Guest blog by Georgina Bray, RSPB Hope Farm Manager

2023 has been another season of trials and tribulations, with strange weather to say the least. It was one with a few firsts for us again, trying a 2-way variety blends, more complex heritage blends (YQ Wheat), intercropping, and tramline trials in off the back of our oilseed rape pilot trial. This is alongside another year of the agroforestry trial (updated in another blog with the carbon farming project), and the annual monitoring (also updated in another blog!). Ambitions are high as ever to demonstrate the best we can in terms of nature-friendly farming and looking to adopt improved regenerative practices all the while. We are also keen as ever to share where things have gone well and not so well – warts and all – so here’s the harvest report of 2023.

Another strange season of weather records, with new opportunities with our Sencrop weather station

It seems fitting given that we are so at the mercy to the weather, and therefore like to moan about it (a lot!) to start the harvest roundup with a look back at the last year’s weather… It feels like a long time ago now that we had one of our driest winters in the last half century, and that was just the start of a weird year of rainfall too. By February, we were looking at our water table measured by the agroforestry flux tower, worried about what little reserves we had should there be another scorcher of a year. The NIAB weather station near to us, monitored since about 1960, shows that no season has been typical for a few years now. We really should bear in mind that we haven’t been nearly as hard hit as some corners of the country and be grateful of that, but that still doesn’t take away the difficulties such seasons present on farm.

On our local NIAB weather station, 2023 harvest saw:

  • The 3rd lowest winter rainfall ever since records began – 50mm below average.
  • The 5th highest spring rainfall, and the most rain we’ve had in spring since 1983 (100mm above average).
  • This autumn is set to be another crazy one, with one of the highest rainfalls again, though we do not yet have the data for November.

The impact this extreme weather will have had on our wildlife is worrying, with rainy seasons often meaning breeding birds struggle for invertebrate chick food, that will have knock on effects for breeding next year. For the crops, it led to some difficulties too. We had the hottest September day on record (23°C), although we are sadly, starting to get used to temperature being above average and on an upward trajectory.

Final news on the weather front, this year we had our first harvest with a Sencrop weather station. It has been very useful, but also frustrating in many ways as you can’t change the weather regardless of how much you know about it! Nevertheless, we hope it helps to keep us refining our operations for the better. With a contractor who lives a few miles away, being able to see what our microclimate is doing at any time has already been advantageous to saving their team’s time.

Reducing inputs and increasing the sustainability of our rotation

We are still looking at increasing the sustainability of our inputs across the board, including looking for alternatives to pesticide use. This is based around risk management for the business, minimising our negative environmental impact from pesticide use, and reducing our climate impact.

To do this, we have continued to not use insecticides on the farm and are looking to reduce other inputs. To reduce our reliance on pesticides, we’ve looked at increasing habitat networks in the fields, continuing to focus on soil health, and crop variety choice. New in-field flower margins were planted in the autumn and are still under a mowing regime for thistle control before they can mature into valuable flowering resources. To reduce inorganic nutrient input, we have, for the second year, been running Soil Nitrogen Supply tests alongside our manure nutrient content testing. For the first time, we have also started to delve into tissue testing to increase our input precision and reduce the risk of applying more nutrients than a crop needs, which may then become damaging to the environment

We continue to look at reducing fungicide use partly by growing crops like YQ, which are bred to not require fungicides or inorganic fertilisers, and by running tramline tests in our conventional crops where fungicides are heavily reduced or not applied at all. Although the farm isn’t organic, we hope that this approach treads a line between demonstrating a higher yielding system that can use organic principles, habitat management that promotes a more stable farmed ecosystem, and technologies available to conventional systems.

A dry autumn drilling season, with some good calls for holding steady on drilling, but pushing for trials that we wish we’d held steady on too!

Without great ability to control autumn-germinating weeds pre-drilling on many farms due to the dry weather, there were a lot of crops around that became overrun by Blackgrass which is now a very problematic weed in arable agriculture, particularly in our heavier soils. Although we certainly weren’t perfect, it’s good at least to look back knowing that our autumn drilling gave us the best chance possible of reducing autumn weed pressure. Under guidance of our contractor, we held fast on the drilling the non-trial crops with what we thought was going to be a very dry September. Cover crops were only drilled on 20 hectares of the farm, and even the winter barleys weren’t drilled until the middle of October. We’re on heavy clay soils so it’s always a bit of a dice rolling exercise to balance weed control with travelability, but the approach to improved soil resilience meant we were confident we had a wide enough window to drill later and get a good balance of ideal travelling conditions and weed control this time. We do apply autumn herbicides for the most problematic weeds, and not without serious consideration, so it’s important to ensure they work when we do use them. The later drilling meant these herbicides had the best chance of adequately controlling the weeds.

