In 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.
The 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 was ‘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
- ensures that all the seeds are fully in contact with the soil so that they are able to absorb moisture and germinate.
- retains moisture by reducing the surface area of soil exposed to the air.
- 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.
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.
Bucolic 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.
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.
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.
Local photographer Jane Tearle took these photos of the harvesting in the fields just north of Cerne Abbas.
Combining…you can just see the grain coming out of the shoot
One tractor takes away a load while another comes alongside the combine
The straw is baled……..
…….and is then loaded on a trailer to be taken for storage……..
One reason why farmers are so busy in the summer is that they are having to grow most of the food that the cows and sheep will eat in the winter when nothing much grows.
Even though it’s the winter, the cows (and the bacteria in their rumens!) like grass. As any gardener knows, the grass doesn’t grow much in the winter so the cows need to be given grass preserved in some way – either dried (hay) or pickled (silage). Silage is a lot more palatable because it is moist and it is also more nutritious.
The key to making good silage is to exclude the air so that the carbohydrates in the grass ferment rather than decompose.
Grass may be ‘ensiled’ by packing it into a silo or by rolling it up into large bales covered with plastic to keep the air out. This favours the growth of acid-making bacteria such as Lactobacillus, and the weak acids they make preserve the grass and its nutrients. Another species of Lactobacillus plays a similar role in the making of yogurt and cheese.
Another form of silage is made using chopped maize plants and ‘wholecrop’ wheat. The maize and wheat are harvested using a ‘forage harvester‘. It gathers the crop in a similar way to a combine and then chops the plants and blows them into a trailer. The chopped plants are then put into a ‘clamp’ and packed down to exclude air by driving the tractor over them.
In addition to silage, which is largely composed of fibrous cellulose, farmers give their stock ‘concentrates’ to enable faster growth and milk production by providing extra protein and carbohydrates. Concentrates are comprised of rolled barley (which is home-grown), and soya bean and molasses which are bought in.
The maize/wholecrop silage, rolled barley, soya, and molasses are combined in a ‘mixer wagon’ and taken to the feeding areas. Judging by the eagerness of the cows, it’s pretty tasty!