I would like to start these ramblings with a confession, I’m addicted to weather forecasts.
Whether it be via apps on my phone, Alex Dolan on Look East, local radio reports, online forecasts or any other form I can find, I’m constantly trying to find out what the weather is going to do over the coming days. This isn’t just to fuel my addiction, the weather dictates everything we do on the farm and I need to know what lies ahead to plan and prioritise jobs.
The weather over the winter can be described in three words; wet, windy and mild. In fact, very wet, windy and mild. I have only recorded temperatures of zero and below on seven occasions and 183mm of rain during the winter period. The wet weather has caused problems but I appreciate how lucky we have been in comparison to other parts of the country. We managed to conclude harvesting the last crop of sugar beet during dryer interludes and it has been safely delivered to our local British Sugar factory for processing into sugar products for all the lovely cakes, biscuits and drinks I can’t seem to keep myself away from!
The harvested fields of sugar beet were then ploughed and drilled with either winter wheat or spring barley as soon as possible after harvest. The wheat is grown for animal feed and the barley to produce malt for the brewing industry. We try not to leave the fields without a crop growing in them if conditions allow us to do so. The thought being that a growing crop stabilises the soil and reduces the potential for soil erosion and plant nutrients washing away through the soil profile.
In addition to growing crops to harvest, we have been experimenting with growing cover crops this winter. A cover crop is one that is planted directly in the stubble of the cereal crop harvested in the summer. It is left to grow during the winter, grazed by a flock of sheep then ploughed in during the spring before growing a crop to be harvested later in the same year. Although a cover crop is not brought to harvest and therefore doesn’t contribute anything financially, we believe from an environmental and soil health point of view it contributes greatly. The growing plant will store nutrients from soil, draws carbon dioxide from the air and soak up water to help in periods of heavy rainfall. The sheep then eat and digest this material before returning it to the soil to be used by the following crop thus completing the cycle.
This winter saw the planting of 1,700 meters of new hedging and 50 oak trees. The hedge species are all native to this area and include hawthorn, field maple, dogwood and crab apple. Hedge planting is one requirement of an environmental stewardship scheme the farm joined in 2018. Other requirements include planting 18 acres of wild bird food mixtures to provide a food source for our native bird species during the winter months and planting 10 acres of wild flower margins to provide a source of pollen and nectar for insects to forage on in the summer. The bird food mixtures certainly seem to be doing their job and over recent months they have been a hive of activity with me rushing to get my bird identification guide to check what was what! The sight of approximately 30 yellowhammers flitting between the food mixture and the hedgerow was a sight to behold. Talking of bird numbers, I was accompanied by eight, yes eight, buzzards whilst ploughing recently. All were following the plough and foraging on earth worms brought to the surface. This compares to the previous largest gathering of five that I saw in 2019 and is amazing considering I hadn’t seen a buzzard on the farm at all until 2009. Also, during the winter, we installed another two barn owl nest boxes to bring the total on the farm to five along with two kestrel boxes and four bat boxes.
As winter gave way to a new season, the weather duly turned in our favour and spring has well and truly sprung! The countryside has burst into life with hedgerows and trees filling with colour day by day. It has been a hive of activity as the land dried up with all spring cereals sown, sugar beet planted and fertiliser applied to all crops to keep them well fed. Crops have raced through their growth stages as the days lengthen and oilseed seed rape has started to flower. The flowers produce plentiful amounts of pollen and a local beekeeper, The Norfolk Honey Company, has placed 60 bee hives around one of our rapeseed fields to collect the pollen and turn into delicious honey. In effect that will mean two harvests from that one field. One crop of honey and one of rapeseed oil for use in margarine or cooking oils.
It amazes me how quickly the countryside changes with the new season as plants and animals respond to the extra daylight and warmth. With this new growth comes a requirement for extra water and dare I say it … we could do with a little rain in the near future!! Where’s my phone? It’s about time I checked that forecast again!!