A poor cover crop in the field in October, making us feel like we'd made the right decision on not drilling covers across the farm. This did catch up later with the warm winter weather. Image (c) RSPB

Another area of the field where the cover crop established much better. Image (c) RSPB

For our oilseed rape trial, we were perhaps not so wise. We had some small amounts of rain forecast in August, and had added pressure of a carefully planned oilseed rape trial with ADAS. We’d marked out combinations of trap crops and companion crops in one field, to monitor the impacts of these approaches to flea beetle control without insecticides. Following in some light rain and ahead of a few clouds of rain forecast, we drilled. That forecast rain sadly didn’t get any closer to reality than what I saw on my phone screen, and to say it was depressing watching clouds scoot around the farm, whilst flea-beetle munched oilseed rape seedlings in dry concrete is an understatement! The less said about the oilseed rape from here on in the better, but lets just say we ended up with some very late winter wheat and a summer cover planted in its place (that has done wonders for the soil whilst providing some resources for wildlife on farm).

A season for some good early spring drilling, and not so good weather to follow!

After a very cold snap in mid-winter, which was probably quite good for pest control, we had an unusually dry start to the year that meant drilling started very early. The dryish winter continued into the early months of the year, giving us the opportunity to drill spring barley into amazing ground conditions in February – this was a light relief to see spring barley drill so nicely, as it is often another dice to roll when direct drilling into heavy soils – whether it goes in too wet and smears nasty slots, or struggles to penetrate into concrete-dry soil. Both the spring barley and the bean/oat (B-oat) intercrop (our first attempt) drilling went very well.

The spring barley continued to grow very well but unfortunately it wasn’t quite so rosy for our B-oats. A combination of wet weather in a sluggy field, broadleaved weeds and wild oats emerging quicker than the crop, and a temperature drop after an early establishment just meant that we were looking at 20 hectares of potential mess. Regrettably, we wiped the board clean and started again with some late drilled barley which was a bit further behind the rest of the farm all summer. It yielded, and made up some of the losses, but importantly we didn’t run a risk of some serious problems in the future by trying to push a weedy crop to harvest.

YQ wheat, wheat blends – soil health and crop diversity coming up trumps?

Our later drilled cereal crops established well overall. The YQ wheat was drilled right next to our first attempt at variety blends (Illustrious + Crusoe) plus Illustrious and Crusoe varieties drilled on their own in other fields. Lessons learnt for us in establishment included that long stubble is fine so long as you aren’t having to disc in muck afterwards. We ended up with long straws flat on the ground which hair-pinned a bit with the drill and knocked YQ establishment (left the seed sitting in contact with the straw rather than soil, stopping germination). That said, the crop caught up pretty well in the spring.

Our conventional wheat blends were planned to exploit the different disease profiles of the two varieties, for a greater overall disease resistance, a bit like herd immunity. It is reassuring to see that there is more research coming out in the mainstream to suggest that this is a viable strategy to disease control, nutrient use, and yield benefits whilst reducing reliance on pesticides, so we’re on to something!

Come harvest our wheats yielded well, with the YQ estimated at 5.5t/ha, and the conventional varieties estimated at an average of 9.5t/ha. Despite an expected lower yield, we’re pleased that the YQ protein was at least as high as our conventional varieties (10.6%), despite some of our conventional varieties struggling to make milling grade, and that’s with YQ being a 2nd wheat too. The tall straw of the YQ seemed to partly outcompete the weeds although it was in a relatively clean field anyway, and we didn’t have lodging issues. Despite the slightly lower yield, we spent over £200/ha less to grow the crop compared to our conventional wheats, even accounting for the additional spend on organic matter applications for which we’ll see a benefit over multiple years. We’re now looking to market this with Hodmedod’s as either a Fair to Nature flour or other product.

YQ pre harvest. Lots of variety in heights, and size of the ears make it interesting to look at, but probably give a better overall disease resistance too. Image (c) RSPB

Comparison between our conventional and YQ wheat in the barn Image (c) RSPB

Crusoe and Illustrious wheat growing together Image (c) RSPB

How did the crops grow, and how did they harvest?

