Establishing a minefield

March 2015

Now three meetings into my new journey as a monitor farmer for the East my mind, like my farm tracks, has turned rather muddy! Not dirty: dirt is found under your finger nails or on the kitchen floor. Mud is found when lots of water mixes with soil to create a soup. My mind has not been flooded with rain like my tracks but flooded with questions and not many answers.

I have always been one that likes to ask questions of my farming practice. One thing I dislike with a passion is the saying: well, that’s the way we’ve always done it! This, for the farming community, is one of the most dangerous comments a farmer or any entrepreneur can say out loud. This is what holds so many back. It is a statement of intent, the intent of not wanting to change with the times and thinking that they are doing just fine.

In my head when I hear or I get close to saying those dangerous words, I sit back, take stock and investigate the pros and cons of what I am thinking about. Rarely, when you take off the rose-tinted glasses do the answers remain in the same light. Many times the ‘way we always do it’ has been shaved, altered and corners cut to make it seem easier for us but probably not for the problem in question.

Many have heard of, and I hope carried out, a SWOT analysis for their own business recently. Although some might feel that SWOT is just business lingo without much meaning, I differ in my opinion. SWOT analysis done well can evaluate your business, enterprises and potential development of an idea.

This brings me to my current internal debate: crop establishment. Over the last couple of years my knowledge of soil, crop nutrition and costs associated have built and built. I am now at the critical tipping point of that scary word…….CHANGE!

Having inherited a traditional mixed farm approach from my Dad and uncle based around the plough, with spring cropping and grass seed crops integral to the bigger picture; little bits have changed, but not much. The plough or the cultivator are the primary soil movers hitting the stubbles, depending on my specialist requests.

Prior to this, I carry out mole draining and sub-soiling, depending on soil conditions and soil requirements. Stubble raking and stubble rolling are carried out if moisture and black-grass populations are known to be on the surface and if conditions look favourable.

A unipress is then quickly up behind both primary cultivators to consolidate the surface and then allowed to weather. Fields are left, sprayed off prior to drilling and then, usually as the big elastic band in the workshop breaks and the drill flies out the door, the unipress starts off and works 24-48hrs in front of the 6m disc followed by our 12m set of rolls. We keep the power harrow as the last resort and it is hardly ever used, more used in anger than in necessity!

It’s a pretty standard medium clay loam farm approach; however cracks have started to appear:

  • Weather windows slamming shut, but the drill favours dry soil
  • Wattle and daub (straw and clay mixed) seedbeds post Simba SL becoming wet and un-movable
  • Agronomists and research advising us to delay drilling if black-grass is the problem
  • Agronomists and research saying higher yields could be achieved from early drilling
  • Our fuel monitoring saying the tracked tractor costs me £31/hr in fuel
  • The clay soil’s ability to compact with any travel
  • Headlands being screwed down tight by the tracks and the heavy drill twisting as it turns
  • Plant nutrition research showing added benefits from start-off fertiliser
  • The need to leave black-grass seeds undisturbed for as long as possible to reduce the numbers without risk of chemical resistance
  • The need to have a flat seedbed so the drill can leave the illusion of a lovely flat, even seed placement.
  • The benefits of controlled traffic farming becoming more understood.

So where does this leave me apart from a muddled mind-set while wearing my rose-tinted farm glasses?

The alarm bells are now ringing and the comment that should never be mentioned could now be applied.

My SWOT analysis of crop establishment is now overdue. Having never demonstrated a drill in my farming career I have got six drills arriving this spring. Meetings with machinery dealers and manufacturers are under way. Fag packet budgets are being drawn up. The tipping point is close but, as with any decision, a sound business plan is required and I must not lose sight of what is the most important asset of my farm and what I need to look after the most: my soil.

What would be best for my soil? A question to be debated another day!

Direct drilling? Strip tilling? Controlled traffic? Disc coulters? Tine coulters? Cross-slots? Cover crops? Low disturbance cultivators? Shallow tillage? Zero tillage?  Questions a-plenty, and answers that won’t be found without some element of a ‘leap of faith’ in the thought process that I am currently going through.

Our next Monitor Farm meeting is on 6 March 2015. Discussions will be around herbicide strategies and cultural controls.  All are welcome to come and join in.

Until next time……happy farming!



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.