One of the quietest times of the year on an arable farm is the dismal month of January. I am sat here writing this the day after ‘Blue Monday’ which apparently is the most depressing day of the year, so called because with Christmas behind us and the days short, cold and miserable then it can all seem a bit, well blue I suppose. However, I find it one of the more optimistic times because, all be it very slowly, the nights are definitely starting to draw out. I can see the daffodils just starting to poke out from their winter slumber and I am sure I can hear more birds when I am out crop walking. There are certainly more pigeons trying to eat my oilseed rape plants, so every day is a pigeon scaring day. They can very soon do a considerable amount of damage to the crop by stripping the leaves bare and you can end up with just a few stalks. The crop will struggle to get going again in the spring if it is missing green leaf area to intercept the sunlight. Also, the leaves that have grown over the autumn have mopped up any nitrogen from the soil, which is then available to help with the spring growth. If the leaf has been eaten, the nitrogen is no longer available to the plant. This all sounds pretty depressing but fear not, as you are reading this in February it means spring is but a heartbeat away and soon, we will be busy in the fields and the dull winter greys will be replaced with green.
During the winter months we fill our days with maintaining our machinery and infrastructure. We have some 3000 tonnes of grain to out load to keep you all supplied with bread, beer and porridge. Then there are the 2800 tonnes of farm yard manure to move from our neighbouring cattle farmer’s yard out to the fields, which will help fertilise the maize we will grow to feed his cattle next winter. That does need either dry weather or frozen ground for us to travel, neither of which we seem to get enough of as climate change leaves us with wetter, milder winters.
In the office I try to plan ahead for the coming growing season and several years into the future. As you drive along the country roads in your car it probably just looks like random fields growing a range of different crops. We have a 5-year rotation here, so that each year a field will produce something different. This helps to control the build up of plant disease, weeds and pests. We work very hard to look after our soils, to encourage the build up of organic matter, worms and micro-organisms and we regularly test to see what reserves of plant food we have. Then, as we near the end of February, we start to apply artificial fertiliser to help the plants grow. All of this requires planning. I dig out the digital files that were recorded at harvest mapping out how each field yielded and which were the poor and good areas. This all has a GPS tag on it now, so I can go straight to certain areas and take a careful look to see what might have influenced the previous harvest. We can also supply the plant and soil with its precise requirements whatever part of the field the machine is travelling over.
Apart from starting to feed the growing crops which were planted in the autumn, towards the end of this month we will also start to think about sowing our spring crops. In our case, barley to produce malt for beer making and oats for milling to provide you with porridge. We need the soil to dry out and start to absorb heat first to help the seeds to germinate. The maize, being a semi tropical plant by origin, will have to wait another couple of months until the chance of frost has receded.
I trudge across the fields nearly every day of the year checking on my crops. When the sun shines and the crops start to grow, I feel very privileged to be doing this job we call farming. Actually, its not a job at all it is a way of life and long may it continue. Let’s not export it to the other side of the world. Eat British produce, it keeps me and 1000’s of other farmers from being blue.