Planting my naked backside.

Satellite image of bio mass in one of our wheat fields in January 2023.

It seems a long time since I wrote my January column, which was before the Christmas break. As a result there is some catching up that I need to do.

Firstly, the annual rainfall was indeed below the twenty year average as recorded by my rain gauge on the farm. 611mm against 697mm. This figure hides quite a range from a high of 887mm in 2014 to a low of 488mm in 2003. January has the highest monthly average with April the lowest. The wettest month in my own 20 year statistics was October 2020 at 182mm. That was the year many farmers struggled to get their winter crops sown.

Secondly, did Santa get me my overalls? Well thanks to the nice man from Farol Ltd he did. Apparently, he also managed to secure a great deal on a ride on John Deere mower with a snow plough thrown in. You drive a hard bargain Santa, good for you, so now enjoy your rest. We, on the other hand, are gearing up for a busy spring on the farm.

Already planted in the autumn we have winter cereals, mostly wheat, with a smaller area of winter barley. The wheat consists of varieties suitable for milling into flour which will then be turned into bread, cakes, buns and pizzas. It also appears in pastry, breakfast cereals, even some types of beer and other alcoholic drinks and is used as a filler in many other processed foods. Here’s an interesting fact for you: every day in the UK we purchase 130 million slices of bread, 5 million packets of biscuits, 4.5 million cakes/buns and 2 million pizzas. So, if a kilo of wheat makes on average 2 loaves of bread, how many loaves would a hectare of wheat produce if the average yield is 8 tonnes per hectare? (Answer at the end) A hectare by the way is about the size of a rugby pitch. We must not forget that wheat is also used as animal feed, as is the winter sown barley that we grow. The barley that we sow in the spring is used in the process of making beer and also finds its way into breakfast cereals. A large area of spring barley grown in Scotland is for the production of whisky. Our other cereal crop that we grow in the spring is oats. We also hope to get a milling sample with these so that they can be sold to make porridge or oat type biscuits such as flapjacks.

February can be cold and miserable but here on the farm it’s time to prepare for the spring onslaught of field work. The winter planted cereals, driven by increasing day length, will be starting to grow, all be it very slowly especially if the soil is still cold. We usually aim to give them some nutrition in the form of nitrogen fertiliser and use a series of applications over the next few weeks so that most is applied before the almost inevitable dry April comes along. Using satellite images which measure crop biomass, we can target higher doses to the poorer areas to try and even up the crop. This information is put into the tractor’s computer which then uses GPS locations to vary the rate of fertiliser as it travels across the field. At this stage we are still using fairly low rates. We increase these doses as the crop growth speeds up in March.

If the weather is kind in February and the soil has managed to start warming up then we might try and sow our spring cereals. Farming folk law says that if the soil is warm enough to place your naked backside on it then it’s warm enough to plant your corn. I think there are far too many people walking our footpaths and driving around our lanes for me to try this one out! A more accurate measure is to use a soil thermometer. It needs to be 8oC or higher for growth to really get going. That seems a way off at the moment, but as we all know the UK weather is unpredictable. Otherwise, what else would we have to talk about?
(Answer 16,000 loaves)

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