Aside from a few snags, crops looked pretty good in the spring and coming into summer. We had some problematic blackgrass fields about, but they were the known bad fields already planned to be put to herbal leys for a couple of years after this harvest. The winds early in the year made timings of sprays tricky, and once the warm weather eventually arrived, we had a significant drought period (until harvest when the rain started again!), but the crops didn’t seem too worse off for it. Disease was relatively low, and although we had a tramline of untreated and reduced treatment fungicide in a wheat field that looked like it had a lot of disease, it was interesting that we didn’t detect a difference in yield in that tramline on yield maps.

Harvest was very stop-start, with the winter barleys in first followed by a long break for rain, and other crops eventually following on with some resulting penalties for late harvested crops that were of a lower quality unfortunately. Although most fields yielded well, the early drought resulted in lower protein in our wheats, and a lower Hagberg in some spring barley. The late harvest and continued wet weather then had a knock-on effect into this year’s drilling. Straw from winter barley was unable to be removed as quickly as we wanted which meant a delay to OSR drilling and areas of struggling establishment due to the resulting nutrient ‘lock up’ by sitting straw. Saying that, it’s good to see the majority of the field growing well.

Map of yield in the field with a tramline missed in the middle for fungicides. Darker = higher yielding. The southern (bottom) section had no fungicides applied. The northern section of the tramline only had one fungicide (T2). Disease was higher in this middle section, though little difference between the northern and southern section. No real difference in yield seen though the crop did look poor. All anecdotal here it has to be said! 

The costs of looking after our crops is growing, despite reducing inputs. 

At the end of every season, it’s always interesting to compare budgeted spend and income against the actual expenditure. Aside from alterations to the rotation, it’s good to keep a handle on costs of growing each crop per hectare, particularly in the current financial climate. We haven’t got all the grain out the shed yet, so can’t call the final scores in terms of yields and income on farm, but we do know how much we spent.  

Winter wheat provides us with a pretty good comparison on input costs between years, and we have decreased pesticide use and inorganic nitrogen use for harvest 2023 compared to previous years whilst still using no insecticides. Despite that, spend on inputs increased on average by about £150/ha against an average taken in recent years because of increased input prices. Our winter wheat is estimated to make 1.5t more than what we’ve estimated last year (9.5t/ha), but the price per tonne is significantly less than last year, partly due to lower proteins with the dry late spring and early summer, but also  due to   the current global financial climate.   

All of this really builds a picture of not just the environmental reasons why we should be reducing our inorganic pesticide and fertiliser inputs, but also a very strong business case. It really is a sign of the times both of how much we’re being hit on farms by rising input costs, and where we need to keep a sharp eye on where money is spent. 

Finances and SFI

This year we’re going to see a big hit of Basic Payment Scheme, (BPS),reductions in England. With that, comes a stronger push to enter the new Sustainable Farming Incentive, (SFI) Environmental Land Management (ELMS) schemes as they become available. We entered the SFI 2022 agreement for soils last harvest, which was relatively easy and given what we are already doing on farm it also meant no real adjustment to our current management. In June, we were informed that the scheme was closing and would be replaced with an improved SFI 2023 offer. We are now looking to enter a couple of fields into herbal leys under option SAM3, use the ADAS IPM tool to conduct our IPM plan (IPM1), and have plenty of cover crops included in the area.

Looking forward

Last year, we finished the harvest report with an optimistic look at late drilled cereals, and clean autumn crops in November having controlled a lot of late germinating weeds. This year, it’s not quite such an optimistic look on the cereal drilling – with most of the seed still in the shed. Whilst it would be good to have more in the ground, we tread a balance on clay soils with weed pressures and wet ground that we must be mindful of to protect soil health for the longer term. However, the oilseed rape currently looks great, with a (fingers crossed) successful tramline trial in place. The winter barley doesn’t look very happy, but is surviving, and where the beans and wheat aren’t yet drilled, we at least have the saving grace of catch and cover crops keeping the soil covered and increasing resilience as they continue growing for a bit longer, and may well be able to be grazed by sheep before drilling.

Plans for the coming season are to:

  • Continue to improve our nutrient applications beyond just the nitrogen use, looking closer at minor nutrient applications
  • Consider how we can try some Bokashi-style composting to improve the quality of our organic matter applied on field
  • Gather a lot of learning from our first year grazing sheep on covers
  • Make the best use of SFI money to deliver for the environment and the farm business
  • Plan another attempt at intercropping including a repeat of the same variety blends as last year to help reduce our reliance on pesticides
  • Increase our legume acreage for 2024 harvest
  • Get the herbal leys established and growing away well to help reinvigorate soils and allow for sheep grazing in following years

It’s not a short list of things to add on to previous years’ learnings, but hopefully come next harvest we can see how we’ve got on with all the above!