Monday, December 14, 2015

Flood control needs greater farmer cooperation

Farmers across Britain pull together to give essential help

Volunteers with diggers and tractors open the beck in Glenridding, Pic:
Synopsis: This article suggests that farmers consider another way of helping each other. Flood prevention should involve water management in the uplands, not just where rivers overflow in the towns downstream. Management of the land which catches the rain is not difficult. Increase the water retention, or porosity of this upland grassland, and there's less water in the streams leading to swollen rivers. Running an aerator over the sward is a simple low cost solution which has the added benefit of improving grass production the following season. Water percolates into the soil instead of flowing across the surface.  

Farmers are hugely generous to each other in a crisis such as floods. Wagons of forage and bedding are donated free of charge by those unaffected in the eastern counties. Local farmers use tractors to help local folk get out of trouble, and their farm diggers to clear and dredge streams. Farmers have played a huge role in the Cumbrian floods. As always, they've pulled together using their kit to clear streams of trees and other debris so the water can flow, used their diggers to clear blocked roads and dredge silt from streams and becks.

From the other side of the country there are other farmers who once again are providing wagon loads of straw and forage generously donated by people who themselves have their own problems. It's something that's not been pointed out by the media or the NFU. This help is coming from people who have been hard hit by the commodity collapse this year. All which makes their generosity even more impressive. Donating a load of silage when your own dairy herd is losing money is real generosity.

The RABI has surgeries at local marts - Tues Dec 15 Kirkby Stephen (4pm onwards); Wed Dec 16 Penrith (10.00-12.00) and Cockermouth 1.30-4.30; Mon Dec 21 Carlisle (10.00-12.00).

There can be nothing worse than a flooded livestock farm. Damaged and destroyed forage and bedding, livestock at risk through wet and cold, slurry and other muck getting everywhere - nothing could be more depressing. The farms most affected are those in the valley, often stocked with the housed livestock. The flood water in their yard has come off the hills of their upland neighbours, many with grazing sheep and outwintered cattle.

How upland farmers might help their valley neighbours

Readers will know that I am an enthusiast of grass aerating. Having made the spiking machine shown below in 1988, I found it made a big difference to grass yields. Cutting through the compacted top two inches so air and life could be let in, it was also discovered that, unsurprisingly, the slits allowed rainwater to soak in. This was useful when rain quickly followed slurry spreading and there was a real danger of run-off polluting a stream. In the 24 years of this magazine there have been numerous flood 'events' and each time I bring out the proposition that aerating upland grassland would reduce run-off.
Mike Donovan's aerator made from a scrap Vicon Olympus mower as featured in Practical Farm Ideas
Each time the message has been sent to Defra and other official bodies, but with no reaction. No doubt their staff ask "How could a simpleton without a doctorate or professorship know anything interesting, and how can an idea so simple be expected to work?". And they doubtless than go on to say that any such idea needs scientifically testing and proving.

The Facebook post on the  topic has reached 7,744 farmers and attracted comments. While half or more thought the method looked good, others said aerating would never absorb the volume of rain which fell and that anyway autumn was the wrong time to be aerating grassland. I'm not too certain that either of these objections really stand up and I've provided them with my reasoning. If the aerating job absorbed 10% of the downpour it might well be sufficient to reduce the flow sufficient to protect the farms close to the river.

Waiting for Godot - or Defra

Defra, and other government departments, often mirror Samuel Beckett's absurd play where two men wait forever for their friend Godot. On this occasion I don't think we need wait forever. Upland farmers might be galvanised to run over their land with an aerator each autumn, preparing the surface for a possible downpour, at the same time helping grass yield. The job is not particularly time sensitive and modern aerators are a whole lot wider than the 8ft I built, which could have had extending wings if I had a larger farm. Aerating could become a job which upland holdings would take a pride in doing, as important as hedge trimming.
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The current issue of PFI magazine


Robot milkers are catching attention, but what's the story outside the brochure? The new routine, training cows and cowmen - the experience of a recent converter.

Slug-pelleting 32 metres in one pass with the ATV sounds impossible - until you see this trailed spreader designed and built in the farm workshop.

Zero-till gets interesting with current prices. A full scale tour around one of the technique's top operators who reveals some major money saving tips on equipment, methods, and results. Read it!

Tractor service intervals are getting longer. Will they save oil and cost more in wear?

Driverless, cabless tractors are in the USA and doubtless will soon be here. Driven by diesel-electric power unit/s as described below.

Tractor replacement is increasingly expensive, and replacing/repairing tired engines and worn gearboxes not much cheaper. Here's an alternative - a retro-fit diesel-electric unit with 200hp Isusu driving a 150kW AC alternator and wheel motors. Replaces engine, gearbox and final drive in your tractor frame. Same system as in railway carriages - very long service hours, few working parts, and CVT type performance.

Mini dumper makes cubicle brush - and then converts back in the summer for site work.

And also....  kinetic log splitter. Human powered through car spring.

Financial Focus:  How to Limit Tax on Developing Land to just 10% Through Planning and Knowledge. Read now, plan with care, reap benefit later.

Renew now while copies last. All who respond before Dec 17 get a FREE back issue  Don't subscribe yet? Choose your subscription plan from here. £16.50/year p+p inc.

Best wishes

Mike Donovan

PS If you have an idea for editorial, or need a speaker for your farm discussion group, please get in touch. If you want pictures of something, or anything else, such as pics of something we have had in the magazine. And do let your fellow farmers know about Practical Farm Ideas - which many farmers tell me is the best magazine they get.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Why 2015/16 is The Year to Move to Zero-Till from Min-Till

"I don't know what to do this autumn," a farmer said to me yesterday. "Growing barley at today's price of around £85 is walking into a loss. It's a real gamble that prices might improve. A crop of grass may well achieve nothing better. There's no real answer."

