An opportunity to reflect on the last year at RSPB Hope Farm, by Georgie Bray, Hope Farm Manager.

Winter is well settled in now on the farm, although it has been a long time coming. The scorching 40-degree heat of the summer seems a long time ago with everything looking damp, brown and muddy. As soon as our Autumn-sown crops were drilled it was a relief to see some decent rain to fill the water table. With a bit more time in the office and less daylight hours, we can reflect on last year both in terms of how trials on the ground have progressed, and performance of the last harvest’s crops.

Hare in Oilseed rape field 2022. Image (c) Kevin Pigney

Weather – what a season for it! How unusual was 2022?

It is always good to maintain a long-term view in farming, planning our business and nature resilience many years into the future. We are at the inevitable mercy of so many things outside of our control but planning for the long term helps us to look beyond what the weather and markets either gift or curse us with today. Over the last five years we have developed our farm management, by adopting more regenerative practices and trying to keep that long term view on improving soil health to improve resilience to adverse weather conditions and traffic.

To help with the long-term weather view, and to see if we really have been cursed in Cambridgeshire with such an unusually hot drought, I found it useful to look at the readings from our local weather station at NIAB. I remember looking at struggling crops in 2018 when I first came to the farm thinking that we were hit with a never-ending drought then. This year however, rather than over 250mm of rain before harvest in 2018, we only just scraped 180mm between January and July. That was in the top four lowest rainfall years for those months since monitoring started in 1960. I then looked at how temperatures have varied through the years, and the average highest temperatures for April to July combined, were the highest ever this year since monitoring started. No wonder the crops were cooking and the newly established trees in our agroforestry trial were finding life a bit tough!

We are trying increasingly to improve the natural biological processes on the farm that help us grow crops and protect them from pests and disease. More of our trials are focussing on this too, and I will give an update on one of our most recent pilot trials later in this article.

Harvest 2022 – looking back with optimistic realism

Given the unprecedented weather conditions that we have experienced, our crops are projected to make a healthy profit overall. Not everything has left the barn, but we already have a good idea of how crops performed. As expected, the spring crops that saw less than 2cm of rain from drilling right through to harvest, and some of the hottest weather seen here in the last half century, struggled. Our winter crops did at least as well as they ever have despite this weather.

Starting with what I feel was a considerable success, our oilseed rape made a healthy profit to split between us and contractor, after input costs of over £900/ha (more on that later). Winter wheat yields are not confirmed with some still in the shed but is estimated to make more than the OSR. Spring barley was variable with good fields yielding over 6t/ha and the poor ones not even half that. If a measure of soil health were plotted against yield on those fields though, I am fairly sure we would see a strong correlation between the two variables! Where spring barley yielded 6t/ha we made over £700/t. Across our whole spring barley acreage we only made a small profit to share with our contractor. Winter beans were about average at an approximate 4.5t/ha, projected to make a healthy profit of over £700/ha to split with our contractor thanks to a high price, whilst the less said about the spring beans the better! Last year, we vowed never to grow them again as they are a crop that relies on good spring rainfall, something lacking in recent years. We were hoping to try a bean/oat mix where the two are grown and harvested together but sadly, we were unable to drill the oats, and we ended up instead with spring beans in another drought. However, thanks to low input costs, the spring beans as our only loss-making crop, lost us little in the grand scheme of things.

Moving our contract farming agreement with the times

When all the crops are sold, we will be able to confirm these figures to share. It is worth also saying that our contract farming agreement has changed too, whilst we are moving to a more flexible system less reliant on the BPS (Basic Payment Scheme) payments to make the books balance. This means making some tough decisions on whether crops are worth investing less in during a particularly tough year when weather dictates that we won’t make bumper yields, or whether larger investments should be made to reduce risk of ongoing soil issues having a longer-term effect. With this approach, a standard per hectare payment isn’t appropriate. The old agreement didn’t appreciate a changing direction of government subsidies with ELMs (Environmental Land Management Scheme) either.

