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Why a blog about farming?

I really should know more about farming.

Being a farmer’s ‘other half’ for quite a few years, you’d have thought that by now I would have a comprehensive grasp of all things agricultural.

It’s not that I’m uninterested – far from it.  I’m always asking questions and getting lots of information in return.

Trouble is, I promptly forget most of it.

So I thought it was high time I started learning properly.  What is there to learn?  Well – a lot. The reasons that things are done the way they are;  old traditions and modern technology; the no-nonsense  business sense and the heart-wrenching emotions of this complicated, fascinating job.

And quite possibly, there will be other non-farming folk who would like to understand a little more about the industry that produces so much of our food.

So if you want to find out what farmers actually do, this blog is for you.

Join me to discover some of the fundamental aspects of British farming.  It won’t be complicated – my brain wouldn’t cope!  Just plain facts, ideas and stories about the people who have made farming their life.

In other words: farming made simple.

 

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Environmental protection schemes

Farmers care about the environment.  It’s their workplace and their backyard; they are acutely aware of their responsibility to protect the soil, water courses and the food they produce.

For many years, 70% of farmers have been participating very successfully in the government’s environmental schemes, with payments dependent on meeting strict standards relating to public, animal and plant health, environment, climate change, good condition of land and animal welfare. The government guidelines for this scheme are publicly available.

Unfortunately, the new environmental scheme currently being initiated by the government is not only extremely complicated to apply for and comply with, it is also potentially expensive. Consequently, far fewer farmers have so far signed up to it.

If the government wants farmers to participate in protecting and enhancing the environment, they need to ensure that they don’t make it too difficult!

Farming after Brexit

The B-word was bound to come up at some point!

With only two weeks to go before we’re supposed to be leaving the EU, it seems a good time to have a brief look at some of the issues for farmers. This is just a snapshot of a couple of issues. The challenges are potentially huge.

DEAL OR NO DEAL?

Whether or not the UK agrees a withdrawal deal with the EU will largely determine the immediate impact on farming businesses.

If the UK agrees a deal, the present trading arrangements with the EU will carry on, with changes being discussed during the transition period which ends in December 2020.

If there is no deal, import tariffs will be imposed on food imports by the UK government to protect farmers from cheap foods coming into the country, many of which will be produced to lower food-safety and animal-welfare standards.

But because the UK would – overnight – be a non-EU country, farmers exporting goods to Europe would be faced with much higher tariffs. Import taxes in the EU for dairy are often 35% and for lamb 40%. Competing against zero tariffs for countries exporting within the EU – for example Ireland and France – means that British farmers would simply be squeezed out of the market, and many of their businesses would collapse.

SUBSIDY OR SURVIVAL?

The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy has been controversial for a long time, with the biggest subsidy payouts going to those with the greatest area of land, notably the Queen and the National Trust.

But it has also quite literally meant the difference between the ability to make a living or bankruptcy, for thousands of farmers. Many farm businesses simply wouldn’t have survived without it.

The UK government will keep the subsidies as they are until 2022, then they will gradually be changed to a different system,

The Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, has proposed a radical change to the way subsidies are paid. In the future, farmers will be rewarded for ‘public goods’. These will be schemes to protect the environment, but nobody has yet spelled out exactly what they will entail. You can read more about it here.

Brexit is likely to cause a massive shake-up of British agriculture, possibly as a short-term shock or as a more gradual change to different priorities in food production and environment management. There will be winners and losers. Given that a third of UK farmers are aged 65 or over and fewer young people are going into the business, it’s likely that many small farms will cease to exist and the remaining farms will get bigger.

But farmers are a resilient lot. Given enough time and a fair system, they will manage the changes and survive, as they have done in the past.

As we need them to do.

Dairy firm pledges to be carbon neutral by 2050

The biggest dairy company in Europe, has pledged to make its operation carbon neutral by 2050.

Arla Foods, based in the UK, yesterday announced its ambitious goal – read the BBC report here.

This is a great move to show that the agriculture industry is willing to start rethinking and changing its practices. However, as pointed out in the report, one of the main by-products of cattle farming is methane, which also contributes massively to climate change.

