2015: a year to question and challenge your farming approach!

In my mind I always have ideas:  a few sensible ones, the odd weird ‘n’ wacky idea and a few no brainer notions floating about, regarding my farming approach and how I can improve my family business’ future.

As I sit at my desk typing this, I am also at the start of my three year term as an AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds Monitor Farmer, hosting open discussion group meetings on my farm for any grower who wants to join in. This group is for farmers to come and air those ideas that they have floating around in their minds, especially where answers and support are needed to help you get the answer that is right for your own business. We had 52 growers turn up to the launch, in November, with ages ranging from early 20s to late 80s, so in the room we had roughly 2500 years-worth of farming experience!

As I prepare for the first set of ‘farmer led knowledge exchange’ winter meetings, therefore, what are the ideas floating around in my mind?

Soil management for me is a subject that needs to be considered by everyone. We are not manufacturing any more of it and we cover huge areas with tarmac and houses every year across the county. So how can we protect and feed our primary asset? Soil is a living organism made up of air, water and nutrients. The micro-biological systems are striving for a balance that they can thrive in. If they are thriving, then our soil is in good shape. Think small to gain big. With the need to learn more about my soil I have hunted down an endangered professional species that many farmers have not seen or met: ‘a true soil scientist,’ a professional who only talks about soil and, following two in-depth meetings, I have vastly improved my knowledge about how soil lives!  Just from these early meetings, my mind is full of new ideas about what I am doing wrong, what I could improve, and what I am doing well.

The greatest thing I feel, is a new thirst for knowledge, and an excitement that my farming career is at the start of yet another new journey: learning about how my soil works, experimenting with new approaches, new crop establishment techniques and adapting my crop husbandry to maintain my high crop output. A journey that will see my soil become enriched with energy as the balance of nutrients swing in my favour while the micro-biology works its almost forgotten magic.

The use of winter cover crops in front of spring planting will become mainstream on the back of the EU guidance about soil protection. As will protecting the soil from mechanical damage. Our long term rotation of 12 years allows me to use a range of crop establishments and cultivations. This gives me the best cultural controls, as well as helping me to use the pesticides available to me, in a more efficient way. However my mind is still thinking that we are at times moving far too much soil and sometimes we don’t need to do so. By moving soil we upset the balance in the earth; we open weed seeds up to germinate; we pull cultivators too deep and machinery gets bigger and heavier as we strive to get more done in ever tightening weather windows. I have booked up demonstrations of new scratch cultivators to work the top 5cm of soil and we will be trialling new drills that allow direct seed placement when conditions allow but which also can be used in a min-till and plough base system. My next drill will include a fertiliser tank to allow start-off nutrients to be placed directly below the seed, so promoting fast and healthy crop establishment. Last spring we bought a new plough, which took us out of the furrow, and ploughed everything on the stubble top. The risk of deep soil compaction meant the extra investment was worth it in our eyes, especially when the weather window slams shut and you try and finish in the mud! When you think that any wheeling will push compaction into the soil for another five to ten inches, my mind is relieved that we don’t grow sugar beet! However, the thirst for speed of operation has meant we have been caught up in a snowball effect of horsepower and on my farm I believe horsepower will reduce rather than increase as it is just not sustainable in the long term.

With the EU Common Agricultural Policy changing and price volatility becoming an ever worsening headache, the need to take a step back from the business and review its long term approach is vital, in an industry that is moving very quickly. If we are not careful will create monster machinery thugs who have lost the understanding that their most prized asset is their soil! Invest in it now as our soil needs to be rescued.

So, if you want to challenge your farming approach, invest in your soil and discuss it with similar like-minded farmers please come and get involved with the AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds Monitor Farm program. Details can be found by contacting myself or Tim Isaac AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds East Region Manager on 07964 975078 or information can be found on our website www.AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds/stowmarket.



Brian and his cousin Patrick run E.J. Barker & Sons, a family farm partnership and contracting business in Suffolk dating back to 1957. The 667ha arable farm business is farmed on 12 - and nine-year rotations, incorporating winter wheat for feed, spring barley, herbage grass seed, oilseed rape and a break crop of beans, linseed or peas. Environmental consideration is crucial to the running of the business, and remains a key factor in all decision-making on farm.