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Never underestimate the value of organic matter and sunshine

Suffolk farmer Tom Jewers, of G D Jewers & Son at Wood Hall Farm in Rattlesden, experienced a better-than-expected harvest, although field variations of over 6t/h clearly showed the impact OM has on yield.

Last time I wrote a piece for Farmers Guide, it was April/May and entitled: ‘We could do with a rain’. Now it’s September, and nothing has changed! Although I know we have been lucky compared to some in the area with a few light showers in May and June, we are still only at 180mm for the year (50% of normal) with the last rainfall which made it to double figures was back in the first week of June. Like others though, harvest was a surprise – much better than expected after such a period of drought. I for one had underestimated just how valuable sunshine is as well as water.

Tom Jewers

Specific weights have saved us without a doubt, and with the wheats all in the 80s, we have ended up with a year just above our long-term average – which, if I’d been offered in June I’d have bitten your hand off. Sitting on the combine, and looking at yield maps afterward have illustrated, once again, just how important organic matter is – with in field variations of well over 6t/ha observed with the higher OM parts of fields clearly showing just what a role this plays in moisture retention. Increasing the OM content of our soils must remain our principal goal going forward to manage resilience to the changing climate.

The dry weather has made for an easy harvest – but the ground is so hard we haven’t attempted any groundwork for fear of breaking machinery. Fortunately, there isn’t a huge area we wanted to do anything to, as the weather has done most of the work for us; so I can wait until there is some moisture before attempting this. Of course, this could easily flip the other way if it starts to rain and doesn’t stop!

Forlorn cover crops and fire

We have attempted to sow some cover crops though. Usually, we broadcast these and stubble rake and roll, but due to the fire-starting nature of the rake we opted to use a set of old MF discs. We tried some on 24th August on the promise of a good soaking the day after – a fault with the spreader meant we only managed 5ha, which turned out to be a blessing as the rain went west, with 2mm being the sum total received. However, we tried again on 1st September as we have cover crops in environmental schemes (plus graziers lined up) hoping for rainfall behind – but that now looks forlorn with the sun shining down on what was forecast to be a wet day.

I mentioned fire – we had a nasty incident where a spark from the rake off a flint quickly took hold and the wind roared the fire across the stubble very quickly despite having water in the field followed by many neighbours with cultivators and 14 fire engines! The most frightening thing was how it jumped after getting to what we had hoped was a break with a hedge, ditch and concrete track. However, burning leaves from the trees took it 100 yards away, near to the farmhouse. I have to thank so many people who came and helped – thank goodness we still have a plough, as I think this was the most effective tool for stopping the spread. Needless to say, this rather put us off doing any more.

Stubble fire.

Grain cleaner keeping busy

We have been kept busy though with our grain cleaner. We harvested our vetch/mustard and mustard crops at the end of August, and used the cleaner to separate the vetch and mustard before giving them both another clean ready to go to Walnes later in the year for cover crop seed. Interestingly we ended up with nearly the same yield per ha of mustard in the bicrop with vetch as we did the mono crop of mustard.

The first week of September, we cut the phacelia – which is a very different ballgame, as with no Reglone it is green, and takes a lot of work both getting it out of the combine, and then also out of a trailer and through the cleaner.

Phacelia off the combine.

Lots of air is required to keep it from composting while we get the seed separated from the rubbish in the sample. We had only planned 1ha mostly for our own use, but as I mentioned back in April, I ended up losing an OSR crop to winter stem weevil and resowing with spring OSR. Unsurprisingly, this failed too, so I ended up putting more phacelia in on that land so we at least produced something from it. However, with a greater amount, of course we have more of a problem to sort it – it’s proving to be a very time consuming task involving advanced technology such as poking sticks to get it out of a trailer and into the cleaner. We may well find the labour and cost of cooling it just doesn’t stack up against the potential reward. Time will tell, and we won’t know until we try. We still have buckwheat to cut – this is valiantly flowering still, unable to set much seed as it just hasn’t had enough water! We can wait to an extent – the trick is to catch it when we think there is the best yield on the plants.

I still haven’t taken the plunge and risked any oilseed rape. How late dare we go? Rain please! I wish you all a happy autumn planting – fingers crossed for perfect conditions!

G D Jewers is a family-run farm, just shy of 400ha. Approximately half is owned, the rest is contract-farmed. The farm is in the Countryside Stewardship Mid-Tier scheme, and has a particular focus on soil health and sustainable crop rotations, which includes extensive use of multi-species cover, catch and companion crops in a direct drilling system.
Most of 
the farm is medium-bodied Hanslope series clay loam, which behaves more like heavy land, so these cover crops are key to improving soil health and resilience. They have also proved invaluable for facilitating autumn and spring drilling, especially in wet seasons.
The farm’s current rotation is fairly long, at 8/9 years based around OSR. It generally goes winter barley, oilseed rape, two wheats, a spring barley, and then either winter beans or something more exotic and niche such as buckwheat, vetch, mustard, as a seed contract crop as a way of trying to extend the rotation. Then another wheat, spring barley, winter barley, and back into OSR again.
The farm hosts Hutchinsons Helix East Anglia, where Mr Jewers is able to test new technologies and approaches on his own farm – at no risk to him.

To read Tom’s previous column for Farmers Guide, or subscribe to our exclusive newsletters, visit: https://mailchi.mp/5f2fd1b694b4/oth-may-228029?e=885d20d520

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