So, while a welcome and positive indicator of things starting to move in the right direction, the agriculture industry has a huge mountain to climb in the next few years.

The gap

Our future … in farmers’ hands?

I haven’t written a post for a long time, for which I apologise.

There was a reason for this, although it may sound strange.

In October, two jaw-droppingly important reports and pieces of research were published. The United Nations Special Climate Report spelled out the dangers of global warming exceeding 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and suggested practical measures, including changes to agriculture, to try stop that happening.

A study by Oxford University, Options for keeping the food system within planetary limits, issued a stark warning that people in the developed world will need to reduce their meat consumption by 90% and eat five times more beans, if a global climate change catastrophe is to be avoided. You can an explanatory article by the lead academic here, and also a general press article.

Since then, in February this year, another study has been published describing a catastrophic decline in insects, which are extremely important for pollination and to feed birds and other creatures. Habitat loss by conversion to intensive agriculture and use of agrochemicals are apparently partly to blame. You can read the study here.

Incidentally, one of the weirdest things about the publication of all of these dismaying studies is the extent to which they have been ignored by the world’s media. It’s almost as if they haven’t happened, and it seems many people are unaware of them. Burying heads in sand seems the most likely explanation.

Nevertheless, all of this stopped me in my blogging tracks.

My original plan was to learn about farming as it’s practised today in the UK, then try to communicate that information to anyone who cared to read it. A ‘learning together’ kind of process.

But how would a blog about current farming practices in a small corner of the world fit into this new and serious picture? How could I possibly begin to understand, let alone describe, the enormous, radical changes that agriculture will have to undergo, in this country and globally?

It seemed too big a task. So I just stopped writing.

But over the last few weeks, I’ve realised that there is no reason why I can’t continue the blog. I hope people will still be interested in knowing something about farming – they may even be more interested, given what’s at stake. I decided that I can still describe current farming practices, but also try to put them in the context of possible future changes.

There is a huge gap between where farming is now and where it needs to be in 10 – 20 years’ time, if our children and grandchildren are to live free from extreme climate events and with enough food to eat.

I would like to help explain how we might – just – be able to achieve this.

So, there you have it. This blog is not about to disappear just yet.

Send me a comment or a suggestion for a future post.

Hay and silage – what’s the difference?

 

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Large round bales of hay

Hay

Hay is the lovely, sweet-smelling end product of drying cut grass in the sun.  The sight and smell of hay to many people is soft, warm and comforting.

But hay is actually something much more practical – winter food, or ‘fodder’, for cows and sheep.  It’s what keeps them healthy through long, dark winters – energy food, grown and preserved by sunshine.

No wonder there is a centuries-old saying ‘make hay while the sun shines’.  Farmers are anxious to dry their grass as quickly as possible after cutting.  A few days in the sun, turned once by a hay-turner machine, is all it usually needs before being baled.  The round or square bales are stored away in a barn or in an outside haystack.  But rain can spell disaster, ruining the haymaking process and leaving farmers without enough winter fodder for animals.

Silage

Silage bales near the sea
Wrapped silage bales

Silage is also made from grass and other pasture plants, but it’s completely different from hay.

It’s a fermented, high-moisture fodder which is compacted and stored in airtight conditions.  Because air is excluded, anaerobic micro-organisms ferment the plant material, preserving it so it can be stored for a long time – a bit like pickling vegetables, or making yoghurt or cheese to extend the life of milk.  Because of this process, silage also contains more nutrients than hay – a kind of superfood for cows.

Over the winter, when there are no fresh forage crops, silage can be a vital part of the diet for animals, especially cattle.  The anaerobic fermentation also makes the silage taste slightly sweet or sour, which cows seem to like!

Farmers in the UK typically get two or three ‘cuts’ of grass in summer, to make silage or hay.  Silage can be made from mown grass or other crops such as alfalfa or maize plants.  After mowing, it’s left to’wilt’ in lines for a day or two, but not as long as hay.  The farmer then uses a machine called a ‘forage harvester’ to chop it into small pieces.

