By mid-January a lot of the forage brassica crops, described in my post of 18th December about feeding cattle outdoors, will have been eaten, but also the young sprouts of next year’s crops are visible in many fields. Further fields are lying fallow. Obviously the type of farming engaged by a particular farm will have a significant bearing on what is grown. In the words of the dairy farmer I was talking to last night, the main objective is to get back to grass as soon as possible. At the same time, however, other crops need to be grown to provide supplementation and food for the winter: these are planted in rotation.
As well as grass, cereals are planted. These comprise winter wheat, winter barley, spring wheat, and spring barley. The winter cereals are sown after the harvest in September/October. The spring cereals are sown in about March.
Wheat is favoured because it has higher yields. The downside is that it needs a deeper soil so can only be sown in the ‘better’ fields. Barley is better in poorer soils such as those found on slopes because the soil is thinner over the chalk. Wheat is also particularly susceptible to disease buildup in the soil. The dreaded ‘Take All’ fungus can reduce the crop yield by as much as 20%!
Competition is a fact of life. Humans create a fantastic opportunity for other organisms through ploughing, creating square miles of virgin soil ripe for seed germination, and fields of monoculture crops, creating a seemingly endless food source for fungi and other microorganisms as well as insects and larger animals like birds and mammals. Modern farming uses chemicals to redress the balance so that other species do not take too much of the food we are growing for ourselves and our animals. Herbicides kill the plants (‘weeds’) that lust after the freshly ploughed soil and pesticides kill the insects and microbes that see our crops as an easy food source.
Rotation is an ancient form of land management which also reduces the buildup of weeds and microbes (which cause diseases). The agricultural pest ‘Black Grass’ is now resistant to selective herbicides and is becoming a more serious pest. It is partly for this reason that increasingly cereal crops are not sown until the spring. Instead the field is roughly cultivated in the autumn in order to ‘chit’ the weed seeds (encourage them to grow). Once they have been tricked into growth, the field is sprayed with Roundup (glyphosate), a herbicide which kills plants by interfering with biochemical pathways unique to plants.
I once knew a farmer in Herefordshire who was totally unembarrassed about using chemicals. “Jane”, he said, “when you’ve spent your youth hoeing the weeds from 50 acre fields of potatoes, you KNOW what the alternative is!”