Now, we have a different financial set up, including the income from the farm both from environmental and cropping operations. The contractor’s charge is now based on the cost of operations on the ground, whilst we have also altered the split of profits to try and keep it as fair as we can between both parties too. Time will tell if this works for both sides in ensuring financial stability for both businesses. We will review this in three years’ time to see if any further tweaks need to be made.

Spring oat harvest, Agroforestry field. Image (c) G Bray

Oilseed Rape tribulations

Back in 2021 summer, we were looking at trying to grow oilseed rape for a third year running, having struggled to get this crop off the ground since 2020. The details are explained in our blog only a few months ago here. Now though, it’s good to look back on one of our best cropping years for oilseed rape despite the drought, with hope of a system that may work better with nature to combat a serious pest issue. 

The crop was established in particularly good growing conditions – after winter barley gave us a long window, with a wet august to get the crop growing well. We opted for a low input system overall, investing in a companion crop and trap crop in the field, with some compost as added soil conditioner, which would benefit the field even if the oilseed rape failed.  

Findings so far, beyond the impact on cabbage stem flea beetle larval distribution between trap crops and oilseed rape (at a ratio of 4:1, trap crop/oilseed rape), are that this system can work. Even with all the drought and heat throughout the summer. A lack of effective insecticides is often held as the only issue facing oilseed rape economic viability. However, there is a lot more at play here.  

  • Good soil health is key
  • Drilling conditions with good moisture in the ground for the crop to get away is needed
  • Adding components like companion cropping, organic matter pre-drilling, and trap crops have the potential to combat other pest and disease issues with further benefits beyond growing the oilseed rape crop alone.

From a biodiversity side, the crop was amazing. Walking it last winter to see yellowhammers, grey partridge, reed bunting, snipe, meadow pipit and skylark using the field was wicked. The summer also brought pollinator and insect resources, and attracted a lot subsequent bird use. A local photographer, Kevin Pigney, got some amazing shots of birds and hares on the crop.

Here are some figures for the crop last year:

OSR finances for 2022 harvest

OSR as part of the trial, with strips of trap crop running through the middle of the field.  Image (c) G Bray

After one year we cannot be sure that this system helped our oilseed rape, but with most of these inputs benefitting the field regardless of whether the oilseed rape runs to harvest or not, there is potential here. Establishment conditions this autumn were significantly worse in South Cambridgeshire to the previous year with the lack of rain, so the crop has not had as great a start as we had hoped for. One field for 2023 harvest is poor quality, and the other has now moved to a winter wheat crop following the catch crop of what would have been OSR companions. This hampered plans to develop the pilot trial, planned with ADAS (Agricultural Development and Advisory Service) and Rothamsted, but has confirmed our original thoughts about the need for the right environmental conditions.

Drilled up with more things to look forward to for 2023 harvest

I am happy to say we were all drilled up for autumn by mid-November. We held off the drilling of autumn crops a few weeks later than we would normally. This was critical to ensure we had enough rain to get the blackgrass and other weeds to germinate before drilling. Although it was hard waiting until November to drill some of our wheat, that wait has made such a difference to our effectiveness of the herbicides we do use. Herbicides are not what we want to use as a first port of call. If we do use them though, we need to give them every opportunity to work. Although a later drill may slightly reduce yield potential, this once again comes back to the long-term view of keeping a balance between good long-term sustainable farm management and short-term gain.

Winter Barley drilled very late (16th October) but growing well on 17th November. Image (c) G Bray

We are trying a few different things this year, including blending varieties of wheat with different disease resistances to see if that is effective as a means of reducing disease in the crop. It’s a blend of Crusoe and Illustrious Group 1 wheats that should be marketable together. Next harvest we may regret it if ripening across the field isn’t even – but we will see what happens and we have heard senescence tends to align when a crop is mixed. On a small trial we are also seeing how YQ Wheat fairs, under an ultra-low input system (organic bar use of herbicides). I am quietly hoping that with a taller variety in the mix, it may make for a decent corn bunting habitat too.

For more information contact Georgie Bray: Georgina.Bray@RSPB.ORG.UK