Silage is often made in a pit or ‘clamp’, a very large container made with concrete walls, or built into the side of a bank.  The chopped organic matter is built up in layers on top of each other, run over by a tractor to press it down, then covered with plastic sheeting and weights to exclude air.

Nowadays, silage can also be made by tightly wrapping round bales in plastic – watch it here.  These are the familiar black (or white, green or pink!) rolls which can be seen in fields or stacked in farmyards.  This is another way to exclude air, allowing anaerobic fermentation to take place.  In the UK, there are strict rules about disposing of plastic silage film that farmers must follow, using specialist recycling companies.

Farmers need to use the right grass / crop mixture for their to give enough nutrients to their cows.  This is especially important for dairy cows, to make good quality milk.

Fact: apparently, the best time to cut grass for silage is in the afternoon, as that’s when the sugar content of grass is highest.

In case you’re interested, here you can find lots of technical information about making silage!

Tractor with baler

 

Basics – soil

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Soil is about as basic as you can get.

Soil is everywhere.  It’s so familiar that we take it for granted, yet it’s vital for producing all our food.

But what is soil, actually?  And what does it do?

Soil composition

Soil is made up of three main components:

  • rock particles, either from the rocks in the surrounding area, or transported from distant locations by rivers or glaciers;
  • organic matter, mainly the remains of dead plants and animals, and manure;
  • organisms which live in the soil – worms, insects, fungi and bacteria.

 

What soil does

To quote one farmer: ‘The job of soil is to make a plant’s life as easy as possible.’  That pretty much sums it up.

Like humans, plants need air, water, food, warmth and a place to live.  Good soil provides all of these things. Without just one of them, plants would die.  Some of the food plants need they actually make themselves from sunshine, through photosynthesis; however, they also need specific nutrients from soil.

Micro-organisms such as bacteria help to break down organic material and minerals, making them available for plants.  They can also help to break down chemicals such as pesticides, and to convert nitrogen into forms which plants can use.

Plants – incredibly – obtain carbon, hydrogen and oxygen from air and water.  Other necessary nutrients, especially nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, all come from soil.

Nitrogen is derived mostly from organic matter – material from dead plants and animals, and animal manure.  Plants use it for making amino acids and cells, and to make chlorophyll for photosynthesis.

Rock particles provide the soil’s basic structure, as well as supplying essential minerals. Potassium is derived mainly from these minerals.  It helps photosynthesis, protein production in leaves, starch production in roots and helps to form a strong stalk structure.

Phosphorus is obtained from both mineral and organic sources.  It plays a vital role in cell development and energy storage in cells.

Good soil has air spaces to provide oxygen for the living organisms.  Without air, the organisms can’t survive.  Compacted, airless soil is practically useless.                                                                                                                                                                             soil with seedlings close-up

There are many types of soil.  Whether light and sandy or heavy clay, soil can make an enormous difference to the types of crops that can be grown and to the yield of the harvest.

Soil facts

  • There are over 4 billion micro-organisms in one teaspoonful of soil.
  • Soil can act both as a source of carbon transferring into the atmosphere, and as a ‘sink’ to absorb it.  The amount of carbon in soils is about 3.2 times the atmospheric ‘pool’ of carbon and 4 times the biotic (biological) ‘pool’ – all the plants, insects and animals on earth.
  • Research conducted at Rothamstead Experimental Station in England has estimated that even poor soils may have 250,000 earthworms per acre (62/sq m), while rich farmland may support 1,750,000 worms per acre (432/sq m).
  • There are many different types of soil, which require different farming techniques – sometimes completely different types can even be found in the same field.
  • It can take 500 to a thousand years for an inch of soil to form and become fertile.  This happens more quickly in warm wet regions than in cool, drier ones.

 

Good quality soil is crumbly with many small pores within the structure to help the movement of air and water.  Poor soil has either no structure at all, or hard lumpy clods which prevent air and water moving through it.

So – there is an amazing amount of activity going on across the world, right under our feet.

Soil is one of the most important elements of farming, so we will be looking at it in future posts.

 

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