drier if the grain needs to be dried.  The grain has to kept below a certain moisture content (and temperature) in order to prevent it deteriorating in the store, and also because the sales contracts specify a certain maximum moisture.  This is a dusty job, and the most physically demanding.

A beer (made from barley) and a day or two off are well deserved indeed.  But only one or two days off as we need to prepare the fields for sowing the seeds for harvest 2016.

Harvesting near Cerne Abbas

Local photographer Jane Tearle took these photos of the harvesting in the fields just north of Cerne Abbas.

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  Combining…you can just see the grain coming out of the shoot      

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One tractor takes away a load while another comes alongside the combine

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The straw is baled……..

…….and is then loaded on a trailer to be taken for storage……..

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