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.

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What’s Growing in that Field? part 1 Dairy Farming and Cereals

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.

winter wheatWheat 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.

Black Grass rearing its heads above Barley Maccheek at the English language Wikipedia  CC-BY-SA-3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

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!”