It's a dilemma facing a great many farmers. With the combines out and the grass growing, farming looks in fine fettle, but the underlying problems are acute. My caller posed a basic question for which there is so easy answer.

He told me he used conventional cultivations with a plough and a combination drill. His machinery was all paid for, he did a lot of the work himself and the land he farmed was not heavily mortgaged. He couldn't do it cheaper. Or could he?

Drilling into a cover crop of oats with John Deere 750A disc 
drill. The drill is said to plant more seed than any other across the globe.

"How much do you know about zero-till?" I asked.

"People have tried min-till around here, and it's been a right mess, weeds have been a real problem. Ploughing gets those weeds buried and out of the way, and gets a proper tilth for the seeds to germinate and get going."

"But min-till and zero or no-till are very different," I explain. "Min-till disturbs soil, brings up weed seeds, uses quantities of diesel and wears parts. It's faster, and therefore cheaper than ploughing, but the soil surface is disturbed and the structure changed. Zero-till aims to plant seeds with the minimum of soil disturbance. Often you can't see where the drill has been. You drill using a guidance system or auto-steer, and the seeds are planted and then left to grow."

Zero-tilled Clare w-wheat after 4 years with no cultivation

It was clear that he didn't have much knowledge of zero-till, and that's not surprising. There's not a lot of info about. Arable events and publications are still engaged in high cost min-till machinery, with rippers and multi-section cultivators behind big tractors. The whole business of planting seed directly into land which has not been turned, broken, disced, ripped seems bizarre. How on earth do the seeds germinate and grow in soil where you can see the combine's wheelmarks?

The practice works.... and I almost typed in 'theory' there. It works for large scale and small scale farmers. People with heavy land and light land, organic growers and conventional. It is used on 15% of the cropped area in the USA, from high rainfall areas in the north to the dry lands of Texas and in many many others countries as well.

After just two years the no-tilled soil is more friable, has more worms and biological activity

"This could be the ideal season to make the change."

Why is 2015/16 the season to make a start? With low grain prices the financial risk is much reduced. You know you're going for a loss if you farm it conventionally. If using zero-till causes your yield to go down by as much as 20% (and it may well be less, or nothing at all) and your costs are reduced by 35% (and it may well be more), you're quids in. You may be happily surprised at the yields you get.

The Soil+Cover Cropping International articles featured over the past two years and more of Practical Farm Ideas are vitally important. They feature dozens of farm walks in considerable detail, over UK farms with very varying growing conditions. They tell you the experiences and record the advice from these farmers who would never go back to any form of cultivation. They enjoy seeing the improvement in the quality of the soil on their farms, as well as the freedom of less work, expense and greater rewards.

Take out a new subscription today (£16.50 UK) and get the current issue together with the next autumn, winter and spring issues. Or get the past four issues* and a year's subscription with our Special Offer B for £27.87. 

The photos below are of zero-till crops from UK farms visited and featured in the current issue of Practical Farm Ideas  Vol 24 - 2
Skyfall Gp1 milling wheat in year 5 of z-t. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Dairy farmers deserve a minimum milk price

The noted think-tank, The Adam Smith, makes this comment about milk prices: 
"Of course, the real background to this is that, as has been happening for the past couple of centuries as farming techniques improve, milk has been getting cheaper and cheaper to produce. And as has been happening over that time the higher cost producers have been pushed out of the market by the lower cost ones. This is, after all, the universe’s way of telling you to go do something else, when the price of what you produce is lower than the cost of producing it. That’s what is devastating farming, we’re in general becoming more efficient at it.
And the supermarkets are, through their subsidy, restricting this process which is the very opposite of devastation, isn’t it?"
The article also says this:
"Retailers insist they are funding the cost of the price reduction from their own profits, rather than paying farmers less. Many supermarkets have guaranteed the price farms receive will stay above the cost of production."

The Adam Smith writers say they are confused, and they are not alone. 

Here's a major problem to start with - supermarkets talk in pints; farmers talk and get paid per litre. There are more than two pints to the litre! The farmer is getting paid 20p/litre today and the supermarket sells at 22p/pint. The supermarket is therefore selling at more than double the price paid to the farmer. They call their 20p markup a ‘loss leader’, yet this is the total earned by the farmer who has to finance land, buildings, labour, machinery, fuel and power, vets and medicines, plus finance the cow within the 20p earned. 
The dairy processor has the job of collecting the bulk milk from the farm tank, pasteurise, bottle, and deliver to the supermarket – which puts the bottles on the shelves. The store orders when stocks are low and expects a near instant delivery, so little goes to waste. The dairy has to balance supplies with markets, diverting milk to processing into butter, cheese and powder. It’s clear the actual costs carried by the farmer outweigh those of the other players.
Milk is not a price sensitive product. People don’t double their purchase if the price is reduced, nor do they reduce it if the price increases. Supermarkets use it as a loss leader 
1. because shoppers remember the price 
2. because the structure of the market that consists of a handful of competing processors, allows them to do it. The MMB arrangement was fairer to farmers as they had a voice in pricing. It was brought in in 1933 after much the same issue – dairies paying below production costs – and more sheninigins besides.
1. industry agreement or even legislation which provides a minimum farm gate price that’s works like the minimum wage. 
2. Supermarkets being shamed into using milk as a loss leader. 
3. Dairies reducing supplies to supermarkets so stores are empty.
The EU Commission might well see this as a prosecutable offence - as infringing their rules of commercial competition. The industry needs to engage some smart lawyers who write the clauses so this won't happen. 

How I wish Meurig Raymond (NFU President) could provide a similar explanation.